Machu Picchu isn’t just an archaeological wonder: It’s also an architectural masterpiece. With more than 200 buildings that we know of, intelligently divided into urban and agricultural sectors and an upper town and lower town, there are no finer examples of Inca planning and construction.
As you take a tour of Machu Picchu, you’ll see a number of highlighted structures. These are the most important buildings at Machu Picchu — including temples and ritual centers — and your guide should at least give a brief explanation of what they are. But if you want to learn more before you go, here’s an introduction to all the main structures at Machu Picchu.
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The Inti Watana, or Intiwatana, is one of the strangest and most enigmatic structures at Machu Picchu. Known as the “hitching post of the sun,” many archaeologists believe this carved stone structure served as some kind of sundial or calendar. Similar structures are found at other important Inca sites, but many were deliberately damaged by the Spanish conquistadores.
On June 21 — the winter solstice in the southern hemisphere — the Inti Watana stone casts its longest shadow, spilling out along its southern flank. Conversely, on December 21, the summer solstice, a far more truncated shadow is cast on the northern side. The sun god, Inti, was among the most revered gods of the Inca civilization. During the winter solstice, when it appeared the sun was at risk of drifting away, never to return, a high priest would perform a ritual at the Inti Watana, ensuring the sun would reappear for another year.
Temple of the Sun
The Temple of the Sun is one of the most important structures at Machu Picchu. Only priests and higher nobles were permitted to enter, with no commoners allowed inside. The temple’s structure mixes man made and natural features. The most striking feature is the Torreón (“tower” or “turret”), with its semicircular outer wall — a rarity in Inca construction. A natural outcrop of rock inside the Torreón may have served as a ritual alter, while windows within the walls of the tower are aligned to the summer and winter solstices. Beneath the Torreón lies a natural cave with carved walls, which Hiram Bingham described as a mausoleum. Another theory argues that this cave was a ritual center in honor of Pachamama (Mother Earth).
Temple of the Condor
The Temple of the Condor shows the artistry and creativity of Inca stonemasons. Take a few steps back from the temple’s entrance and you’ll begin to make out an actual condor, wings outspread, appearing before you. Its wings are formed by two diagonal outcrops of rock rising up above the temple entrance, with the condor’s head and beak carved into a smooth, flat rock on the ground. The cave inside the temple was likely used for rituals. The condor’s head may have served as an altar.
Temple of the Three Windows
The Temple of the Three Windows (also known as the Room of the Three Windows) is situated on Machu Picchu’s Sacred Plaza. The main wall of this sturdy rectangular building contains three windows that overlook the mountains surrounding Machu Picchu. The windows are aligned to the sunrise. When Bingham first excavated the temple, he and his team found shards of smashed pottery beneath the temple floor, likely broken as part of ritual ceremonies inside the Temple of the Three Windows.
Adjacent to the Temple of the Three Windows is the Principal Temple (sometimes known as the Main Temple). Due to its large size and prominent location on the Sacred Plaza, many archaeologists believe the Principal Temple was one of the main public temples at Machu Picchu, where large ceremonies would have taken place. Due to soil movement and sinking, one corner of the temple has been damaged, its huge stone blocks twisting out of place. Nonetheless, it remains an impressive structure of obvious prestige and importance.
The Guardhouse, also known as the Caretaker’s Hut, isn’t one of the more important structures at Machu Picchu, at least not in any ritual or ceremonial context. It was, however, an important building for security and defense. The building sits on a terraced hill overlooking the Sacred Plaza, and served as a strategic watchtower over two main entrances to Machu Picchu. The popular panoramic photo of Machu Picchu that most tourists take is often snapped from near the Guardhouse.
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Tony Dunnell is a freelance writer based in Peru since 2009. He’s the owner of New Peruvian and also writes for various magazines and websites. When he’s not walking his dog in the jungle town of Tarapoto, he’s off exploring other parts of Peru and South America.