Published: April 1913

Rediscovering Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

In the Wonderland of Peru

The Work Accomplished by the Peruvian Expedition of 1912, under the Auspices of Yale University and the National Geographic Society.

By Hiram Bingham, Director of the Expedition
Photograph by Hiram Bingham

This article was originally published in the April 1913 National Geographic and retains the original language and spellings.

Editor's Note

Prof. Hiram Bingham's explorations in South America, 1906-1911, and particularly his discoveries in 1911, were so important that when he was seeking funds for another Peruvian expedition in 1912, the Research Committee of the National Geographic Society made him a grant of $10,000, Yale University contributing an equal amount. His preliminary report to the National Geographic Society and Yale University of the work done in 1912 is printed herewith, and forms one of the most remarkable stories of exploration in South America in the past 50 years. The members of the Society are extremely gratified at the splendid record which Dr. Bingham and all the members of the expedition have made, and as we study the 250 marvelous pictures which are printed with this report, we also are thrilled by the wonders and mystery of Machu Picchu. What an extraordinary people the builders of Machu Picchu must have been to have constructed, without steel implements, and using only stone hammers and wedges, the wonderful city of refuge on the mountain top. —Gilbert H. Grosvenor, Editor

The City of Machu Picchu, the Cradle of the Inca Empire

In 1911, while engaged in a search for Vitcos, the last Inca capital, I went down the Urubamba Valley asking for reports as to the whereabouts of ruins.

The first day out from Cuzco saw us in Urubamba, the capital of a province, a modern town charmingly located a few miles below Yucay, which was famous for being the most highly prized winter resort of the Cuzco Incas. The next day brought us to Ollantaytambo, vividly described by Squier in his interesting book on Peru. Its ancient fortress, perched on a rocky eminence that commands a magnificent view up and down the valley, is still one of the most attractive ancient monuments in America.

Continuing on down the valley over a newly constructed government trail, we found ourselves in a wonderful cañon. So lofty are the peaks on either side that although the trail was frequently shadowed by dense tropical jungle, many of the mountains were capped with snow, and some of them had glaciers. There is no valley in South America that has such varied beauties and so many charms.

Not only has it snow-capped peaks, great granite precipices, some of them 2,000 feet sheer, and a dense tropical jungle; it has also many reminders of the architectural achievements of a bygone race. The roaring rapids of the Urubamba are frequently narrowed by skillfully constructed ancient retaining walls. Wherever the encroaching precipices permitted it, the land between them and the river was terraced. With painstaking care the ancient inhabitants rescued every available strip of arable land from the river. On one sightly bend in the river, where there is a particularly good view, and near a foaming waterfall, some ancient chief built a temple whose walls, still standing, only serve to tantalize the traveler, for there is no bridge within two days' journey and the intervening rapids are impassable. On a precipitous and well-nigh impregnable cliff, walls made of stones carefully fitted together had been placed in the weak spots, so that the defenders of the valley, standing on the top of the cliff, might shower rocks on an attacking force without any danger of their enemies being able to scale the cliff.

The road, following in large part an ancient footpath, is sometimes cut out of the side of sheer precipices, and at others is obliged to run on frail brackets propped against the side of overhanging cliffs. It has been an expensive one to build and will be expensive to maintain. The lack of it prevented earlier explorers from penetrating this cañon. Its existence gave us the chance of discovering Machu Picchu.

On the sixth day out from Cuzco we arrived at a little plantation called Mandorpampa. We camped a few rods away from the owner's grass-thatched hut, and it was not long before he came to visit us and to inquire our business. He turned out to be an Indian rather better than the average, but overfond of "fire-water." His occupation consisted in selling grass and pasturage to passing travelers and in occasionally providing them with ardent spirits. He said that on top of the magnificent precipices nearby there were some ruins at a place called Machu Picchu, and that there were others still more inaccessible at Huayna Picchu, on a peak not far distant from our camp. He offered to show me the ruins, which he had once visited, if I would pay him well for his services. His idea of proper payment was 50 cents for his day's labor. This did not seem unreasonable, although it was two and one-half times his usual day's wage.

Leaving camp soon after breakfast I joined the guide, and, accompanied by a soldier that had been kindly loaned me by the Peruvian government, plunged through the jungle to the river bank, and came to a shaky little bridge made of four tree trunks bound together with vines and stretching across a stream only a few inches above the roaring rapids.

On the other side we had a hard climb; first through the jungle and later up a very stiff, almost precipitous, slope. About noon we reached a little grass hut, where a good-natured Indian family who had been living here for three or four years gave us welcome and set before us gourds full of cool, delicious water and a few cold boiled sweet potatoes.

Apart from another hut in the vicinity and a few stone-faced terraces, there seemed to be little in the way of ruins, and I began to think that my time had been wasted. However, the view was magnificent, the water was delicious; and the shade of the hut most agreeable. So we rested a while and then went on to the top of the ridge. On all sides of us rose the magnificent peaks of the Urubamba Cañon, while 2,000 feet below us the rushing waters of the noisy river, making a great turn, defended three sides of the ridge, on top of which we were hunting for ruins. On the west side of the ridge the three Indian families who had chosen this eagle's nest for their home had built a little path, part of which consisted of crude ladders of vines and tree trunks tied to the face of the precipice.

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.

A few weeks later I asked Mr. H. L. Tucker, the engineer of the 1911 Expedition, and Mr. Paul Baxter Lanius, the assistant, to go to Machu Picchu and spend three weeks there in an effort to partially clear the ruins and make such a map as was possible in the time at their disposal. The result of this work confirmed me in my belief that here lay a unique opportunity for extensive clearing and excavating.

The fact that one of the most important buildings was marked by three large windows, a rare feature in Peruvian architecture, and that many of the other buildings had windows, added to the significant circumstance that the city was located in the most inaccessible part of the Andes, inclined me to feel that there was a chance that Machu Picchu might prove to be Tampu Tocco, that mythical place from which the Incas had come when they started out to found Cuzco and to make the beginnings of that great empire which was to embrace a large part of South America.

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