Machu Picchu


The coordinates for Machu Picchu are 13° 9'48.26"S, 72°32'46.53"W.

Machu Picchu is located 43 miles northwest of Cuzco at top of a ridge above the Urubamba river gorge. Machu Picchu is nestled on a saddle between the highland mountains and Huayna Picchu or Wayna Picchu (“Young Peak”), around which the Urubamba River takes a sharp bend. The altitude of the main site is over 2350 m above sea level. The adjoining peak Wayna Picchu (“Young Peak”), measures 2720 m. The Urubamba River below is at an altitude of 2000m.

Machu Picchu Machi Picchu

Left: The classic view of Machu Picchu from the upper terraces just after sunrise. Right: Central plaza with the residential area on the left and the agricultural terraces with the Guard House on the right.

Machu Picchu


Machu Picchu was most built most likely between 1460 and 1470 AD by Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui (also spelled Pachakutec or Pachacutec: "He who returns/remakes the earth." He was the ninth Sapa Inca (1438-1471/72)). He had two sons: Amaru Yupanqui and Tupac Inca Yupanqui. Even though Amaru was the older son, Pachacuti chose Tupac to be co-regent and eventual successor. When Pachacuti died in 1471, the empire stretched from Chile to the south and Ecuador to the north including the modern countries of Peru and Bolivia as well as most of northern Argentina. Many of the most renowned monuments around Cuzco, such as the great sun temple of Coricancha or the "fortress" of Sacsayhuamán, were constructed during Pachacuti's reign. If Machu Picchu was erected under Pachacuti, it predates the arrival of the Spanish by no more than 100 years. Archaeological studies confirm these assumptions. Carbon 14 dating places Machu Picchu into the fifteenth century.

Pachakutec Pachacutec memorial in Aguas Calientes

It is widely accepted that Machu Picchu was rediscovered in 1911 by Hiram Bingham.  Bingham was born into a family of missionaries in Honolulu, Hawai'i. He attended Punahou School in Hawai'i from 1882 to 1892, the same school that counts U.S. President Barack Obama amongst its alumni. Bingham obtained a degree from Yale University in 1898, a degree from the University of California, Berkeley in 1900, and a degree from Harvard University in 1905. In 1907, Yale University appointed Bingham as a lecturer in South American history.

After a first visit to Peru in 1909, Bingham returned to the Andes with the Yale Peruvian Expedition of 1911 to search for Vilcabamba, the undiscovered last stronghold of the Incan empire. After arriving in Peru, Bingham collected any available information about Vilcabamba. In Cusco, Bingham met the rector of the Universidad Nacional de San Antonio Abad, Albert Giesecke. Giesecke told Bingham about a farmer named Melchor Arteaga, who lived sixty miles from Cusco in the Urubamba Valley. He had told Giesecke about extensive ruins on a ridge high up on a nearby mountain /1/. During a trip to Yucay Valley, Bingham heard from the sub-prefect of the town of Urubamba about Inca ruins near the bridge of San Miguel called Huainapicchu /2/. On July 19, the expedition set out from Cusco via the towns of Urubamba and Ollantaytambo towards the Urubamba valley in the search of the Inca fortress of Vitcos. From there, Vilcabamba was only two days of travel according to old chronicles. On July 23-rd, 1911, the team reached the farm of Melchor Arteaga. The next day, Arteaga led Bingham to Machu Picchu. They were not the first visitors since the Inca times. Bingham writes in his book “Inca Land”: “Shortly after noon, just as we were completely exhausted, we reached a little grass-covered hut where several good-natured Indians, pleasantly surprised at our unexpected arrival, welcomed us with dripping gourds full of cool, delicious water. ... They said they had found plenty of terraces here on which to grow their crops.” /3/. Bingham even found a charcoal inscription with the name of Lizarraga and the year of 1902 during his first inspection of the site /4/. Bingham decided that Machu Picchu did not match the descriptions of Vitcos nor Vilcabamba and the expedition moved on towards down the Urubamba Valley. At a bridge called Chuquichaca, they entered the Vilcabamba River Valley and at a place called Rosapata they discovered a 20 feed high white rock which they identified as the Inca shrine of Chuquipalpa also known as Nusta Ispana /5/ and extensive ruins on top of a hill. They had discovered Vitcos. Soon after, the expedition headed further up the valley, crossed the 4170m high Colpacasa Pass and reached the village of Pampaconas. They arrived at the house of a local farmer who lead Bingham and his team to a place called Espiritu Pampa. Here, they found ruins which appeared to have been constructed by the Incas but their architecture was crude. Bingham stayed several days and arrived at the conclusion, that this place was not Vilcabamba, the final refuge of the last four Inca emperors: Manco Inca, Sayri Tupac, Titu Cusi, and Tupac Amaru. He eventually proposed that Machu Picchu was the cradle of the entire Inca civilization and had been occupied exclusively by female “Virgins of the Sun”. He believed, that after failing to re-conquer Cusco, Manco Inca retreated to Machu Picchu aka Vilcabamba.

In 1964, Gene Savoy re-visited the ruins at Espiritu Pampa. After several weeks of work, he and his team had partially cleared several hundred acres of Inca ruins over an area of more than 500 acres. They confirmed that Espiritu Pampa was indeed Vilcabamba and that Bingham had only touched the outskirts of the city. /6/. While Machu Picchi looks very impressive, it probably never housed more than 750 to 1000 inhabitants. Vilcabamba could accommodate 3 to 4 times that number.

The final confirmation of the location of Vilcabamba came in 1983 when Vincent and Nancy Lee discovered Huayna Pucara (New Fort) and Machu Pucara (Old Fort) in locations close to Vilcambama in accordance with the chronicles. From this it becomes clear that Machu Picchu is not Vilcabamba as Bingham postulated.

While Bingham was undisputedly the first scientist discoverer who mapped, excavated, and measured the site and published the results, he did not discover Machu Picchu by accident. In 1865, the Italian geographer Antonio Raimondi published a map which showed a peak with the name Machu Picchu in the vicinity of the Urubamba Valley. This map was in Bingham’s possession during the 1911 expedition. The French traveler Charles Wiener in 1875 published a reference of ruins he had heard of at “Huainapicchu and Matchopicchu” but had never visited them /7/. Other names mentioned in connection with the discovery of Machu Picchu include two local missionaries named Thomas Payne and Stuart McNairn who may have climbed to the ruins in 1906. This means that Bingham had been told in Cusco where to look and that he had even the maps to aid the search /8/.

If Machu Picchu is not Vilcabamba, what is it? After rebuilding Cusco, Pachacuti conquered several ethnic groups and to remember the victories he ordered to erect royal estates which he privately owned to support his family lineage or panaca. After his death, the estates would continue to support the members of his royal panaca /9/. Among these royal estates are Pisac (victory over the Cuyos) and Ollantaytambo (victory over the Tambos). According to MacQuarrie, Machu Picchu was built to commemorate the conquest of the Vilcabamba Valley.

During the initial excavations of the site in 1912 and 1913, archaeologists found three cemeteries containing 177 bodies with nearly equal equally distributed gender. The analysis of the graves and objects found with the bodies suggested that the people buried there were not elite, leading experts to theorize that they were yanacona, permanent workers. The yanacona would have left their homes and families behind for good, and live in Machu Picchu. A recent study by Bethany Turner, a Georgia State University anthropologist, showed that their skeletal remains show no sign of hard labor or mistreatment. This made the team conclude that they were rather performing tasks like defense, agriculture, administration or maintenance.

Before the Spanish conquistadors arrived, the smallpox spread ahead of them. The government began to fail, part of the empire seceded and it fell into civil war. By the time Francisco Pizarro arrived in Cuzco in 1532, Machu Picchu may already have been forgotten. By that time, Pachacutec was dead for 60 years and the members of his royal panaka may have left Machu Picchu or may have died. This would explain why it was not discovered by the Spanish. It is important to keep in mind that Machu Picchu was less than 100 years old at the time of the Spanish conquest of Cuzco. Although nearly all leading archaeologists agree on this short timetable between construction, population and desertion of Machu Picchu, it is still quite difficult to believe that such a large and magnificent site would have been faded out of memory of the population so rapidly.


Machu Picchu counts approximately 200 buildings. Most buildings exhibit typical late Inca polygonal masonry built of granite blocks cut with bronze or stone tools, and smoothed with sand. This technique is called ashlar. The stones were probably extracted and shaped at the site which is supported by the fact that a quarry can be found at Machu Picchu. Doors and windows are trapezoidal and tilt inward from bottom to top, corners are usually rounded, inside corners often incline slightly into the rooms, and "L" shaped blocks are often used to tie outside corners together. As a result, Machu Picchu is a city that has stood up well to earthquakes over the years. The overall layout is tightly intertwined with the surrounding landscape. Existing stone formations were utilized in the construction of the various structures.

Machu Picchu is divided into two large sectors, the agricultural sector and the urban sector. Some researchers count Wayna Picchu as a third sector of Machu Picchu.

The agricultural sector occupies all the southeastern part of the site. It presents a series of terraces of different shapes and sizes built into the hillsides that are up to 4 meters in height, and whose two main purposes were for crop growing and controlling rain-produced erosion. The so called “Guard Post” is located at an elevated point in the agricultural sector. It is a prominent three-walled building with windows, from which the entire urban and agricultural areas can be seen. The Agricultural Sector has an upper part with 40 terraces and a lower part with about 80 terraces. The two are separated by a path, which is in line with the continuation of the Inca Trail coming from Intipunku.

House of the Gate Keeper Machu Picchu House of the Gate Keeper Machu Picchukeeper

Left: Agricultural terraces with Guard House on the top. Right: View of the Guard House from the upper terraces.

The urban sector of Machu Picchu is divided into three great districts: the Sacred District, the Popular District, and the District of the Priests and the Nobility, the royal area.

Located in the Sacred District are the primary archaeological highlights: the Intihuatana, the Temple of the Sun and the Room of the Three Windows. These places were dedicated to Inti, the sun god and greatest deity of the Inca.

Machu Picchu pyramid Sacret District with Temple of the Sun and Intihuatana pyramid.

The Temple of the Sun is a semicircular construction with two trapezoidal-shaped windows. When Bingham found this very finely built semi-circular tower he immediately thought that it was similar in form to the Temple of the Sun (“Coricancha”) in Cusco, and concluded that this had to be also a temple dedicated to the sun. Indeed some of the features of the building seem to have an astronomical purpose. One of the windows is facing east and the other north. The east-facing window allowed a precise measurement of the winter solstice. Apart from the identification of the solstices the Incas could also make decisions about the times of planting and harvest. The observation of the sun was complemented by the observation of the sky in the nights. The whole temple is built on an enormous boulder into which a stone altar is carved. It is assumed that it was used to perform different ceremonies honoring the sun.

Under the Sun Temple there is a small cave known as the Royal Tomb. The cave is roofed by the same enormous sloping slab of stone which supports the Sun Temple. This was the place where the mummies of the Inca's ancestors and the high imperial dignitaries were kept, worshipped and offered tributes. On the right side, in the external part, one can see a rock carved with three steps (the symbol of the Pachamama). The internal walls of the grotto in the Royal Tomb are covered by stones that are perfectly joined and in these walls there are four trapezoidal niches, the size of doors. The Royal Tomb was one of the first buildings Bingham discovered during his exploration of the site in 1911.

Temple of the Sun Machu Picchu Temple of the Sun Machu Picchu

Left: Temple of the Sun. Right: Inside the Royal Tomb below the Temple of the Sun.

North of the so called Sacred Plaza lies the Temple of the Three Windows. On the western side is a carved stone with figures representing the three levels of the Andean World: the Hanan-Pacha (the sky, or spirituality), the Kay-Pacha (surface of the world, or materialism) and the Ukju-Pacha (underworld, or inner life).

The Main Temple is located north of the Sacred Plaza, very close to the Temple of the Three Windows. It is 11m long and 8m wide. It has only three walls built with rectangular stones. The central wall of the Main Temple is dislocated due to due to rainwater seepage. The deity worshipped in this main temple remains unknown. However, historians claim it may have been Wiraqocha, the invisible chief Andean god.

sacret district machu picchu Main Palace

Left: Sacret District with Main Temple and Intihuatana pyramid in the background. Left: Central wall of the Main Temple with some dislocations.

The Chamber of Ornaments is a small room located behind the Main Temple. Scientists say that the Chamber of Ornaments was a complementary building to the Main Temple. A platform can be found at the bottom of the black wall. It looks like a stone seat or stone bed.

The Intihuatana, which literally means “for tying the sun", is located on top of a pyramidal platform behind the Main temple towards Wayna Picchu. The Intihuatana stone is one of the many ritual stones in South America and one of the few that were not destroyed. They are arranged so they point directly at the sun during the winter solstice. The Intihuatana Stone of Macu Picchu was damaged in September 2000 during the filming of a beer commercial when a 450kg crane fell onto it, breaking off a piece of stone. The commercial was shot by the U.S. publicity firm J. Walter Thompson for the beer company Cervesur.

Intihuatana Intihuatana with Wayna Picchu in the background

The Popular District, or Residential District, is the place where the lower class people lived. It contains the more mundane and less well-constructed residential, industrial and even prison sectors (Bingham called it the Prison Group). The Temple of the Condor is located here. On the floor of the temple is a rock carved in the shape of the condor's head and neck feathers, completing the figure of a three-dimensional bird. Historians speculate that the head of the condor was used as a sacrificial altar. Under the temple is a small cave that contained a mummy. A prison complex stands directly behind the temple, and is comprised of human-sized niches and an underground maze of dungeons.

Machu Picchu Residential District Machu Picchu

Left: Houses of the residential area from the central plaza. Right: Residential district from Intihuatana.

In the royalty area, a district existed for the nobility. This district is located between the baths and the Temple of the Sun, close to the Sacred Plaza. Some archaeologists believe that the leader (highest-ranked Inca of the city) lived in this district. It can be distinguished by the fact that it is constructed over a slope and the constructions are neatly separated from each other. Those residences were used by the "Amautas" (Quechua language "wise people") and by the "Ñustas" (Quechua language "princess") and their rooms had trapezoidal shape. The Monumental Mausoleum, which is a stone block with carved walls and vaulted interior is located in the royalty area.

The Palace of the Princess is located alongside the Temple of the Sun that consists of two levels, constructed with blocks that fit together perfectly and whose finish is of the highest quality. Bingham deduced that this enclosure was very important for its location alongside the Temple of the Sun, its exclusive entrance and its fine finish. Some researchers think that this room was a special retreat of virgins that would be sacrificed to the sun or water or who took part in a religious rituals related to these deities.

The third sector is Wayna Picchu. Halfway up to Wayna Picchu, on its northern flank, the Temple of the Moon can be found. Its builders carved a great temple inside a cave, with niches and fake doors inserted in the stones, with an enormous 8m high by 6m wide entrance.

Machu Picchu Machu Picchu from Wayna Picchu

View of Machu Picchu from the top of Wayna Picchu.

Machu Picchu was designated as a World Heritage Site in 1983 when it was described as "an absolute masterpiece of architecture and a unique testimony to the Inca civilization".

On July 7, 2007, Machu Picchu was voted as one of New Open World Corporation's New Seven Wonders of the World.

1.         ”The last Days of the Incas”; Kim MacQuarrie, p. 388
2.         ditto, p. 389
3.         ditto, p. 395
4.         ditto, p. 397
5.         ditto, p. 402
6.         ditto, p. 422
7.         ”Lost City of the Inca’s”; Hiram Bingham, Introduction by Hugh Thomson
8.         ”The Last Days of the Incas”; Kim MacQuarrie, p. 450
9.         ditto, p. 439

Machu Picchu