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Inca Trail and Machu Picchu Day 4, Peru

Updated: May 9, 2021

Dave and I had an extra early start to Day 4. Dave got sick sometime between 1:00 and 2:00am. We spent the next few hours parked outside the bathroom. Fortunately by 3:30am when everyone else woke-up, he had started to feel better. We ate a light breakfast, packed our supplies, and then walked to the Machu Picchu access control checkpoint. Marco wanted us to be one of the first teams at the check point (4:30am) so we would be out front for the final leg of the Inca Trail, the trek to Intipunku 'Sun Gate'. We wanted to be one of the first teams at the Sun Gate for sunrise (5:36am).

Not many pictures this morning. It was pitch black at the start and once we cleared the checkpoint it was off to the races with a adrenaline inspired quick pace. Each team wanted to be first and get the best views thru the Sun Gate. Few words were spoken; everyone was focused on the trail.

It was less than 2 miles (<1 hour hiking) to the Sun Gate, but the last stretch involved climbing an almost vertical flight of 50 stairs known by our group as the ‘Gringo Busters’. Rightfully named since many people have to use their hands to pull themselves up. Fortunately, we completed this section rather quickly and almost all at the same time.

Intipunko (Sun Gate)

Again no pictures......we had to stay focused! We reached the gate before sunrise, but were greeted by fog that completed obscured the sun and any view of Machu Picchu (MP). Intipunku was once the main entrance to MP from the city of Cusco. The gate was strategically built so that on the summer solstice, the rising sun would pass directly through the gate. Gerry celebrating at the Sun Gate.

The fog didn't dampen our spirits. We still reveled in our accomplishment and enjoyed the environment and the feeling of what we had accomplished together. In hindsight, maybe it was good to be fogged in. Many people describe a mad scene at the Sun Gate with people pushing to set up their cameras and tripods, record their blogs, etc. Without the 'epic view' it was quiet and peaceful. From the pictures below, you would never know Dave had been sick almost the entire night before. He is so competitive and being tired and probably dehydrated was not going to slow him down this morning.

Sometime during the 30-minute walk down to MP the fog began to lift and we got a glimpse of Hyana Picchu and the ruins. MP was built between 1460 and 1470. It was mainly constructed during the reign of the great Inca ruler Pachacutec (1438–1471). Archaeologists believe Pachacutec ordered the construction of a royal estate for himself, most likely after a successful military campaign. Though MP was considered to be a royal estate, surprisingly, it would not have been passed down in the line of succession. Rather it was used for 80 years and then mysteriously abandoned.

The fog and cloud cover didn’t completely lift until we approached the Watchman's Hut which sits at the end of the Inca Trail and the entrance to the MP complex. It coincidentally also provided one of the best views. Yes, this is the picture everyone takes but when you are standing there looking over the complex it's hard to comprehend how this massive complex could have been built. How was this even possible?

A short panoramic video of Machu Picchu

Agricultural Sector

Here is a view looking up at the agricultural sector and the perfectly constructed terraces. There are about 700 such terraces in the complex. The thatched roof of the Watchman's Hut is visible at the top of these terraces.

Aside from agricultural production, the terraces were also built for defense against landslides and erosion caused by the 76 inches of rain received each year. The terraces were supported by rock retaining walls to help stabilize the mountain soil and slopes. A subsurface investigation revealed a vast underground drainage system, 6-9 feet below ground, consisting of granite waste rock that safely carried rainwater off the slopes. Llamas, not the least bothered by the daily tourist onslaught, roam the area.

Here was our first great photo op. Such a powerful moment - the incredible views more meaningful after our tough 3+ day journey to this spot. By now the sun was out, but the clouds provided a mystical background.

Main Entrance and the Urban Sector

We left the agricultural sector and walked through the main gate that marked the entrance to the city complex. In the picture below, you can see people queued to walk through the main gate located in the wall that separates the terraces from the urban sector.

The upper complex of buildings in this area probably housed the Inca elite. Recent studies suggest MP was relatively small by Inca standards supporting a population of only about 500-750 people. Notice the quality of the construction - carefully stacked field stones set with mud mortar. Exterior walls commonly sloped inwards and trapezoidal doors and window openings were intentional. These construction methods made the the Inca buildings extremely earthquake resistant.

Here's a view of the upper section of the urban sector composed of the residential dwellings (top left corner) and a few of the religious and ceremonial temples.

Temple of the Sun and Royal Tomb

Located in the center of the urban sector was the Temple of the Sun, one of the most important buildings in MP that was only accessible to priests and higher elites. For such an important temple it's a relatively small D-shaped semicircular building. The temple had 3 windows, one facing north and two facing east (pictures below). The east-facing window was oriented so that on the winter solstice (June 21st) sunlight from the window illuminated the sacred center rock in the temple floor. What a feat to accurately predict the sun's movement and then correctly position the window for that one day each year. The Inca's solar and astronomy knowledge was staggering. Unfortunately, the temple is roped off to prevent entry but even from outside it's so impressive.

The temple was built on solid rock. An existing granite block, defined the natural curve of the temple walls and served as a structural foundation for the temple walls. Beneath the temple is a cave known as the Royal Tomb. Although no graves or human remains were found here, historians believe it may have served as the crypt for the mummified corpses of the city's most important residents.

It's not a great picture with the glare coming off the smooth rock surface but it does provide a look into the Royal Tomb entrance. The internal walls of the tomb are covered by stones that are perfectly joined and in these walls there are four trapezoidal niches, the size of doors. There is also an Inca cross carved from one rock wall. The cross resembles a series of large steps and represents the three levels of existence in the Inca world. The first step, symbolized by the snake, represents the underworld or death. The second step represents the present, human life, and is symbolized by the jaguar. The highest step represents the celestial/spiritual plane of the gods, and is symbolized by the condor.

Not only does the temple feature the curved outer wall (a rarity in Inca construction), but also the finest stonework in all of MP. The Incas built their structures using a technique called 'Ashlar'. Oddly-shaped stones were cut and fitted together like jigsaw puzzle pieces without mortar so that even a needle could not be inserted between the stones. The Ashlar technique allowed the stones to dance during an earthquake and then return exactly to the same spot after it. This picture was taken of the wall located just to the west of the Temple of the Sun, across from the end of the temple’s curved wall. Bingham called this the 'perfect wall'.

Dave standing in a 'double jamb doorway' near the temple. These double jamb doorways indicated an entrance to an important site. Look at the construction, it's easy to see how these buildings and doorways survived earthquakes over the centuries.

Temple of Three Windows

The Temple of the Three Windows is located in the Sacred Plaza. The main wall of this rectangular building contains three windows overlooking the mountains. The windows are believed to represent the three worlds of the Inca civilization: Uku-Pacha the underground; Kay-Pacha the present; and Hanan Pacha the heavens. This picture does not do justice to the massive stones used to construct the windows.

A view from the front of the temple. Look at the size and shape of the stones that form the windows and the intricate layout.

Courtesy of South American Vacations

Principal Temple

Adjacent to the Temple of the Three Windows is the Principal/Main Temple. Due to its large size and prominent location on the Sacred Plaza, many archaeologists believe the Principal Temple was one of the main public temples, where large ceremonies would have taken place. Due to soil movement and not to construction flaws, one corner of the temple has been damaged. Its huge stone blocks twisting out of place.

The Pyramid of Inihuatana

Intihuatana is a ritual stone in South America associated with the Inca's astronomic clock or calendar. The most notable of all Intihuatana is located in MP. The name of the stone (coined perhaps by Hiram Bingham) is derived from Quechua: inti means "sun", and wata- is the verb root "to tie, hitch up" The Quechua -na suffix derives nouns for tools or places. Hence inti watana is literally an instrument or place to "tie up the sun""

The MP's Intihuatna is perhaps the most significant ritual site within the complex, It was located at the summit of a natural pyramid whose slopes were converted into terraces (pictured below).

The Intihuatana is a monolithic structure carved from one solid piece of gray granite that protrudes from the mountain top. It is approximately 5 feet tall and 3 feet in diameter. At one end stands an upright 8 inch square pillar whose four sides align perfectly with the four cardinal points: North, South, East and West.

The Intihuatana was designed to hitch the sun during the two equinoxes. At midday on March 21st and September 21st, the sun stands almost directly above the pillar, creating no shadow at all. At this precise moment the sun 'sits with all his might upon the pillar' and is for a moment is 'tied' to the rock. During these times, the Incas held ceremonies at the stone in which they 'tied the sun' to halt its northward movement in the sky.

A chair or throne was carved into the Intihuatana probably to allow the high priest or Inca ruler to sit and watch celebrations and rituals.

Attribution: Alesegura [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]

Central Plaza

A path from the Pyramid of Intihuatana led down to the Central Plaza and the expansive lawna. This square or plaza was probably used for important celebrations and rituals involving large numbers of people. The plaza also served to separate the Sacred Plaza and Intihuatana from the residential areas on the far side of the complex. High ranking Inca probably took residence in the west side of the plaza close to the important temples while teachers, craftsman, etc. lived in the area to the east of the plaza as pictured below. This use of plazas for social as well as spatial reasons was common in most Inca cities.

Temple of the Condor

The Temple of the Condor is an excellent example of Inca stone masonry. The builders took a natural rock formation shaped by the elements millions of years ago, and skillfully shaped it into the outspread wings of a condor in flight. On the floor of the temple you can see a rock carved in the shape of the condor's head and neck feathers, this section of the rock makes up the figure of a three-dimensional bird.

The condor was sacred, mystical bird, a deity to the Incas. Historians speculate that the head of the condor was used as a sacrificial altar. Directly behind this temple stands a prison complex complete with human-sized niches as well as an underground labyrinth. So maybe there was a link between the altar and the prisoners?

Random pictures from MP

Peter and Catriona George and Karlie

Celebrating after 26.5 miles of trekking together. Standing: Catriona, Eve, Steve, Dave, George, Karlie, Larson & Lydia. Kneeling: Peter, Marco, Local Guide & Gerry

About 3/4 through the day, the lack of sleeping and eating had finally caught up with Dave, but we took a lunch break and that was all he needed to bounce back.

Final thoughts

The Incas were a religious people that revered nature and the gods that shaped it. Consider how the Inca architects blended structures into nature and general landscape especially for three of the most sacred site.

1. the Temple of the Sun stands on a huge granite rock;

2. the Intihuatana stone is cut right from the mountain;

3. the Temple of the Condor uses natural stone to create the impression of wings.

There is so much about Machu Picchu that we don't understand. Why it was abandoned in a sudden and mysterious manner? One romanticized explanation was that Machu Picchu was unknown to the lower castes and knowledge of the route prohibited for anyone who was not part of the inner small circle of Inca elites and ruling family members. It's also possible that most of its inhabitants died from smallpox introduced by travelers before the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the area. Whatever the reason we are lucky it happened. The Spanish were interested in Inca gold, not culture, so almost nothing was left of the Inca civilization after the Spanish Conquest. In fact, the Spanish tried to eliminate traces of the Inca, especially their temples and sacred places. However, the Spanish did not know about Machu Picchu, since it had already been abandoned. It remained unknown to the outside world until Hiram Bingham rediscovered Machu Picchu in 1911 and brought it to international attention.

I wish we had taken more videos of Machu Picchu but I think after 4 days we were both pretty exhausted and that contributed to the lack of videos.

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