It is impossible to determine with absolutely certainty what function Machu Picchu played in its heyday. Whether it was a religious outpost, a defensive site, a convent of Incan nuns or an observatory to the heavens remains as much a mystery today as when Hiram Bingham and his college cronies rediscovered the site in 1911.

Hiram Bingham’s Expedition

Machu Picchu

A 1916 portrait of Hiram Bingham

After his graduation from Yale University, Bingham, who had long been intrigued by stories of lost Incan cities, organized a seven-man expedition under the auspices of Yale University and the National Geographic Society. Their mission was to explore the uncharted territories surrounding the ancient Incan capital of Cuzco.

The expedition had good fortune from the very start—they discovered three major Incan sites within the first month of their explorations. Though important, these findings paled in comparison to the site that they would stumble upon later in their journey.

One night, while camping on the edge of the Urubamba River, a local campesino named Melchor Artego passed by, curious and suspicious of the foreigners who were so far off the beaten path. After learning about their quest to find Incan ruins, Artego offered to lead them to some “fine ruins” just above where they were camping.

The next day, the rain dissuaded everyone but Bingham and one of the guards from climbing through the thick tropical forest in search of these ruins; Bingham himself almost turned back at one point due to his fatigue. What they found that day proved to be one of the greatest archaeological finds of this century: the Lost City of the Incas.

Bingham would later chronicle his discovery (somewhat pompously, and with no fear of embellishment) in Inca Land: Explorations in the Highlands of Peru.

Machu Picchu: Clouded in Mystery

Machu Picchu

The cloud of mystery behind the site is one of the main reasons that it has survived in this preserved state for so many years. Most of what we know about the Inca culture owes to the Spanish conquerors of the period who documented and wrote about their findings. However, there were no writings addressing Machu Picchu, for the simple reason that the Spanish were not aware of its existence. Today, what we know about Machu Picchu has been aggregated from the events of the époque and combined with experts’ interpretations of the different functions of the structures that make up the site.


About the Author

Tyler-Dillon

A true world wanderer, B&R Trip Designer Tyler Dillon amassed a wealth of knowledge in his decade spent traipsing the globe. As a columnist for The Slow Road, he provides travelling tips and advice while sharing insights, anecdotes and his passion for the road.




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