"The city that emerged was a place of magical beauty. It contains many buildings in the finest interlocking Inca masonry. But it is Machu Picchu's remarkable unity and state of preservation that are so satisfying to a visitor. Here, standing intact to the roofline, are the houses, temples and buildings of a complete Inca city. The house groups are set amid banks of tidy agricultural terraces, and Machu Picchu is bound together by a web of paths and hundreds of stairways. Its location is fantastic, with the city clinging to the upper slope and crest of a narrow ridge. (...) Steep forested hills rise all around Machu Picchu, and its mystery is heightened by ghostly wisps of low cloud that cling to these humid mountains."
John Hemming, The Conquest of the Incas.
Spanish conquerors devastated Peruvian Inca capital Cuzco in 1553, consequently bringing the powerful Inca empire to an end. Luckily the Spanish overlooked many sites, or they just disregarded these because of the uninteresting location. The most famous of these is Machu Picchu.
Discovered by American professor Hiram Bingham in 1911, this holy city of astonishing beauty has obtained world fame. Some call Machu Picchu the Taj Mahal of Latin America. Lucky Bingham actually stumbled on Machu Picchu, which was to become the most famous ruin in South America, a few days after leaving Cuzco on his first attempt to find the lost Inca capital of Vilcabamba. The fortress city lies in a high saddle between two Andes mountaintops eighty kilometres north west of Cuzco. From the geological point of view, Machu Picchu lies on top of a great granite peak at Vilcabamba. Granite was used as the main source for building, long before the Spaniards arrived.
Because the Incas did not have our writing skills, archaeologists find it difficult to determine the purpose of many discoveries in Machu Picchu. They assume the city was the centre of Inca pilgrimage. Archaeologists also think that the Incas were still busy constructing the place when the conquistadors invaded the continent.
According to radiocarbon tests, the city of Machu Picchu has a chronological date of around 1450 AD, so it has been used for only one century at maximum before it was abandoned due to the Spanish conquistadors. There is however the possibility of former occupation, pre-Inca.
The city of Machu Picchu consists of two parts, a religious and a civilian one. The two halves are divided by some kind of town square. To provide an indication of what can be found at Machu Picchu, I cite an online source on part of the city:
The Urban area, made up of 5 compounds. The first one, called the Main Entrance, where we can observe 5 distinct compounds in the southern part and 22 sites in the northern part, divided by the main road to the city. One can also observe warehouses, living quarters and workshops. In the second compound called Sunturhuasi you can see 9 sites and 3 courtyards. Here we can see a semicircular site finely polished with a decorated window facing the northern side. In the bottom part there is a small underground alcove known as the Royal Tomb. In the northwestern section, you can see a series of 17 springs, real masterpieces, beautifully built, arranged on a rocky surface, in consecutive order that permits an harmonious flow of water to the lower section. (http://www.cusco.net/articulos/machupicchu.htm)
Other parts of Machu Picchu include potteries, an astronomical centre, temples and other sacred places, and agricultural compounds with drain systems. The city provided living space to around 1,200 people on 18 square kilometres of stonework terraces. The Incas had been brilliant in picking a spot for this holy city: because of its location on a steep mountain and only the Camino Inca (Inca Trail) with 3,000 steps as means of access, a team of six men was sufficient to defend the complex.
Inca ingenuity is also shown in the courage and acrobatic precision needed for many of their mountain cities on impossible locations. Even the access road Camino Inca is a piece of art in its own way. Still nowadays the rough subtropical area around Machu Picchu is accessible only by the Inca Trail, or by small boat over the holy river Urubamba. The pre-ancient subway led from the centre of Ecuador to the centre of Chile, with crossroads leading to the ocean. The Camino Inca enabled the Incas to transport goods extremely fast across the empire.
Tourists are advised to acclimatise before a very demanding journey by foot to Machu Picchu. Most people take the train to Aguas Calientes, which is at the foot of the Machu Picchu mountain. A bus leads uphill. One hundred American dollars will get the rich and lazy people a helicopter called HeliCuzco, which takes only twenty minutes. But the best way to travel to Machu Picchu is taking a large part of the Inca Trail from Ollantaytambo. By foot it’s around four days.
There’s a sketch map of Machu Picchu online at http://www.caroling.holyoak.com/Trips/Wholeo/BooksOnline/otwtmp/otwtmp59.htm.