What most people miss at Machu Picchu
Equally impressive, if much less famous, is Intimachay. The name, a modern coinage, means “cave of the sun”. This cavern, situated just below the main ruins in a spot rarely visited by tourists, was fitted with a handsome eastern-facing wall containing a single window. For 49 weeks of the year, no light enters the cave’s deepest recesses. At sunrise during the 10 days before and after the summer solstice in December, however, the sun’s first rays briefly shine through the window and illuminate Intimachay’s rear wall. The purpose of this Raiders of the Lost Ark-esque light show is still unknown.
The Intipunku, or Gate of the Sun, is usually associated with hiking the Inca Trail. Virtually every package tour climaxes with a dramatic dawn arrival at this entrance, timed to witness the sunrise. What few outfitters mention is that Machu Picchu is usually misty at that hour, so the views are often anticlimactic.
You are better off visiting Intipunku during midday, when the crowds from Cusco are elbowing their way up the staircase to the Intihuatana stone. The 60- to 90-minute uphill walk runs from the centre of the ruins along a stone path that is actually the tail end of the fabled Inca Trail. The gate, a set of tall stone columns, was once probably a checkpoint for arrivals from Cusco and beyond. The big payoff is the view back toward the main ruins. Sans the mist, it is the best angle for photos of Machu Picchu.
The Rock Quarry
This large space, littered with cut granite chunks of varying sizes, should be impossible to miss. It is located right between the two popular Machu Picchu attractions, the Sacred Plaza and the Temple of the Sun. Yet thousands of visitors pass through each day without pausing.
What at first glance appears to be a jumble of boulders was probably a workshop where expert stonecutters practiced their trade. (One chunk of granite has been carved into almost-finished steps.) Another large stone, known as Serpent Rock, has snakes etched into its top surface. A recent theory proposes that the Inca Trail was a pilgrimage that concluded within the walls of Machu Picchu; if so, the quarry may have had a sacred meaning as a representation of the creation myth, in which the first Incas emerged after an underground journey.
You will not need to mount an expedition like Hiram Bingham’s to appreciate Machu Picchu, but you will probably spend months planning your trip and at least a few weeks’ pay getting there. So take your time and put in a little extra effort toward a memorable exploration of your own.
Mark Adams is the author of the new book Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time