Built high into the Peruvian Andes on the western edge of the Amazon Basin, the Inca stronghold of Machu Picchu has astounded and confounded visitors since it was unveiled more than 100 years ago by an ambitious Yale professor.
1. THE BUILDERS OF MACHU PICCHU RULED A VAST EMPIRE.
Emerging from the Cusco region of Peru in the 13th century, the Inca dynasty came to dominate a huge swath of South America and was once the largest kingdom in the Americas. Ruled by an emperor, or Sapa Inca, who represented (and was descended from) the sun god, the Incas assimilated multiple regional tribes in a 300,000-square-mile area to produce a complex empire with a population estimated between 3 and 12 million. The realm, which they called Tahuantinsuyu, or “the Four Corners Together,” had 20,000 miles of roads, provincial governors, granaries and storehouses, high-altitude agriculture, and an economic system called mit'a, where citizens provided labor, goods, or military service to the state in exchange for food and protection.
2. THE EXACT PURPOSE OF THE SITE IS STILL UNKNOWN.
Alternately defined as a sanctuary and a citadel, Machu Picchu was constructed sometime in the mid 15th century, possibly by Pachacuti, the Sapa Inca who defeated the Chancay tribe and expanded the Kingdom of Cusco into the vast Inca Empire. For more than a century, researchers, archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians have postulated myriad reasons behind the site’s construction. Some believe it was a royal retreat for Pachacuti (whose name meant “He Who Shakes the Earth”), a theory supported by the discovery in Cusco’s archives of a 16th-century lawsuit by Pachacuti’s descendants to get back lands, one of which was a retreat known as Picchu, which was in a broadly similar location to Machu Picchu.
Others think it was a pilgrimage site to honor the founding of the Inca religion, or likely some combination of a spiritual and official estate built in a sacred landscape. Due to the discovery of nearby graves, there was even speculation that Machu Picchu was a nunnery for the Virgins of the Sun, a group of girls selected from villages to serve in temples and possibly offered as human sacrifices. However, this last theory has been largely discounted, as later analysis of the skeletons found them to be equal numbers of male and female, who were likely workers at the site.
3. SPANISH CONQUISTADORS NEVER FOUND MACHU PICCHU.
The arrival of Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro in 1532 forever altered the Inca empire, a kingdom he described as “so beautiful and has such fine buildings it would be remarkable even back in Spain.” Pizarro and his forces ambushed, kidnapped, and later executed Inca leader Atahualpa, plundered much of the kingdom’s riches, and destroyed many of the empire's temples and estates. The Inca launched guerrilla attacks from hidden fortresses for years, but after quelling the last of the rebellion in 1572, conquistadors failed to find Machu Picchu, which was abandoned by the Inca just a century after it was constructed and remained hidden and untouched for more than 200 years.
4. IT WAS MISTAKENLY CALLED “THE LOST CITY OF THE INCAS.”
In 1911, Yale history Professor Hiram Bingham III set out to find the fabled city where Manco Inca led a rebellion against Pizarro and the Spanish. Manco's fighters first settled in the fortress city Ollantaytambo before moving on to retreats unknown to the Spanish, first at Vitcos and then Vilcabamba. In his search, Bingham first visited the ruins at Ollantaytambo, then found those at Vitcos and Vilcabamba, before searching for the “Lost City” established by Manco Inca—not knowing he had in fact seen the real lost city of Vilcabamba, which was overrun by the jungle and called Espiritu Pampa.
With the help of a local man named Melchor Arteaga and a young boy, Bingham searched the mountains above the Urubamba River valley and found the ruins of Machu Picchu, which means “Old Peak” in the local Quechua language and was almost completely unknown to outsiders. Bingham, however, argued for decades that Machu Picchu and Vilcabamba were one and the same. He was finally disproven by writer and explorer Gene Savoy’s discovery of the real Vilcabamba in the 1960s.
5. HIRAM BINGHAM’S DISCOVERY MADE HIM FAMOUS.
Bingham returned to explore and excavate Machu Picchu in 1912, 1914, and 1915 with funding from Yale and the National Geographic Society. The 1913 publication of “In the Wonderland of Peru,” which consumed an entire issue of National Geographic, helped catapult him and Machu Picchu to worldwide recognition. He later published Inca Land (1922) and his most famous tome, Lost City of the Incas, which became a bestseller upon its release in 1948 and may have helped inspire the character of Indiana Jones. The road from Cusco to Machu Picchu, first opened in 1948, is called the Hiram Bingham Highway, and a plaque dedicated to Bingham sits outside the entrance to the site. Following his career as a professor and adventurer, Bingham served as an aviator during World War I, and was elected governor of Connecticut in 1924. He resigned after just one day to fill a senate seat left vacant by a legislator who had committed suicide. He was elected to a full term in 1926.
6. YALE AND PERU FOUGHT OVER ARTIFACTS.
Upon returning to the United States and Yale University for the last time, Bingham and his team brought back thousands of artifacts from Machu Picchu, including statues, pottery, jewelry, and even human remains. But when Yale announced a touring exhibition in 2003, it reignited debate surrounding the artifacts, that in 2008 culminated in a lawsuit against the university. Peruvian President Alan Garcia and the Peruvian people pled their case with everyone from President Obama to the Vatican before the two sides agreed to a memorandum of understanding in 2010, with the first pieces being returned in 2011. The last of the artifacts were returned to South America in 2012, and a joint venture between the two sides established the UNSAAC-Yale International Center for the Study of Machu Picchu and Inca Culture in Cusco.
7. BINGHAM MAY NOT HAVE BEEN THE FIRST WESTERN VISITOR.
Long before Bingham entered Machu Picchu, researchers believe a German businessman named Augusto Berns explored the area with the permission of the Peruvian government. Berns allegedly purchased land in the 1860s and set up a sawmill in the area to obtain gold and wood, but later sought only to loot treasure from Machu Picchu. In addition, a British missionary named Thomas Payne and another German supposedly found the site prior to Bingham, and an 1874 map with references to Machu Picchu (the hill, not necessarily the ruins) may have been seen by Bingham and given him clues to the existence and whereabouts of the Inca city. And three centuries earlier, in 1565, Diego Rodriguez de Figueroa mentioned that there used to be a bridge at a site he was staying in that allowed travel to “Picho”— probably one of the first accounts of the site, although there is no indication in the text that he himself visited.
8. THE INCAS WERE MASTER MASONS AND ENGINEERS.
Despite its precarious position in a seismically unstable region, Machu Picchu has not fallen victim to the types of earthquakes that have devastated cities like Lima and Cusco. One reason is the craftsmanship of the stonemasons and engineers who designed and built the city. Deep foundations and a sophisticated drainage system prevented landslides, while precise stone carving allowed blocks to be placed tightly to one another without requiring mortar. The white granite blocks, cut by direct hammering with primitive hand tools, are said to “dance” during tremors and fall safely back into place, leaving the citadel largely undamaged over a 500-year period.
9. THE ENTIRE SITE IS SPIRITUALLY CONNECTED.
The Inca not only revered the Sun but many other natural elements, including the Moon, rivers, and mountains. Mountains, called apus, were especially important given their proximity to so many Inca cities and settlements, and the peaks of Machu Picchu, Huayna Picchu (meaning “New Peak”), and Mount Salcantay were each directionally connected to the sacred Intihuatana Stone, a 6-foot granite stone set near the main square of the city that may have functioned as a solar clock or calendar. Other imposing structures built for religious or ceremonial purposes include the Temple of the Three Windows and the Temple of the Sun, which features a window that lines up perfectly on the summer solstice.
10. HIKERS CAN SEE A HIDDEN TEMPLE.
Atop the peak of Huayna Picchu, which can only be visited by 400 people per day, lies an unseen cave known as Templo de la Luna, or the Temple of the Moon. Thought to be a ceremonial shrine that once held mummies, the Temple can be found off a trail that curls around the 679-foot high peak and features intricate stonework, vaulted niches carved into the rock, six levels, and a stone throne.
11. A LIMITED NUMBER OF DAILY VISITORS ARE ALLOWED.
Machu Picchu was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 and one of the New Seven Wonders in 2007, and its popularity has continually skyrocketed, reaching a peak of more than 1 million visitors in 2014. Technically, no more than 2,500 tourists are allowed onto the site per day, a number agreed to by the government of Peru and UNESCO, but estimates put the number at around 5,000 per day during peak season. The country plans to spend nearly $30 million to help with overcrowding by adding security cameras, guards, guides, ramps, bathrooms, and a visitor center.
12. NUDISTS HAVE CAUSED A BIT OF A STIR.
The recent trend of streaking or posing naked at Machu Picchu has alarmed Peruvian officials. Eight tourists were cited for nudity at the site in just one week in 2014, including four Americans, despite the explicit warning on tickets that prohibits such activity. The Ministry of Culture called the acts “unfortunate events that threaten cultural heritage.” Foreign visitors are now required to hire a guide and stick to a pre-determined route through the site.
13. IT IS A NO-FLY ZONE
Perhaps unbeknownst to then Peruvian President Ollanta Humala, who took a prospecting flight around Machu Picchu this past May, the area has been off-limits to aircraft for nearly a decade. In 2006, the government granted licenses to tourist companies who offered helicopter flights around the citadel, but concerns from environmentalists, who believed species like the Andean condor, spectacled bear, and vicuna would be adversely affected by the flights, caused the Transport and Communications Ministry to reverse their decision just a week later.
14. A LOCAL FAMILY CLAIMS THEY OWN MACHU PICCHU
Bingham, of course, did not find an empty mountain palace on his trek, but a set of ruins occupied in part by three families who farmed on the site’s terraces. Almost 100 years later, Roxana Abrill Nuñez, a museum curator in Cusco, believes her great-grandfather Mariano Ignacio Ferro owned the land where Machu Picchu sits. Roxana and her sister Gloria have filed several suits against Peru seeking $100 million in compensation and a cut of future tourism profits. The state has denied the family’s accusations, despite the presence of a deed indicating the family purchased the land in 1910.