Machu Picchu’s Story in Stone


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Sitting in the Vilcabamba mountain range of Peru, perched high above the Vilcanota River, is a sacred place. They call it Machu Picchu. Viewed from above it looks like a great bird – like a condor –  turning in full flight. Up close, it is a key to a past life. Machu Picchu’s story is shared in the carefully considered placement of rock.

The Story of a Name

The original name of Machu Picchu is unknown. Archaeologist and explorer Dr. Hiram Bingham gave the city its current name in 1911. It is the same name of the mountain that rises above it. Machu means “old” in the Quechua language. Picchu means “mountain” or “peak.”

The namesake old mountain itself towers at a height of 3,050 meters (10,004 feet) to the south. Waynapicchu (young peak) rises 2,750 m (8,965 ft) to the north. The buildings and terraces of Machu Picchu sprawls out on the col between the two peaks, sitting at around 2,400 m (7,824 ft) above sea level.

Building Machu Picchu’s Story

According to archaeologists, building Machu Picchu’s story began during the reign of Inca Pachakuteq in 1438. It took about 30 years to complete the initial phases of construction. An exclusive group of priests and priestesses and important members of the Inca government lived here.

Machu Picchu’s terraces as viewed from the urban section of the site. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

Machu Picchu is divided into two sections: agricultural and urban. The agricultural section contains more than 100 terraces. It covers over half of the built area within the site. Experts estimate that the terraces were capable of producing nearly 9,000 kilograms (19,840 pounds) of corn each year. The urban section holds the main temples, residences and storehouses.

The stony enclave became an educational center for future leaders until 1537 when war broke out. As a result of the conflict, Machu Picchu was slowly and systematically abandoned over the next eight years. It soon became a distant memory, its presence known only to locals.

Machu Picchu’s Story of Rediscovery & Restoration

1895 – Peruvian government restores the old Inca trail from Ollantaytambo to Quillabamba (passing below Machu Picchu, alongside the Vilcanota river)

1907 – Two local families move into Machu Picchu and farm the terraces

1911 – Dr. Hiram Bingham (Yale University) is guided to Machu Picchu for the first time

1912 – National Geographic and Yale University lead an expedition to open tombs, uncover buildings, photograph buildings and complete topographical research

1914 – Third expedition by Bingham; explores trails leading to Macchu Picchu

late 1914 to early 1934 – Machu Picchu is left alone again

1934 – Spanish government and Patronato de Arqueologia (archaeological sponsorship) take over, start to remove growth and begin restoration

1941 – Machu Picchu is declared a National Archaeolgical Park

1946 – Construction on a road to connect the archaeological site from the begins

1948 –  Road opens and a tourist hotel is built near ruins

1981 – The site is declared a Historical Sanctuary by Peruvian government

1983 – Machu Picchu becomes a UNESCO Cultural World Heritage site

Hidden Stories Seen Today

Half of the Inca cross, placed in front of the Temple of Three Windows. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

Dig a little deeper, look a little closer and Machu Picchu’s story starts to emerge. The Sacred Plaza includes the Main Temple, the Temple of Three Windows and the Priest’s House. There is half of an Incan Cross placed in front of the Temple of the Three Windows.

Why only half of a cross? Because the trio of open windows face west. When the sun come in the windows, the light hits the cross and the shadow that is cast completes the cross. Circumstance? While it may seem like it, this was a result of careful consideration and planning.

Paying Attention to Detail

Precision stone work and fine quality granite are signs of important buildings. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

Compare and contrast the granite stones used in the buildings. Notice the range of quality. A finer grade of stone was used to build royal residences and temples. The stone placement is precise. Primitive stonework can be found in the terraces, storehouses and other less important buildings. Read the stones, learn a little more of Machu Picchu’s story.

Part of the Inca Royal Residence. Notice the round rock on the patio, hold water. Another stone, another purpose – as a mirror for astronomical observations! (Photo: Brad Kopp)

Look at the doorways. Some entrances have a double-jamb doorway. This means that it the entrance to a sacred place, such as the priest’s quarters and areas used for ceremonies.

Double-jamb doorway in Machu Picchu. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

Many doorways are quite tall. There is a reason. Inca rulers were carried everywhere. The extra height was necessary to facilitate movement of the Inca.

Entrance doors are almost always trapezoidal in shape. They look cool, but there is more to it. Earthquakes are common in the region. Trapezoidal shapes are strong. They resist movement.

Now, check out the roofs. Cylindrical stones were stacked in the gables. Decorative? No, they had a purpose. These stones were used to tie down wooden roof beams to keep the roof from blowing off in strong winds.

Note the less precise stone construction of the guardhouse and the tie down rocks for the roof. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

Machu Picchu’s Story of Random Stones

This carved granite altar was used for funeral rituals, sacrifices and offerings to Pachamama, Mother Earth. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

The Funeral Rock next to the Guardhouse is a granite block delicately carved into an altar. It was used for funeral rituals, sacrifices, healings and offerings to Pachamama, Mother Earth. Most people see the large funeral rock, few see the smaller stones.

Machu Picchu’s story includes these miscellaneous stones found around the funeral rock are called the Apacheta. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

The Apacheta is a collection of medium-sized volcanic, limestone, sandstone, and other stones not native to the area. They are now found littered around the funeral rock. It is thought that these stones were brought by pilgrims as offerings during Inca times. When a pilgrim crosses a mountain pass (abra) or visits a sacred place for the first time, carry a stone to make an offering to gain protection from mountain spirits.

Each stone in Machu Picchu holds a story – a story of purpose, a story of vision, a story of belief. Machu Picchu’s story is written in stone.

Read more about the Historic Sanctuary at Machu Picchu on the UNESCO WHC website.

What stories did you uncover in your visit to this storied place?

Planning to Go?

A wide selection of accommodation options can be found in nearby Agua Calientes, also known as Machupicchu.

Ireland’s Hill of Tara


For the life of me, I don’t know where I first heard about Ireland’s Hill of Tara.

It could have been mentioned in a book or covered in a documentary. All I know is that while visiting Dublin, I wanted to learn more.

What better place to start than a museum dedicated to the country’s archaeology and history?

Ireland’s National Museum of Archaeology & History

Treasures from Ireland’s Neolithic era to modern-day artifacts are well preserved in this carefully crafted collection. I wasn’t overly interested in bog mummies or weaponry from the Viking era.

I went straight for the sparkle – the Tara Brooch.

The Tara Brooch. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

The Tara Brooch is not old – in the sense of Ireland’s Neolithic past – but this 8th century, ring-shaped, cloak fastener is undeniably captivating.

Made of cast and gilded silver, the early medieval brooch has fine, filigreed gold panels and is studded with amber, enamel and coloured glass. It includes animal and abstract motifs.

I never realized that the Tara Brooch didn’t come from the Hill of Tara, located northwest of Dublin. It actually came from a place near the seashore at Bettystown in County Meath. Apparently a dealer attributed its source as being Tara in order to increase its value.

The brooch was a loss leader. Tara itself was the actual gem.

After spending time pouring over the display about the site, I knew we’d have to experience Tara for ourselves.

On the Path of Greatness

It’s a graveyard – true. But the Hill of Tara in County Meath is much more than just that. This famous passage-tomb burial site was used for more than 1500 years.

It is where Ireland’s kings claimed their power.

It is said that this was where St. Patrick announced the arrival of Christianity in Ireland.

It is where Daniel O’Connell – the “Liberator” – rallied upwards of three-quarters of a million protestors in 1843 to seek freedom from Britain.

Tara of the Kings

The Hill of Tara looks non-assuming at first glance. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

Teamhair na Rig, or Tara of the Kings, includes a series of graves, tombs and temples.

It is a spiritual sanctuary.

The oldest visible monument is the passage tomb of Drumha na nGiall – the Mound of the Hostages. It dates back to the third millennium BC.

Christian graveyard and church at the base of the hill. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

According to the informational pamphlet I picked up at the visitor centre, Tara’s power declined by the 6th century AD.

Paganism gave way to Christianity, “…and the title of ‘king of Tara’ became a symbolic prize for ambitious kings seeking to become the most powerful ruler on the island.”

Many historical and mythical figures are associated with Tara. The site was central to the creation of an Irish identity.

Today as you walk the grassy mounds, surveying the countryside, the passion and politics of this low-lying hill and its man-made monuments are palpable.

If You Go:

The site is open from mid-May to mid-September, 10 am to 6 pm daily. Tara is located 12 km south of Navan, off the N3.

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Drawn to the Burren


What’s in a name?

Why do some place names call so loud and so far that you just have to get there?

Why does the Burren resonate in my soul?

The Burren takes its name from the Irish word ‘bhoireann’. It literally means “a rocky place.” Approximately 260 square kilometres (100 sq mi), this limestone plateau looks devoid of life and purpose at first glance. Give it a few hours and it will capture your imagination.

Stone Legacy

The Burren has been home to humans for thousands of years. Large stone tombs – or megalithic tombs – were built during the Neolithic or New Stone Age. Over 90 megalithic tombs can still be found in the Burren.

A portal tomb. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

Poulnabrone Dolmen is a classic portal tomb. ‘Dolmen’ is a Breton word for ‘table.’ Indeed the massive capstone – over 3 ½ metres long and 2 metres wide (12 ft x 7 ft) – gives the appearance of a table. Poulnabrone was built more than 5000 years ago. It was excavated in 1986. In addition to the more than 20 people buried at the tomb, pieces of pottery and jewellery were found. Poulnabrone is only one of dozens of prehistoric stone features found in the Burren.

Life is not always obvious. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

In more recent times, Catholic landowners were evicted from their land in favour of Protestants by Cromwell’s army in the mid-17th century. General Ludlow stated his opinion of the Burren as “a country where there is not water enough to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, or earth enough to bury him.” Little did he know that the magic of the Burren lies in its resilience.

Finding Flora

Ephemeral beauty in the Burren. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

It’s hard to put down roots on a rock, but that didn’t stop people from living on the Burren and it definitely hasn’t stopped a unique ecosystem from developing within the cracks and crevices of this stony stronghold. The Burren may look lifeless, but a closer look reveals alpine, arctic and Mediterranean species of plants – all growing side by side.


Straddling the grike. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

The region is made up of limestone rock that has eroded into a distinctive pattern known as a karren. It is crisscrossed with cracks called grikes. Water disappears beneath the stone into huge caves – the most famous of which is Aillwee Cave – and underground rivers. Water also nourishes the seeds that fall into the grikes. Over 70% of Ireland’s 900 native plants species are found in the Burren. Take that, General Ludlow!

A rocky place with unique flora and hundreds of prehistoric and historic stone structures. I’m still not sure why the Burren spoke to me in the first place, but I’m sure glad it did.

If You Go:

We drove from Lisdoonvarna northeast on N-67 towards Ballyvaughan, heading south on R-480 to explore Aillwee Caves, Poulnabrone Dolmen, Caherconnell Ring Fort, and Leamaneh Castle. The Burren Centre  was closed on the day we passed through, but you can find it heading northwest of R-476 back towards Lisdoonvarna.

Read more about our Irish adventures at:

The Stone Circles of Cork & Kerry, Ireland

Ireland’s Brú na Bóinne

Towers and Forts: An Irish Treasure Hunt

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Towers and Forts: An Irish Treasure Hunt


We often travel a route with the map in hand and randomly choose short historic side trips to investigate while on the way to our actual destination. Sometimes, it’s a wild goose chase. Other times, it’s a treasure hunt that leads to such beauties as the Ring of Kerry’s Staigue Fort and the Dingle Peninsula’s Min Aird Castle.

Staigue Fort

When is a stone defensive structure and home not a castle? When it’s a prehistoric stone fort!

Staigue Fort is one of the largest and finest stone forts in Ireland – according the interpretive panel just outside its walls! The name comes from “An Steig” – which is roughly translated as “the portion of land.” It is found on a small portion of land off the southern leg of the infamous “Ring of Kerry” on Ireland’s Iveragh Peninsula.

Staigue Fort’s impressive walls. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

The stone fort was built in the early centuries before Christianity came to Ireland – somewhere between 500 BC and AD 300. Like more “modern” castles, it was most likely built for a wealthy landowner or chieftain who had a need for security.

The wall rises up to six metres (over 19 feet) high. It is four metres (13 feet) thick and is built entirely without mortar. The wall encloses an area thirty metres (almost 100 feet) in diameter. Several near-vertical masonry joints are visible in the walls. These may indicate that the massive stone structure was built in stages rather than in one continuous act. The fort was entered through a narrow, lintel-covered passage in the wall.

The inner walls have criss-crossing staircases. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

The fort was the home of the chieftain’s family, guards and servants. It would have been full of houses, out-buildings, and possibly even tents or other temporary structures. None of the inner buildings survive today. The top of the wall was reached by a series of steps which criss-cross against the inside of the wall. An earthen bank and ditch around the fort gave further protection.

You say fort, I say prehistoric castle!

Min Aird Castle

Min Aird Castle – also commonly referred to as Minard Castle – is located in Cill Mhuire Bay on the Dingle Peninsula. It is the largest fortress on the peninsula. Cill Mhuire Bay is also known for its geology. Eighty-million-year-old fossilised sand dunes can be seen in its cliffs. It also contains one of the finest storm beaches in Ireland.

Min Aird Castle and its storm beach. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

In the Devonian period, rivers flowed south across a large desert… wait, we’re still in Ireland, right?

Crumbling Cill Mhuire sandstone walls of Min Aird Castle. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

Rivers flowed across a large desert, carrying sand and coarse sediments. The crescent-shaped sand dunes in the desert became the pale, yellow Cill Mhuire Sandstone. This same sandstone was used to build Min Aird Castle.

Blocks of sandstone have become rounded by the action of the waves and from knocking against each other. Storms have thrown them towards the back to the beach where they form a ridge called a storm beach.

A timeless view. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

The 16th century tower house that is Min Aird Castle has stood the test of time. It was attacked by Cromwell’s army in 1650 and was structurally damaged. Its crumbling remains have continued to withstand the ravages of a stormy coast for centuries.

Castles, towers, forts – Ireland’s countless historic stone structures beckon.

What are you waiting for?

Read more about our Irish adventures at:

The Stone Circles of Cork & Kerry, Ireland

Ireland’s Brú na Bóinne

Getting to Know Guinness: Going to the Source in Dublin, Ireland

Ireland’s Trim Castle


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The Stone Circles of Cork & Kerry, Ireland


Think Celtic stone circle and what comes to mind?

Most likely it’s Stonehenge – the granddaddy of all stone circles. Rings of standing stones are more common in the land of the Celts than you’d think.

There are somewhere in the neighbourhood of 235 stone circles in Ireland. Almost half of these are found in Cork and Kerry in southern Ireland.

These circles are different than Stonehenge because a) they’re smaller – sometime only a handful of stones, b) they are numerous – over 100 in Cork and Kerry alone, c) they have a recumbent stone – located in the west or southwest quadrant of the circle and d) they have two to four entrance or portal stones – on the eastern side.

The recumbent stone and the portal stones form an axis, or line. In many of these circles, this axis aligns with specific solar or lunar phenomena – such as the winter solstice, spring equinox, or moonrise or moonset positions during the lunar cycle. Most researchers agree that they may have had a ritual or religious function.

Drombeg comes from “An Drom Beag” meaning “the Small Ridge.” (Photo: Megan Kopp)

Drombeg Stone Circle
This easy-to-access circle – also known as The Druid’s Altar – dates back to the Bronze Age. It’s alignment to sunset during winter solstice was first noted in the 1920s by local Archaeo-astronomer, Boyle Somerville.

The circle – near Rosscarbery in County Cork – has been restored with 13 or the original 17 stones. Drombeg offers a sense of what it might have been like when it was built over 4,000 years ago. Outside of the circle, there are the remains of two prehistoric stone huts.

On the Hunt for Circles
Clodagh, Maughanaclea, Reanascreena, Carrigagrenane, Lissyvigeen – the names of these mysterious monuments elicit excitement for travellers on a quest for adventure outside the norm.

A stone circle on the Beara Peninsula. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

It’s a challenge and an adventure all rolled into one. To aid us in our quest to discover a few more circles, we picked up a copy on our drive across the southern edge of the country of “The Stone Circles of Cork & County Kerry: An Illustrated Map/Guide.” Researched by Jack Roberts, it is a highly-recommended resource!

Read more about our Irish adventures at:

Ireland’s Brú na Bóinne

Getting to Know Guinness: Going to the Source in Dublin, Ireland

Ireland’s Trim Castle

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Ireland’s Brú na Bóinne


It means the palace or the mansion of the Boyne – and it is an Irish treasure.

Brú na Bóinne

Brú na Bóinne is the Gaelic name given to an area in Ireland dominated by three immense prehistoric passage tombs – Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth.

Inside one of Ireland’s megalithic passage tombs. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

Behind the Stones

Brú na Bóinne is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site in southern Ireland. This cemetery complex flourished during the New Stone Age – or Neolithic period – leaving a priceless legacy.

Overlooking Newgrange and the Brú na Bóinne countryside. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

Take a look, by the numbers:

4000 BC         the first of the tombs were built
30                   different mounds visible in Brú na Bóinne
2,000              stones, each weighing several tons, used in the tombs
3-5                  distance in kilometres where large stones were quarried
4                      days for 80 men to bring a large stone from the quarry
115                 number of kerbstones surrounding Dowth
1699               year Newgrange explored by researcher Edward Lhwyd
34                   metres, the length of Knowth’s Western tomb passage
7th                 century AD, Knowth is home to Kings of Northern Brega
600                 number of decorated stones in Brú na Bóinne
60                   % of Western European Neolithic art in Brú na Bóinne
21st                December date light pierces Newgrange’s chamber

Prehistoric art of Brú na Bóinne. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

Did You Know?

Most of Ireland’s OPW (Office of Public Works) Heritage Sites are open to the public free of charge on the first Wednesday of each month in 2017. More information can be found at

Read more about our Irish adventures at:

The Stone Circles of Cork & Kerry, Ireland

Getting to Know Guinness: Going to the Source in Dublin, Ireland

Ireland’s Trim Castle

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Baja’s Cave Paintings: Cueva Pintada


Scrambling down small cliffs and hopping over boulders on our way to visit Cueva Pintada in Baja’s Sierra Nevada, our guide –  Mauricio Zuniga Arce – navigated the desert canyon nimbly in smooth-soled cowboy boots.

He carried nothing more than a water canteen, a machete, and a lariat.

Part of our guide’s kit for exploring cave paintings in Baja’s Sierra de San Francisco. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

Noteworthy: Our guide carried little during the day because it was our responsibility, on a self-arranged trip, to provide food. Good food – and lots of it – makes for a happy guide!

Packs on backs (loaded with food), hiking shoes on feet, we scrambled to keep up with Mauricio on the short slopes out of the verdant, palm tree lined, Arroyo de San Pablo.

We had one thought on our minds – besides making it unscathed – the great murals of Cueva Pintada.

Cueva Pintada

Cueva simple means cave in Spanish. Pintada means painted.

There are hundreds of painted rock shelters in Baja’s Sierra de San Francisco UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Cueva Pintada is one of the best.

This great mural is one of the most heavily painted in the most painted part of the canyon.

It’s a view that never gets old – even after more than 36 years of guiding. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

The approximately 150-metre (500 ft) long rocky recess of Cueva Pintada holds hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of overpainted images.

Although the cave is not deep, maybe 12 metres (40 ft) at most, it provided a multitude of well-protected surfaces for the ancient artists to work.

There are images of deer (in Spanish, venado), sheep (borrego), rabbits (conejo), men (hombres), and women (mujeres).

Marine species figure prominently in many panels. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

One of the largest figures in the cave is that of what is thought to be possibly a whale (ballena) or sea lion (león marino). There are also numerous images of fish (pescado). Notably, the ocean is hundreds of kilometres (more than 100 mi) away if you were to follow the drainage to the sea.

Superimposing one image on top of another, on top of yet another, was commonplace.

What the images really mean – and why they were painted in these locations – is up for interpretation.

Turkey vultures stand out clearly in this painted panel. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

In his book, The Cave Paintings of Baja California, Harry Crosby suggests that that act of painting was more valuable than preserving the visibility of each individual image.

We agree with Harry.

The muddled artwork we see today is as wildly confusing as it is thought-provoking and perfect.

Read more: Baja’s Cave Paintings: An Overview 
Next up: Cuevas de las Flechas

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