Though many photographers have tried, no glossy postcard can capture the sweep and majesty of Machu Picchu. Viewed from above, the city’s streets, temples, and stairways sprawl across a jungle ridge that drops more than 300 meters into the Río Urubamba below. Andean peaks, including the horn-shaped Huayna Picchu, rise in the background and frame this mist-drenched island in the sky.
A visit to Machu Picchu is many visitors’ main motivation for coming to Peru. The place has a vibrant, spiritual feel and is probably the world’s best example of architecture integrating with the landscape. It is in some respects the Inca’s lesson to the western world, teaching us how to build our world around nature, not against it.
There is not a stone out of place at Machu Picchu. Terraces, gardens, temples, staircases, and aqueducts all have purpose and grace. Shapes mimic the silhouettes of surrounding mountains. Windows and instruments track the sun during the June and December solstices. At sunrise, rows of ruins are illuminated one by one as the sun creeps over the mountain peaks. The sun, moon, water, and earth were revered by the Inca, and they drive the city’s layout.
Adding to Machu Picchu’s mystery is the fact that archaeologists still do not know when or why it was built. The ruins of Machu Picchu were known to locals, who led Yale archaeologist Hiram Bingham to the site in 1911. Bingham cleared the site, understood its importance, and announced Machu Picchu to the world.
Bingham, a 36-year-old adventurer who ended up being both a U.S. Senator and the inspiration for the character Indiana Jones, came to Peru to find Vilcabamba, the legendary lost city of the Inca. This was the jungle enclave, well-described by Spanish soldiers, to which Manco Inca and his followers retreated following their unsuccessful rebellion against the Spanish in 1537. Bingham began his search walking down the newly built road along the Río Urubamba (now the train line) and asking locals if they knew of any ruins along the way.
It was in this way that local resident Melchor Arteaga led Bingham to the vine-covered site, which Bingham would return to in 1912 and 1915 to excavate. He was convinced, to the end of his life, that Machu Picchu was the “lost city of the Inca.” But historians are now certain he was incorrect. A wealth of supporting evidence indicates the real Vilcabamba was farther into the jungle at Espíritu Pampa, which Bingham also visited but dismissed at the time as too insignificant.
Bingham discovered more than 100 human skeletons in cemeteries around Machu Picchu, and an inexperienced scientist on his team incorrectly concluded that 80 of them belonged to women.
The finding prompted the idea of Machu Picchu as a giant acllahuasi, or house for the Inca’s chosen “virgins of the sun.” Subsequent research on the skeletons proved that there were men, women, and children with women being the majority; however, the sexy idea blazes on (and is still repeated today by Machu Picchu tour guides).
Part of Machu Picchu’s power is that it is a riddle, a blank slate upon which generations of historians and explorers have scribbled their theories. Some claimed Machu Picchu was an exclusive religious complex or a giant coca plantation. Others said it was a boarding school for brainwashing the children of leaders conquered by the Inca.
The latest theory, which is gaining widespread acceptance, is that Machu Picchu was a winter retreat built by Inca Pachacútec in the mid-15th century. Scholars had long believed this, but concrete proof came in the form of a 16th-century suit filed by the descendants of Pachacútec, which University of California, Berkeley, anthropologist Dr. John Rowe found while searching through archives in Cusco. In the suit, the family sought the return of the lands, including a retreat called Picchu.
Many believe that Machu Picchu may have been a sacred site due to the quantities of huacas or shrines, and while Machu Picchu certainly had a religious sector, and probably an acllahuasi too, its primary purpose is believed to have been pleasure. The Inca could come here to escape the chill rains of Cusco, enjoy the jungle fruits of nearby Quillabamba, and hunt in the surrounding jungle.
© Ross Wehner and Renée del Gaudio from Moon Peru, 3rd Edition