On July 24th 2011, Peru is celebrating the day, 100 years earlier, when Hiram Bingham quite accidentally discovered Machu Picchu. He wasn’t the first person to find it, but he was the first to recognize its significance. Thus began the dramatic rise of Machu Picchu as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the most visited tourist site in South America and the emblematic symbol of Peru and the Incas.
Build up to the Discovery
In July 1911, Hiram Bingham and his Yale University expedition team were roaming the mountains of Peru looking for Vilcabamba, the fabled last city of the Incas. Records left by Spanish chroniclers led Bingham to believe that he could found the city in the continuation of the Urubamba River. His team had been promised amazing Inca sites in the past, only to be let down when locals led them to some simple huts. It is no surprise, then, that when local innkeeper, Mechor Areaga told Bingham of a city on top of a steep and slippery cliff, the explorer was a little skeptical.
An Accidental Find
As Bingham relates in his book, Lost City of The Incas, the team met Arteaga at what is now the outskirts of Aguas Calientes. At the time he was the owner of the local ‘inn’, a grass roofed affair, and was quite put out that the explorers preferred to sleep in their tents. When Arteaga heard the group were looking for Inca ruins, he offered to show them a city hidden on the cliffs nearby. The next morning dawned drizzly and there was little enthusiasm for the trip. Bingham’s companions chose to do their washing and look for butterflies rather than go climbing up an overgrown and difficult mountain. Bingham, Arteaga and the local Sergeant escort arrived at the top of the difficult climb to find a series of terraces being farmed by two men named Richarte and Alvarez. These local farmers had unknowingly made the sacred Inca site their home; saying they enjoyed being hidden away from visitors. Ironically enough, their once hidden home is now the most visited place in South America.
Bingham continued on to Machu Picchu proper and saw that the stonework was of incredibly good quality. He claimed that he immediately recognized that the site was built for ceremonial purposes, though it is more likely that he only discovered this later. In short, you get the impression that Bingham was initially not impressed by Machu Picchu. After all, this was not the last city of the Incas that he had been looking for.
Bingham was a man looking for a big find; something to make his fame and fortune. In 1911 he thought he might find glory with the discovery of some bones found in an ice hole. Gradually he realized that the collection of terraces and white granite walls that make up Machu Picchu, were to be his legacy.
In 1912 Bingham returned to Peru with a team from Yale University to excavate Machu Picchu and the rest, is history.
Nowadays, with the popularity of Machu Picchu as a tourist destination, it is difficult to recreate that sense of discovery experienced by Bingham. On the other side of the mountains, though, Choquequirau sees just a handful of visitors and parts of the ruins are still emerging from the dense vegetation. Kuelap, in the north of Peru, sits quietly and dramatically on top of a mountain as it has for 500 years. Other nearby forts of the Chachapoyan people are completely covered by dense forest. Bingham did finally get to the last Inca city at Espiritu Pampa and even now, the 8 day trek there is an Indiana Jones style adventure into the unknown.
Photos from National Geographic