“[A]n unexpected sight, a great flight of beautifully constructed stone terraces, perhaps a hundred of them, each hundreds of feet long and 10 feet high.”
— Hiram Bingham III
Peru will forever be associated with the Inca civilization that flourished here in the 15th and early 16th centuries CE. An agricultural people, the Inca remarkably managed to thrive without the use of the wheel, currency, or a formal system of writing. During the empire’s zenith, the Inca built brilliant, mysterious architectural accomplishments. Machu Picchu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, is a prime example.
Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro, in search of Incan gold, arrived in Peru around 1530 — just as the Inca finished fighting a debilitating civil war that weakened their society. His timing was ideal for conquest; soon, the Inca were gone without a written trace. However, they did leave evidence of their existence: the ruins of Machu Picchu, hidden amid the tangled vines of the Urubamba jungle.
Fast forward 400 years to 1911 when Hiram Bingham III, an academic, explorer, and amateur archaeologist from Yale University, heard rumors of a lost city in Peru. Intrigued by the notion of lost and hidden cities, Bingham put together an expedition team and — using money from his wife Alfreda Mitchell, an heiress of the Tiffany jewelry family — headed to South America. He hired a local Quechua guide in Cuzco to lead his group to Vitcos, the last refuge of the Inca. They traveled for six days on foot and by mule in drizzling rain, and climbed 2,000 feet up a dangerous slope, stumbling upon the overgrown ruins of Machu Picchu (meaning “Old Peak” in Quechua). Bingham thought he had found Vilcabamba, the last capital of the Inca.
During the next few months, Bingham’s team uncovered houses, temples, towers, canals, terraces, and steps that were partially buried amid the dense vegetation. One of the temples had three large windows — rare in classic Incan architecture — and Bingham believed it signified the importance of the site. Even today there is a debate raging among scholars as to whether the ruins were the birthplace of the Inca Empire, a religious ceremonial center, or a military citadel. Because the Inca disappeared without a written record, that question may never be answered.
Bingham did eventually find Vitcos. He also went on to lead three more expeditions to Peru, returning with more than 5,000 artifacts. These were displayed at Yale until the Peruvian government asked for their return in 2007.
Although local Incan descendants knew of Machu Picchu and even occasionally farmed small crops on its terraces, it was Bingham who revealed it to the larger world. In a 1913 issue of National Geographic, he wrote, “Machu Picchu might prove to be the largest and most important ruin discovered in South America since the days of the Spanish conquest.” He was right.
Experience this awe-inspiring wonder for yourself on Vantage Travel’s Machu Picchu & the Galapagos: Lost City of the Inca, Living Wonder of Nature.