Machu Pichu is one of the most exciting archeological discoveries of the 20th century. High in the Andes northwest of Cuzco, Peru, this former sacred city of the Inca leaders lay undiscovered when the Inca fell due to the Spanish invasion in the sixteenth century. The Spanish never found Machu Pichu so it remained virtually untouched for hundreds of years and its location known only by those who lived nearby. In the summer of 1911 American archeologist Hiram Bingham was directing a Yale archaeological expedition to find Vilcabamba*, a lost city of the Incas. Vilcabamba was alleged to have been a secret stronghold of the Incas during the rebellion against the Spanish in the sixteenth century. Its location was a mystery and the Spanish never found it but Bingham was determined to follow the clues scattered in chronicles from that period. The clues seemed to indicated it was near Cuzco.
Traversing the Andes even during the best of times is not easy and he risked his life visiting several Inca sites. He was urged by a local prefect to visit the Urubamba River valley to find the ruins of Choquequirau (“Cradle of Gold”). He ended up meeting Melchor Arteaga,a Quechua-speaking resident, and on 24 July 1911 was taken to the ruins of Machu Pichu. He found well preserved stonework and noticed the similarity of the structures to the Temple of the Sun in Cuzco. Since the ruins were covered in vegetation, a second expedition in 1912 was undertook to excavate the area. Subsequent expeditions would continue to do that task in 1914 and 1915. Reconstruction would also take place as well to restore the city to its former glory. Peru declared it a Historical Sanctuary in 1981 and UNESCO has declared it a World Heritage Site.
Unlike Hiram Bingham and others who came to the site in the early days, visitors can either walk the Inca Trail to Machu Pichu (there are several options from the full six day hike to just one day) or take a train. Due to the effects of so many people visiting the site, Peru has put restrictions to limit the numbers of hikers and visitors to Machu Pichu. Those taking the longer trails should know that the ascent can lead to altitude sickness. Machu Pichu is 7,970 feet above sea level. If you have ever visited Cuzco, there is a reason they have air tanks ready for visitors.
*Bingham believed he had found Vilcabamba but in 1964 American archaeologist Gene Savoy believed the excavation of Espíritu Pampa was a more likely candidate. Subsequent excavations and other research has determined that this was the likely site of Vilcabamba.