Machu Picchu: Fact and Fiction

Hiram Bingham III, the proto-typical Indiana Jones, discovered Machu Picchu in 1911.

For those who like their history in black and white, you can stop reading now. If you start with the idea that you can't “discover” a place that was built and used extensively 500 years ago, and recognize that in 1911 indigenous farmers had been living at the site of the ruins, you begin to scratch the surface of a story that is anything but black and white. Bingham most certainly was the person responsible for bringing the lost Inca citadel to the world’s attention almost 100 years ago, but his Machu Picchu story is full of mistaken assumptions, blind luck and even doubt about his status as the first European to re-discoverer Machu Picchu.

Our Machu Picchu story started when we awoke from our tents at Winay Wayna at 4:30 a.m. and after a light breakfast started our walk towards Intipunku (Sun Gate) in the dark. With our headlamps leading the way we cautiously walked on the paved-stone trail, avoiding the over-zealous trekkers who passed us on the dark, narrow trail, vying to be the first one to see sunrise that day. On this day all they would see at sunrise was a lot of fog and mist. After about an hour of hiking we reached the Sun Gate and met our kids who had been waiting for us. After another hour the fog cleared and we took in the fantastic Pre-Columbian ruins of Machu Picchu.

For the previous four days, we had a singular focus: seeing the sight in front of us. Hiram Bingham’s focus leading up to his rediscovery of Machu Picchu was anything but singular. Bingham didn’t travel to South America with the purpose of exploring for Machu Picchu; he originally traveled there in 1908 to study Simon Bolivar, the great South American liberator. Late that year at a scientific congress in Chile, he abandoned that plan and decided instead to follow the old Spanish trade route from Buenos Aires, Argentina to Lima, Peru. In the middle of studying that route, while in Cusco, he made the difficult trip to the ruins of Choquequirau, then thought to be the lost city of Vilcabamba, which piqued his interest in the Incas’ last stronghold during the Spanish conquest. In 1911 he returned and after extensive research in Lima, shifted his focus once more and became determined to find the last two Inca capitals: Vilcabamba and Vitcos. While searching for Vilcabamba, Bingham journeyed through the Sacred Valley, past Ollantaytambo, and while camping in the Urubamba Gorge, met some farmers who took him and his party up the steep hill to see the ruins. To his dying day, Bingham believed Machu Picchu to be Vilcabamba, now known to be at Espiritu Pampu, a few hundred miles deeper into the jungle.

What Bingham saw that day was different from what we were seeing. Once the fog had lifted, we saw intricately-carved stone walls, buildings, plazas and gates and scores of perfectly-aligned terraces that cascaded down the top of Machu Picchu Mountain. Wayna Picchu, the monolithic, jungle-covered mountain immediately to the north, poked above the wispy clouds and rose above the lost city as if orchestrating this symphony of archeological wonder. For Bingham, the setting was the same except that the stone structures and terraces were in most part covered by dense jungle, unless they happened to be cleared by one of the two families that were living there as subsistence farmers. As our family made our way through the ruins, I carefully sidestepped the llamas munching on the green grass terraces; I remembered being spat on by one 23 years ago. What I don’t remember from previous trip was a hotel -- The Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge -- where for a paltry $700 per night, you can now wake up to the ruins.

If you asked the over-zealous trekkers which of them arrived first at Machu Picchu that morning, you’ll probably get many of them claiming primacy. Likewise, there is some doubt about who was the first non-Inca to reach Machu Picchu a century ago. Bingham himself noted some graffiti on the wall (“Lizarraga 1902”) on his first visit and there is circumstantial evidence to support others being there before him. An Italian, Antonio Raimondi, who spent much time in the area in1858 and had a map published posthumously in 1891 with “Machu Picchu” written on it. According to a 12/8/09 New York Times article, records show that a German, Augusto R. Berns, purchased land in the 1860’s opposite Machu Picchu and tried to raise money from investors to plunder nearby Inca ruins. Another German, Herman Göhring, published a map in 1874 with “Macchu-Picchu” and “Huainu-Picchu” peaks depicted on it. An Austrian, Charles Weiner, published yet another map in 1877 referencing “Malchopicchu.”

The doubt about who was first doesn’t take away from the site’s magnificence and here I can’t say it any better than Bingham: “I know of no place in the world which can compare with it. Not only had it great snow peaks looming above the clouds more than two miles overhead; gigantic precipices of many-coloured granite rising sheer for thousands of feet above the foaming, glistening, roaring rapids, it has also, in striking contrast, orchids and tree ferns, the delectable beauty of luxurious vegetation and the mysterious witchery of the jungle. One is drawn irresistibly onwards by ever-recurring surprises through a deep, winding gorge, turning and twisting past overhanging cliffs of incredible height.”

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