Architecture / Peru / Travel

Mysterious Machu Picchu: City of Chosen Women or Royal Palace?

Remote Location

It only takes one look at the sheer slopes and dense vegetation surrounding Machu Picchu to realize what a Herculean task it must have been to build this mysterious and isolated city in the heart of the Andes. In the 16th Century, its remoteness would have been incredible, and was probably the primary reason the city survived for the past 500 years.

From Above

In a 1913 edition of National Geographic, Hiram Bingham, discoverer of the ancient site wrote,

“Machu Picchu is essentially a city of refuge. It is perched on a mountain top in the most inaccessible corner of the most inaccessible section of the Urubamba River. So far as I know, there is no part of the Andes that has been better defended by nature.”

Even today, there are no roads leading in from outside the valley. To visit, you must take a train or hike for 3 days on the Inca Trail.


The ruins have fascinated and challenged archaeologists from the beginning, but after years of research, very little is actually known about the city and its origins. After skeletal remains, thought to be predominantly female, were discovered, the very “Tarzan-esque” sounding “City of Chosen Women” was proposed. When later research proved the female/male ratio to be 50/50, this idea was scrapped. A more recent conjecture suggests that the site was a royal retreat or country palace.


But regardless of its real purpose, given the location, the exceptional quality of the stonework, and the ritual stones that are present, it’s obvious that Machu Picchu was a very important city.


At its zenith, the city had three parts. There was the religious sector for nobility and ceremonies, the urban sector that supported day-to-day life in the city, and the terraced agricultural sector for growing food.


Of course, no discussion of Machu Picchu is complete without touching on the stonework. The Inca Civilization produced some of the most skilled and precise stone carvers in the ancient world, and the complexity and precision achieved is unparalleled in human history.


Some buildings were constructed of blocks so snugly fitted, that mortar wasn’t necessary, and a knife blade couldn’t be inserted between them. Blocks had up to 12 angles and interlocked perfectly with adjacent blocks making walls incredibly strong and stable. Achieving this level of precision with 16th Century tools staggers the imagination.

James at Machu Picchu

The Inca didn’t have a written language, so many details of their culture have been lost. But Machu Picchu is a concrete example of their advanced civilization, and it should be on every traveler’s must-see list.

Buen Camino,

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like others in our Peru Series:

Before You Launch From Lima: 5 Faves
The Train,Terrain, and Rain at Machu Picchu
Ollantaytambo: A Living City of the Inca
Art: The Secret Language of the Andes
Cusco: Navel of the Inca World
Lima’s Major Domo
Lima’s Luscious Balconies: A Tale of Jealousy


39 thoughts on “Mysterious Machu Picchu: City of Chosen Women or Royal Palace?

  1. Machu Picchu is one of those places that makes me realize we know so little … Not so much! It causes adults to be filled with wonder. how cool is that! Thanks for your post.

    • Thanks for dropping by the blog Brenda, and for the comment. It’s truly amazing how an advanced culture like the Inca can leave so many questions behind. BTW, I love your photography, particularly the nature photos. I attempt a few nature shots, and realize how difficult it is to get good ones. Well done!

    • Thanks Alyssa. It really is as beautiful as the photos, and if you can work it out, you should visit. Also, for me, it helped knowing a bit of history in advance so I could better appreciate what I was seeing.

  2. OK, let’s be frank. Machu Picchu is on my list too, like almost everyone else. But is it really worth it? Can you capture the mystery by seeing pictures? Is it overrun with tourists? And thanks, James and Terri, for this opportunity to ask these questions of those who’ve actually been there.

    • Once again Tom, you’ve asked a good question. Both Terri and I love antiquities. They’ve been a focus for much of our travel, and consequently, MP had been on our list for a long time. We loved it and are very happy we visited. However, having said that, it’s a difficult and expensive place to get to, and given the altitude and hiking involved, it can be strenous. In addition, with MP, what you see is what you get, in that, the site is what you see in the photos. Unlike places like Angkor Wat, it’s not spread over acres and acres and takes days to explore. We were there in the off-season (our fav time to travel) and crowds weren’t a problem. I guess the ultimate answer is that, if you only visit MP, it’s an expensive, strenuous, and time consuming effort. However, we never visit just one place. Our trip covered Lima, Cusco (very cool), Ollantaytambo (also very cool), and MP. We were in Peru for three weeks, and given the altitude acclimation required (Andes 9,000 – 11,000 ft,) this worked out perfectly. Sooooo, long story short, if you’re in the region (Central or South America), it’s definitely worth the effort. I see that you’ll visit Mexico, so you if it isn’t too difficult, you might want to check it out.

  3. Machu Picchu is truly marvelous. Not only full of history (and as you noted, mystery), but it is a beautiful sight to behold.

    I remember the moment I walked through the doors, I could hear myself, the friends I was with, and other people around me, exclaiming “wow” in unison, at the first sight of the ruins. Surprisingly, the ruins kept getting more and more impressive as we walked deeper and deeper into the site (or away from them, with the incredible views from above!).

    Machu Picchu is one of those places in the world which I need to visit again in my lifetime at some point… one time simply wasn’t enough!

    • Thanks for the comment Claus, and for dropping by the blog. Your initial reaction at MP was exactly the same as ours. It’s a long journey to get there, and when the you finally see it, it truly is magical. And I agree that a second visit is a good idea. It’s always difficult to absorb so much information without a bit of reflection.

  4. One of the most surreally peaceful and beautiful places I’ve been.. thank you for bringing back great memories. (And I’d never heard about this “City of Chosen Women!” Interesting!)

    • Thanks Miranda. Yes a big part of the attraction of MP is the mystery. I was a huge Tarzan fan as a kid, and when I read the “Chosen Women” idea, my first thought was of one of his adventures. Of course, the TV adventure women were beautiful Amazon types who took Tarzan hostage, but later released him so they could hunt down the bad guys. It’s funny how the mind works sometime.

  5. ecuador has ‘ingapirca,’ which is tiny and petite compared to machu picchu. it too has the amazing stonework – i always marvel at the craftsmanship and wonder if they had some kind of help from a higher technology that left no trace..

  6. Machu Picchu is on my bucket list, but I haven’t made it there yet. However, I really enjoyed your post. The stonework truly is amazing! I saw the same type of work at Ingapirca in Ecuador.

    • Your the second person that mentioned Ingapirca. We’ve been considering a South America trip and will certainly check this out for the list. Also, I love the “Spanish Door knocker” post on your blog. Cool.

  7. Great summation of the history and condition of Machu Picchu! I was there exactly one year ago and I can confidentially say it was the most beautiful place I have ever seen. It’s so peaceful on that mountain top! I aspire to be able to write as clearly and concisely as you 🙂

    If you’re still in Peru be sure to check out the floating islands on lake Titicaca if you haven’t already! They’re fascinating!

    • Thanks so much for the nice comment and for dropping by the blog. It’s always nice to hear that someone likes my writing. We didn’t make it to Titicaca or the Amazon, which are both on the list for next time. And MP is a peaceful place, I agree. I think that the surrounding mountains covered in clouds, and all the green make is this way.

  8. Hey!
    Just wanted to let you know that I’ve always found your blog very inspiring. So inspiring, in fact, that I’d like to nominate you for a Blogger Award! I love traveling with you guys and reading about your adventures. It always makes me feel like I also might be able to find someone who can travel with me to all these exotic places. Thanks for the inspiration!
    Please visit my blog to check it out the award 🙂
    Jess Damerst

    • Hi Jess, Wow! What a wonderful surprise and honor. And these other blogs truly rock – we’re thrilled to be included us in such great company.Thank you so much. All the Best, Terri & James

  9. Wow! The pictures are so captivating yet I feel they don’t do it justice to actually seeing this city through one’s own eyes. This tops my most want to see list. Great post 🙂

    • After being there Ryan, I agree that photos don’t do it justice. When you make it there, I’m sure that you won’t be disappointed. Also, there’s lots of other stuff to see in Peru, so it is a great destination. When I return I would also like to visit the Amazon rainforest, but that takes a bit more planning. Thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog.

    • Machu Picchu was on our list for a while as well. It’s expensive and not the easiest place to get to, but it’s certainly worth the trip. It really is as beautiful as the photos. ~James

  10. Wonderful photos … did you hike in on the trail? (This is probably answered somewhere in all your Peru posts, but I’m jumping around your blog right now as an intro, reading about places I have been and places I have not!). We did hike the Inca Trail and loved it; strangely, I was asked to help lead a group back there about 9 months later and then again a year after that. What I thought was my one-time visit to MP became three in short order, and I can honestly say I enjoyed it more and more each time I went.

    • MP (like Angkor Wat & Petra) was one of those places that had been on our list for a long time. No we didn’t hike the trail. MP was a part of a jumping around Peru trip and we couldn’t fit it in. We both love antiquities, and even though we had read lots of articles and seen hundreds of photos, seeing the real thing just had not equal. And even though it can be touristy, every serious traveler should have it on their list. ~James

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