The exquisite architecture of the massive inca stone structures, the formidable backdrop of steep sugarloaf hills and the Urubamba river winding far below have made Machu Picchu the iconic symbol of Peru. It's a mystical city, the most famous archeological site in South America, and one of the world's must-see destinations.
The world did not become aware of Machu Picchu's existence until 1911 when yale university historian hiram Bingham (1875-1956) announced that he had "discovered" the site. "Rediscovery" is a more accurate term; area residents knew of Machu Picchu's existence all along. This "lost city of the inca" was missed by the ravaging conquistadors and survived untouched until the beginning of the 20th century.
You'll be acutely aware that the world has since discovered Machu Picchu if you visit during the june-mid-september high season. Machu Picchu absorbs the huge numbers of visitors, though, and even in the highest of the high season, its beauty is so spectacular that it rarely disappoints.
American explorer and historian Hiram Bingham, with the aid of local guides, came across the lost city in 1911.Though the name appeared on maps as early as 1860,previous attempts to find the site failed. Bingham erred in recognizing what he had uncovered the historian assumed he had stumbled upon Vilcabamba, the last real stronghold of the inca. (The actual ruins of Vilcabamba lie deep in the rain forest,and were uncovered in the 1960s)
Bingham, who later served as governor of and senator from connecticut, transported-some say stole-many of Machu Picchu's artifacts to yale in 1912. They are still on display at the peabody museum. The museum is in no hurry to give them back, but negotiations, often contentious, are under way to return some of the treasures to Peru.
In 1915, Bingham announced his discovery of the Inca Trail. As with Machu Picchu, his "Discovery" was a little disingenuous. Locals knew about the trail, and that it had served as a supply route between Cusco and Machu Picchu during inca times. Parts of it were used during the colonial and early republican eras as well.
Though archaelogical adventuring is viewed differently now, bingham's slog to find Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail was no easy feat. Look up from aguas calientes, and you still won't know it's there.
Ever since bingham came across Machu Picchu, its history has been debated. It was likely a small city of some 200 homes and 1000 residents, with agricultural terraces to supply the population's needs and a strategic position that overlooked-but could not be seen from-the valley floor.
New theories suggest that the city was a transit station for products, such as coca and hearts of palm that were grown in the lowlands and sent to Cusco. Exactly when Machu Picchu was built is not known, but one theory suggests that it was a country estate of an inca ruler named pachacuti, which means its golden age was in the mid-15th century.
Historians have discredited the romantinc theory of Machu Picchu as a refuge of the chosen inca women after the spanish conquest; analysis shows a 50/50 split of male and female remains.
The site's belated discovery may indicate that the inca deserted Machu Picchu before the spanish conquest. The reason for the city's presumed abandonment is as mysterious as its original function. Some archaeologists suggest that the water supply simply ran our.
Some guess that disease ravaged the city. Others surmise ir was the death of Pachacutec, after which his estate was no longer needed.