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    I inadvertently hiked up to Sacsayhuamán when taking the wrong road up to Albergue Municipal. As the first Incan site I visited, Sacsayhuamán impressed me with its large terraces facing Cuzco, well-made stone road leading down to Cuzco, and massive, perfectly fitted stone walls. Sacsayhuamán is a perfect example of the Inca's placement of fortresses and religious structures on apus, or mountain peaks, where they can overlook and protect the settlement below, as well as provide ceremonial centers on the sacred mountain tops. The zigzag, tiered walls would have been difficult for any opponent to attack. As with most Incan sites, however, the Spaniards destroyed much of Sacsayhuamán long before archeologists ever saw it.

    Past Sacsayhuamán, down the road from Cuzco into the Sacred Valley of the Incas, one eventually comes to Pisac. This site is nestled a mountaintop between two gorges, and provides stunning views of the modern village below, as well as the Urubamba River. I hiked up the path from the modern market place, having plenty of time to admire and curse the steep agricultural terraces curving around the mountainside. The Incas only cut a couple stairways through the terraces, and these were scarcely a foot wide, and extremely steep. The terraces themselves were all about four to five feet high. Above the terraces, I followed narrow cliff-hugging trails up to residential and storage structures. In a few places, rounded structures were placed at the very cliff-edge and seemed like defensive watchtowers from which I could see a panoramic view of the Urubamba River Valley. At the top of the site, all the tourists swarm around the ceremonial and elite structures with finer masonry and irrigation for fountains.


Inca Trail
    Down the river from Pisac, past Urubamba and Ollantaytambo (which I regrettably did not visit), I started a four-day hike on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. In reality, the entire hike was an Incan site, since it followed an original Incan road. The entire road was paved in stones and you can clearly tell the Incas did not use wheels. The road was anything but flat, with long sections of gently sloped steps, and paved with uneven stones.

    By hiking this trail, I gained a deep respect for Incan engineers and surveyors. The routes the road took were difficult enough to hike as it was, but the alternatives were clearly worse. It must have taken a lot of long, hard work to plan such a winding, clever road. It would down into the cloud and rainforest and climb up past the tree line to make it through high passes. At one point, the engineers tunneled through the mountainside and at others, a massive terrace was built against the cliff.

    Physically walking the trail gave me appreciation for how the Incas both regulated people traveling on their roads and gave them hospitality. The famous way posts were placed so that they could view important river valleys and mountain passes, enabling them to know someone was coming at least a half hour before they arrived. Also, they were placed so that no matter where you were on the trail, you should be able to get to one of them in a half-day's hike. Larger administrative stations were available within full day's hike, and offered places for the llamas, chicha, and irrigated ceremonial fountains.


    The first Inca Trail site, seen from a distance above, was Patallaqta. A small farming community, it contained about a few dozen residential structures supported by a small terraced agriculture system, just above the valley floor.

    The next site I visited, Runkurakay, was little more than a half-circle fort where travelers could stay in an emergency and a small garrison could keep watch over the two highest passes of the trail: Abra de Warmiwañusqa and Abra de Runkurakay. Runkurakay lacked irrigation and terraces, so a garrison probably temporarily manned it, rather than anyone subsisting there permanently.
    Sayaqmarka was the first clear example of the classic Incan way post I saw. It had enough terraces and irrigation to support a very small resident population, three fountains for visitors to wash in, an open entrance area for llamas, and a several different rooms for either travelers or army personnel. Similar to Runkurakay, the site was placed at an important location on the trail, where you could see the pass approaching it as well as the valley below. The two most impressive elements of this site were the irrigation, which crossed a gap in the mountain by a wooden aqueduct (obviously restored, but still ingenious), and ran through the site on walls and through the floors; and the amount of work the Incas put into building additional terraces on very steep mountainside, to which you could only access by flagstone steps sticking out of the terrace above.
    The last site I visited before Machu Picchu was Wiñaywayna. This site had agricultural terraces to rival Pisac and like Pisac, just one very narrow staircase to access them. The architecture was centered on the far side of the terraces, vertically aligned to the middle of them. Irrigation supplied water to a series of fountains flowing down the terraces to the site, beside the staircase. There were plenty of residences for a small permanent population, typical accommodations for travelers, and a decent view of the surrounding valley. This site did not seem to be located as much for regulation of the roads, since it was slightly offset downhill from the road, and did not have a commanding view of important passes. Instead, it may have helped to supply Machu Picchu with agricultural products.

Machu Picchu
    The Machu Picchu site itself is so large that I was not able to explore the entire place. It begins at Intipunku, the Sun Gate, which is nothing more than that-a gate at the pass that leads down to Machu Picchu. Unfortunately, clouds covered the view of the sacred city from that pass when I was there. About a half hour hike down brings you to the city itself. Machu Picchu is the largest intact Incan site I was able to see, and includes a large terracing system, both architectural and agricultural, plazas and courtyards, industrial areas, residential areas, elite residences, temples, baths, and some unfinished architecture on Huayna Picchu, the nearest mountain peak.

    Machu Picchu's important ceremonial centers include the Sun Temple, which has an uneven stone altar and two precisely cut windows for determining equinoxes, under which a natural cave was carved to create the Royal Tomb. Above this is a plaza containing an elite residence, the Sacristy, and the Temple of the Three Windows, accurately named for three windows looking out on the Urubamba River Valley. Intihuatana, about 70 steps above the plaza, is the highest, and probably most important shrine in Machu Picchu. The center of Intihuatana is an altar carved out of the bedrock of the mountain, the highest point of which makes a sort of sundial for determining the time of year. The whole altar looks deceptively simple and natural, but apparently all of its corners and slopes are astronomically aligned.

    At the time the Incas abandoned Machu Picchu, they were building another site near the top of Huayna Picchu, and had completed a trail through a cave to the peak, a couple residential structures, and some terraces and stairs. Considering the amount of time and energy the Inca put into the Intihuatana, the highest peak of the city itself, I can only imagine what they might have planned for Huayna Picchu.

    Before leaving Machu Picchu, I was able to explore the acoustics of the plazas, from which you can clearly hear a speaker orating in a normal tone of voice from the platform high above. I also explored the extensive residential buildings opposite the plazas from the ceremonial centers, but they were no more spectacular than those at Pisac or Wiñaywayna.

Click the picture below to see the view from the Hut of the Caretaker of the Funerary Rock:

©2002 Joseph Holler -