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Machu Picchu is an extraordinary ancient stone city along the Inca Trail in Peru and forms one of the most famous historical sites in the world.
History of Machu Picchu
Believed to have been constructed by the Inca Yupanqui people sometime during the mid-fifteenth century for the then-emperor Pachacuti, the ruins of Machu Picchu sit high atop a granite mountain. The high standard of engineering and construction employed by the Incas, such as the fact that each stone on the site fits together seamlessly, accounts for Machu Picchu’s incredible state of preservation.
Believed to have a population of just under 1000 people, many of whom were immigrants, the site was primarily for the emperor’s enjoyment and pleasure. Past speculation has included theories such as that Machu Picchu was a mostly female city and that it was built as a last attempt by the Incas to preserve their culture. The former of these theories was due to the fact that, of the hundred skeletons found in Machu Picchu’s fifty burial sites, 80% were initially believed to be female, although this has since been disproven.
Animals were brought here for food and pelts – primarily llamas, alpacas and guinea pigs – and the surrounding terraces would have been used to grow food. These were an impressive feat of engineering given the site’s location: Machu Picchu’s location meant it received high levels of rainfall, so additional drainage had to be built into the soil.
The site was never discovered by the Spanish, and it was gradually reclaimed by jungle growth. It’s thought it might have been rediscovered in the mid 19th century, but the American explorer Hiram Bingham is generally credited with the site’s discovery in 1911. Bingham led several further expeditions to the site in the subsequent years, and excavations continued throughout the 20th century.
Machu Picchu today
The site is world-famous, and rightly so: even the most jaded traveller has their breath taken away by the city appearing in the clouds. However, Machu Picchu is increasingly at risk from over-tourism as up to 6000 visitors a day are now permitted to visit the site. Responsible tourism is very much key: if you want to visit, you’ll need to book a slot well in advance or risk disappointment.
The site is big and there’s plenty to explore – make sure you get the full view by climbing to Huayna Picchu. You’ll need to book in advance but the views are fabulous and help comprehend the enormous site and its layout. Other highlights include the Intihuatana stone, which accurately indicates the position of the sun, and the Royal Tomb, which had over 100 skeletons excavated from it.
Some of Machu Picchu’s most impressive structures include the semi-circular Temple of the Sun, the Temple of the Three Windows, the mausoleum and the upper cemetery. There are various trails around the site which are good hiking if you haven’t arrived via the Inca Trail.
As of 2019, you must enter with a guide – some might find it annoying but it’s actually highly beneficial in terms of understanding the importance of the site.
Getting to Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu is at the end of the notorious Inca Trail – a gruelling 40km hike up Andean mountains. It normally takes 4 days to complete, and you must have a permit. You can do this via a tour company or on your own. Many consider it well worth the effort: arriving at Machu Picchu for dawn is a magical experience and makes the trek seem extremely worthwhile!
It’s also possible to get the train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, which is the option most visitors choose – it will be busy, but it’s not physically taxing.
Machu Picchu: Facts & History
Machu Picchu is a 15th-century Inca site located on a ridge between the Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu mountains in Peru. It sits 7,970 feet (2,430 meters) above sea level on the eastern slope of the Andes and overlooks the Urubamba River hundreds of feet below.
The site’s excellent preservation, the quality of its architecture, and the breathtaking mountain vista it occupies has made Machu Picchu one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world today. The site covers 80,000 acres (32,500 hectares). Terraced fields on the edge of the site were once used for growing crops, likely maize and potatoes.
In 1911, explorer Hiram Bingham III, a professor at Yale University, visited the site and published its existence for the first time. He found it covered with vegetation, much of which has now been removed. The buildings were made without mortar (typical of the Inca), their granite stones quarried and precisely cut.
When Bingham discovered the site he was actually searching for Vilcabamba, the last capital of the Inca before their final defeat at the hands of the Spanish in 1572.
The explorer found Machu Picchu largely intact, having apparently never been visited by the Spanish conquistadors. In fact, the only reference to the site at all in Spanish documents is a mention of the word &ldquoPicchu&rdquo in a 1568 document, the text implying that it belonged to the Inca emperor.
The history of Machu Picchu is complex and fascinating, and before you arrive at the Lost City of the Incas, you might be interested in learning about it. This site is not only an impressive remnant of the Inca civilization it is also one of the world's most important archeological sites. It should come as no surprise how many travelers plan hiking tours to reach the lost city, but how many of them know what they're looking at? A little background can go a long way to enhancing your visit to Machu Picchu.
One incredible fact about Machu Picchu is that although it was built in the 1400s, it was hardly known of outside the region until 1911. An American professor named Hiram Bingham found the site despite the fact that the Incans did a thorough job at keeping secret the lost city, which is located nearly 8,000 feet above sea level. Once this discovery occurred, a wealth of information about the history of Machu Picchu was uncovered. There were 135 skeletons that were found at the site, and more than 100 were women. Archaeologists have speculated that Machu Picchu was a temple or sanctuary for high priests and women who have been referred to as Virgins of the Sun, though more recent research has convinced many that it was built as an estate for the Incan emperor Pachacuti, who ruled from 1438 until 1471 or 1472.
There are many intriguing aspects of the history of Machu Picchu, with one of the most fascinating being the relatively small period of its use. This intricate and beautiful complex was built at the height of the Inca Empire, but it was in use for less than 100 years-around the time of the Spanish conquest of Peru, in the early sixteenth century, Machu Picchu was abandoned. After its rediscovery, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983, and the visitors have not stopped arriving since, as the iconic peaks of Machu Picchu are among the most dazzling archaeological sites worldwide.
This site has helped historians to learn more about the Inca civilization. Archaeologists have divided all the sections of the site into three categories: religious, agricultural, and urban. If you hire a guide during your trip to Machu Picchu, you will always know what you're looking at. Examples of some elements of the larger site include Great Central Temple, known for its intricate stonework. Nearby is the Temple of the Sun where the best stonework of the whole archeological site can be found. When you visit Machu Picchu, be prepared to climb steps that reveal astounding views of the whole valley.
Another interesting historical fact that perhaps saved important details about the Inca civilization is the fact that the Spanish conquerors never found Machu Picchu. While the Spanish were responsible for plundering many other Incan sites, this most sacred site remained a secret. Over the course of centuries, much of the site became overgrown. While it was known by the local people, it wasn't discovered for the rest of the world until 1911 when an 11-year-old boy led Professor Bingham to the site. Bingham called his book about the ruins The Lost City of the Incas-it makes for fascinating reading before a trip to Peru if you want to arrive well versed in the history of Machu Picchu.
History 101: Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu is a testament to the power and ingenuity of the Inca empire. Built without the use of mortar, metal tools, or the wheel, Machu Picchu stands as an archaeological wonder of the ancient world. But why was it built—and deserted?
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Students study a map to gain familiarity with the Babylonian and Neo-Babylonian empires and those that came between them.
Deserts are areas that receive very little precipitation.
Deserts may seem lifeless, but in fact many species have evolved special ways to survive in the harsh environments.
Students study a map to gain familiarity with the Babylonian and Neo-Babylonian empires and those that came between them.
Deserts are areas that receive very little precipitation.
Deserts may seem lifeless, but in fact many species have evolved special ways to survive in the harsh environments.
About Hiram Bingham & Machu Picchu Discovery
It is known that Hiram Bingham, a descendant of missionaries, was the man who found Machu Picchu for the contemporary world and modern science. He was a North-American historian born in Honolulu, Hawaii who in 1907 taught the South-American History and Geography course in Yale University. Later he was chosen as delegate of his country to the First Pan-American Scientific Congress carried out in Chile in 1908.
By that epoch he began his activities as explorer taking a horseback journey from Caracas to Bogota, following the Simon Bolivar’s way. Then he followed the old colonial trade way from Buenos Aires to Lima, arriving to this Andean zone in 1909 it is in that year when from Abancay he started with his first exploration towards Choquekirau, trying to find the last Inkan Capital. By that time many myths had been created about the possibility of finding the “Inkas’ treasures” that according to tradition had been taken by Manko Inka is his retreat to Willkapanpa (willka = sacred, panpa = plain its Spanish form is “Vilcabamba”) thus it was so common by that epoch to find treasure hunters willing to get to this last Inkas’ dwelling. That same intention moved Bingham to study chronicles and even to visit Spanish archives, and subsequently in 1911 to come back to Peru with the aim of performing studies of geology and botany, and for sure, also in order to try finding Willkapanpa.
In Qosqo, Albert Giesecke, a compatriot of his and rector of the local University had put him in touch with Braulio Polo y la Borda, owner of Mandor. That local landlord told Bingham that on the hill in front of his property there were ancient constructions covered by vegetation where cattle were frequently lost and moreover, he introduced Bingham to Eduardo Lizarraga, a farmland renter living in the area since the 70s of the 19th century, who had seen the buildings.
On July 23, 1911 Bingham showed up in Mandor along with a policeman, Sergeant Carrasco, who escorted him by order of Qosqo’s Prefect Juan Jose Nuñez. They found in his hut the peasant Melchor Arteaga who told Bingham about the existence of two Inkan sites named Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu that same peasant was hired by Bingham to be the guide in order to get to the Inkan City.
The next day, after examining the field they decided to climb up by the sector where nowadays is the zigzagging road. After noon they arrived at another hut where they found Anacleto Alvarez and Toribio Recharte they were two humble peasants who along with their families lived in the area and cultivated the pre-Hispanic farming terraces. After a short break, they provided a boy as the guide for Bingham in order to have a first look of the Inkan buildings that were completely covered with entangled vegetation. That was how Bingham, at 35 years old, stumbled onto Machu Picchu a fortuitous happening that made manifest a great “discovery”. Later he continued with his trip arriving even as far as Rosaspata, Ñust’a Hisp’ana, Pampaconas and Espiritu Pampa places that apparently did not attract the explorer so much.
Almost immediately after his first exploration, he went back to the USA looking for economic support that was granted to him by the Yale University and the National Geographic Society. Subsequently, the Peruvian government in Lima facing Bingham’s request in order to execute works in Machu Picchu, by means of law given on October 31, 1912, authorized him to carry out his projected works.
According to the fourth article of that authorization Bingham could freely take out of the country all the obtained pieces during his explorations, but with commitment of giving them back to Peru’s simple petition. Authorization in the name of “international etiquette” that infringed some legal rules and caused irreparable damage to Peru’s cultural heritage.
What is the Machu Picchu altitude?
What many travelers don’t initially know is that Machu Picchu is significantly lower in altitude than Cusco, even though only about 50 miles (80 kilometers) separates them.
Altitude Machu Picchu: 2,430 metres (7,970 ft) above the sea level
Here, at a lower altitude in a more tropical region where the highlands meet the Amazon, the weather is more temperate than in Cusco.
Weather Machu Picchu: Generally warm and humid during the day and cool during the night. Temperatures range between 52 and 81 degrees Fahrenheit (11 and 27 degrees Celsius). This zone is normally rainy (1955 mm), especially between November and March.
What Was Machu Picchu For? Top Five Theories Explained
Popular ideas include a royal retreat and sacred memorial.
Nestled atop a mountain ridge in Peru, the 15th-century Inca city of Machu Picchu had sat largely forgotten for centuries—until archaeologist Hiram Bingham began excavations of the ruins a hundred years ago this week.
Now one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, Machu Picchu's original purpose is still unknown—though many archaeologists think they are closer to finding an answer. (Take a Machu Picchu quiz.)
Here are some of the top theories about Machu Picchu proposed—and in some cases disproven—in the century since its "rediscovery."
1) Machu Picchu Was the Last Inca City
During his lifetime, Bingham, of Yale University, had two theories regarding the purpose of Machu Picchu. The first—that it was the birthplace of Inca society—came about when he was led to the site by local farmers in 1911.
Bingham later modified that theory and suggested the site was also the legendary "lost city" of Vilcabamba la Vieja, where the last of the independent Inca rulers waged a lengthy battle against Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century.
Bingham was wrong on both counts, however. Archaeologists now know the actual "last refuge" was located in Espíritu Pampa, a jungle site about 80 miles (130 kilometers) west of the Inca capital city of Cusco (see map).
Ironically, Bingham visited Espíritu Pampa in 1911, but he decided the site was too small and not grand enough to be the legendary city.
Later excavations in the 1960s and extensive mapping in the 1980s by Vincent Lee, a Colorado-based architect and Andean explorer, revealed Espíritu Pampa to be far bigger than Bingham thought.
"It turns out there were 400 to 500 buildings at the site . but Bingham had only seen about 20," Lee said.
The indigenous peoples Bingham encountered at Espíritu Pampa had an alternative name for the site: Vilcabamba Grande.
This should have been a clue to Bingham that the site was much bigger and more important than what he was seeing, Lee suggested.
Bingham "had found the Inca's last refuge he was looking for, but it just wasn't as fancy as he expected it to be."
2) Machu Picchu Was a Holy Nunnery
Bingham also speculated that Machu Picchu might have been a temple devoted to the Virgins of the Sun, a holy order of chosen women dedicated to the Inca sun god, Inti.
This theory was largely based on dozens of skeletons Bingham's team found buried at the site. U.S. osteologist George Eaton said in the early 20th century that the remains were nearly all females.
"I think Bingham's idea of Vilcabamba [the last Inca city] came first, because that's what he was actively looking for," said John Verano, an anthropologist at Tulane University in New Orleans.
"The Virgins idea probably came later, when he saw Eaton's results."
This theory was also debunked in 2000, when Verano, then at Yale, examined the remains and found that the skeletons were about half males and half females. Verano's analysis was based on skeletal differences between the genders that were not known during Eaton's time.
Verano thinks Eaton may have been misled by the relatively diminutive size of the Andean people, who are typically shorter and less robust than the European and African skeletons with which Eaton would have been more familiar.
"He probably saw the small bones and assumed they must be female," he said.
Interestingly, Eaton correctly noted that some of the Machu Picchu skeletons belonged to infants and children. But rather than viewing them as evidence contradicting Bingham's theory, he attributed the child remains to "indiscretions" by some of the holy virgins, Verano said.
Archaeologists now generally agree that the skeletons at Machu Picchu were not those of Inca priestesses, but rather helpers who were brought in from all over the Inca Empire to serve at the site.
"If you thought of Machu Picchu as a royal hotel or a time-share condo for the Inca emperor and his guests, then these were the staff who cooked the food, grew the crops, and cleaned the place," Verano said.
3) Machu Picchu Was a Royal Retreat
Verano's interpretation of the Machu Picchu skeletons is consistent with one of the most popular theories about the site: that it was the royal retreat of the 15th-century Inca Emperor Pachacuti.
According to this idea, Machu Picchu was a place for Pachacuti and his royal court, or panaca, to relax, hunt, and entertain guests.
"The members of Pachacuti's panaca may have lived there during the year for a few days, weeks, or months," said Guillermo Cock, a Lima-based archaeologist who has also received funding from the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration. (The Society owns National Geographic News.)
The "royal estate" theory, first proposed in the 1980s, is largely based on a 16th-century Spanish document that referred to a royal estate called Picchu, which was built in the same general area as Machu Picchu.
4) Machu Picchu Was a Re-creation of the Inca Creation Myth
Other scholars have speculated that the Inca had a more spiritual purpose in mind when they built Machu Picchu.
A 2009 study by Giulio Magli, an astrophysicist at the Polytechnic Institute in Milan, Italy, postulated that the site was a scaled-down version of a mythic landscape from the Inca religion.
According to Magli, Machu Picchu was a pilgrimage site where worshipers could symbolically relive a harrowing journey purportedly taken by their ancestors. That trek began in Bolivia's Lake Titicaca and continued beneath the earth before emerging at a place close to Cusco.
5) Machu Picchu Was Built to Honor a Sacred Landscape
According to another theory, proposed by archaeologist and anthropologist Johan Reinhard in his 1991 book Machu Picchu: Exploring an Ancient Sacred Center, Machu Picchu occupied a special place in the "sacred landscape" of the Inca.
For example, Machu Picchu is built atop a mountain that is almost completely encircled by the Urubamba River, which the Inca named the Vilcamayo, or Sacred River.
Reinhard also pointed out that the rising and setting of the sun, when viewed from specific locations within Machu Picchu, aligns neatly with religiously significant mountains during the solstices and equinoxes. The Inca believed the sun to be their divine ancestor.
"It's an example of cosmology intertwining with sacred landscape that is virtually unique in the Andes . [and] that takes on a degree of sacrality because it combines the Earth and the sky, which are also combined in Incan thought," said Reinhard, who is also a National Geographic explorer-in-residence.
While most theories about Machu Picchu emphasize either a utilitarian or spiritual aspect for the site, Reinhard and other scholars say the two ideas need not be mutually exclusive. (See Machu Picchu pictures submitted by National Geographic fans.)
"It probably was a royal [retreat] . but to say it's a retreat . doesn't tell me why it is where it is, and why so much effort went into building it," Reinhard said.
Peruvian archaeologist Cock noted that unlike many cultures today, the Inca did not distinguish between church and state, so the notion that a site could serve dual purposes would not have been unusual.
"For the Incas, the two ideas were integrated," he said. "Anywhere the emperor lived was sacred, because he was sacred."
Modern research has continued to modify, correct, and mold the legend of Machu Picchu. Research conducted by John Rowe, Richard Burger, and Lucy Salazar-Burger indicates that rather than being a defensive stronghold, Machu Picchu was a retreat built by and for the Inca ruler Pachacuti. Burger has suggested it was built for elites wanting to escape the noise and congestion of the city.
Brian Bauer, an expert in Andean civilization at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a National Geographic grantee, says Machu Picchu—which was built around A.D. 1450—was, in fact, relatively small by Inca standards and maintained only about 500 to 750 people.
One thing is certain, says Bauer, archaeological evidence makes it clear that the Inca weren't the only people to live at Machu Picchu. The evidence shows, for instance, varying kinds of head modeling, a practice associated with peoples from coastal regions as well as in some areas of the highlands. Additionally, ceramics crafted by a variety of peoples, even some from as far as Lake Titicaca, have been found at the site.
"All this suggests that many of the people who lived and died at Machu Picchu may have been from different areas of the empire," Bauer says.
As for farming, Machu Picchu's residents likely made use of the grand terraces surrounding it. But experts say these terraces alone couldn't have sustained the estimated population of the day and that farming most likely also took place in the surrounding hills.
Dr. Johan Reinhard, a National Geographic explorer-in-residence, has spent years studying ceremonial Inca sites at extreme altitudes. He's gathered information from historical, archaeological, and ethnographical sources to demonstrate that Machu Picchu was built in the center of a sacred landscape.
Machu Picchu is nearly surrounded by the Urubamba River, which is revered by people in the region still today. The mountains that cradle the site also are important sacred landforms. "Taken together, these features have meant that Machu Picchu formed a cosmological, hydrological, and sacred geographical center for a vast region," Reinhard says.
Scholars have estimated that Machu Picchu was built around 1450 A.D. This places the construction of the site under the rule of Pachacútec, who was also responsible for building Sacsayhuaman as well many other remarkably important Inca structures and urban complexes, and otherwise expanding the frontiers of the limited Inca state beyond the boundaries of the Southern highlands – turning it into the Empire Incas are known for. In fact, it has been suggested that the site itself was a Pachacútec’s private property – part of the “royal estates” that were assigned to ruling Inca families or panacas upon the rise of a member to the “throne.”
Machu Picchu was far from being a secret place and therefore was definitely not the “lost city” that Spaniards were seeking. Its geographic location and strategic position turned the place into a main gateway for connecting the upper highlands around the immediate Cusco region with the lowlands and rainforest. As it is well known,much of the success of the Inca state was based in its capacity of fostering trade among distant posts of the Andes, hence mastering the ecological control of what has been called a “vertical archipelago” – meaning the varying altitudinal layers of production that conform the Andes – and therefore guaranteeing access to multiple products coming from different regions. Therefore, building a site that represented political centralization, organized religious practices, systematized production of crops, and at the same timed provided semi-permanent and permanent lodging for transiting and colonizing communities, in such a pivotal location was deemed crucial.
Agricultural terraces once used by the Incas can be seen en route to Machu Picchu.
Photo by Richard Vignola/Flickr
The building of the site still remains as a matter of controversy. While many stories have been deployed to explain the architectural and hydraulic achievements of Machu Picchu, what seems indisputable is the use of tributary communities from neighboring regions seasonally mobilized to transport much of the stone used in the building process. This stone is mostly white graphite, and came from quarries located a few hundred meters below the actual location of the complex. The stone was shaped with bronze instruments and polished with sand, which made the process more labor demanding.
Machu Picchu Tours:
Machu Picchu upon arrival, before the cleaning process.
Photograph by Hiram Bingham, 1911
As it is also well known, production and religion were – and some might say still are – intimately linked. Thus it is no surprise that another important use of Machu Picchu was worshiping. The site also preserves clear signs of having been used as a major sanctuary. Scholars indicate that special women – called acllas– were raised and educated in Machu Picchu and remained there devoted to supplement agricultural activities with the much-needed spiritual framework. In fact, out of 135 human corpses recovered from the archeological work, more than one hundred belonged to women of a seemingly young age.
This also indicates seasonal populations were not as present during times of decline and final abandonment of the complex, something that posits more questions than answers. Specialists again speculate that royal estates faced decline when the ruling Inca died, and such was the destiny of Machu Picchu. By the end of Pachacútec’s rule (1471), and the rise of Túpac Inca Yupanqui (1471-1493), a member of a rivaling panaca, Machu Picchu was progressively abandoned and solely remained as a retirement place for members of Pachacútec’s family. At this point, the site gradually lost preeminence amidst trading and worshipping posts of the Inca state. By the time of the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors little was known about the the importance Machu Picchu once held, and its memory became lost in the narrative of the conquest of Peru.
Brief History of Machu Picchu
After the conquest of Peru by the Spanish, the rebellious Inca Manco Capac II secretly slipped away from Cusco in the night and retreated northwest beyond Ollantaytambo and into the depths of the jungle where he established a town called Vilcabamba. It was from this base that the last of the Incas attacked the Spaniards in Cusco for the next 36 years. In 1572 the Spanish eventually lost their patience and mounted a brutal invasion against the Inca resistance. They attacked Vilcabamba and finally brought the last Inca Tupac Amaru (Manco's heir and half brother) back to Cusco in chains where he was executed in the Plaza de Armas. Many of his potential heirs and family were either executed or dispersed, putting to rest the Inca dynasty for good. With time the location of the abandoned town of Vilcabamba became forgotten all apart from a few ambiguous maps and clues left by some Spanish chroniclers.
Hiram Bingham, a doctor in philosophy and history at Yale University, became fascinated with Inca archaeology and stories of lost cities when he was visiting Peru in 1909 whilst retracing the footsteps of Simon Bolivar (South America's great liberator). He returned to Peru in 1911 with a seven man expedition sponsored by Yale University and the National Geographical Society.
Leaving Cusco in July 1911 Bingham and his team set out in the direction of the jungle, heading down the Urubamba Valley. Bingham had previously spent time in Lima reading through the many Spanish manuscripts. He was convinced that lost cities, Inca ruins and possibly unmentionable treasures lay somewhere in this part of Peru. Almost immediately the group discovered a major Inca site which they named Patallacta (also called Llactapata). This ruin can be found at the start of the Inca Trail at the junction of the Cusichaca and Vilcanota River. Bingham and his companions travelled on.
On 23 July 1911, only a week into the expedition, the group camped at Mandorpampa, a few kilometres further along the Vilcanota River Valley than the present day village of Aguas Calientes. By chance they got talking to Melchor Artega, the owner of a local hacienda. Bingham was told of some fine ruins high up in the hills on the other side of the river and Artega was willing to take them there. The next day it rained and only Bingham had the enthusiasm to climb the steep side of the mountain, accompanied by Artega.
To his surprise at the top he was greeted by two locals, Toribio Richarte and Anacleto Alvarez, who had been living up on the mountainside for a few years to avoid the police and tax collectors. After a short rest the men led Bingham to the ancient site.
"I soon found myself before the ruined walls of buildings built with some of the finest stonework of the Incas. It was difficult to see them as they were partially covered over by trees and moss, the growth of centuries but in the dense shadow, hiding in bamboo thickets and toggled vines, could be seen, here and there walls of white granite ashlars most carefully cut and exquisitely fitted together (. ). I was left truly breathless."
Extract from 'The Lost City of the Incas' by Hiram Bingham
Bingham believed that he'd stumbled across the rebel Inca's last strong hold and that Vilcabamba had at last been found. This 'discovery' stood unchallenged for the next 50 years until Bingham's mistake was affirmed by Gene Savoy in 1964, when he discovered what most people agree are the true ruins of Vilcabamba at Espiritu Pampa, 4 or 5 days hard trek further into the jungle. Ironically Hiram Bingham actually found part of these ruins during his 1909 expedition, but considered them unimportant.
Having succeeded in raising sufficient sponsorship, Bingham returned to Machu Picchu the following year to commence the huge task of clearing the ruins of vegetation - a job that took 3 years. During this time many ceramics, stone objects and bones were found and taken back to the United States. Construction of a railway began in 1913 finally reaching Aguas Calientes in 1928. The road up to the ruins was completed in 1948 and inaugurated by Bingham himself. In 1981 a 325 km2 area around Machu Picchu was declared a Historical Sanctuary by the Peruvian Government, and given the status of a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1983.
So if Machu Picchu wasn't the lost city of Vilcabamba, what was it? Its location certainly wasn't known of by the Spanish at the time of the conquest and concealing an entire populated region from them, many of whom had allies among the Incas, would have been impossible.
The only plausible explanation is that the Incas, during the time of the Spanish conquest, did not know of it either! For some reason the city and its region were abandoned before the arrival of the conquistadors and its memory erased even to the Incas.
Archaeologists agree that the style of Machu Picchu's buildings is "late imperial Inca" placing it within the reign of the Inca Pachacutec. Pachacutec was responsible for the defeat of the Chanca invasion from the north, an event that took place in 1438 and marked the beginning of the great Inca expansion.
Based on our previous conclusion that Machu Picchu was abandoned before the arrival of the Spaniards, this leaves a space of less than 100 years for it to have been constructed, populated, deserted and forgotten about. Although nearly all leading archaeologists agree on this time scale it is still quite difficult to believe. The purpose of Machu Picchu and the reason for its subsequent abandonment is still very much a mystery and inspiration for as many stories as there are tour guides (or guide books for that matter).
The more recent view is that, rather than being seen in isolation, Machu Picchu formed the ceremonial and possibly administrative centre of a large and populous region. The many trails leading to Machu Picchu tend to support this. Recent evidence presented by the archaeologist J.H.Rowe suggest that Machu Picchu was simply built as a 'royal estate' for the Inca Pachacutec and populated by his own ayllu or family clan. The location was probably chosen for its unique position surrounded by the jungle and the important mountains of Salkantay, Pumasillo and Veronica, and overlooking the Vilcanota River, a position which in the Inca religion would have been considered sacred. In fact the Inca Trail leading to Machu Picchu may well have been considered not just a road, but a route of pilgrimage to this sacred centre.
Machu Picchu could also have served several secondary purposes at once, including a look-out post guarding the route to Cusco from the Antisuyo or Amazon Basin, or as a protected source of coca used in every aspect of Inca religion including its use in sacrifice, divination and medicine.
When you stand in Machu Picchu and look around you it's not difficult to feel the energy that its location possesses. If we feel awe-inspired by the presence of the mountains, the jungle and the gushing white water of the Vilcanota River below us, it doesn't seem too hard to comprehend that the Incas, who lived with the utmost respect for the beauty of their surroundings including the worship of the mountains, rocks, water, rivers and the sun, moon and stars, felt that Machu Picchu was a very special and sacred place as well.
Evidence suggest that Machu Picchu, with its 200 or so buildings, had a permanent population of about 1000 people.
The abandonment of Machu Picchu may simply be explained by the death of Pachacutec and the construction of a new 'royal estate' for the next Inca, as was the custom. Other scholars suggest that the city's water supply may have dried up.
During your guided tour of the ruins you will no doubt hear some of the more interesting stories of the city's purpose including being a last refuge for Cusco's Virgins of the Sun (Inca nuns) or the location where the mythical first Inca, Manco Capac, emerged from a sacred cave with his brothers and sisters. It all makes good listening . and who knows, it may even be true!
For more in depth reading try:-
Conquest of the Incas by John Hemming, London 1970. A history book that has you captivated like an adventure novel. Highly recommended.
Lost city of the Incas by Hiram Bingham, New York 1972. A bit dated in his theories but still an interesting read.
The Sacred Center by Johan Reinhardt, Nuevas Imagenes 1995. Up to date information by well known archaeologist.