Inca derring-do Machu Picchu was built
to lastand it did
By Alex Markels Who in their right mind
would construct an estate on an unstable mountain
slope prone to landslides? "A terrible building
site," clucks engineer Kenneth Wright, author
of Machu Picchu: A Civil Engineering Marvel. But
the 15th-century Incas knew what they were doing.
When they built a retreat for their king Pachacuti,
they chose that "terrible" plot based on
the oldest and wisest real-estate maxim in the
world: location, location, location. And they knew
how to build structures that would last an
They also knew how to build with style
and grace. Stonemasons carved and polished the gray
granite building blocks of the terraced, 25-acre
compound until they nearly glowed. Most every room
in the temples and residences had a view--and what a
view it was. Perched 1,640 feet above Peru's
sacred Urubamba River on a narrow ridge that joins
two massive granite peaks, the regal inhabitants
gazed at a cathedral of snowcapped mountains. But
they weren't just nature lovers. The king and
his company returned from royal hunts in the jungle
to feast and dance in an elongated central plaza.
Pachacuti claimed direct descent from old Sol, so
the engineers who built the Inca king's retreat
made sure its every feature glorified his stature.
As the sun moves across the sky, "the whole
place shifts," says Patricia Lyon, an
anthropologist with the Institute of Andean Studies
who spent decades studying the site with her
husband, Inca specialist John Rowe. Because of the
patchwork quilt layout of buildings and walls,
"patterns of light and shadow shift across the
terraces, corners, and doorways, highlighting first
one and then another as if the complex was in a
constant state of reconstruction."
the crumbling Inca Empire abandoned Machu Picchu
amid the Spanish onslaught of the early 16th
century, the masterwork has survived exquisitely
intact (albeit consumed by a jungly thicket).
"The magic of Machu Picchu is unseen,"
says Wright. His recent excavations revealed that
Inca engineers meticulously prepared the site,
laying a coarse layer of rocks beneath the topsoil
and buttressing granite walls with additional stones
so the 79 inches of annual rain wouldn't wash
away the structures. Expert hydrologists as well,
the Incas estimated the runoff from tropical
downpours, then designed a drainage system to
channel water through small holes cut in the rock.
"It's a problem many modern cities
weren't designed to handle," says Wright.
"The Incas thought things through."
That's particularly true of the 16 fountains,
which draw water from a perennial spring a half mile
uphill. With an elegance reminiscent of architect
Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater house, a
carefully constructed canal system channels water
throughout the complex, "so the Inca ladies
could always fill jugs with fresh water," says
Not lost. Machu Picchu spent
centuries in obscurity, but in 1911 American
archaeologist Hiram Bingham rediscovered the
king's compound. He thought it was the
"Lost City"--the traditional birthplace of
the Inca people. Others have surmised that Machu
Picchu was an impenetrable citadel. Neither theory
appears true. Pottery from the site dates from no
earlier than the classical Inca period of the
mid-1450s. And a supposed military barracks turned
out to be a standard community house. Wright's
work, along with that of other scholars, has helped
solidify assertions that Machu Picchu was a royal
retreat from damp, chilly winters in the highland
capital of Cuzco.
A new exhibit, "Machu
Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas,"
supports the idea. Now at the Los Angeles Natural
History Museum, the traveling show includes items
suggesting a long-ago Club Med: the remains of
residents whose skeletons appear unburdened by heavy
labor, a clay flute, a pair of dice.