by J. McKim Malville

Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences, University of Colorado

Hugh Thomson

MA (Cantab), FRGS

Gary Ziegler

FEC, Department of Anthropology, Colorado College, FRGS

from HughThomson Website


This is a longer English version of the article that was first published in the Revista Andina (2004, #39), with the title:


‘El Redescubrimiento de Llactapata, Antiguo Observatorio de Machu Picchu’


The article was accompanied by peer-reviews of the findings by R. Tom Zuidema, Jürgen Golte, Peter Kaulicke and Vincent Lee.

















Despite its relative proximity to Machu Picchu, Llactapata is a site that has been very little investigated since its first reporting by Hiram Bingham in 1912.


In May 2003 a thorough survey of the site was made by a research team led by Hugh Thomson and Gary Ziegler, accompanied by Kim Malville, Professor Emeritus of The University of Colorado. The expedition was supported and approved by the Royal Geographical Society of London.


The expedition made a systematic exploration of the ridge and mountain slope of Llactapata, which lies on the western side of the Aobamba drainage facing Machu Picchu.[1]


A primary objective was to study what may be called ‘Hiram Bingham's Llactapata group’, which it appeared had not properly been relocated since his initial reporting of the site in 1912.


Another objective was to determine whether there were any further as yet unreported sectors of the site.


A further objective was to map properly for the first time the full extent of the extended Llactapata site, with these multiple sectors, and produce detailed plans of each sector, and interpret the relationship of Llactapata to Machu Picchu, given recent archaeo-astronomical work there.


Field-work established that the size and importance of Llactapata has been greatly underestimated in the past, and that its alignment and relationship to Machu Picchu is central to any interpretation of the site.


See map.


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The first published account of Llactapata was by Hiram Bingham as part of his article on Machu Picchu for National Geographic, ‘In the Wonderland of Peru’ (Bingham 1913).


While the clearance and excavation of Machu Picchu was taking place in 1912, Bingham had sent various reconnaissance teams into the surrounding area to look for further Inca sites.


A team led by his assistant Kenneth Heald attempted to head up the Aobamba valley, but met with ‘almost insuperable difficulty’, as ‘the jungle was so dense as to be almost impassable.  There was no trail and the trees were so large and the foliage so dense that observations were impossible even after the trail had been cut.’  Heald’s team were further discouraged when an arriero was almost bitten by a poisonous snake.


Bingham himself then attempted to investigate the area and, in his own words, ‘got into the reaches of the valley about ten days later, and found some interesting ruins… The end of that day found us on top of a ridge between the valleys of the Aobamba and the Salcantay.’[2]


Here Bingham reported a site called ‘Llactapata, the ruins of an Inca castle’:

‘We found evidence that some Inca chieftain had built his castle here and had included in the plan ten or a dozen buildings.’

In his later re-writing of this account for Lost City of the Incas (1948), Bingham commented that Llactapata ‘may well have been built by one of Manco’s captains.  It was on a strategic spot.’


After mapping and photographing the site, Bingham pressed on rapidly up the valley to the site of Palcay which lies at the head of the Aobamba valley.  He had spent just five daylight hours there.


One might think that Bingham would have both spent more time examining the site, but he was handicapped in that he had a most unwilling team with him:  three arrieros who had been pressed into service by a local landowner as a service to Bingham and who seem to have caused him considerable difficulty.  His published account spends far more time lamenting their deficiencies than describing the ruins themselves.  Later in the same journey they eventually deserted him.


Bingham’s decision to move on rapidly is also of a piece with his previous actions when he first saw Machu Picchu, in 1911: again he initially spent just a few hours at the site before heading on rapidly to his next objective.  Only later did he send a team back to clear the site.  A certain impatience was characteristic of the man.


In this case he clearly decided that the difficulties of returning to Llactapata for further investigation were prohibitive, although he seems to have regretted this, commenting:

‘It would be interesting to excavate for three or four weeks and get sufficient evidence in the way of shreds and artefacts to show just what connection the people who built and occupied this mountain stronghold had to the other occupants of the valley.’

(Bingham 1913)

Unfortunately he left few published details for anyone who might want to return to the site to do just that.  Both the map published with the 1913 magazine article and his account are imprecise:  ‘the end of that day found us on top of a ridge between the valleys of the Aobamba and the Salcantay’ gives little indication of where exactly he was between two long and densely covered valleys.  The same difficult vegetation that had defeated Bingham’s assistant Heald still characterizes the area, and without proper compass bearings or directions, no further expeditions reported on it.


Nor did they have much inclination to do so.  Bingham’s decidedly half-hearted and incomplete account of it would have given them little incentive.


The slight nature of Bingham’s account of Llactapata must be set in its literary context.  The same National Geographic report, ‘In the Wonderland of Peru’, contains the first descriptions of Machu Picchu itself, of Vitcos and of Bingham’s discoveries at Espíritu Pampa.  Given that any one of these by themselves would have constituted a major discovery, it is perhaps understandable that he did not devote as much attention to Llactapata as he might otherwise have done.


For the next seventy years (1912 – 1982), there were no published accounts of the site.  In 1982 David Drew of the Cusichaca Project, which was coordinated by Ann Kendall, went back to the area, together with a small reconnaissance team including Hugh Thomson.  Ascending directly from Suriray in the Santa Teresa valley, they crossed over a ridge into the Aobamba valley and found some sites in the area immediately on the Aobamba side.


They reported one sector of buildings (now described as Sector II) that while similar in size to that indicated by Bingham, and in the same rough area suggested by Bingham’s vague description, did not match his published plan of the site (Drew 1982).  They also reported finding a higher two-storey building on the ridge above (Sector V; the ‘Overlook Building’), and 2 small groups of buildings between Sectors I and IV.


Drew commented:

‘At Llactapata, the fact that none of the four different groups of ruins discovered on reconnaissance match those found by Bingham would suggest that further remains are still to be found in the montaña here and that the site is considerably larger than Bingham first imagined.’ (Drew 1982)

Then in 1985 Johan Reinhard passed over the site of Llactapata while investigating the Inca trail that leads northwards from Palcay along a ridge of Mt Salcantay (Reinhard 1990).  While he did not try to investigate the main sectors of Llactapata, he reported coming across a substantial building on the ridge-line above, at 3,037m /9,960 ft:  ‘the ruins of a large structure or series of structures that have a nice view towards Machu Picchu’.  Reinhard mapped the building.  He also reported that looting had taken place at the site:  ‘Some digging had been done here, including one hole dug recently, i.e. possibly within the past year.’

From further investigation by the recent expedition, this appears to have been part of the overall Llactapata site and may well have functioned as a qolqa (storehouse) for the residential / administrative sectors below.  It is described as Sector IV of the overall site.


In 2002, Hugh Thomson went to consult the unpublished journals of Hiram Bingham, which are held at the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University, and the collection of unpublished photographs held on card index by the Peabody Museum.


He found that Bingham had left a more detailed record of his investigations at Llactapata than had ever been published.


Bingham’s handwritten journal records that on August 1st 1912 he left the hacienda of Huadquiña at 7.30 in the morning and arrived at ‘Surirai’ at 9.00.  The modern hamlet of Suriray lies in the Santa Teresa (Salcantay) valley, so Bingham had decided to approach the Aobamba / Santa Teresa ridge from that side, after Heald’s difficulties in the Aobamba.


At Suriray he scribbled hastily in his notebook: ‘men here speak of ruins:  Llactapata ruins; Cochapata - laguna; Mishihuauncalugar;  Palcai – old pueblo;  Pampacahuana – best ruins of all.’


By 9.30 he had reached a hut 600 ft above Suriray, noting that ‘quite a little coffee’ was being grown in the small holdings he passed.


By 12.00, after a ‘hard climb’, he reached a clearing at the top of the ridge and met Marcello Añanca ‘who lives at Llactapata’.  (There is still a small holding on the top of the ridge today, near Sector V).  By 12.35, presumably having descended over the ridge, he saw the ruins which ‘lie at 9100 ft, i.e. 1100 ft higher than MP [Machu Picchu]’. 


He remarked on ‘the wonderful view’ and that the snow peak of Salcantay was visible.


The photographic evidence supplements the details left in his journal (see Thomson 2002 for full discussion of Bingham’s use of the camera).  Bingham published just one photograph of Llactapata in his original National Geographic article ‘In the Wonderland of Peru’ (Bingham 1913), and none subsequently.  However the Peabody Museum has a full archive of all the photographs taken by the Yale Expeditions, and these include six unpublished prints of the Llactapata site:

The first picture Bingham took (#2850), at 1.00 on August 1912, was of the ‘wonderful view’ he had mentioned in his journal ‘looking towards Machu Picchu and the Torontoy massif’.  Clearly the unusual sighting of Machu Picchu impressed him more at first that the actual ruins themselves, as it did for later visitors (Thomson 2001). 


Bingham had just come from Machu Picchu and the careful sight-line positioning of his newly cleared discovery on a distant ridge to the east must have struck him forcibly.  Ironically too, given that our interpretation suggests that Llactapata was closely affiliated to Machu Picchu, Bingham’s last act before leaving that site on July 30th had been to intercept a group of huaqueros, treasure-hunters, who had gone there in search of a ‘Greater Machu Picchu’ that might lie beyond it (cf #2838).

#2852 is of the view to the south, showing Mt. Salcantay from Bingham’s camp-site.  From both these pictures, and the subsequent ones, #2853 and #2854, it seems that his campsite was on the small pampa that the present expedition also used, just below the Sector 2 ruins, of which one wall is visible.  However Bingham did not document or record Sector 2 in any way, and it may well be that in the very limited time he had available, he was not able to clear it.  From the subsequent pictures he took, #2854, #2855 and #2856, it is clear that the surrounding vegetation was as thick as it is today.  With just three arrieros and a few hours of daylight remaining, Bingham would not have managed to see much.


Perhaps because of this, Bingham seems not to have appreciated the architectural features of the site:  his caption to one picture, #2855, reads baldly:  ‘the corner of another house with Bartolo, one of the Indians who deserted later.’  Used also to the granite of Machu Picchu, he did not appreciate the metamorphic rock used at Llactapata, which cannot be cut as finely as granite but which, as at Choquequirao, would have been plastered.


It is worth noting  that one reason this region so close to Machu Picchu has been relatively ignored is that the Inca architecture does not appear as impressive as that of Machu Picchu and the upper Urubamba region. Machu Picchu is constructed from a local fine-grained, white granite, while most Vilcabamba sites to the west were built from a fragile, metamorphic material that could not be shaped polygonally, or easily rounded. The result is a rather crude appearing, coursed construction, consisting of flat slabs and blocks joined with mortar. However, the evidence shows that walls were coated inside and out with a light-coloured clay hiding the stonework beneath a smooth attractive coating. This was first mentioned by Ziegler at the Vilcabamba site, Choquequirao, as a possible reason why this major Inca complex may not have been given its proper importance by investigators (Ziegler 2001).


Bingham determined to press on to Palcay and the other sites he had been told about below at Suriray.  The next day, August 2nd, he rose at 5.40, noted that the clouds were rising rapidly from below and that Machu Picchu was in the clouds.  At 7.45 the sun burnt off the clouds and he left camp at 8.05.  At 8.45, ‘after passing through dense jungle’, he reported finding ‘the stone walled ruin of a single house, about 11 by 15 ft’, which seemed from the hole in its centre to have been looted.


He then arrived at the ‘small, apparently shallow lake’ of Cochapata, about 150 ft long by 75 ft wide, at an altitude of 10,600 ft.  At 11,000 ft he noted seeing violets.  His big strong white mule fell backwards and its cargo had to be carried by the porters (Bingham did not record the hostile porters’ reaction to this additional load).  He spent that night on ‘a grassy slope on the side of the mountain at about 15,000 ft’, near to a small spring’, before proceeding towards Palcay.


From the above description, it seems that when Bingham left Llactapata, he travelled back up to the ridge dividing the Santa Teresa and Aobamba valleys, and skirted along the ridge on the Santa Teresa valley side (where there are still areas of bog and thick vegetation) before crossing a high pass back into a steep-walled valley of the higher Aobamba.   Palcay lies at the head of the Aobamba valley.  (Reconnaissance teams from the recent May 2003 expedition retraced part of this route).


Bingham’s field journal contains several sketch maps of the Llactapata site with some details he never published:  the area in front of the double recessed doorway he marked as an ‘open plaza facing Machu Picchu’, and he indicated that there was ‘a sunken alley’ beside it.


Most important of all, in his journal he recorded compass bearings from the site.  These have likewise never been published before: 

  • Machu Picchu sacred plaza bears 52° degrees.

  • Machu Picchu Heights [Mt Machu Picchu]  67°.

  • Huaina Picchu Heights [Mt Huaynu Picchu]  45°.’

This information prompted the initiative to try to re-locate ‘Bingham’s Llactapata’, and establish clearly how extensive the site was.


See map.


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In 2003, Hugh Thomson returned to Llactapata with Gary Ziegler, with whom he had previously collaborated on several previous field expeditions, including the first clearing and site description of Cota Coca (Thomson 2001, Thomson & Ziegler 2002) The expedition arrived in Cusco in late April 2003.  The primary work  - aerial flights and then investigation by land - was accomplished during May. 


Further investigation into the orientation of some sectors at Llactapata was carried out in June, at the time of the solstice;  further study of the correlating features between newly reported sites at Llactapata with structures at Machu Picchu and the Coricancha in Cusco was undertaken during July and August.  Gary Ziegler and John Leivers conducted additional exploration during May of 2004.


In early May, two separate flights were made over the area, using a Palm IR 250 camera for thermal infrared remote sensing.  This was only partially successful, in that it was difficult to achieve optimum conditions.  For the thermal imaging data to register, the difference in temperature between stone and vegetation requires several hours of sunlight.  However later in the day, cloud cover tends to obscure this area of the Vilcabamba.  Finding a ‘window’ which was late enough in the day to produce temperature differentials, but early enough to escape cloud cover, proved difficult.


More traditional methods of site reconnaissance on the ground proved more effective.  The use of thermal imaging techniques in the Vilcabamba would appear to be problematic. (Ziegler 2004)


The Llactapata archaeological complex is situated on and below a long ridge that descends north to the Urubamba Canyon from the region's highest peak, Mt Salcantay; the complex faces Machu Picchu and the two peaks to either side of that site, Mt Huayna Picchu and Mt Machu Picchu. The parallel Machu Picchu ridge some five kilometres to the east is separated from the Llactapata ridge by the Aobamba canyon, whose river carries glacial melt water down from Mt Salcantay.


The name Llactapata means ‘high town’ in Quechua:  another Inca site is similarly named at the bottom of the Cusichaca valley, at the start of the so-called ‘Inca Trail’.


The climate, vegetation and fauna of Llactapata are similar to that of the Machu Picchu Sanctuary, receiving more that 75 inches of annual rainfall (Wright-Valencia 2000). The altitude of the zone ranges from 2500 to 3000 metres.


Original cloud forest covers most of the zone but some areas show evidence of previous clearing and burning by the owners of small-holdings, resulting in a tangle of thorny shrubs and bamboo thickets. The forest is home to numerous varieties of birds and the spectacled bear is in evidence. A few scattered farming plots have been cleared and recently planted with corn.  There is evidence that some of the Inca structures have at some stage been partially occupied and altered by local herders. A number of pot holes indicate that looting or treasure hunting has taken place by huaqueros. This is a common occurrence throughout the region as almost every site has been visited at sometime by a local herder or prospector.


Base camp was established at a clearing at approx 2700m on the spur descending from the ridge towards the Aobamba.  This was just below Sector 2 of the site.  The camp overlooked the Urubamba canyon, with an impressive view of Machu Picchu and the ice covered Veronica range beyond. Salcantay lies to the southeast, at 20,000 feet.


Clearing and exploration of the area began.  In doing this, the expedition were armed with the unpublished Hiram Bingham material from Yale, with the results of the aerial reconnaissance and with the few known previous investigations of the area.


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At Machu Picchu the regional mountain base is part of an uplifted Paleozoic era (250 million years old) intrusive igneous feature classified geologically as a batholith. These are massive upward travelling bodies of molten material (magma) that penetrate the upper layers of the earth’s surface before stopping short of the surface. Here the rock type is mainly resistant fine-grained, small crystallized, white granite, which proves excellent for hammering (the pecking method) into finely shaped blocks and sharply defined angles. (Wright-Valencia 2000. Ziegler 2001)


The geology of the Llactapata zone differs significantly. Although only a few kilometres distant, the Llactapata ridge is composed of metamorphosed, compressed meta-sediments; quartzite, schist and altered shale with some later igneous activity in the form of isolated intrusive dikes. The present topography has been eroded by the Urubamba River, and by rain and breakdown from the nearby peaks, as continuing tectonic forces slowly lift the mountain mass of the Andes. Glacial processes played a part as well. Numerous faults and subsurface factures resulting from mountain building pressures are present.


As base rock is exposed by erosion, these fractures offer zones of weakness subject to ground water penetration and other surface forces that create fragmentation and disintegration into blocks and eventually into mixed mineral-organic residue soil. These loose boulders and rocks are the material that supplied the building stone for Machu Picchu and Llactapata, although because of the geological differences, the stone differs substantially between the two sites.


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overall map including Machu Picchu

photograph of Llactapata hillside showing archaeological zone

Llactapata site plan


The archaeological zone consists of several interrelated high status building groups, agricultural areas, isolated structures, lower status urban ruins and a connecting road network scattered over several square kilometres.  The zone has five different Sectors, with the primary features surveyed and diagrammed on individual site plans. A number of isolated structures and features are indicated as scattered or assorted ruins on the general site map. Some site plans are less detailed, indicating that additional field information is needed.


The area that we designate as the Llactapata Archaeological Zone  is approximately four kilometres long by two kilometres wide, containing more than eighty man-made structures and features which we have organized into five sectors. The central part of the zone lies some 4 1/2 kilometres from Machu Picchu.


The three central groups, Sectors I-III, are situated on a direct east-west line along an easterly running ridge which descends from the Salcantay highlands above.  The groups form an area approximately 600 meters long by 160 meters wide, extending  downward from  an altitude of 2760 meters to 2600 meters. The two upper groups, Sectors I and III, are 140 metres apart with Sector I some 30 metres lower in altitude.  The lower Sector II is 250 metres distance down the slope at an altitude ranging from 2630 to 2600 meters. Sectors IV and the largest sector, V are roughly 1000 metres distant.  More features undoubtedly remain to be located between those sectors now surveyed and identified by the present investigation.


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Sector 1:  The Bingham Group

Sector I Plan

The relationship of Sectors I – III


This was re-located.  Accurate identification of it as the location that Hiram Bingham briefly visited and called Llactapata in 1912 was made by a comparison with his drawing and sketches of the time.  The site contains seven well-constructed, large buildings 45 to 50 feet in length.  All have multiple niches with shaped corner stones and coursed walls, in a style similar to other high status Vilcabamba sites.  Residue of tan coloured clay in several protected niches indicates that the walls were originally covered with plaster.


All of the buildings were gabled but only remnants of some remain, as destruction from roots and tree growth has caused significant damage. Two structures  in particular contain badly crumbled internal dividing walls (1, 2). Some doorways are partly filled in and a crudely made field stone wall extends out from building 2. These may have been added later by local herders using the site as a corral.


A double-jamb entranceway between buildings one and two indicates high status. These are found in the most important structures at regional Inca sites such as the Coricancha in Cusco, Vitcos, Ollantaytambo and Choquequirao (Gasparini & Margolies 1980).


A unique feature is a 145 feet long sunken corridor with six feet high walls that aligns on Machu Picchu.  The alignment of 65 degrees also points to sunrise over Machu Picchu during the June Solstice.


Two smaller U shaped structures, masmas, are attached to an outside wall of the corridor.  One is badly crumbled but the other contains a tall five feet high niche facing outward with the same alignment as the corridor. U shaped shrines go far back as important ceremonial features for Andean people. The American anthropologist Michael Moseley believes that U shaped sanctuaries are the most enduring form of ceremonial architecture in the Andes with an evolution spanning four millennia (Moseley 1992).


On either side of the corridor and connected buildings 5 and 6 are large plazas ending in a steep drop off to the east or front. A badly ruined structure is situated near the centre of the right side plaza (11). Feature 7 is a sunken enclosure formed by the long corridor wall and the walls of buildings 6 and 8, which connects to a walkway behind buildings 8-10.


Two outlying structures (12-13) are located some 300 feet to the north.  Structure twelve is a double-room house 30 feet long by 22 feet wide.  One deep inside niche is located in the south wall. The structure was gabled but now badly crumbled. The remaining walls are approximately six feet high. The probable route of the Inca road passes nearby. The location suggests that this was an entrance or administrative point for the main group to the south.


Some 75 feet in the direction of the main group is a smaller low walled rectangular foundation, 15 feet by 22 feet and three feet high. (13) The lack of breakdown rubble indicates that this is probably the original height.  It is likely that the walls were retainers for a wood-sided house as described at Corihuayrachina, Cota Coca and other Vilcabamba sites (Lee 2000, Von Kaupp 2002, Ziegler, 2001, 2002). It could have served as quarters for a resident caretaker or attendant to the main group. Evidence of local herder activity indicates that it could have been constructed in recent times.



The Sun Temple in Sector 1

The re-discovery of the sector Bingham originally described as Llactapata, Sector 1 of a much more extended site, leads to an interpretation of this sector as having an astronomical function. Sector I consists of a complex set of seven buildings, passageways, and courtyards, some of which are remarkably similar in scale and orientation to the Coricancha of Cusco. The Inca road that starts at the so-called “drawbridge” or “hanging bridge” at Machu Picchu provided an elaborate ritual entrance to Llactapata. It would have allowed the Inca and his retinue to visit Llactapata on special occasions to celebrate the rising of the sun at June solstice and the heliacal rising of the Pleiades some twelve to fifteen days before solstice.


The site that Bingham had located (Sector I) extends some 90 meters along the hillside and contains seven buildings, two courtyards, and two ceremonial corridors. The corridors open to an azimuth of approximately 65.6o on the north-eastern horizon and provide views of the rising sun on June solstice, the rising of the Pleiades, and Machu Picchu itself. The longer corridor, which is 2.5 m wide, 33 m long, has no side doors or side passages, implying its function as a ceremonial passageway.


The precise centre of the corridor is difficult to establish because of irregular walls, but its length frames a window of approximately 4o along the horizon. On the 6o elevated horizon the first gleam of sunrise on June solstice has an azimuth of 64.2o. The Pleiades star cluster covers approximately 1o on the sky, and in A.D. 1500 it rose close to the centre of the horizon window, at an azimuth of approximately 66o. On June solstice the Pleiades was a harbinger of sunrise, appearing on the horizon perhaps fifteen minutes ahead of the sun.


The short corridor that opens onto the northern courtyard contains a double jam doorway, characteristic of a high-status or ceremonially important structure. Since Llactapata was unknown to the Spanish conquerors, the historical record provides no guidance as to the function of this site, but the similarities in orientation, design, and scale to the Coricancha are suggestive of its ritual significance.

Comparison of the Coricancha with the Sun Temple of Llactapata


The Coricancha of Cusco is the great exemplar of sun temples of the Inca.  It contained seven halls, six of which opened onto a courtyard, some 35 metres on a side. These buildings were dedicated to various deities such as the sun, the moon, Venus, the Pleiades, thunder, and rainbow.


The western section of the courtyard consisted of a continuous façade containing two halls surrounding a passage with a double-jamb doorway. As the most important sanctuary in the Inca Empire it served as a model for other temples of the sun throughout the empire. The most important shrines of the Coricancha appear to have been dedicated to the Sun and the Moon.


Although the Spanish destroyed much of the Coricancha, early colonial chroniclers had extensively described its buildings and rituals. Table I compares features of Sector I with those of the Coricancha. The opening to the horizon, established by the western end of the corridor and room D, is approximately 5.6o wide. The rising position of the Pleiades was also close to the centre of that horizon window, while the June solstice sun rose to the north. 


The centre of the courtyard of the Coricancha may have contained a basin symbolic of water out of which both the sun and the Pleiades were born. At Llactapata the courtyard contains two U shaped shrines with niches (features 3 & 4), which face the June solstice sunrise and the Pleiades.


Water symbolism may have been important in both places. Zuidema (1982) suggests that the spring of Susumarca, to the northeast of Cusco, may have been the mythological spring (Susurpuquio) out of which an image of the sun appeared to Pachacuti. A spring and water shrine (Sector II) lies some 250 meters to the east of the Llactapata sun temple.


Table I

Comparison of Sector I at Llactapata and the Coricancha



Feature                                               Llactapata                              Coricancha


Corridor behind double-jamb                8.5 m x 2.4 m                           10m x 1.5 m



Halls on either side of corridor              11 m x 7.3 m                            13 m x 8 m


Total N-S Length                                 90 m                                        68 m


Orientation of corridor                          65.6o                                        66.7o


Elevation of northeast horizon                6o                                             5.6o


Courtyard beyond corridor                   30 m x26.7 m                           36 m x 34 m


Niches in hall south of corridor              18                                            25


Total number of halls                             7                                              7



The sun temple at Llactapata is not alone in the Inca realm. The Coricancha apparently served as a model for other sun temples, such as those as those at Quito, Pachacamac, Vitcos, Willka Waman, Huánuco Pampa, and the Island of the Sun.  


The architecture and dramatic landscape of Machu Picchu suggest that it was a place with considerable depth of meaning and sacred power. Lying at the entrance to the Vilcabamba, Llactapata adds to the significance of Machu Picchu by extending the size and complexity of its ritual neighbourhood. The presence of a structure so similar to the Coricancha at Llactapata rather than at Machu Picchu raises intriguing questions. The Inca emperor Pachacuti, had substantial connections with the Coricancha, where he may have been crowned, Machu Picchu, which he may have built, and the Vilcabamba, which he conquered.


The ceremonial complex of Machu Picchu and Llactapata, interconnected by road and sightlines, may have been viewed as homologous to Cuzco and its sacred neighbourhood.  A further significance of the sun temple at Llactapata would have been that the June solstice sun rose over Machu Picchu.


Llactapata may also have been important because it provided a horizon calendar. Of great interest would have been the heliacal rising of the Pleiades near June 6-9, which may have been the first day of the Incaic year (Zuidema 1982). The jagged horizon visible from Llactapata would have allowed precise tracking of the sun and determinations of the number of days before the heliacal rising of the Pleiades and the June solstice.


In contrast to the irregular horizon of Llactapata, the smooth horizon at Cusco does not provide natural fiducial marks, and pillars were erected by the Inca to mark the sunrise/sunset positions at solstices and other significant dates (Rowe 1946; Zuidema 1981, 1982; Bauer and Dearborn 1995). The chroniclers noted the presence of the Cusco pillars, but their exact location is now a matter of some controversy among scholars.


The outward extension of the central axes of the corridors in the Llactapata sun temple first approaches the little-known Intihuatana site in the Urubamba canyon that was reported and photographed by Bingham in 1911. This isolated monument is a large carved boulder, with associated platforms, water channels, fountains and masonry walls. 


Beyond the Intihuatana site, though not in precise alignment, there are a number of structures in Machu Picchu that share the axis defined by the June solstice sunrise and the December solstice sunset. Johan Reinhard has identified the beautifully constructed building identified by Bingham as the Priest’s House near the Principal Temple of Machu Picchu as one such structure. The small structure, noteworthy for its elegantly carved stonework, contains a polygonal stone with 32 angles, a stone bench running along the full length of the rear wall, and 13 niches. With an orientation of 245 degrees, it faces the sun temple at Llactapata, and the setting of the sun at December solstice near the snow peak of Pumasillo (Reinhard 2002).


A person sitting on the interior bench looks directly into the Llactapata sun temple. A view of the instant of the first gleam of sunrise on June solstice could be passed to the interior of the Priest’s house by the reflection from a gold or silver plate at Llactapata. Behind the Priest’s house is a high stone, noted by Bingham, containing seven steps leading to a small platform on its summit providing a view toward the rising sun at June solstice. In front of the building is another viewing platform some 3-5 metres across, with a curved wall reminiscent of the Coricancha, which provides views of Llactapata, Pumasillo, and the setting December sun.


The sight-line between the Priest’s House and the Llactapata Sun Temple function in diametrically opposite directions for both solstices and mountains, suggestive of the ritual of darshan in India in which a devotee makes eye contact with a god who then returns the gaze. Another possible example of such intent to achieve mutually interactive sightlines is the house near the summit of Huayna Picchu with three windows that open to Llactapata


Another well-known feature on the June solstice sunrise/December solstice sunset axis is the Torreón of Machu Picchu, which contains a window that duplicates the view from the Llactapata sun temple by opening to the rising positions of the June solstice sun and the Pleiades. The Torreón is not visible from Llactapata, and therefore would not have served as a sighting device for observers at Llactapata.


Similar to the Urubamba Intihuatana stone, it probably functioned as a huaca. Although elegant in construction, the Torreón is not sufficiently large to permit ceremonies in its interior, which is only some three metres across, nor does it contain the multiple halls associated with the Coricancha sun temple (Gasparini and Margolies 1980; Hemming 1981).


We do not know whether these interconnected shrines in the Llactapata- Machu Picchu neighbourhood had a meaning and function similar to those of the ceque system surrounding Cusco. Writing in 1653, the Jesuit scholar Bernabe Cobo described the system of 41 ceques and 328 huacas that surround the Sun Temple (Cobo 1983) The huacas consisted of natural features such as springs, unusual rocks, and caves as well as artificial structures such as elaborately carved rocks, fountains and pools, and temples (Zuidema 1964; Gow 1974; Bauer 1995).


Zuidema proposed that the 328 huacas represented successive days of the sidereal lunar calendar, and that the flow of time in the Inca world was marked by worship services at consecutive huacas by different kin groups.


In addition to markers of calendrical time, Zuidema suggested that ceques might have been sight lines to sacred mountains and astronomical phenomena, as well as geometrical partitions that organised the sacred landscape. Such an interpretation of ceques may also apply at Machu Picchu and Llactapata. The sightlines, shrines, and buildings of Machu Picchu and Llactapata appear to establish an extended ritual neighbourhood of Machu Picchu, containing geographical, astronomical, and cosmological meaning.


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