Travelers keep a list, if not on paper then in their heads of the places they would love to see. Some destinations are decided early on and for others it’s a notion that comes along later. No doubt virtually every list includes a stop at Machu Picchu, where upwards of a million people a year visit one of Mesoamerica’s greatest places.
Researchers say it took nearly 100 years to build and it was in use for only about that long before it was abandoned and lost to obscurity for 400 years more. But in 1911, when American archeologist Hiram Bingham stumbled upon Machu Picchu, about 45 miles northwest of Cusco, Peru, he reintroduced to the world a magical place that grows increasingly popular with tourists from all over the globe.
Why was Machu Picchu constructed nearly 8,000 feet above sea level? Was it a palace, a ceremonial or sacred site, or a home for priests and the ruling elite? Machu Picchu is constructed of hundreds of thousands of stones – some huge – but how did they quarry, move and shape them at a site that covers five square miles? Incas knew of the wheel but only used it for children’s toys and they lacked strong draft animals. Nor did the Incas have metal tools to work and shape stones that comprise walls, buildings, supports and other structures.
To answer some of these questions, it’s important to know something about Inca culture. In many respects, this civilization was highly advanced. They were outstanding engineers who built roadways (the empire totaled about 25,000 miles of roads), aqueducts, bridges, terraces, drainage systems and buildings. They were first-rate agronomists who developed a technique to freeze dry food. They also conducted agricultural experiments to produce the best adapted foods. Their knowledge of medicine enabled them to treat illnesses and injuries. And they were adroit at operating a centralized economic system that utilized complex accounting practices. At its height, the Inca Empire encompassed the largest area in all of Mesoamerica, stretching along the west coast of South America from present day Chile up to Colombia.
The most famous Inca ruler was Pachacuti (patch-uh-kootie), thought to mean, “He who overturned space and time.” Pachacuti lived from 1430 A.D. until about 1471 A.D. He rose to power when the Incas fought the Chanka, a neighboring society. Pachacuti’s father, then the Inca ruler, and Pachacuti’s older brother both fled the city as the Chanka approached for war. Pachacuti rallied his people and though greatly outnumbered, Pachacuti and his men triumphed. In recognition of his bravery and leadership his father designated Pachacuti the heir apparent instead of his older brother.
Pachacuti wasted little time cementing his position, elevating Inca society and expanding the empire. He set about rebuilding Cusco as both a symbol of the Incas and an imperial city. It is thought around 1450 A.D. he began construction at Machu Picchu.
There are a number of reasons Machu Picchu is impressive and for a number of reasons was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. Start with the location. Peru’s Andes Mountain region is subject to earthquakes so a building or wall made of boulders and stones stacked on top of each other would be subject to falling apart in a temblor. The Incas were such masterful masons they shaped and fitted the stones so precisely that even to this day is it not possible to slip a knife blade between stones that have been piled on top of each other for well over 500 years. But, visitors have to look closely to find some of the original Inca stone work, as most of Machu Picchu has been rebuilt, in an effort to show the elements and grandeur of the site.
Another notable element of Inca design and construction is that walls tilt inward at an angle of about five degrees. This might not seem like much but the reinforcing aspect of the lean actually provides added strength to the walls. And windows are not square but trapezoidal, and along with the slight inward lean, provide greater stability in the event of an earthquake.
Machu Picchu is in an extreme location. Beyond the high elevation, hillsides are very steep. To solve this problem, the Incas employed a system of terraces, approximately 600 in all, to secure the structures and roadways to the hillsides.
The terraces are engineering marvels by themselves. Measuring about seven feet high and ten feet wide. The walls lean uphill just a bit. Inside there is a bottom layer of rocks, then stones, followed by gravel, with sand and finally dirt on top. This design accomplishes at least three important functions. First, the terraces act like claws, gripping the hillsides. The uphill lean provides strength and stability and the layers of material inside the terraces provide excellent drainage. This is important because up to 80 inches of rain falls each year at Machu Picchu.
The rainfall issue points to another challenge the Incas overcame. While visitors only see the remaining buildings, terraces and structures, it is below ground where critical innovations have been installed. Hydrologists and scientists marvel at the expertise the Incas used to move water so it did not pool or cause erosion.
And with their knowledge of hydrology, the Incas were able to construct 16 fountains that provided a constant source of fresh water. Some of these fountains work to this day.
Another reason Machu Picchu was an excellent site was the plentiful supply of white granite available. Being able to procure rock on site meant it did not have to be hauled up the mountain, a near-impossible task, given the vertiginous aspect of the location and lack of transportation options.
The Incas solved another major construction hurdle – how to shape and finish the stones that would become Machu Picchu’s walls, terraces and buildings. The simple answer was river rocks, found about 2,000 feet below Machu Picchu in the Rio Urubamba. River rocks are a harder stone than white granite and they could shape and wear down the granite. To make the surfaces and edges smooth and straight it is thought that a sand and slurry mixture was used to polish and finish the granite. Some of the stones have holdfasts and indentions that were thought to be a place to grab and move the stones.
Even though Machu Picchu is hidden high in the mountain mist, it was not a place that would be inhabited for long. There is speculation disease decimated the population of Machu Picchu, brought in with the Spanish who had come to plunder gold and riches. Researchers have theorized that less than 1,000 people actually lived at Machu Picchu.
Machu Picchu’s remoteness was likely its salvation from Spanish gold thieves. The rain, climate and jungle quickly covered over the site and its location would have been a daunting journey for any explorer. Undisturbed, Machu Picchu sat for about 400 years, until Bingham came along. There is evidence others knew about Machu Picchu and had explored it before Bingham, but he is the one credited with spreading the news.
Today Machu Picchu is a great source of pride to Peru and a place of wondrous beauty to all who come to visit. Machu Picchu is grand in scale yet blends harmoniously with the surrounding mountains and land. Any traveler wanting to see one of the world’s great places would do well to add Machu Picchu to their wish list of marvels to visit.
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