My first experience of seeing Machu Picchu – and some thoughts about the man who saw it a century earlier and made it known to the world.

The year I saw Machu Picchu for the first time also happened to be the 100th anniversary of the discovery of those amazing Inca ruins – perhaps some of the most amazing ruins anywhere. The lost city had been found again in 1911, investigated and promoted around the world by that intrepid Indiana Jones-role inspiration, historian and explorer, Hiram Bingham.

I had been waiting expectantly while sitting in the tourist train that had bumbled on for nearly three hours from the town of Ollantaytambo and towards the village of Aguas Calientes at the foot of the Machu Picchu mountain. The Urubamba River thundered alongside us, nestling close to the winding railway tracks. The jungle became denser for every kilometer, and the mountain peaks seemed to loom taller and more mysterious, whenever I looked. I had the wonderful feeling of a child riding into pure adventure.

The rail tracks followed the original mule trail that had only just been cut free from the jungle, when Bingham arrived here in the summer of 1911 with his small team of explorers and local guides. Today that kind of expedition seems much less daunting, at least if you follow many newer and ready-made paths, like the much visited Inca Trail, the beginning of which we pass at kilometer stone 82. However, for us the Inca Trail is a delight that must be enjoyed another time as we travel with my girlfriend’s grandmother on this particular journey. Despite its tourist friendliness, the challenges of walking this trail through the mountains, on which you literally follow in the footsteps of the Incas,  are not to be underestimated for the old, or the young.

The greatest attraction

Like the Inca Trail, Machu Picchu itself attracts a lot of people, who just go there directly by train as we do today. It is Peru’s greatest tourist attraction, if not South America’s, and as such a source for much needed foreign cash injections into the economy. You have to accept that somewhat paradoxical state of the destination before you go – that Machu Picchu is at one of the same time the epitome of lost cities in the wilderness and a mega-tourist attraction. I accepted it, just as I liked the story about of just how dramatic its discovery was, even if it got better and better every time it was told by its discoverer – professor Bingham himself.

In general, I was on the trip to Peru this year to once again experience wild nature and exotic culture. On my three earlier trips I had been traveling, living and working mostly in Bolivia, with stints to Lima and Cuzco, but for various reasons I had never had time to visit Machu Picchu and it had always felt like a loss I needed to make up. After all, even if Machu Picchu is far from the only impressive Inca site in the Andes, it is by far the most impressive. In a way, I guess it is also the symbol of everything ‘Inca’ and all the captivating stories about an empire, its people and its end.

And I had become especially enthralled with the story about the last Incas and their magnificent lost city, which had been rediscovered almost 340 years later by Hiram Bingham. (Others had been there before him but had not made much effort to actually clear the site, understand it and promote it.) I love the stories about how Machu Picchu was discovered, about the Incas and the fall of their empire, and the empires that came before that and this beautiful land in which it all took place

The power of the stories connected especially with Machu Picchu becomes even more readily apparent when we consider why Bingham went looking for a lost city in the first place. At a glance what moved him was a fable about a lost city, which few explorers of his kind could have resisted. In fact, as I had learned by reading about him, the promise of some exciting discovery – any discovery – was driving Bingham from very early on.

Hiram Bingham at his tent in 1912, near Machu Picchu

The need for a great discovery

Hiram Bingham was born in 1875 and grew up on Hawaii as a son of fire-and-brimstone missionary parents. His grandfather had almost singlehandedly converted most of the islands to Christianity, and the family had huge prestige and not insignificant wealth until Bingham’s generation, when their fortunes began to wane. I haven’t been able to find out how poor they became,  but obviously they themselves felt that they had fallen much below “their station”. The deploring state of this situation seems to have been something that his parents drummed into the young Hiram  – along with all the restrictions on the mind and behavior of this level of religiosity in the late 19th century. Naturally, he got tired of it.

Only 12 years old, Hiram tried to escape. He withdrew his carefully saved-up college money and tried to catch a ship for the mainland. His audacious plan was to make his way to New York together with a friend, work as a newsboy, and save up enough to become an explorer in Africa. The friend, however, got cold feet and Hiram was picked up on the pier by his father, but the attempt to get away like this spoke volumes about what already stirred in Hiram’s heart: He wanted the freedom to explore a larger world, both in terms of geography and knowledge, and he had the will to do it.

As an adult Bingham studied voraciously and got degrees from Harvard, University of California and Yale. He ended up lecturing South American history at the latter in 1907, even though the academic study of this particular continent was not much in vogue at the time. But although Bingham had been educated in history and politics and not archaeology,  he had become attracted to the mysteries of past peoples, and to finding their remnants – only now he had cast his love on the Andes and not Africa.

Follow the money

From what I read in the foreword to Lost City of the Incas, and in other books about Hiram Bingham, there seems also to have been a strong need for him to rise the economic and social ladders again. And perhaps I can understand.

I mean, if you have been told all your youth that your family was something special in the past, and that its present status isn’t good enough, it is easy to mix that up in your own wishes for a future, isn’t it? Maybe your family history or mine isn’t as glorious as Bingham’s was, but I think we can all relate somehow to the pressure from parents to be more than they were, and this conflict it causes with our need to be our own person and be something different.

So Bingham worked hard to earn a career in academics on the mainland but that wasn’t enough. He apparently needed one discovery that would propel him to an even greater level of fame, or recognition if you will, and – presumably – the money that went with this.

Before that, however, Bingham had to find funding, just like everyone else. In our day we would have called it networking, and Bingham networked all he could to get support for expeditions to Mexico to study the Maya, to Ecuador to study the sources of Napo River and an expedition through the Amazon to find a direct route between La Paz and Manaus.

When he finally got money for an expedition it wasn’t to look for Machu Picchu, and when he found the city it was almost by chance,  during a short and not particularly motivated climb to investigate a local rumor of some “better ruins” than what he had seen before.

Finding Machu Picchu by accident

In Bingham’s 1948 book – Lost City of the Incas  – this short climb becomes a whole other, and much greater, story. It becomes a discovery not unlike one depicted in a Hollywood-movie in  which Indiana Jonas – who Bingham actually appears to have inspired – would have felt right at home in.

However, the modern foreword by Hugh Thomson pricks more than a few pin-holes in the balloon that Bingham over the year blew up about just how dramatic the Machu Picchu-find was in 1911.

For as already mentioned, it was a sheer coincidence that Bingham even heard about the possible location of Machu Picchu. And it had never been his life-long dream to find the lost Inca cities, although he had already crisscrossed South America as an explorer since the early 1900’s. 

A few years before the expedition of 1911, Bingham had been invited to view the Inca ruins of Choquequirao, and did so mostly out of courtesy, since it was an arduous trek. During the trip, however, he was told by his hosts more about ruins that may be hidden further into the jungle and of the stories of a possible last hide-out of the Incas. This piqued his interest.

Even so, when Bingham returned to Peru, finding a lost city was just an ‘add-on’ to the primary goal, which was to study and climb what he then believed to be South America’s highest mountain.

When Bingham finally got on the mule trek to Vitcos, he had only heard about the Machu Picchu site from a drunk local 10 days before and therefore decided to make a short stop there. He only started climbing up to see if there was anything to see at around 10 o’clock, and didn’t bring any lunch. None of his colleagues cared to join him. Neither they, nor he, appeared at the time to have had high hopes he would see anything at all, except for more jungle and more mist-enshrouded mountain peaks.

“The most important ruin”

But one day hundreds of years later – 24 July 1911 – Hiram Bingham stood face to face with something that could have been one of these lost cities …

“Presently we found ourselves in the midst of a tropical forest, beneath the shade of whose trees we could make out a maze of ancient walls, the ruins of buildings made of blocks of granite, some of which were beautifully fitted together in the most refined style of Inca architecture. A few rods farther along we came to a little open space, on which were two splendid temples or palaces. The superior character of the stone work, the presence of these splendid edifices, and of what appeared to be an unusually large number of finely constructed stone dwellings, led me to believe that Machu Picchu might prove to be the largest and most important ruin discovered in South America since the days of the Spanish conquest.”

These observations of are from his April 1913 article to National Geographic, and already a little embellishment is taking place. For example, did Bingham really understand that this was “the most important ruin” the first time he stood there?

If he did, he neglected to say it to his comrade Harry Foote, who didn’t even care to mention the climb to Machu Picchu in his diary. He also moved on the next day, a pretty amazing thing to do if you had just found ruins of such importance. According to a biography by his son, Alfred Bingham, he was actually more excited at this time by ancient bones he had found in a glacial deposit near Cuzco some time earlier. He hoped these might be relics of early humans of antiquity.

Bingham did later send some people back to clear more of Machu Picchu, though. And as the number of revelations from the site grew, he realized he had to return. He did so several times in the 1910s, and soon Machu Picchu had become the only discovery on Bingham’s exploration agenda.

Bingham wrote more and lengthier accounts of his find than the articles to National Geographic, e.g. the book Inca Land in 1922. Each time the story gets a little bit better and some omissions begin to seep in, for example Bingham making much of his team’s efforts to clear the ruins during their time in these, when in fact most of the undergrowth had already been cleared by local farmers.

Also, when writing Lost City of the Incas  in 1948 Bingham had become quite adept at using literary devices to spiff up his story, even if some of them are a bit disingenuous – like his remarks that he thought his mules could have fallen down from a ridge, although humans would have a far larger risk of slipping – or his description of an encounter with what could have been a dangerous snake but is in fact dead, killed by a local peasant. And so on.

But perhaps it was understandable (and quite human) that Bingham in the following decades couldn’t help ‘improving’ the account of what at first appeared to have been another routine day, because the enormity and importance of Machu Picchu had by then become clear.

In the end, Machu Picchu turned out to be neither Vitcos, nor Vilcabamba, but as a living reminder of the both beautiful and brutal past of the Incas it became more important than any of them.

My moment

We have arrived after enduring a slalom-like bus-ride up the mountain. We have entered through the gates. At first there is just a path alongside the top of the mountain. Then we turn a corner and the first terraces begin to emerge from the mist … and then more … and more. Then buildings. Temples. Plazas. And to our side, the deep fall down the mountainside to the Urubamba. Beyond the river … Machu Picchu’s brothers and sisters, jungle-covered mountains, islands jutting billowing waves of mist. Machu Picchu looms in front of the storyteller – me – and I decide to try to let go and enjoy it fully, because it is impossible not to.

I smile a little as I put on hold my thinking about Bingham and how he polished his story of the discovery and which parts of it were more ‘true’. I let it sink in that I stand in much the same place, as he did a hundred years ago. But his work lets me compress that moment of wonder about Machu Picchu into the here and now. I don’t have to cut away any additional jungle vines to fully appreciate the marvel that is before me. I can dive right in. And so I do. I explore the ruins and feel like a child again, totally allowing the experience to enthrall me.

And before I take the first steps into this ‘lost world’, my last thought goes back one last time to to old Hiram, sitting there at the desk, propping up his memories. And I tell him: ‘Hey, you were right in making the find of this city to as good a story as possible.’

Machu Picchu deserves nothing less.