Spotlight on Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu, Peru, is an Incan ceremonial and perhaps administrative city, located high (2,350 meters or 7,700 feet) in the Andes, 120 kilometers (70 miles) northwest of Cusco (see below), which was only rediscovered for the world in 1911. It probably dates to the 1400’s but archaeologists are unsure. The ruins of this “Lost City of the Incas” are now one of the most popular tourist sights in South America. Throughout any visit to this place, tourists should make note of the precision stonework, always done without mortar.

            The majority of visitors reach the site by taking a train from Cusco to the village of Aguas Calientes, the closest town to the attraction, then taking a bus. The adventuresome can walk the ancient “Inca Trail”.

            The “farming” section of the ruins is usually the first thing the visitor sees. There are the remains of several buildings and terraces. At the high end of one of the terraces is the Watchman’s Post, which offers the typical view of Machu Picchu seen in postcards and photos. Nearby Funerary Rock was probably used for the preparation of mummies and perhaps also had an astronomical purpose.                      

View of the Machu Picchu Complex

            In the “Urban” section of the city, visitors will find the Street of Fountains (no longer spouting water), the Temple of the Sun, the main solar observatory of the site, which also contains the Royal Tomb and the Priest’s Enclosure. Also in this region are several housing ruins, one known as the Royal Group and another called the Superior Group. Near the latter is what remains of the Main City Gate. Also in this vicinity is the Quarry, a pile of stones which were awaiting their incorporation into future buildings and other structures.

            West of the Quarry is the Sacred Plaza which contains the Main Temple and the Temple of Three Windows. Climb the stairway to Sacred Hill, then down another stairway to Sacred Rock. Beyond this is the Main Plaza, the largest open area at the site and probably the site for various religious rites and gatherings.                   

Sacred Area

            Another worthwhile place to explore is the Temple of the Condor.  There are also several walks, popular with visitors while at the site. One of these leads to the Incan Bridge and another, more strenuous walk leads to the top of Huayna Picchu, a mountain overlooking the city which rewards climbers with perhaps the best view of the entire site, but allow 2-3 hours for the latter and realize that the trail may be treacherous after a rain.                 

The Area's Two Main Mountains

            Cusco was the capital of the Incan Empire which lasted, roughly, from the 11th century to the 16th, meeting its demise in the person of Spanish conquistador, Francisco Pizarro in 1536. The city was known to the Incas as “The Navel of the World”, with the word, navel, implying center. Much of today’s city is built upon the stonework of the master Incan masons who had constructed many temples and other structures in the city.

            The heart of the city can be found in the Plaza de Armas, which contains the Cathedral, a baroque masterpiece whose high altar is made of solid silver. Note also the exceptional woodwork of the retablo and the beautiful choir stalls and pulpit. Also on this plaza is La Compania de Jesus, built on the foundation of the palace of Inca ruler, Huayna Capac, which has a lovely symmetry on the outside and fine artwork inside.                 


            Another important church, because of its association with an ancient Incan structure, is Santo Domingo. It was built on the walls of the Incan Temple of the Sun, the Qoricancha.                      

Santo Domingo Convent

            There are many examples of Colonial architecture in the city which can be revealed through a stroll around the city center. Be sure to wander in the Barrio de San Blas, to the northeast, which is known as the “District of the Artists”.

            Walk or take a cab to the Sacsayhuaman, on a hill to the north of the city center, which was thought to be an Incan fortress but is now more likely considered to be a ceremonial site. Here there are numerous examples of the precision stonework for which the Incas are so well known..

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