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.
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.
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.
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