Building Machu Picchu

Built for Inca royalty around 1450 A.D., Machu Picchu is a grand complex in the Andes mountains of Peru. It was occupied for 80 years, then for hundreds of years lay dormant. Here is a brief look at the ingenuity behind the building of Machu Picchu.

The citadel was an extensive complex with approximately 200 buildings, and housed about 750 people. It covered 80,000 acres (82,500 hectares).

It was roughly divided into an urban sector and an agricultural sector; with a variety of buildings including the royal palace and tomb, residential quarters, religious temples, the cemetery, prison area, and more.

In addition to the 200 buildings, Inca engineers also designed elaborate farming terraces and sophisticated canal irrigation systems. Water was guided through aqueducts into the citadel for use in agriculture and bathing. Pictured below is an indoor water feature with water that still flows.

This photo below of the Royal Tomb highlights the fine workmanship in the granite.

At the time, the buildings were constructed with thatched roofs. The thatching is long gone now, but there are a few buildings where officials revived the thatched roofs to demonstrate what it looked like.

The architecture of this UNESCO World Heritage Site is still admired today. Design incorporated the surrounding topography. With light and its resulting shadows, some designs mimicked the mountain peaks precisely.

This scene shows the parallels between the stone buildings and the mountains.

Building materials also incorporated the surroundings. They used the existing rock, primarily granite, in two basic ways: by chiseling the granite bedrock of the mountain ridge; and cutting granite from nearby quarries, transporting it to the site.

To transport the granite, builders cut it into blocks using nothing more than hard stones and bronze tools. Then hundreds of men, using ropes, logs, poles, levers and ramps, pushed it up the mountain.

Some blocks weighed more than 40 tons.

Amazing Feats #1 and #2: cutting hard granite with stone and bronze tools; and pushing 45-ton granite blocks up a steep mountain.

Elevation at Machu Picchu is 7,970 feet (2,430m). You can see here how steep the mountain is.

Amazing Feat #3, the one I never stopped examining as I stood among the rocks and walls of Machu Picchu: the way the stones fit together.

Once the blocks were pushed up the mountain and into place, builders fine-tuned the blocks until they were perfectly interlocking…so tightly and impeccably fitted that they used no mortar.

This technique, called ashlar masonry, was painstakingly practiced in the most sacred Inca sites.

In the 500+ years since its original construction, the buildings still remain standing, even in this earthquake-prone area.

Below are two of Machu Picchu’s celebrated structures. The first one is the Temple of the Sun, or Torreon, where they worshipped the sun, planets and Inca constellations.

Notice the trapezoidal-shaped windows. This design is prevalent throughout the citadel.

The second structure, below, titled Intihuatana, is what is believed to be an astronomic clock or calendar. It is a ritual stone arranged to point directly at the sun during the winter solstice. Inti was their sun god.

More information:

Machu Picchu Wikipedia

Inca Architecture Wikipedia

Just like the Inca empire, the Machu Picchu citadel was eventually lost to history. The Spanish conquistadors never found it, the reason it was still intact in 1911 when Hiram Bingham, an American lecturer and explorer, discovered it while on an expedition in search of a different site. (Although he was not the first to find it, he was considered the scientific discoverer.)

Beautiful Machu Picchu had been hidden under thick vegetation for hundreds of years.

During my two visits to Machu Picchu, occasionally a grazing llama ambled by, and a particularly enchanting sparrow sang, sealing in the natural beauty and rich history of this remarkable place.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

73 thoughts on “Building Machu Picchu

  1. Fantastic photos. That was a great tour. One of the architects at the office had purchased a photo of the Royal Tomb by a well known photographer many years ago. The the architect visited Machu Picchu and took a photo of the Royal Tomb that was very similar to the one he purchased all those years ago. Alexander has also taken a very similar photo of the Royal Tomb. It’s a timeless composition.

    • As I was composing this post, Timothy, I was thinking about how thrilled architects must be to see something like this site. So I really appreciated hearing about your experiences with the architect and his visit and his appreciation of the Royal Tomb. It is absolutely exquisite. Thanks so much for your comments today, much enjoyed.

  2. Incredible photos! I can’t even begin to imagine how long it took them to build this or how they managed to do so. Human ingenuity is amazing and I feel like we’ve lost so much of that nowadays with technology making things so much easier.

    • Yes, the fortitude and creativity involved in building Machu Picchu is indeed astounding. I’m glad it got your imagination going, Diana, and happy I could share it. Thanks very much.

    • Yes, the water system was truly ingenious, Wayne. They lived way up on the top of that mountain and due to their ingenuity, they had plenty of water for the whole Machu Picchu community. Glad you stopped by, my friend, thank you.

  3. Thanks, dear Jet, for the great pictures and the info.
    Dina went many years ago to Machu Picchu, the rest of us has never been there.
    Wishing you all the best
    The Fab Four of Cley
    🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

  4. That was a neat arm-chair tour, Jet!! It’s amazing that it was inhabited for only 80 years. That’s just not very long is it?

    I love the rainbow over the buildings and mountains, and that Rufous sparrow. It must have been moving being there in person seeing all this and learning about it there instead of from a book.

    • Yes, it was moving to be at Machu Picchu, Deborah, and you’re right, it’s striking how short of a tenure MP had. Athena was very excited about the rainbow photo, so thanks for noticing it. On our first day there, there were a lot of other tourists and we had to stick to the tour guide’s agenda. But then we came back the next day and were able to be out on our own, and then the tour buses left and it was delightfully empty and Athena and I walked all over, taking photos and making observations. That rufous-collared sparrow seemed to sing just for us and it was truly magical. Thanks for your interest, Deborah, much appreciated.

  5. It must have taken a long, long time to build all this stonework. Even to plan it out must have taken some time and skill. So much heavy and dangerous work! It must have been an amazing trip for you.

    • Yes, the stonework did take a long time, though there are differences of opinion as to how long. But the craftsmanship and creativity and planning must’ve been immense. It was a wonderful trip, taken years ago, and truly a delight. Thanks very much Anneli.

  6. Well done post, Jet. MP is an amazing place. I visited it in 1979 when it was just a few buildings and mostly rubble. I backpacked the Inca Trail and pretty much ruined my knees as I recall!
    A lot different nowadays! I saw a pre-Covid post from a couple who visited there and stayed in Aguas Calientes and I couldn’t believe my eyes, the changes were staggering. Progress??

    • I loved hearing about your 1979 visit, Eliza, and I can imagine what you and yours knees went through on the Inca Trail because OMG that is so very challenging. We stayed in Aguas Calientes too, like the couple you read about, which was why we could go back again the next day, which turned out to be a terrific boon. I’ve read there have been many changes at MP over the years, as the tourist trade has grown substantially. Officials, I have read, are working hard on limiting visitors in order to preserve the site, which is great. Many thanks, Eliza.

  7. I’ve been to Macchu Picchu twice in my life. I’m still in awe of the existence of the citadel among the clouds. Ever since my first visit I’ve been trying to figure out how it was built. Through the years what I learned from different studies I think this is a masterpiece of engineering, most likely to surpass whatever we have today. Just to mention a simple example of it: Your 2nd photo from the top shows running water through the granite, where is that water come from? Being so high a steep place the water by gravity would have been at high pressure but it is not. There’s no lake or pond on top of the mountains.The fact that the water was accessible to different parts and at different levels would present a problem to regulate the pressure, Somewhere must be cisterns that collect rainwater to provide water for humans and agriculture.
    The above is just to mention one of many amazing tasks to build the Citadel of Macchu Picchu.
    I loved your post, my friend. Thank you! 🙂

    • Oh I’m so glad I got a glowing report from you on Machu Picchu, H.J., because I remembered you had been there twice and were very fond of this site. I really enjoyed your example of the engineering ingenuity with the water flow. The engineering at this site was truly extraordinary, and just wandering around amidst it brings to mind so very many questions of how things were done. There are many theories, as you have no doubt read about. One theory I read was that something like half of MP is still hidden underground, which is along the lines of what you’re pondering with the cisterns. It is endlessly fascinating, and I’m really glad you have had the supreme honor of visiting there twice. My best to you, and warm thanks, H.J.

    • The altitude was a challenge, to be sure. I rested a lot to catch my breath. We had so much fun with that darling sparrow, it was as if it sought us out and sang of the Machu Picchu magic to us. Great to see you today, Jan. I hope your air quality, like ours, from the Dixie fire clears up soon.

  8. Amazing stuff indeed! It boggles the mind to think of what they accomplished with such primitive tools (and slave labor? I’m guessing. 😒) What a treat to encounter that cocky sparrow.

    • You bring up a good question about the labor, Gunta. Though my facts are sketchy on that, it seems the military at the time required boys and men to work for many years for the royalty. And I agree that it is a mind-boggling accomplishment. That sparrow was a real gift. He kept coming over near us, singing his little heart out. My warmest thanks for your visit today, always a joy.

  9. What a tremendous feat of engineering/construction – always in awe of older technologies and what was achieved. They certainly stand the test of time.
    What a thrill for you to have visited. It’s on a maybe one day list…
    Thanks, Jet!

    • Hi my friend, thanks for stopping by to Machu Picchu today. It is a fascinating place and when I stood among those old but strong rock walls, it was difficult to even imagine what it took to create such a huge construction at the top of those two very tall and isolated mountains. I’m glad I could bring some of the marvel to you, and appreciate your visit. Cheers to a happy weekend for you and Mrs. PC.

    • I loved this comment, Craig, because you are such a writer and always thinking about the future. And oh my, our “disposable lifestyle,” as you so wisely put it, may not show us to be quite as brilliant. I just finished re-reading H.G. Wells The Time Machine and thoughts of the future and past and everything in between is very present in my mind. Many thanks…and cheers.

    • I agree with you on all four counts, Bill. And I’m happy I could share the marvel and beauty with you here. Thanks so much for your weekly visits, they are much appreciated.

  10. Really enjoyed the stunning views and tales of MP. I had not thought about how it would look with roofs on the buildings. That’s a very special photo. I’ve seen documentaries on the stone work. Just incredible.

    • I am glad to hear you liked the roof discussion and photo. They did a few roofs all in one corner of the complex, which was very interesting. Down at the base of the Andes in the Amazon, many of the roofs are thatched and they are surprisingly effective for keeping out the rain. I am really glad you enjoyed the MP post, thanks so much for stopping by, Eilene.

  11. The things we don’t know that amaze us once we learn of them. Although I was aware of Machu Picchu it was just cursory knowledge…until your post. Very informative and Atherna’s photography is very much so as well. The technical expertise of the construction is amazing. A great civilization lost thanks to European adventurism conquest. Great post, Jet!

    • The world has endless information, and you’re right, Steve, much of what we have is cursory knowledge. So I’m really glad I could provide you with this closer look at the marvels of Machu Picchu. I really appreciate your warm comment, thank you.

  12. Oh wow, they sure have fixed it up since I was there!
    Beautiful shots, and I adore the history.
    When I was there, it was not fixed up. We got off the train at kilometre 88 (I think it was 88).
    Then we trekked through the Andes for 6 days, on the same trails the Incas had used. Up all day, and scrambling back down to the tree line before dark to set up that night’s camp.
    I saw the terraces for farming, I bathed in the aqueducts and so much more. On one of our climbs we saw the highest or second highest peak in the Peruvian Andes. I Urubamba River looked like a thread squiggling between trees way way down.
    The descent into Machu Picchu was exhilarating.
    I had an old Brownie Fiesta camera, that a friend gave me while I was in Jamaica. I had only 2 rolls of film.
    I still have the faded pics. Of course they are nothing compared to Athena’s fantastic photos. Thanks for this wonderful post, Jet! Thanks for the memories!

    • What a joy to hear about your Machu Picchu and Inca Trail adventure, Resa. Thanks so much. Six days trekking the Andes and Inca trails is impressive. How very wonderful for you. And bathing in the aqueducts, so incredible. Descending into MP must’ve been almost surreal. Thanks so much for sharing this adventure, it was much appreciated.

  13. This was such a beautiful post, words and photos combined. Athena’s photography is amazing. Absolutely loved the opening shot with the Llama in the forefront and Machu Picchu in the background. It really sets the pace and history of the place. The last shot of the bird with its beak open is equally stunning – it’s almost like its singing a song and hoping for a better tomorrow, or just another day amidst the grey weather. Ashlar masonry sounds like a technique that is hard to master. The builders certainly had skill and patience back in the day.

    Very lucky you got to visit. Thank you for sharing with us 🙂

    • Yes, the marvels of Machu Picchu are many, Mabel, and I agree with you, ashlar masonry is no doubt difficult to master. I am happy you enjoyed the narrative and photos of this post, it was great fun to compose and an honor to share this special place with you. Thanks very much for your visit.

      • Always happy to visit and ‘see’ you, Jet. I always learn so much from your travels and part of the world, and photography perception from Athena. Wishing you well 🙂

    • Hi Jacqui, yes, the location in the peaks of the Andes is another wonderful aspect of Machu Picchu. It is a marvelous site in all ways, and I’m glad I could share it. Thanks for stopping by.

  14. A very fitting tribute to an amazing place. I loved the opening with a llama and the closing with that darling little sparrow! Thanks for sharing it with us!

    • There wasn’t much wildlife way up there in the Andes, but you know us, we’re always happy to see whoever comes along. I’m really glad you enjoyed the Machu Picchu visit today, dear Nan. Thanks so much for visiting.

  15. Thank you for taking me back to Machu Picchu through your beautiful photos. The indoor water feature is incredible. I appreciate the close image of these rocks. The capture of the rainbow over the roof, breathtaking. How wonderful to visite this majestic historical site twice.

    • I really enjoyed your comment, Amy, and am very glad I was able to share the beauty of Machu Picchu with you. I know how much you admire architecture, and think you would enjoy it here. Thanks very much.

  16. Wonderful post, Jet. Great photos showing this marvelous achievement- loved how the water fountain is still running today. Terrific writing, as always. Crossing fingers that we will someday see this in person.

    • I really enjoyed Machu Picchu, and I also enjoyed writing and sharing the post, Jane. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. It’s not an easy place to get to with it being up so high in the mountains, and the numerous tourist restrictions, and the trek to get there. But it was worth it. You would like it, and I know you would get fantastic photos. Thanks so much.

  17. Thanks for this lovely post – the photos capture how the structures seem to echo and complement the spectacular site. It must have been wonderful to be able to explore and enjoy the site when fewer visitors were present. I also particularly like the photo with the rainbow. Although the site is unique the walling reminds me of structures I saw at Delhi and at Great Zimbabwe. At certain points both sites managed to convey a strange sense of something sacred, which Machu Picchu evidently achieves too. And at Delphi the mountains had their own particular power too and I imagine the mountains at Machu Picchu also have that power?

    • Oh so nice to have you stop by, Carol. I enjoyed hearing about Delphi and Great Zimbabwe and did a quick Wiki search to refresh my memory. I was roughly familiar with Delphi but not Great Zimbabwe, and enjoyed looking at both. And yes, they all three have numerous similarities in their mysteries and magnificence. And yes, the surrounding mountains at MP do have a mystical attraction. In some spots you can see all the way down to the Urubamba River at the base. My warmest thanks for your visit and contribution, always a pleasure.

  18. Thank you, Jet. What an inspiration, this tour of Machu Picchu, an amazing site of artistry where construction harmonizes so perfectly with surrounding landforms. An emperor had a special vision, and an army of poor slaves had the manpower, to employ our imaginations centuries down the road. And I love your footnote of the llama and the rufous-collared sparrow– I enjoyed that little singer in many places during my recent visit to CR.

    • I am delighted the Machu Picchu tour offered you inspiration, Walt, as it did for me as I studied and composed it. And how wonderful that you experienced the joy of the rufous-collared sparrow in CR. I have no doubt you were dazzled by the incredible bird species while there. Cheers, my friend, and many thanks for your visits today.

  19. What a fabulous tour jet. It took me back to our own visit and the extraordinary experience of seeing how massive the stones and structures are and how high! To think of the physical effort and ingenuity to create such a place is almost beyond imagination. And yet there it is in all it’s architectural perfection. Can you imagine the surprise of the discovery in the early 1900’s? The definition of gob smacked I’m sure.

    • It was a joy to share the marvels of Machu Picchu with you, Sue, and I’m happy the post brought back the memories of your own visit there. I read a little about Hiram Bingham’s original explorations there and he found a few locals who had used a corner of the grounds for growing vegetables, at first. It would be fun to read more about his exploration as they began to uncover more. Fascinating stuff. My warmest thanks, dear Sue.

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