Machu Picchu, Cuzco Province, Peru

What exactly was Machu Picchu?

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Mark Adams, author of Turn Right at Machu Picchu, uncovers the myths and mystery around the spellbinding Peruvian landmark.

This year, around a million visitors will make the epic journey to Machu Picchu – an odyssey that for most people entails a long flight to Lima, a second flight to Cusco, and then a three-and-a-half hour train ride (or four-day hike) to the ruins themselves. Strangely, almost none of these travelers will have the slightest idea what is it they’re going to see. It’s as if the Incas built this stone masterpiece in the clouds solely to serve as an envy-inducing photo backdrop. Which is a shame, because in recent years we’ve learned quite a lot about the fascinating reasons behind Machu Picchu’s existence.

The most common misconception about Machu Picchu has been handed down by the American explorer Hiram Bingham III. He was the citadel’s sole visitor from the outside world in 1911, the year that he is credited with rediscovering the spectacular ruins. (Three Peruvian farm families were living there at the time.)

Bingham had been searching for someplace else, the legendary Lost City of the Incas. That ghostly metropolis—officially known as Vilcabamba—was the redoubt to which a group of Inca nobles and their women had supposedly escaped (with a large stash of gold, the story went) when Francisco Pizarro and his rapacious Spanish conquistadors arrived in Peru in 1532. Unfortunately, the hyper-ambitious Bingham was so eager to prove that he’d found the lost city that he ignored evidence that Vilcabamba was actually located not far west of Machu Picchu, in the Amazon jungle. Some local guides in Cusco still insist that Bingham departed Peru with a fortune in precious metals, but the truth is that he found mostly bits of broken pottery and human remains. Most of these have recently been returned to Peru after spending a century in the United States.

In the 1980s, the Yale University professors Richard Burger and Lucy Salazar proposed what is now the reigning academic theory about Machu Picchu, which is that it was built in the 15th century as a summer home for the greatest Inca emperor, Pachacutec. Burger compares the site to Camp David, the U.S. president’s weekend retreat where politics and recreation mix. While convincing – a rare real estate document dated 1568 even backs up the thesis – this explanation of Machu Picchu’s origins doesn’t fully account for the site’s spectacular natural setting, or for its enigmatic stone structures that draw spiritual seekers from around the globe.

The anthropologist Johan Reinhard argues that while Machu Picchu may have served as the Inca emperor’s getaway, its location was chosen for more than the nice views. Reinhard calls Machu Picchu a “sacred center,” and has demonstrated that holy peaks (or ‘apus’ in Quechua, the language of the Andes) lie directly to the north, south, east and west of the site. The Urubamba River, one of the chief symbols in Inca cosmology, practically wraps itself around the bluff on which Machu Picchu sits.

The Incas worshipped nature and the sun in particular, and the architecture at Machu Picchu is fully integrated with its environment. During the June solstice, the sun rises directly above a peak due east of the site and shoots a beam of light through a window of the spectacular semicircular Sun Temple, where it forms a perfect illuminated rectangle on a slab of granite. Some believe that the stone – whose surface appears to have been cracked – once held a gold statue of Pachacutec. A more recent twist on Reinhard’s theory posits that the famous Inca Trail, beloved by hikers, was designed as a pilgrimage for those who were preparing to enter Machu Picchu.

Because the Incas left behind so little hard information, we’ll probably never know for certain exactly why Machu Picchu was built. But mystery, along with the gorgeous stonework and mind-blowing scenery, will always be part of the site’s allure. For most people, walking into the ruins of Machu Picchu for the first time is a stirring moment, akin to entering a natural cathedral. For those who arrive understanding a little about its historic and spiritual importance, a trip that might otherwise be a very expensive photo-op can also be a life-changing experience.

Find out more about Machu Picchu and order the book at Mark’s website: markadamsbooks.com.