Machu Picchu is a real architectural jewel. The beauty and misery of its walled ruins, once palaces of the finest Inca stonework, are augmented even more by the lush, almost virginal landscape of the surroundings. Green jungle flora suffuses the abrupt topography. Orchids add a strange brilliance. The ruins blend harmoniously amid the narrow and uneven topography.
Machu Picchu sits nearly 8,000 feet above sea level, on top of a ridge between two peaks of different size. The smaller peak, called the "Huayna Picchu", is the one most often seen in photographs of the ruins. With the passing of the centuries, the ruins' original name has been forgotten. The name "Machu Picchu" comes simply from its geography. It literally means "old peak", just as "Huayna Picchu" is "young peak". The more accurate translation relates to the concept of size, with Machu Picchu as the "bigger peak" and Huayna Picchu, the "smaller peak".
With its discovery in 1911, Machu Picchu made its debut as an authentic archeological enigma. Its purpose continues to intrigue, with mysteries that perhaps will never fully be unraveled.
It was Hiram Bingham who, in charge of a Yale University expedition, discovered Machu Picchu. The date was July 24, 1911. Bingham's goal had been something else: to locate the legendary Vilcabamba. This was the capital governing Inca's descendants. They resisted the Spanish invaders and held Vilcabamba as a bulwark between 1536 and 1572. But on penetrating the Urubamba Canyon, in the desolate site of Mandorbamba, Bingham's expedition learned from a peasant named Melchor Arteaga that the hill Machu Picchu, at the top, held important ruins. To reach them meant ascending a steep slope covered with dense vegetation. Even though skeptical - the expedition was familiar with the many myths about "lost cities" - Bingham insisted on being guided to the spot. Once there, a child from one of the families that lived there, led him to imposing archeological structures covered by tropical vegetation and abandoned centuries ago. An astonished Bingham noted in his diary: "Would anyone believe what I have found?…"
It is true that the learned traveler Charles Wiener had already received news in 1875 of the Machu Picchu ruins - and even went fruitlessly in search of them. It's also true that in Cusco, rumors spread about a "lost city" atop a hill in Machu Picchu, and that neighboring peasant farmer, Agustin Lizarraga, with others, ended up crossing over it at the beginning of the century.
It is an indisputable fact, however that Bingham was the first person to visit Machu Picchu prompted by scientific interests. And none can argue the fact that, in the end, it was Bingham who made Peru's most precious archeological monument world famous.
After his important scientific find, Bingham returned to the spot in 1912, 1914 and 1915, accompanied by various scientists, in order to draw up maps and explore in detail the site and its surroundings. His rather unorthodox excavations of various spots in Machu Picchu allowed him to gather 555 vessels, nearly 200 objects of bronze, copper and silver as well as objects of stone and other materials. The group of ceramics shows graceful forms of Inca art. The same must be said of the metal objects found: the bracelets, decorative pins, earrings, knives and axes. Even though he turned up no gold pieces, his findings were sufficient to prove that Machu Picchu dated back to the times of the Inca grandeur, a fact the architectural style had already indicated.
Of the 135 skeletal remains found, 109 were those of females and only 22 those of males, including four children. The large number of female remains led to the conjecture that the last inhabitants of Machu Picchu were "Aclla" women, selected to carry out rituals. Yale University's museum holds the archeological material excavated in Machu Picchu but not that obtained in 1914-15, which was delivered to the Peruvian government and is under the control of the National Museum in Lima. Bingham also recognized other important archeological groups in surrounding areas. These sites include Sayacmarca, Phuyupatamarca, the fortress of Victos and sections of the Inca trails.
What was Machu Picchu?
Mystery surrounds Machu Picchu's precise function because the Incas didn't reveal its existence during the Spanish conquest. Various hypotheses, however - many stemming from Bingham himself - attempt to explain these mysteries. Bingham judged as important the presence of a magnificent building with three broad windows. He believed that these alluded to Tamputoco, the mythic cradle or birthplace of the elite Inca. Later, Bingham believed that the Machu Picchu was the Inca refuge called Vilcabamba "the old" or Vilcabamba "the great". There, the defeated chief Manco Inca and his court fled after the siege of Cusco in 1536, the failed Indian revolt against their Spanish conquerors.
Luis E. Valcarcel developed another theory. He believes Machu Picchu could be Vitcos, the legendary fortress occupied by the Incas during the resistance against the Spanish crown. Valcarcel based this theory on the similarity between "Picchu" and "Vitcos".
The strategic position of Machu Picchu has generated another, especially popular, hypothesis. This theory says the "fortress" served as an outpost, serving the Inca's pretensions to dominate the region of the Amazonia, near Cusco. Concerning this theory, it helps to be aware of the scenes that show confrontations between the Inca soldiers and simple combatants called "chunchos" the jungle natives. These scenes are depicted on lacquered wooden cups made by the Incas.
Bingham also based his theories on the many remains of women discovered. He believed that the occupants were "Allcas", or women of the sun, the keepers of the temple rituals and those who fled from Cusco upon the arrival of the Spaniards. For the evidence to be convincing, it would still be necessary to find a greater number of remains. One thing is certain, however. The architectural style pottery and metal objects prove that the ruins flourished during the classical Inca period (1438-1531) which ended the tradition of Andean cultures stretching over 3,000 years. One can also conclude that Machu Picchu was an important center of worship and ceremonies. The evidence for this includes the mountain city's enigmatic altars, its magical fountains and, certainly, its hidden and almost inaccessible character. Its very nature as a highly sacred spot probably dictated the scenery, which surrounded its existence.
The Spanish conquest also appears to have had a role in preserving the mystery. The political and religious changes the invaders introduced most likely resulted in the extinction of the ancient Inca state and the desertion of Machu Picchu.
The path to Huayna Picchu, the Younger or Lesser Peak, departs from the Sacred Rock area. The climb to the summit takes an hour and rises nearly 1,300 feet above the Principal Plaza of Machu Picchu. The way goes up an almost vertical stairway of more than 130 feet, and also passes through small caverns carved from rocky walls. Miniature terraces, scattered about, split off from the trail. From the top, the sweeping panorama takes in Machu Picchu, the Urubamba Canyon and the astonishing whiteness of snow-capped peaks, off in the distance. Also at the top, one can see the hewn stonework of and Inca temple for an idol, which was either destroyed or left unfinished.
THE TEMPLE OF THE MOON
There are two paths to this site. One departs from the peak of Huayna Picchu. The other heads off from the zone encompassing the Sacred Rock and borders the pyramid-shaped figure of Huayna Picchu for some 1 ½ miles. The Temple of the Moon group, although small, is notable for its perfection. The natural stone surfaces have been finely hewn, with spaces left for "blind" doors and niches. Without a doubt, the Temple of the Moon offered a superior place of worship.
Diverging from the portal of the Urban Sector a 1 ½ mile-long trail takes the explorer to the Drawbridge. First, one travels over a series of steps that pass close to the Barrack. This leads next to an ancient path running along an enormous cliff. The bridge is made of trunks. These trunks fit in a gap left intentionally in the stone path. By drawing back the wood to re-open the gap, the Incas could cut off the passage.