Machu Picchu’s Observatory: 

the Re-Discovery of Llactapata and its Sun-Temple



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.


[Technical note:  Those wishing to view the report full-frame, should redirect their browser to ]



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





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.


Chapter Headings:









            Sector I: 

            Comparison with the Coricancha

            Sector II:  Sector III: Sector IV: Sector V:


5          CONCLUSIONS







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.





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.






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.





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.



Sector I:  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.



Sector II:



Sector II plan


            The relationship of Sectors I – III


This sector was visited and reported for the first time in 1982 (Drew 1982, Thomson 2001).


The sector consists of a tightly grouped assortment of carefully constructed large buildings, walls and smaller structures arranged around a central plaza with several outlying structures of lesser quality. The group sits upon a flat bench with a steep, rising embankment behind and a steep downhill slope to the front. Another levelled, plaza like, area is situated just below (NE) which may have been a pond or water feature now dry and filled in. The only present water source identified for the region, a spring, is located just above to the south of the plaza. Remains of a stone lined channel acequia originating at the spring is indicated on the site plan. This leads into a nicely made, sunken, stone lined enclosure (8) resembling one of the fountains or ritual baths at Machu Picchu or Wiñay Wayna.


The main buildings (1-7) have shaped corner blocks of quartzite and coursed slabs, with blocks for the walls. Remains of clay indicate that the structures were plastered. Roots and trees have crumbled parts of most structures, but some walls are standing close to the original height. Building 6 has a back wall height of 14 feet. 1, 2 and 6 had gabled roofs; number 12 may have as well. This is undetermined for the remainder. Buildings 1-7 had internal niches and some windows. Minor details are lacking because of surveying demands created by the unexpected size and extent of the findings.


By contrast, structures 12-14 are of poorly constructed, mortared fieldstone without niches. Structure 13 has a low walled open side and a long low window lined with adobe blocks.  Four rocker-shaped grinding stones for corn were found inside, made of granite. Building 12 appears to have been modified by an internal enclosure.  It is likely that local farmers or herders used these buildings in later times. Building 12 could have served as a caretaker residence or entrance control for the main group as suggested for structure 12, Sector I.


The central section of the group has multiple passageways that open out to a long filled, low walled platform/walkway that forms an overlook of Huayna-Machu Picchu and the Veronica Range beyond. The long axis points to and views the Overlook Temple (Sector V).


Building 2 has a window that opens into a short corridor viewing Huayna Picchu. Structure 3 is a small structure 10 feet by 10 feet with 4 internal niches. The one entranceway faces 50 degrees toward Huayna Picchu. It size and location suggest that it was a shrine.


Feature 4 is a courtyard like area between building 2 and a long sunken enclosure recinto (5) It is closed by a wall at the end that faces Huayna Picchu. Here an entranceway with an alignment of 50 degrees opens to the outside platform/walkway.


 Structure 9 is a low wall slightly above the plaza level that measures six feet high on the downhill side. The wall merges into a raised earth platform, which takes a curious jog to terminate at structure 10. The wall and mount may have been used as a ritual walkway to reach a shrine. This feature is a small 10 feet x 10 feet U shaped structure masma  with the open side facing inward to the plaza at 230 degrees.


Building 7 is an interesting feature. It is an unusual structure 30 feet by 30 feet with internal niches and a single entranceway facing into the plaza. The back or Huayna Picchu side lacks windows and has five rectangular niches. The two sides perpendicular to the entrance have matching long windows. The workmanship is in the best Vilcabamba style, with shaped corner blocks and carefully fitted, coursed, wall stones. The location gives immediate access to the bath/fountain (8) and water system. The building remains an enigma deserving further study.


A steep escarpment falls off to the northeast. Some 20 metres below is a sizable pampa area with swampy depressions and a profusion of water plants.  This may have been a pond or developed water feature associated with the group above. It was used by both Bingham and this recent expedition as a base camp.


A most notable aspect of this Sector is that the main group is orientated to face Huayna Picchu at an azimuth of 50 degrees, and the Overlook Temple at 320 degrees. This creates a sight line to each at a right angle or 90 degrees to each other. It this is not coincidental, then the placement of the temple and/or Sector II had to be carefully planned and by design. Alignment on Huayna Picchu and its Three Windows shrine that looks back on the main Sectors suggests that Huayna Picchu may have been an important spiritual focus of sector II (Ziegler-Malville 2003).



Orientation towards Huayna Picchu:  Diagram



Sector II has a number of unusual features that appear to have had a ceremonial function. The main group is orientated to face Huayna Picchu at an azimuth of 50 degrees. The long axis of the group points to the Overlook Temple at 320 degrees similar to the long axis of Sector I. Near the summit of Huayna Picchu is the House of Three Windows, a shrine containing a replica stone closely resembling the Llactapata ridge that focuses attention on and is in alignment (230 degrees) with the Llactapata sites (Ziegler-Malville 2003).



            Three windows shrine on Huayna Picchu



A ritual fountain/bath along with a pond suggests that water was an important design element here as well. The small U shaped shrine (10) faces inward to the plaza and hillside. Its focus is directed toward the spring and only water source for area. The American anthropologist Susan Niles describes similar Incas sites as water shrines or moyas  (Niles 1999).


Features at Sector 2 suggesting water ritual include fountains, a canal leading from the only current water source in the area, a platform excavated from the hillside, and the evidence of an artificial lake.


Buildings 1, 2 and 6 could have served as temporary lodging for important parties travelling on official business, state sponsored pilgrimages or ceremonial processions to and from Machu Picchu as a sort of high status shrine and tambo  with a ceremonial purpose. Like Wiñay Wayna on the eastern road to Machu Picchu, the main Llactapata groups are situated several hours travel along the western approach.


There are similarities between the two sites. Wiñay Wayna is at an altitude of 2,600 metres and a distance of eight kilometres from Machu Picchu.  The Sector II group is at 2,700 metres and about the same distance by the original western road. Both are designed around water features. Reinhard believes that Wiñay Wayna was built as a ritual-stopping place along the road to Machu Picchu. The similarities with Sector II suggest that it may have in part served the same function.


Sectors I and II have certain architectural similarities, in particular the unusual division by sunken corridors, which suggest they may represent the principal upper and lower divisions, hanan and hurin, of the archaeological zone, in the duality common to Inca urban design and socio-political administration (Gasparini and Margolies 1980, Hyslop 1990). The Eastern and Western Sectors at Machu Picchu, separated by the main plaza are identified as such by Alfredo Valencia and others. (Wright-Valencia 2001)



            Sector III The Usnu Group:  Description



                        Sector III plan


                        The relationship of Sectors I – III



Located some 100 metres from the uphill side of Sector I and only 30 metres higher in altitude, this sector is associated with Sector I.


Structure 2 is a long building with three entranceways facing east into a small plaza. The roof was probably gabled but considerable breakdown has occurred. No windows are evident. It measures 90 feet by 20 feet with the back wall 9 1/2 feet high. The alignment is cardinal north south.


Structures 3 and 4 border the north side of the plaza. 3 is low walled with the slope falling off to the north and west leaving a higher north-facing wall with an outside niche. Structure 4 is more interesting. Most wall stone is a shaped white granite similar to that of Machu Picchu making the architecture unique for the area. The material must have been imported from either near Machu Picchu, or some closer isolated granite dike. A single internal niche faces east toward the one entrance. A passageway leads down through a gateway between structures 3 and 4 to feature 5, the most important structure of the group, which appears to be a Sacred Platform or Usnu.


The Usnu is a 60 feet by 40 feet raised, earth filled platform, enclosed by a five feet high retaining wall. It is connected to building 4 by a 60 feet long low wall. Stone steps lead onto the platform from the northeast side. The platform is aligned 20 degrees by 110 degrees. and overlooks Sector I below.


Another low wall, 40 feet long, leads off from the northwest corner of building 2 at 330 degrees. Beyond the wall is a low walled rectangular structure (1) that is similar in size and placement to outlying structures at other sections. It may have been built for a caretaker or attendant.


The main buildings and plaza are aligned with cardinal directions. Johan Reinhard has written of the importance to the Inca of cardinal directions, equinox alignments and their unique relationship to sacred mountains at Machu Picchu (Reinhard 2002) Although alignments would somewhat differ, it follows that this may be true for Llactapata sites as well.  The northwest wall of the plaza, aligned at 335 degrees, is in directional line to the Overlook temple. However, it was not possible to establish whether the temple can be seen from the plaza. A similar wall running out at an angle from a building at Cota Coca creates a sight line to the water shrine Pinchu Unuyoc near Choquequirao. (Ziegler-Thomson 2002)


An important feature is the large usnu platform. The term has several meanings. Usnu is used to describe a stepped platform upon which the Inca was seated from an early description by Guaman Poma (Poma 1956 [1613]). An usnu has also been described as a place to view sunset with markers on the horizon. (Zuidema 1986). The great usnu of Cusco, Usnu Capac, had a central pillar for astronomical sighting (Moseley 1993).  The name appropriately describes raised platforms associated with ceremonial sites.


With an alignment of 110 degrees and 20 degrees, the platform is orientated close to the December solstice line for the rising sun of 112 degrees noted by Johan Reinhard for Machu Picchu (Reinhard 2002). As no significant summits are close to this alignment to suggest a topographic focus, nor does the platform align toward Machu Picchu, it is possible that the primarily ritual activity related to the December solstice. Overlook miradores and raised platforms are common throughout the region but few are of this large size. Only hill top platforms at Choquequirao and Cerro San Miguel are larger (Lee 2000, Ziegler 2001, Reinhard 2002,). The size suggests that this was a very important ceremonial location. Sector III requires additional study.


There seems to have been an attempt to establish the main sectors of Llactapata  1-3 along a direct east-west line, as the centres of those sectors depart from that  east-west line by less than 1/3 degree.



Sector IV The Reinhard Group



                        Sector IV plan           



During 1985 Johan Reinhard conducted an exploratory investigation of the upper regions of the Aobamba drainage. He visited and surveyed the high site of Palcay (3600 metres) previously documented by Bingham (Bingham 1913). While descending down to the Urubamba Canyon, he surveyed and reported the building now identified as Sector IV. (Reinhard 1990).


Following his description and map, the site was re-located where indicated on a lofty shoulder of the Llactapata ridge at 3000 metres altitude, among tall tree-ferns. The remaining walls are badly deteriorated. The main structure is a long (120 feet) narrow building with 12 entranceways spaced along the sides. No niches are visible. The building follows the slightly curved contour of a small hilltop.  A number of equally spaced holes are centred along the inside floor.  All have been opened by treasure hunters, huaqueros. They appear to have been stone lined chambers similar to others that have been observed in the Vilcabamba. (Ziegler 2001, 2002). Three smaller low-walled rectangular structures are located nearby. The building is situated near the route of a likely Inca road that connected Palcay above with Llactapata and the main westward Inca road below.


Similar long structures with multiple entrances have been identified as meeting halls, kallankas, such as the largest building at Machu Picchu, located outside and above the main gateway (Wright-Valencia 2000). These large buildings seem to be located near or are part of a larger site such as at Choquequirao, Cota Coca and Machu Picchu. It would be unusual for a meeting hall to be placed as an isolated structure in a remote region.  Some long buildings have been identified as storehouses.  Examples are a group between the upper and lower Plazas at Choquequirao and a long isolated building with multiple entrances and windows at Sapamarca. (Ziegler 2001)


Storehouses were frequently placed in a high open area for ventilation and other reasons such as at Ollantaytambo (Protzen1993). The holes or chambers in the floor present an enigma. Reinhard thought the holes were dug by huaqueros.  However, several were now found to have visible stone linings.  From excavations at Corihuayrachina similar chambers were found to contain simple offerings and low status burials (Ziegler 2002). 


 It is interesting that the alignment of the east wall is 40 degrees, creating a sight line to the summit of Huayna Picchu. An azimuth of 340 degrees for the opposite or north end offers a sight line down the Urubamba Canyon to the site of Sapamarca. The building may well have been a storehouse, located below the frost zone on the road to Palcay. Local residents may have used it as a convenient mausoleum at a later date, during or following the decline of Machu Picchu. The three low walled structures may have been simple wood-sided huts for a caretaker family.



Sector V: Group A and Group B:


This complicated Sector encompasses a large area of the lower ridge dividing the Santa Teresa Valley and the Aobamba drainage, terminating when the two river merge in the Urubamba River and Canyon at an altitude of 1,500 metres. The ridge runs from 2,800 metres down to a partially clear saddle at 2,600 metres. From the saddle, the ridge rises steeply up into several rocky crags with steep cliffs on either side before again plunging downward. The upper portion is cloaked in heavy dense forest and thick, nearly impenetrable vegetation.  A rough trail reaches the saddle from the Santa Teresa valley side. A seasonal hut and several cornfields account for the cleared areas.


Four main groups were located and incompletely surveyed; Groups conjuntos A and B, the Overlook Temple and the crag top platforms. Several freshly dug holes indicated that the local farmer had visions of buried treasure. The central feature is the solitary, unique two story building perched on a ledge viewing Machu Picchu, first reported in 1982, and now described as the Overlook Temple. [3]



                        Sector V Group A



Group A: This feature is a rectangular walled compound kancha measuring 75 by 55 feet enclosing a long three room, badly crumbled building. The outside wall is six feet high and three feet wide of crude slab construction. The alignment is cardinal with east facing entranceways offering a sight line to Mt Machu Picchu.


                        Sector V Group B



Group B: Located two hundred metres down the ridge and at a slightly lower altitude, this group of seven buildings is built upon a small hill.  A central wall divides the group into lower and upper sectors each with an internal plaza. The alignment is north south with entranceways at buildings 1-5 opening into the two plazas. Building 6 is round with an inside diameter of 16 feet. The entrance faces south. The north wall has three niches. A single window faces east offering a sight line to Mt Machu Picchu.


The extent of scattered foundations and crumbled, poorly made walls suggest that the lower ridge was a settlement of low status workers. The gently sloping and level areas of the long ridge are well suited for agriculture as demonstrated by several recent cornfields located near the saddle. Although this needs considerable further study,  two possibilities are that Groups A and B  were either storehouse groups, qolqas, or administrative centres/residences for the local administrators or karakas.  These were hereditary heads of kinship groups, ayllus, that worked and managed agricultural lands. The duality of Andean social organization required two for each settlement (Moseley 1993). If so, Group B could have housed the principal or more powerful administer. The round house with window view of Mt. Machu Picchu may have served a ceremonial function.  Additional study is needed.


Platforms and low walls on the rocky crags above may have offered a view to the east of Mt Machu Picchu Mountain, Mt Veronica and to the west of Mt Pumasillo. The summit of Mt Salcantay can be seen to the South.  Reinhard and others have shown these mountains to be particularly important to the Inca. Of interest is that the crags lie exactly on the equinox line from near the summit of Mt Veronica. The line crosses the Machu Picchu Intihuatana and the summit of Cerro Miguel, which has a platform and upright marker stone on the equinox line (Reinhard 2002). The Sector V platforms may have been especially suited to respect sacred geographical features in combination with equinox alignment and other astronomical phenomena.



Sector V: Overlook Temple: 



            Overlook Temple plan



On the lower ridge above groups A and B there is an unusual, solitary, two-story structure perched on the edge of a steep drop above the river some 1200 metres below. Construction is of the finest Vilcabamba style with larger blocks of shaped quartzite utilized for corners and doorjambs. The building contains 14 niches. The one entrance way and two windows open to a balcony or walled, filled platform providing an impressive view of Machu Picchu, the Veronica Range, Cerro San Miguel, Salcantay and the Urubamba River. The west-facing wall has two open chambers with niches, which look out on a broad gently sloping area with no visible evidence of constructions. A short wall with two niches extends out eight feet from the northwest corner creating an angled passageway leading onto the front platform. Nearby, a walled path descends toward the Urubamba and the riverside Intihuatana shrine.


The building is cardinal aligned. Its eastern facade and doorway focus a sight line to Machu Picchu Mountain in alignment with the huaca site called the Intihuatana in the Urubamba Canyon below. This is the line the sun would be seen to follow during equinox for a viewer at any of the three locations. The ice summits of Veronica and Salcantay are also visible. The summit of Cerro San Miguel lies at an azimuth of 60 degrees from the temple. The sun would rise over Huayna Picchu during the June Solstice and be seen close to the summit of Cerro San Miguel when first viewed. Both June solstice and equinox ceremonies could be conducted from the temple.


An unusual feature of the location of Overlook Temple is that it lies close to the extension of the long axes of the Llactapata Sun Temple (Sector I), the possible moya of Sector II, and the usnu of sector III. A person standing on the courtyard of the Sun Temple facing the June Solstice sunrise would find the Overlook Temple to be 90 degrees away from the sun. Conversely, a viewer at the Overlook Temple would have the Sun Temple at a right angle to the rising sun during the equinox.


This solitary, unusual structure, first reported in brief outline in 1982 but not mapped, seems to have been a most important ceremonial feature of the Llactapata archaeological zone (Drew 1982), The setting, construction, design, external niches and platform mirador suggest that the building had an important ceremonial purpose.


Sight lines to sacred topographic features in relationship to equinox and solstice alignments suggest that solar rituals and ceremonies were primary activities. A sight line orientated directly east, passing through the huaca Intihuatana at the sacred Urubamba River, Wilcamayu, to Mt Machu Picchu is particularly significant. The Intihuatana site has yet to be studied. Reported by Bingham, the feature has not been surveyed (Bingham 1913).


Another east-west alignment involves the isolated structure that we have called the Overlook on the lower Llactapata ridge (Sector V: Figure 5). Its eastern balcony faces Machu Picchu peak and provides a view of a stone shrine or usnu down in the Urubamba Canyon that Bingham had called another intihuatana. The Intihuatana site consists of a large sculpted rock, a platform, water channels, waterspouts and basins. A displacement of the shrine by a few meters to the south would cause the Overlook to disappear behind the cliffs of the canyon when seen from the Intihuatana, suggesting the importance of inter-visibility. There are other visual linkages between structures in Llactapata and Machu Picchu. The Priest’s House of Machu Picchu is oriented toward Llactapata and the setting sun at December solstice10. The house of three windows on Huayna Picchu faces the Llactapata ridge and contains a huaca that replicates the ridge.


However, the location at almost the mid way point between the Overlook Temple and Machu Picchu Mountain would allow an observer to view sunrise near the Mountain, and then sunset near the temple during equinox. Reinhard and others have demonstrated the importance of Mt Machu Picchu to the builders of Machu Picchu (Reinhard 2002, Ziegler-Malville 2003). The placement of the Overlook Temple in relationship to these important features gives it special significance.


overall map including Machu Picchu


photograph of Llactapata hillside showing archaeological zone


            The relationship of Sectors I – III



Llactapata site plan




Site Summary: Llactapata Archaeological Zone




UTM and altitude

Alignment and    sight lines

Probable principal



Sector I

10 buildings, 3 U shaped features, long corridor,

2 plazas, sunken enclosure and walls.






Alt. 2734m

335° to Overlook Temple


65° to Sacred Plaza-Machu Picchu


June Solstice

Sun Temple


Astronomical observations


Sector II

9 buildings, 2 plaza, 2 walkways, 2 sunken enclosures, 1 U shaped shrine, I bath/fountain, water canal, dry pond, walls.





Alt. 2630m

50° faces Huayna Picchu.


320° to Overlook Temple.


Huayna Picchu rituals.


Water shrine


High status tambo


Sector III

4 buildings: 1 granite shrine, 1 long building.

2 raised walls

1  raised usnu platform

1 plaza





Alt. 2763

Cardinal Alignment

Wall points 330° to

Overlook Temple.

Usnu aligned at 110°

Equinox rituals


December solstice



Astronomical observations




Sector IV

4 buildings:1 large, long curved structure and 3 low smaller structures.

8 sunken chambers.






Alt. 3008m

One end of long structure aligned 40°

to Huayna Picchu.


The opposite end aligns 340° toward the site of Sapamarca

Store house with caretaker residences


Sector V


      Overlook Temple


1 Building

1 walkway,

1 filled, walled  platform

Several outside walls






Alt. 2700m

Cardinal alignment

90° to river shrine and Machu Picchu Mt.


65° to Huayna Picchu

with right angle line to Sector I-IIII.



Mountain worship: rituals associated with Machu Picchu Mt. and Huayna Picchu.


Equinox ritual


June solstice ritual


    Group A and B


10 buildings: 9 rectangular and 1 circular in two groups. 3 plazas and 1 walled compound.

18L         A




Alt. 2725m


18L         B




Alt. 2712m

Cardinal alignment

Faces and views Machu Picchu Mt.

Store houses and residences or administrator centre


Possible Equinox ritual with Machu Picchu Mt.


    Agricultural group


Many assorted low foundations.

Some round and oval structures

Many unsurveyed simple houses

Walls and leveled areas.

On ridge top from map grid line 41 to 43

Alt 2800m-2600m


Agricultural fields and low status settlement housing for  workers


 Platform group on crags


3 walled platforms and assorted retaining/terracing walls





Alt. 27739m

Situated on the equinox line from Veronica, Machu Picchu and Cerro San Miguel. Views of Pumasillo, Veronica and Salcantay


245° to Pumasillo

Astronomical observation


Solstice ritual


Equinox ritual

Mountain worship


Sight and signal activities








The research expedition revealed Llactapata to be a far more substantial site than has previously been realised


As group after group appeared, some uncovered after five centuries of concealment it became apparent that this was far more than a small compound of buildings described by Hiram Bingham in less than a paragraph. 


There are parallels to one of Bingham’s most important discoveries, Espíritu Pampa in the Vilcabamba, which he only partially uncovered in 1911.  Only later, in 1964, were further sectors revealed and its true significance established, as Vilcabamba La Vieja, the last refuge of the Inca.


Likewise Llactapata, the supposedly insignificant ruin with the unassuming name, ‘high town’, is of much more importance than had been thought.


Many groups and features at Machu Picchu have been identified as having alignment to astronomical phenomena or specific topographic features. (Dearborn 1987, Reinhard 2002). Johan Reinhard has suggested that Machu Picchu was located, designed and functioned as a ‘sacred centre’, with a unique convergence of geographical features, sacred mountains and the Urubamba River giving astronomical and cardinal alignments (Reinhard 2002).  As a closely related satellite of Machu Picchu, this interpretation applies well to the Llactapata site.


Solstice-equinox orientation in relationship with alignments on Huayna Picchu and Mt Machu Picchu indicates that adoration and ritual focus on these special mountains and the sun may have been the primary purpose at Llactapata. If the Sector I group is a sun temple as we suggest, its location, situated to view the sun rising over the Sacred Plaza, midway between the two peaks during the June solstice, gives great ritual importance to the site.


The solitary Overlook Temple seems to be both a June solstice and an equinox feature, placed to view the sun rising near the summits of Cerro San Miguel and Machu Picchu Mountain.  The ridge top platforms also appear to have an equinox purpose from their placement directly to the west of Cerro San Miguel and Machu Picchu.


The Usnu Group, the newly reported Sector III, may also have had an equinox purpose, as the main structures are cardinal aligned.  However, the large, raised usnu is the principal ceremonial feature. The alignment suggests that the main function may have been December solstice activities. The platform would also have been used for different astronomical and ceremonial events.


An alignment relationship with the Overlook temple and sight lines to and from the Sun Temple, Usnu Group and Sector II is a phenomenon, which we suggest, was by design.  At Machu Picchu every feature or construction appears to be planned and aligned with a purpose.  We suggest that the ceremonial groups and features at Llactapata were placed and built in careful consideration of geo-spiritual and astronomical relationships in conjunction with Machu Picchu.  Llactapata was part of a carefully designed network of interrelated administrative and ceremonial sites supporting the regional administrative and ceremonial centre at Machu Picchu.


This should be seen in the light of recent work by John Rowe, Richard Burger and Lucy Salazar-Burger, which places Machu Picchu in the context of Pachacuti’s personal estate (Rowe 1987, Burger & Salazar-Burger 1993). The high status architecture found not only at Machu Picchu but throughout the Vilcabamba and at sites along the upper Urubamba valley is a reminder of the use of this area for royal estates by the Inca nobility (Burger & Salazar-Burger 1993, Niles 1999). 


Llactapata is an important staging post on a network of roads extending from Cusco to Vitcos.  Our investigations have identified the remnants of an Inca road at Llactapata connecting with the ‘drawbridge’ route west from Machu Picchu. Earlier explorations by Hyslop, Lee, Thomson, Ziegler and others have traced roads from the important Vilcabamba sites of Vitcos and Choquequirao (Hyslop 1984, Lee 2000, Thomson 2001, Ziegler 2001). A major road network connecting with extensive Inca controlled regions to the west reinforces the idea that Machu Picchu was the spiritual and administrative hub of a network of roads, regional settlements and state controlled commerce as suggested by Ann Kendall and others (Kendall 1988).


A large staging area and meeting hall outside the main gate and a number of qolqas indicate that Machu Picchu may have been a collecting point for goods arriving from the Vilcabamba to be sent on to the capital or for other distribution. If so, Llactapata would have been an important resting place and roadside shrine for important official parties on the road to Machu Picchu and beyond. We have discussed the similarities of Sector II with Wiñay Wayna, which has been identified as a water shrine and resting-place on the eastern road (the so-called ‘Inca trail’). The Sector II group likely served a similar purpose as a sort of high status tambo with seasonal ceremonial activities.


The architectural similarities between Sectors I and II reflect the division of the site into hanan and hurin sectors common to pan-Andean societies (Gasparini & Margolies 1980, Hyslop 1990).


An area of about one square kilometre suitable for agriculture and the abundance of poorly made structures on the lower ridge in Sector V indicate that quantities of corn and other crops were grown here. The American hydrologist Kenneth Wright calculates that the agricultural areas at Machu Picchu could only have produced enough to feed 55 people.  He estimates that the site housed 300 permanent residents (Wright & Valencia 2000). The Llactapata crops may have been a useful way to supplement food production at Machu Picchu.


The number of simple foundations suggests that the area was also a low-status settlement that may have housed a population of workers in support of activities at Machu Picchu, just as the settlements in the Cusichaca valley are thought to have been (Kendall 1988).  We have estimated the distance along the Inca road to Machu Picchu to be less than eight kilometres.


The identification and study of the Llactapata archaeological area adds significantly to our knowledge and understanding of Machu Picchu as the hub of a complex neighbourhood of carefully placed interrelated administrative and ceremonial sites reaching outward toward distant imperial Cusco and the far Vilcabamba.


The architecture and dramatic landscape of Machu Picchu have always suggested that for the Inca it was a place with considerable depth of meaning and sacred power. Llactapata adds to its significance providing a sun temple, similar to the Coricancha, from which the Pleiades and the June solstice sun rise over Machu Picchu.








The research expedition was supported and approved by the Royal Geographical Society, the Explorers Club and the Mount Everest Foundation.


The authors would like especially to thank John Hemming for his encouragement, advice and help in mounting the expedition.


Richard Burger, David Drew, Vince Lee, Johan Reinhard, Lucy Salazar, Tom Sever of NASA, Kenneth Wright and R. Tom Zuidema all gave invaluable advice and help at different times.


Charles Chadwyck-Healey facilitated Hugh Thomson’s study of the Bingham archives at Yale University.


The research expedition comprised of the following: Roz Allibone (Sponsorship), Nicholas Asheshov, Barry Bond, Greg Danforth, David Espejo, Amy Finger (Coordinator), Jeff Ford, Antonia Hall, William  Heath, Sandy LaJudice, Beth LaTulippe, John Leivers (Fieldwork Coordinator), Kim Malville, Robert Mrocek, Nathan Poole, Hugh Thomson, Jack Vetter and Gary Ziegler.


The expedition would like to thank the Instituto Nacional de Cultura, Simon Sherwood and colleagues at Orient Express, Yasmine Martin and the staff of Perurail, British Consul Barry Walker, Rosario Velarde, David Guevara and the staff of Manu Expeditions for organizing ground operations.  We would also like to thank Pio Espinoza, Ramiro Abendanio, Raul Cobos and all their colleagues in the field.






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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.




[1] It should not be confused with the site of Llactapata or Patallacta which lies at the start of the so-called ‘Inca Trail’ at Km 88, further up the Urubamba river, which was investigated by Ann Kendall and the Cusichaca Project in the 1980s (Kendall 1988)

[2] The Salcantay valley is now more commonly called the Santa Teresa valley.

[3] Gary Ziegler, John Leivers and a small reconnaissance party returned in May 2004, and reported two additional groups totalling more than 30 structures near the Overlook Temple. These groups require surveying and study (Ziegler 2004).