Located high in the Andes mountain range, sitting on a narrow peak, in a bend in the river, all but inaccessible, its location kept secret for centuries, the Incan citadel and short-lived sanctuary: Machu Picchu.
Machu Picchu was one of the few Incan cities to escape the Spanish conquest. It remained a bastion of the Incan Empire, till suddenly and mysteriously being abandoned toward the end of the 16th Century CE (it’s thought the inhabitants might have been wiped out by smallpox).
Hopefully your first glimpse of Machu Picchu will be from the Sun Gate shortly before dawn, for this will mean you have just completed the four-day Inca Trail, and to trek here means that you are familiar with the mountainous terrain, that you have bedded yourself in the landscape, that you have crossed the altitudinous Dead Woman’s Pass, that you have exposed yourself to the cold, and the rain and the fatigue; that you have seen the outlying Incan villages, that you have walked through the gravity-defying Incan agricultural terraces, that you have marvelled at the ingenuity of the Incan drainage system, and in the process prepared yourself as well as you can for the splendour of Machu Picchu (one of the seven wonders of the modern world).
Arriving at the Sun Gate at dawn means you get to see the Incan city before the gates open for the tourist hordes.
You won’t exactly be alone though; the Inca Trail is one of the most popular multi-day treks in South America (the hike to La Cuidad Perdida in Colombia is another).
Machu Picchu (which means Old Peak in Quechua) sits atop a narrow ridge on a bend in the Urubamba River. The only way to access the city in days of yore was via the Sun Gate, or by crossing a rope bridge that spanned a 450-metre high drop into the river below. In times of attack the denizens of Machu Picchu could cut the rope bridge and block the path to the Sun Gate. The city was all but impregnable.
And if an army laid siege to the city, then that was fine too as Machu Picchu was essentially self-sufficient. They had a permanent water supply, and enough farmland – in the form of agricultural terraces – to support the entire population of the city for an indefinite period.
Machu Picchu, which contains approximately 200 homes and other structures, was built as a royal estate during the mid 15th Century. It is located approximately 80 kilometres from Cusco (the capital of the Incan Empire) and it’s thought that Machu Picchu’s relatively mild climate (it’s approximately a thousand metres lower than Cusco) may have been a contributing factor to the site’s selection.
The city was abandoned towards the end of the 16th Century CE, after just a century of use.
Its location wasn’t revealed to the outside world until 1911.
Inti Watana stone
The Inti Watana stone is an astronomical clock or proto-calendar. The stone points directly at the sun on the day of the winter solstice. Inti Watana translates to the hitching post of the sun.
Temple of the Condor
The Temple of the Condor is a highly unusual amalgam of natural stone and human carving that creates a three-dimensional, abstract, devotional site (if you can’t make it out, the two large boulders are the condor’s wings, the flat, triangular stone on the ground is the condor’s head).
The head of the condor may once have been used as a sacrificial altar.
Temple of the Sun, Machu Picchu
The Temple of the Sun showcases the unrivalled talent of Incan stonemasonry. The transition between bedrock and brickwork is almost indistinguishable.
The mortar-less brickwork of the Incans has the advantage of being earthquake proof, a necessity in these parts.
Machu Picchu might be warm, impregnable, and self-sustainable, but it is also highly susceptible to earthquakes and landslides. Geotechnical surveys have revealed that the entire site is slowly slipping down the mountain peak, and that the archaeological site is at serious risk of partial or total collapse.
If there is a message to come out of this information it’s this: if you really want to see Machu Picchu with your own eyes, then don’t delay, go today.
Read more on the Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.