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A Closer Look: 7 Must-See Sights at Machu Picchu

Since Machu Picchu became known to the Western world, it’s become a symbol of the unknowable past—a massive feat of construction built entirely by hand in the high mountains of Peru. Today, a UNESCO World Heritage site, Machu Picchu was designed and built in the 15th century as a royal estate for Inca emperor Pachacútec. He and his family held court for part of the year at this spectacular sanctuary where they also performed key religious rituals. The complex has about 200 structures, each with layers of cultural significance. To better understand how the Inca lived and worshipped, take a closer look at these must-see sights.


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The Sun Gate

Known as Inti Punku, this is how the Inca entered the site from Cusco, capital of the empire, and is still the entrance today for those who make the trek on the Inca Trail. Elevated an additional 300 meters above the main complex, its remote location suggests that entry to Machu Picchu was heavily guarded, and only those the emperor allowed in passed through this door dedicated to the worship of the Sun God or “Inti.” During the winter solstice, the door is illuminated by the sun, and it provides a wonderful view of the complex on any clear day. The moderately difficult hike to see the Sun Gate is well worth the effort, and visiting at sunrise is a popular choice.

Intihuatana

One of many objects of both religious and astronomical significance located in the ritual area of the site, the Intihuatana (frequently translated as “hitching post of the sun”) points directly at the sun on the winter solstice, and was part of how the Incas tracked the passage of time and the dates of religious rituals. Large carved boulders like this one have been found throughout the Inca empire, and express a very real connection between supernatural forces and earthly events—anthropologists theorize this particular one was believed to hold the sun in its path across the sky as it reached its furthest point from the Earth during the winter solstice. 

Temple of the Sun

Also called the Observatory, the unique semi-circular construction of this building makes it easy to spot at Machu Picchu. The curved granite blocks are beautifully finished in the Imperial style, sitting on top of a natural cave lined with masonry and possibly used as a mausoleum. It would have been an inspiring sight covered in its original gold embellishments, gleaming in the sun at the high point of the ritual section. The windows in the Observatory’s rounded walls indicate that they were used to calculate the June solstice, as well as the location of important constellations, while the central space and the cave below would have hosted several types of priestly rituals, making offerings to the sun as well as possibly acknowledging the underworld or the earth itself in the underground space. 

Stairway of the Fountains

It’s tempting to romanticize Machu Picchu as an exotic remnant of a bygone civilization, but in its own time, it served not just esoteric needs, but also the very practical urban concerns of housing hundreds of people within its limits that are perfectly relatable to anyone living today. Practicalities like terraced gardens (one of the oldest forms of farming known to humankind) fed hundreds of people, while the Stairway of the Fountains provided a steady stream of water throughout the complex. This cleverly engineered hydraulic system brought water from two springs a half-mile away through a system of channels to 16 public fountains (including one massive waterfall reserved for the emperor, Pachacuti Inka Yupanqui). Not only did it create a clean and reliable public water supply, the unique system ultimately helped protect the hillside from erosion, even during floods and rains. 

The Watchman’s Hut

Located next to the cemetery and just a five-minute walk from the entrance to Machu Picchu, this perfect lookout point provides sweeping views of the agricultural section as well as the peaks beyond. It's a great way to get oriented as you begin your journey through the site. Just beside the Watchman’s Hut is the Funerary Rock, another large carved boulder with no known purpose. Theories about its use include mummification before funerary ceremonies, as well as animal sacrifices, but that doesn’t seem to bother the llamas that generally roam free in this area, grazing happily and posing for photos. 

Huayna Picchu

Located 2,400 meters above sea level, the design of Machu Picchu thoughtfully weaves the stunning Andean landscape into design. One of the notable peaks directly behind the complex is Huayna Picchu, which means “Young Peak” in Quechua. Huayna Picchu provides some challenges, as it’s a steep hike with some sections that will require using your hands, as well as sections that include railings and cables for support, but anyone who is comfortable hiking at altitude and doesn’t fear heights should be able to reach the 1,000 foot peak in about an hour. You’ll be well rewarded with a bird's-eye view of Machu Picchu’s architecture and a true sense of scale of the complex against its magnificent natural setting.

The Temple of the Three Windows

One of the best preserved and most impressive structures in the whole site, the Temple of the Three Windows is the first of three buildings that comprise, what Hiram Bingham described as, the “Sacred Plaza.” Archaeologists argue over the idea that the windows represent three aspects of the Inca world view—the underground (Uku-Pacha), the heavens (Hanan-Pacha), and the present time (Kay-Pacha). As you peer through them and take in the breathtaking views, you’ll likely be inspired to ponder these spiritual concepts too. While there you can also consider the sheer feats of engineering that occurred centuries ago—this temple is made up of much larger blocks of stone, some weighing more than 3 tons!

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