It only takes one look at the sheer slopes and dense vegetation surrounding Machu Picchu to appreciate what a Herculean task it must have been to build this mysterious and isolated city in the heart of the Andes.
It’s not the easiest place to get to today, and in the 16th Century its remoteness would have been incredible – which may be 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 even after years of research and the application of modern technology, very little is actually known about the city and its origins. And as is usually the case, in the absence of hard data, conjecture abounds.
After the discovery of over 100 skeletons, which were predominantly female, the very “Tarzanesque” sounding “City of Chosen Women” was proposed. But this idea was later scrapped, and it was proposed that the site was a royal retreat or country palace. With this new theory the skeletal women were demoted from royalty to servants.
But regardless of who actually lived here and why, given the majestic location, the exceptional quality of the stonework, and the ritual stones present, it’s obvious that Machu Picchu was a highly important city.
At its zenith, the city had three parts: a religious sector for nobility and ceremonies, an urban area that supported day-to-day life, and terraced fields 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 stones 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 vivid reminder of their advanced civilization, and it should be on every traveler’s must-see list.
James & Terri
Last updated February 2, 2020
Such a fascinating place to visit. Would love to get there but there is part of me that fears it has become such a tourist destination.
Lynn, overtourism, which is a relatively new word that proves your point, is a problem at MP. And given cheap airfares and a more mobile traveling public (which includes me of course), things will probably only get worse. But, on the bright side, many locales and governments recognize the problem and have taken measures to alleviate the overcrowding to some extent. But having said that, MP is unique in the world and for us, it was worth the effort, even if it did take some patience. ~James
They do limit the number of visitors per day and access is controlled so it isn’t as over run as it could be. That being said, Peru seems almost designed to get people to and from Machu Picchu.
I read that Peru had made some changes to the ticket policy for MP, and some would say it was long overdue. But it has to be a tough balancing act for countries like Peru. Both the locals and the central government desperately need the tourist dollars, and at the same time, they have a national treasure to protect. There’s no right answer I’m afraid. ~James
Wonderful photos. I agree – it should be on everyone’s list. It’s an extraordinary place.
Thanks Alison. The Inca couldn’t have located MP in a more photogenic place, and luckily, we visited on day with only a bit of rain. ~James
Peggy has visited there but I haven’t, James and Terri. But it has always been a goal of hers to take me there. It is obviously one of the world’s great wonders. –Curt
Curt, not only is MP an exceptional ruin, but the setting is so wonderful and scenic that it makes it a twofer destination. And the hike in on the Inca Trail sounds exactly like your cup of tea. Hope you can make it. ~James
That hike sounds like a delight, James, and your photos of the mountains really capture the surrounding beauty. There would need to be serious preparation for the high altitude, however! –Curt
guys, great story…thanks. my parents have been here-
You can’t get to Machu Picchu on a sailboat, but there have to be lots of destinations on the coast of Peru to entice you down there. It’s unique in all the world and worth the effort. ~James
James, may not make Peru but we’ve started taking side trips and having a great time. Tequila and Guadalajara were awesome. Love your blog, wish I could make mine as polished and get the eye of the WordPress folks.
I’m sure that when living on a boat, side trips are always welcomed. I didn’t know there was a place called “Tequila.” As to attracting WordPress attention – there isn’t a week that passes when something doesn’t happen on the blog that’s a mystery to us: a spike in stats, an old post rocketing to the top, etc. And being noticed by WordPress is one of these conundrums. I wish we had the formula, but we don’t. But, I can say that once we had the blog up and running, we’ve been about quality content, good art, engaging and concise writing, and interaction with commenters and followers. We just kept at it, and somehow, we appeared on the WP radar. Best of luck and happy travels. ~James
I appreciated the extra detail of this post about MP, explaining how remote it is, the lack of written history, the detail and strength of the construction etc all made it very interesting reading. 🙂
Thanks David. Ruins like Machu Picchu and ancient cultures like the Inca broaden our horizons, which is one of the primary reasons I enjoy antiquities so much. I’ve always been fascinated by what historical civilizations accomplished in isolation, and how the technologies compared around the world. The Inca accomplished amazing things and MP is a good example. ~James
Thank you for taking us on such a vivid photo-tour with you! Herculean task indeed, especially given that they weren’t supposed to have used wheels or even iron tools in its construction. I even read that some of the construction in Machu Picchu predates the Incas!
The point you make about the lack of wheels is a good one. I’ve been re-reading Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” where he discusses the lack of wheels in Pre-Columbian cultures in the Americas. Apparently, they knew of the wheel, but didn’t use it because they lacked draught animals. The same was true of the Maya. Transforming this stone from solid bedrock into these exquisite structures was indeed Herculean. ~James
“Guns, Germs, and Steel” is definitely a favorite! One of the things I really like about it is how Diamond weaves a story instead of just informing the audience of the facts and figures. It’s one of the things I like about your posts, too 🙂
It’s too bad there wasn’t a written language. So much more could be learned. I find it fascinating how different the theories are, from nobility to servants in one broad stroke, lol The stonework is absolutely incredible. And as Endless Weekend said, no wheels or iron tools. Amazing.
Laura, it’s fascinating to me why some advanced cultures developed writing, and others didn’t. Diamond’s book addresses many of these topics, which is why I enjoyed it so much. He also talks about human diseases that helped some cultures become dominant over others, which is pretty interesting reading considering the spread of the coronavirus. If you have an interest, I highly recommend the book. ~James