On July 24, 1921, exactly 101 years ago, Yale University history lecturer and explorer Hiram Bingham met with a mysterious and towering human-made ancient wonder that would become one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.
That wonder is the now-renown Machu Picchu and its connecting Inca Trail; while Bingham certainly can’t be credited with its “discovery,” he definitely goes down in history as the person who brought world-wide attention to the historic marvel, popularising it as a destination that today draws upwards of half a million visitors and adventurers annually.
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Lost to history
Today, with the ease of digital exploration tools and travel, it’s impossible to imagine a site of that magnitude remaining a secret, but at the time, it was only known to its locals.
Bingham and his small team of explorers had been searching for the region’s “lost” cities of the Incas, and they had heard of one such ancient and abandoned Inca settlement nestled in Peru’s rocky countryside – just northwest of Cuzco.
Travelling by foot and on mule, the team made their way from Cuzco to the Urubamba Valley where they met a farmer who told them of the ruins located atop a nearby mountain. That farmer called the mountain Machu Picchu – meaning “Old Peak” in the local Quechua language.
Facing cold and wet weather, and following a treacherous climb to Machu Picchu’s ridge, Bingham and team met with a small group of locals who would lead them the rest of the way. An adept 11-year old boy led the troupe through the intricate network of stone terraces, marking the entrance.
What lay before them was nothing short of extraordinary. As Bingham described it, it was “an unexpected sight, a great flight of beautifully constructed stone terraces, perhaps a hundred of them, each hundreds of feet long and 10 feet high.” Continuing along one of the terraces: Bingham found himself confronted with the walls of ruined houses “built of the finest quality of Inca stonework.”
The site was replete with overgrown trees, bamboo thickets, moss and tangles of vines over the carefully cut white granite walls. Bingham summarised the experience simply saying it “fairly took my breath away.”
So who built Machu Picchu?
Dating back to the mid-15th century, this “Sacred City” is thought to have been erected by the ninth ruler of the Incas, Pachacuti, as a summer retreat. Some 3,000 stone steps link the destination’s many levels along the Inca Trail.
Not long after, the 16th century saw the brutal Spanish invasion that decimated many Indigenous populations on the continent, including the Incas, and possibly became one reason the site became abandoned.
Today, the UNESCO-recognized Machu Picchu is considered “among the greatest artistic, architectural and land use achievements anywhere, and the most significant tangible legacy of the Inca civilization,” and the Peruvian Ministry of Culture has had to implement restrictions to the site in hopes of managing the foot traffic of some 2,500 daily visitors.