Kim MacQuarrie’s Peru & South America Blog

Machu Picchu Facts

posted on November 8th, 2014 in Machu Picchu Facts

Machu Picchu Facts

Machu Picchu Facts

Machu Picchu Facts

Where it’s located: in the cloud forest of the Andes Mountains, in southeastern Peru, South America.

Who built it?: The Incan Emperor Pachacutec ordered its construction.

When was Machu Picchu built?: in the mid-15th century A.D.

When was Machu Picchu abandoned? Probably 100 years after its construction, most likely during the time of the Spanish conquest, sometime between 1533-1536.

Who discovered it and when? The American history professor, Hiram Bingham, in 1911.

How does it rank as a site to visit in S America?: It is the most visited archaeological site in South America, is Peru’s #1 tourist attraction and in 2007 was voted one of the new “Seven Wonders of the World.”

How many people visit per year? Nearly one million. The Peruvian government has recently limited visitors to 2,500 per day. Before that, sometimes twice that amount would visit during the high season (May through September).

Is it worth the visit? If you can only visit one place in South America and are interested in getting a sense of the Andes and of the largest indigenous empire ever to have existed on the continent—by all means, Machu Picchu is the one place to visit. Since you have to travel to Cusco to get there, you get double bang for your buck, as Cusco is one of the most interesting cities on the planet.

Machu Picchu Facts: Getting There

How to get there: Travelers can take international flights to Lima, Peru and from Lima can connect to Cusco by plane or by bus. From Cusco, the normal route is to take a 3.5 hour train ride to Aguas Calientes (now called Machu Picchu Pueblo), a small town located at the base of Machu Picchu Mountain. It is a half-hour bus ride from Aguas Calientes to the entrance of the ruins, although you will often have to form a long queue to secure a bus seat. You can also hike from the valley floor up to the ruins.

Visitor Tickets & Tips: Because of the number of visitors, visitors should buy their tickets at least five days in advance. You can make an on-line reservation and pay for the tickets here:

(first, click on the upper left tab “reservas”; then, when you have your reservation number, click on the next tab that says “pagos.” Or, you can make your reservation online here and pay later in person in Cusco, although if you buy your tickets on-line you will avoid standing in lines):

Machu Picchu Facts: Here are the various locations you can do this in person:

Locations to buy Machu Picchu tickets

You have to enter Machu Picchu the same day that you bought your ticket for. If you bought a ticket to enter Machu Picchu on a certain Friday, for example, then you have to enter Machu Picchu on Friday.

Do I need a separate ticket to climb Huayna Picchu? Yes. You can buy a combination ticket.

Best seasons to visit: The dry season in this area of the Andes runs from April through October. Peak visiting season is in July-August, so if possible, try and avoid these months. Ideal months for visiting are April, May, September, or October.

How much time to allow: Allow at least a day. This is a spectacular site.

Can I visit Machu Picchu from Cusco in a day? Yes, but it will be a rushed experience. You can take the 3.5 hour train ride to Aguas Calientes in the morning, visit the ruins in the afternoon, then take the night train back to Cusco. But ideally, you’ll spend a couple of nights in Aguas Calientes so that you can have a full day to enjoy Machu Picchu.

Best time of day to visit: Early and late. The ruins open from 6:00 AM to 5:00 PM, 7 days a week and all year long. If you like, you can go up in the A.M. and then return in the P.M, for the same ticket price, avoiding the mid-day crowds. Tourist buses tend to depart an hour before closing, so the final hour at Machu Picchu is best.

Machu Picchu Facts

Cusco, the Sacred Valley of the Incas, and Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu Facts: Where to stay

The nicest hotel in Aguas Calientes is the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Posada Hotel, although it’s pricey. After that, there’s a full array of lodging in Aguas Calientes, with a range of prices. You can also stay in the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge up on Machu Picchu mountain itself (it is the only hotel there); but this, too, is pricey.

Is Aguas Calientes an interesting town? Not really. It’s a tourist town that sprang up because of the railway station and its proximity to Machu Picchu. It’s the ruins above that are the reason for the visit.

Machu Picchu Facts: How it was discovered

How did Hiram Bingham discover it? He was searching for a lost Inca city called Vilcabamba, after reading about it in old Spanish chronicles. To find it, he chased down every rumor of a “lost ruin” in the area. Two weeks into his trip, he stumbled upon Machu Picchu. (You can find out more about it in The Last Days of the Incas, which includes four chapters on Machu Picchu’s discovery).

When was Machu Picchu abandoned by the Incas? Probably soon after the arrival of the Spaniards (1533). This was a royal resort, and the Incas had more pressing things to do (combatting the Spaniards) than maintaining it.

Machu Picchu Facts: When was the earliest European visit? Spaniards who received lands in the area knew of its existence in the late 1500s. Local people probably always knew of its existence during the centuries after the Spanish Conquest. However, it wasn’t until Hiram Bingham visited the ruins in 1911 (and found three Peruvian farming families living there!) that he publicized its existence and Machu Picchu became known to the rest of the world.

Were the crates of Inca artifacts Hiram Bingham’s took from Peru ever returned? Yes, one hundred years later, in 2011! And only after the threat of a Peruvian lawsuit! (link)

Machu Picchu Facts: Famous Visitors
Famous visitors: Hiram Bingham, Che Guevara, Pablo Neruda, Mick Jagger, Cole Porter, Ron Howard, Bill Gates, Werner Herzog (while filming “Aguirre, Wrath of God” at Huayna Picchu), Charlton Heston (while filming the Hollywood film, “Secrets of the Incas” there), Jim Carrey, Susan Sarandon, Richard Gere, Shakira, Cameron Diaz, Leonardo di Caprio, etc.

Machu Picchu Facts: A Sacred Site?

Is it a sacred site? Yes, although in the Inca world the entire landscape was filled with sacred places—mountain tops, rivers, lakes, springs, glaciers, etc. Also, the citadel has a large number of temples, including a temple of the sun.

Was it a royal estate? Yes, it is thought to have been the royal estate of the Incan Emperor Pachacutec.

Why was it built on top of a mountain ridge in such a remote area? Because the emperor responsible for the building of Machu Picchu, Pachacutec Inca, had recently conquered the area. The citadel was built on top of a mountain ridge because mountains were sacred to the Incas and the citadel also had views of other sacred peaks.

How far is Machu Picchu from Cusco? About 75 miles.

What is the best route to get there?: One of the best routes to Machu Picchu includes spending a night in Ollantaytambo—the only Inca town that is still inhabited, and which has its own spectacular Inca ruins nearby. It is on the same train line between Cusco and Machu Picchu. If you can fit in a visit to Pisac, a little further up the Sacred Valley, that would be ideal. Pisac also has very good ruins.

Machu Picchu facts

Map of the Machu Picchu ruins with main sectors

Machu Picchu Facts: Daily Life at the Time of the Incas

Who lived there? The Inca emperor, Pachacutec, when he was in retreat, plus his affiliated nobles, retainers, and administrators, plus peasants from around the empire who were there to tend the nearby crops, cut stone, bring in supplies, etc.

How many people lived there? Between 700 and 1,000, depending on whether the Inca Emperor was visiting.

How many houses are there? Around 140.

What kind of crops did they grow there? Corn, potatoes and an unidentified legume (bean).

Are there burials at Machu Picchu? Yes, about 200 of them. Human skeletons and associated pottery and other artifacts have been found in numerous cavities below rocks.

What was the average height of the men and women buried at Machu Picchu? Men: 5’2”; women: 4’11”

Machu Picchu Facts: Amazing Facts

Is there a tomb of gold there? Golden ornaments have been found. Recently, a French explorer claims to have found a hidden tomb, but no solid proof has been offered.

Machu Picchu Facts: Is it true that there was an astronomical observatory there? Yes. The Sun Temple was so constructed that precise measurements of the winter and summer solstices could be made—essential in a society that depended upon agriculture. Also, an astronomical observatory at Machu Picchu has recently been discovered:

Machu Picchu Facts: Did the Inca road system connect to Machu Picchu? Yes, and part of it is now called “The Inca Trail.” The Incas built 26,000 miles of roadways throughout their empire.

How long did it take Chaski runners to carry a message to Cusco? About half a day. The Inca emperor could send a message to Cusco and receive a reply on the same day. It took Chaski runners about 3 days to carry a message from Cusco to the area that is now Lima, about 430 miles away.

Where did the stones of Machu Picchu come from? There is a rock quarry at the ruins.

Machu Picchu Facts: Who was Pachacutec, the Inca Emperor who Built Machu Picchu?

Read about Pachacutec and more Machu Picchu facts here

Fast facts about Pachacutec

The Incan emperor Pachacutec


Atahualpa: The Inca Lord Who Lost an Empire

posted on September 21st, 2014 in Incas, Peru



The Inca Emperor, Atahualpa

 Atahualpa: Emperor of the Incas

Note: Atahualpa, lord of the Incas, was captured in Nov of 1532 by 168 Spaniards. Atahualpa was captured in the Inca town of Cajamarca, in what is now northern Peru. The following is an extract from The Last Days of the Incas:

“Most Inca accounts state that after [Atahualpa’s father] Huayna Capac‘s death, the latter’s son Huascar was crowned as emperor in Cusco, a thousand miles to the south. Another son, Atahualpa, remained in Quito, meanwhile, which Huayna Capac had made into an ancillary capital during his constant campaigns in what is now Ecuador. Born from different mothers, Atahualpa and Huascar were half-brothers.

Huascar, however, being the son of both Huayna Capac and of Huayna Capac’s principal wife, was a “legitimate” son, while Atahualpa, being the son of one of Huayna Capac’s many concubines, was by definition “illegitimate.” In the labyrinthine political intrigues that occurred during Inca successions, however, this did not necessarily rule out the possibility of Atahualpa ever coming to power. Both were in their mid-twenties at the time of their father’s death, yet had completely opposite temperaments. Atahualpa had been born in Cusco, had lived for many years in the far north with his father, had taken an avid interest in military pursuits, and was known for being extremely severe with anyone who differed with him. Huascar, on the other hand, had been born in a small village to the south of Cusco, had little interest in military affairs, drank to excess, commonly slept with married women, and was known to murder their husbands if they complained. If Atahualpa was the serious type, then Huascar was the party boy. Each, however, bore a sense of entitlement that made him ruthless if even the smallest portion of those entitlements was threatened.

Though Atahualpa and Huascar shared the same father, they belonged to completely different royal descent groups, or panaqas. Atahualpa belonged through his mother to the descent group known as the Hatun ayllu, while Huascar belonged through his mother to the group known as the Qhapaq ayllu. Both of these descent groups were competitive with one another, having struggled for supremacy and power now over several generations. And, as royal successions often provided the spark that unleashed open political warfare, from the moment that Atahualpa did not show up in Cusco for his father’s massive funeral and for his brother’s subsequent coronation, Huascar became suspicious. Huascar’s paranoia–derived no doubt from an Inca history that was richly embroidered with tales of brutal palace coups– became so acute that he is even said to have murdered some of his relatives who had accompanied his father’s corpse to Cusco, having suspected them of plotting an insurrection.

Huascar’s suspicions eventually got the better of him, suspicions that were presumably only accentuated by the inefficiency of the many messages and counter–messages that had to be carried between the two brothers over a thousand miles each way by relay runners. The newly crowned emperor finally decided to wage a military campaign in order to settle the question of succession once and for all. His decision to launch a war was not well thought out however, for it immediately put Huascar at a disadvantage.
Since Huascar’s father, Huayna Capac, had been carrying out extensive military campaigns in the north, his brother Atahualpa now had the advantage of being able to take command of the empire’s most seasoned and battle-hardened troops. The troops were led by the empire’s three finest generals, who immediately pledged their allegiance to Atahualpa. Huascar, by contrast, was forced to assemble an army of native conscripts who had little if any military experience. Where Huascar in the south led a largely untested army, Atahualpa commanded a seasoned imperial force. Nevertheless, Huascar quickly went on the offensive, sending an army north into what is now Ecuador, under the command of Atoq (“the Fox”).

The two Inca armies met on the plains of Mochacaxa, to the south of Quito. There the northern army, supervised by Atahualpa, scored the first victory in what was now a full-fledged civil war. Even in victory, however, Atahualpa’s severity with those who dared challenge him was evident when General Atoq was captured. Atoq was first tortured and eventually executed with darts and arrows. Atahualpa then ordered Atoq’s skull to be fashioned into a gilded drinking cup, which the Spaniards would note that Atahualpa was still using four years later.

With the momentum now on Atahualpa’s side, his generals began a long military advance down the spine of the Andes, gradually pushing Huascar’s forces further and further south. After a long series of victories on the part of Atahualpa’s forces and defeats on the part of Huascar’s, a final climactic engagement was fought outside Cusco during which the Inca emperor himself was captured, as described by the sixteenth-century chronicler Juan de Betanzos:

Huascar was badly wounded and his clothing was ripped to shreds.
Since the wounds were not life-threatening, [Atahualpa’s General] Chal-
cuchima did not allow him to be treated. When daylight came and it was
found that none of Huascar’s men had escaped, Chalcuchima’s troops
enjoyed Huascar’s loot. The tunic Huascar wore was removed and he
was dressed in another from one of his Indians who was dead on the
field. Huascar’s tunic, his gold halberd [axe] and helmet, also gold, with
the shield that had gold trappings, his feathers, and the war insignias he
had were sent to Atahualpa. This was done in Huascar’s presence, [as
Generals] Chalcuchima and Quisquis wanted Atahualpa to have the
honor, as their lord, of treading upon the things and ensigns of enemies
who had been subjected.

Atahualpa’s northern Inca army now marched triumphantly into Cusco. It was led by two of Atahualpa’s finest generals, Quisquis and Chalcuchima, who had successfully directed the four-year-long campaign. One can only imagine what the citizens of Cusco thought, seeing their former emperor stripped of his insignias and royal clothing, wearing the bloodstained clothing of a mere commoner, bound and led down the streets on foot, while Atahualpa’s generals rode majestically in their decorated litters, surrounded by their victorious troops.

The aftermath of the civil war to determine who would inherit the vast Inca Empire–and all the peasants and fertile lands within it-was as predictable as it was brutal. Within a short while, Inca troops rounded up Huascar’s various wives and children and took them to a place called Quicpai, outside Cusco. There the official in charge “ordered that each and everyone learn the charges against him or her. Each and every one was told why they were to die.” As Huascar’s captors forced him to watch, native soldiers methodically began to slaughter his wives and daughters, one by one, leaving them to hang. Soldiers then ripped unborn babies from their mothers’wombs, hanging them by their umbilical cords from their mothers’ legs.

The rest of the lords and ladies who were prisoners were tortured by a type
of torture they call chacnac [whipping], before they were killed,” wrote the
chronicler Betanzos. “After being tormented, they were killed by smashing
their heads to pieces with battle-axes they call chambi, which are used in

Thus, in one final orgy of bloodletting, Atahualpa’s generals exterminated nearly the entire germ seed of Huascar’s familial line. Huascar was then forced to begin a long journey northward on foot to face the wrath of his brother. The lengthy contest between who would inherit the vast Inca Empire had finally reached its bloody and climactic end.

Inca Empire under Atahualpa

The Inca Empire, circa 1532 A.D., at the time of Atahualpa

Atahualpa, meanwhile, had traveled southward from Quito to the city of Cajamarca, located in what is now northern Peru, some six hundred miles to  the north of Cusco. There he waited for word of the outcome of his generals’  attack on the capital. Even via the Incas’ state-of-the-art messenger system, in  which messages were carried by relay runners, or chaskis, news of the final  battle and of Huascar’s dramatic capture had to pass between more than three  hundred different runners. It would take at least five days to arrive. Only then  would Atahualpa receive word that he was now the unchallenged lord of the  Inca Empire, emperor of the known civilized world.

With all of his attention concentrated upon the steady, though delayed, stream  of successful battle reports sent by his generals, Atahualpa was already busy  making preparations for the coronation he envisioned in Cusco, the city of his  youth. There, he would preside over the usual massive festivities-the  processions, feastings, sacrifices, the debauched drinking and copious  urinations-and finally, over the majestic coronation itself. Afterward–as his  father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had done before him–Atahualpa  would no doubt look forward to decades of uninterrupted rule, a monarch  whose every action and pronouncement would be considered the divine acts of  a god.

Atahualpa Learns of the Arrival of the Spaniards

There was only one minor affair, however, that Atahualpa had yet to attend to before he began his triumphal march southward to claim his empire. Chaski reports of a relatively small band of unusual foreigners, who were now marching into the Andes in his direction, had been reaching him for the last several months. Some of the strangers, he was told, rode giant animals the Incas had no word for as none had ever before been seen. The men grew hair on their faces and had sticks from which issued thunder and clouds of smoke. Although few in number-the royal quipu knots carried by the messengers indicated that there were precisely 168–the foreigners behaved arrogantly and had already tortured and killed some provincial chiefs.Rather than immediately order their extermination, however, Atahualpa decided to allow the strangers to penetrate a short way further into his empire. Protected by his army, Atahualpa was curious to see these strange men and their even stranger beasts for himself.

It was November 1532, the season in which the Andes begins its slow transition into the Southern Hemisphere’s summer. And, as news of the final victory in Cusco continued to race northward on foot along the often lonely and fantastic contours of the Andes, Atahualpa no doubt pondered for a moment this strange intrusion from the west. Who were these people? Why would they dare intrude into an empire where his armies could crush them if he so much as raised his little finger? As Atahualpa listened to the latest report about the bold yet obviously foolish invaders, intermixed with the much more interesting news arriving each day from the south, he lifted up the gilded skull of his former enemy, Atoq, the Fox, took a long cool drink from its rim of gold and bone, then turned his attention to the more pressing matters at hand.”

Andes at time of Atahulpa

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Pachacutec: Incan Emperor Who Created Machu Picchu

posted on September 11th, 2014 in Incas, Machu Picchu, Peru

Inca Emperor Pachacutec Builder of Machu Picchu


Pachacutec: The Incan Emperor Who Built Machu Picchu

By Kim MacQuarrie

(Excerpt from the book, Machu Picchu: Song of Stone)

According to Inca oral history, in the early part of the 15th century an Inca king arose who would not only revolutionize the entire Andean world but who would also create some of the finest architectural monuments ever known. At the time, the Incas lived within a small kingdom centered around the valley of Cuzco, one of many such small kingdoms in the Andes and on the coast. The Incas told the Spaniards that, at the time, they were led by an old Inca king named Viracocha Inca. Faced with an approaching army from the powerful kingdom of the Chancas, the Inca ruler fled, leaving his adult son, Cusi Yupanqui, behind. The latter quickly took charge, raised an army, and somehow miraculously defeated the invaders. Cusi Yupanqui then deposed his father, arranged for his own coronation, and changed his name to Pachacutec, a Quechua word that means “earth-shaker” or “cataclysm,” or “he who turns the world upside down.” The name was a prescient one, for Pachacutec would soon turn the status quo of the Andes entirely upside down.

According to Inca history, Pachacutec had had a profound religious experience when he was young, a sort of epiphany that revealed to him both his divine nature and a vision of a nearly unbounded future. Wrote the Jesuit priest Bernabé Cobo:

It is said of this Inca [Pachacutec], that before he became king, he went
once to visit his father Viracocha, who was . . . five leagues from Cuzco,
and as he reached a spring called Susurpuquiu, he saw a crystal tablet fall
into it; within this tablet there appeared to him the figure of an Indian
dressed in this way: around his head he had a llauto like the headdress of
the Incas; three brightly shining rays, like those of the sun, sprang from
the top of his head; some snakes were coiled around his arms at the
shoulder joints . . . and there was a kind of snake that stretched from the
top to the bottom of his back. Upon seeing this image, Pachacutec became
so terrified that he started to flee, but the image spoke to him from inside
the spring, saying to him: “Come here, my child; have no fear, for I am
your father the Sun; I know that you will subjugate many nations and
take great care to honor me and remember me in your sacrifices”; and,
having said these words, the vision disappeared, but the crystal tablet re-
mained in the spring. The Inca Pachacutec took the tablet and kept it; it is said that
after this it served him as a mirror in which he saw anything he wanted,
and in memory of his vision, when he was king, he had a statue made of
the Sun, which was none other than the image he had seen in the crystal,
and he built a temple of the Sun called Qoricancha, with the magnifi-
cence and richness that it had at the time when the Spaniards came, be-
cause before it was a small and humble structure. Moreover, Pachacutec ordered
that solemn temples dedicated to the Sun be built throughout all the
lands that he subjugated under his empire, and he endowed them with
great incomes, ordering that all his subjects worship and revere the Sun.

Soon after becoming king, Pachacutec wasted no time in remaking the world according to his unique vision, beginning with the city of Cuzco. There, he undertook a major rebuilding campaign, reorganizing the layout of the capital, tearing down old buildings, creating new boulevards, and ordering a host of palaces and temples to be built. All of these were constructed in a new style of stonework that Pachacutec preferred–later referred to as the imperial style–stones cut and fitted together so perfectly that the skill and artistry displayed would eventually become famous as one of the wonders of the New World.

Trapezoidal Doorway at Machu Picchu

Trapezoidal doorway at Machu Picchu

Not satisfied with defeating the Chancas, however, the ambitious young king soon led his army into the nearby Yucay (Vilcanota) and Vilcabamba Valleys, conquering a number of ethnic groups. To celebrate these victories, Pachacutec ordered the construction of a number of royal estates: one in Pisac, another at Ollantaytambo, and a third that would eventually be known as Machu Picchu. The three estates were unusual, however, in that they were destined to be privately owned by the conqueror himself. It was a model that would soon be copied by succeeding Inca emperors and also by a small number of high-ranking Inca elites. Theirs would be the only privately held lands within the rapidly expanding Inca Empire.

Pachacutec created his new estates with a number of specific purposes in mind, perhaps the most important of which was to support his own family lineage. Each new Inca emperor was supposed to found his own panaca, or descent lineage, in essence becoming the patriarch and founder of a new family line. The crops and animal herds raised on Pachacutec’s private estates were thus slated to be used to support the members of his royal panaca. After his death, the estates would continue to be used and maintained by his descendants.

A second purpose for building the royal estates was to commemorate Pachacutec’s recent conquests: when complete, they would serve as monuments that would reflect the new emperor’s boldness, initiative, and power. Finally, the estates were also meant to serve as secluded royal retreats–luxury resorts located well away from the capital where the emperor and a select group of relatives and elites could rest, relax, and commune with the local mountain gods.

As with the new palaces and buildings he had ordered built in Cuzco, Pachacutec was first presumably shown models of his proposed estates in clay, complete with the projected buildings, agricultural terraces, and temples. Once Pachacuti had approved the designs, a legion of the kingdom’s finest architects, engineers, stonecutters, and masons went to work.

Pachacutec Creates Machu Picchu

To commemorate his conquest of the Vilcabamba Valley, Pachacutec ordered his third royal estate to be built on a high ridge overlooking what is now called the Urubamba River. The Incas apparently called the new site Picchu, meaning “peak.” Since the proposed citadel and nearby satellite communities were planned from the start to form part of a luxurious private estate, the entire complex would display some of the finest examples of Inca engineering and art.

The complex of what is now known as the ruins of Machu Picchu, in fact, was carefully planned and designed long before the first white granite block was ever cut and moved into place. The location, first of all, had to be both suitably sacred and spectacular; the site that Pachacuti selected was set high atop a ridge with an almost God-like view over the entire area and of the surrounding apus, or sacred peaks. It was essential that the site also contain a source of clean water-a substance sacred in itself-that could be used for drinking, bathing, and for ritual purposes. Picchu, in fact, possessed just such a crucial characteristic: on the large peak now known as Machu Picchu, and high above the proposed citadel, Inca engineers located a natural spring. They then designed a gravity-fed water system that would eventually carry water down from the peak to the ridge top site where it would ultimately pass through sixteen descending ritual fountains.

Portions of the ridge top were now carefully planed and flattened as workers created foundations of gravel, stones, and even subterranean retaining walls. Archaeologists who have excavated at Machu Picchu have reported that some 60 percent of the architectural engineering associated with the ruins actually lies beneath the ruins. Because of the heavy granite architecture and the region’s equally heavy rains, Inca engineers had to be certain that the locations chosen for building had solid foundations capable of withstanding both water and weight. Once the foundation was complete, construction finally began on the citadel itself, with workers cutting stone mainly from a quarry located on the same ridge top, using a variety of stone and bronze tools. Only once the first stone blocks had been cut did construction begin on the buildings, palaces, and temples of Machu Picchu.

Workers and specialists from around the country now convened on the remote site, all of them supervised by a bevy of architects and engineers. In order to equip the citadel with the latest, state-of-the-art technology, Inca astronomers worked alongside the engineers and stonemasons to fashion observatories that could accurately mark the summer and winter solstices as well as other astronomical events. Workers fulfilling their mit’a labor tax, meanwhile, busied themselves constructing roads to and from the royal estate, linking Machu Picchu with the capital, Cuzco, and with other newly built centers, such as Ollantaytambo, Pisac, and, eventually, Vitcos and Vilcabamba. Additional laborers were also put to work constructing large agricultural terraces in order to help provide food for the citadel’s future inhabitants as well as for ritual sacrifices. Soon, Inca labor and technology had transformed the steep, jungle-covered slopes into a staggered series of flat terraces that eventually produced fourteen acres of sacred corn.

When Machu Picchu was finally ready for use sometime in the 1450s or 1460s, the first ruler of the newly created Inca Empire, Pachacutec, no doubt arrived there on his royal litter, accompanied by royal guests, a large retinue of servants, and at least part of his harem. The citadel’s furnishings, plumbing, food, supplies, servants, and cooks had all been carefully prepared so that the emperor would be able to relax along with his guests. Then, as now, clouds wreathed the surrounding peaks, alternately exposing and obscuring them. Unlike the ruins today, however, the gabled roofs of the buildings were covered with fresh yellow ichu thatch while the stones of the citadel were white and freshly cut and glistened in the sun.

Temple Complex at Machu Picchu

Similar to the recent architecture in Cuzco, much of the stonework at Machu Picchu had been cut in the imperial style that Pachacutec preferred; some of the buildings, in fact, were constructed with boulders the size of small cars, each cut, fitted perfectly into place, and weighing up to fourteen tons. The water from the nearby peak of Machu Picchu, meanwhile, descended into the citadel through a stone-lined aqueduct and arrived first at Pachacutec’s living quarters, thus allowing the emperor to come into contact with only the purest water available. A stone-cut pool in Pachacutec’s dwelling allowed the emperor to bathe in complete privacy while the emperor’s residence also had the only water-flushed lavatory at Machu Picchu.

As Pachacutec bathed himself in his private bath, the voices of his guests would have floated across the plaza outside along with the distant sounds of metalworkers tending their forges and hammering out gold and silver ornaments, utensils, and jewelry. Strings of llama trains constantly arrived, looking from a condor’s perspective like lengths of knotted quipu cords; the food and supplies they carried up from the jungle and down from the Andes was carefully unpacked at a station just outside the citadel. Even at this private retreat, chaski runners appeared periodically with messages for the emperor and other officials, who in turn sent their commands back to Cuzco and to other parts of the empire. Wherever the emperor went, in fact, his royal court followed. Thus, whenever Pachacutec was in retreat at Machu Picchu, this lofty, isolated citadel temporarily became the power center and locus of the entire Inca world.

Machu Picchu During the Time of Pachacutec: A Royal Estate

Unlike the ruins of Machu Picchu today–which are owned by the Peruvian state and are open to the public, and where tour buses disgorge hundreds of thousands of visitors each year–Machu Picchu in the time of Pachacutec was an exclusive and private affair. The roads here–like the roads elsewhere in the empire–were open only to those individuals traveling on state business. Other than Pachacutec’s immediate family, the workers who kept the citadel functioning, and the invited elites who traveled here on canopied litters, often decorated with precious metals and iridescent bird feathers, Machu Picchu was unknown to the rest of the empire’s inhabitants. Machu Picchu, quite simply, was Pachacutec’s Camp David–a royal resort built by a man who had almost single-handedly transformed a small native kingdom into the largest empire the New World has ever known.

The citadel of Machu Picchu was thus the third and perhaps most important jewel in the crown of architectural monuments that Pachacuti had created, after Pisac and Ollantaytambo. Balmy and warm, the site was no doubt a welcome respite from the often freezing winter weather of the Inca capital and from the high Andes in general. Even after Pachacutec’s death and long after the emperor had been ritually embalmed and mummified, Pachacutec’s servants no doubt continued bringing their divine emperor to visit Machu Picchu and to visit the other estates he had carved out of the Andes, his sightless eyes seeming to gaze off into the distance as the members of his royal panaca continued to enjoy the fruits of their founder’s unparalleled conquests and labors.

The ruins of Machu Picchu

The ruins of Pachacutec’s royal retreat of Machu Picchu