Machu Picchu: The Lost City

In 1911 American explorer Hiram Bingham set out to find the capital of the long gone Incan Empire in Peru. With his expedition he traveled down the Urubamba River asking local farmers about ancient ruins. When he reached a place called Mandor Pampa, Bingham, spoke an innkeeper named Melchor Arteaga. Arteaga told Bingham he knew of an excellent set of ruins and led him up a steep slope to an altitude of almost 8,000 feet. There, nestled in a saddle between two peaks, Bingham found the ancient city we now call Machu Picchu. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization the site is "an absolute masterpiece of architecture and a unique testimony to the Inca civilization."

Seven Quick Facts
Built: Around 1450, at the height of the Inca Empire.
Purpose: Estate of Inca Emperor Pachacuti
Location: In Peru on top of a mountain at a height of 7,970 feet (2,430 m).
Built of: local stone and consists of numerous terraces and about 200 buildings.
First Excavated: In 1911 by explorer Hiram Bingham.
Abandoned: Around 1572, but never discovered by Spanish Conquistadors.
Other: Often called "The List City of Incas" but this is a misnomer as locals always were aware of the ruins.

The Inca Empire arose in the early 13th century in South America. At its height it was the largest empire in America before the arrival of Columbus encompassing much of modern Ecuador, parts of Bolivia, northwest Argentina, sections of Chile and a small portion of southern Colombia. Despite its size, the Incans achieved this without many of the tools used by civilizations in the rest of the world. Though they understood the principal, they didn't use wheels for transportation, lacked draft animals to pull wagons or plows, and didn't know how to make iron or steel.

In the 16th century the Empire was toppled by a combination of diseases brought by European visitors and military conquest by the Spanish which who wanted to exploit the silver and gold found in the region. The Spanish raided many Incan cities and when they conquered them, systematically destroyed much of Inca culture they found there.

The Spanish never found Machu Picchu, however. It was abandoned at about the time of the conquest, but not because of military action, but more likely because the dreaded disease, smallpox, found its way to the remote mountain top and devastated the population there.

This view shows the of the western sector of the city and the terraces surrounding the Intiwatana. (Courtesy Colegota CC-BY-SA-2.5-ES)

The name of the city in the language the Incans used (Quechuan) is a combination of the word machu means "old" and picchu means "peak" or "mountain" and can be translated as "old peak."


Archeologists believe the city was built as an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti who lived from 1438 AD to 1472 AD.. In constructing it workers used what is now called the "classical Inca architectural style:" polished dry-stone walls made with blocks cut to fit together tightly without cement. To make the structures extra sturdy because frequent earthquakes in the area, the builders constructed the windows and doors in a trapezoidal shape which resists damage from seismic tremors. On the corners they also used "L" shaped blocks designed to tie the walls strongly together.

The builders used trapaziod doors and windows to strengthen against earthquakes. (Courtesy Colegota CC-BY-SA-2.5-ES)

The Southeast end of the city is known as the agriculture section. The Incas constructed a series of terraces here that allowed them to farm on the steep slopes of the mountain. The Northeast section is more urban and is divided into an "upper" and "lower" town. The upper town contained the temples and houses of the nobility, while the lower town contained the warehouses and dwellings of the common people.

The Inca adapted their architecture carefully to the steep terrain of the mountain. The city has a wide central square with the approximately 200 buildings of the town arranged on wide parallel terraces around it. Stairs cut into the terrace's stone walls allow easy access to move from level to level. To handle the heavy rainfall in the area the designers layered the terraces with stone chips, sand, dirt and top soil, to absorb water and keep it from streaming down the slopes, and then causing erosion and landslides.

Some of the more famous structures in the city include the Torreón, a tower which may have been used as an observatory; the temple of the sun and the Inti Watana, a ritual stone which may have acted as an astronomic clock or calendar.


Later in his trip Bingham did discover the capital of the Incas, a city called Vitcos. It was Machu Picchu that really captured his attention, however, and in 1912 under the sponsorship of Yale University and National Geographic he returned with an expedition to take a closer look. He focused his research on the city because of its excellent Inca stonework was well as it well-preserved nature. Since it had been abandoned and never found by the Spanish it was virtually undisturbed since the last residents left it.

A shot of the eastern residencial section of the city. (Courtesy Colegota CC-BY-SA-2.5-ES)

Bingham did much to bring the site to the attention of the world. While initially the local authorities welcomed his work, later they accused him of stealing precious artifacts. Though there is no evidence that Bingham took anything illegally out of the site, he did transport many legal artifacts to the Yale Museum. The ownership of many of these remained a bone of contention between Yale and the Peruvian authorities for many years. Eventually the university and the government reached an agreement and the last of the material excavated by Brigham was returned in 2011 and is housed at the National University of San Antonio Abad del Cusco's La Casa Concha ("The Shell House") in the town of Cusco.

Preservation Concerns

The city has become Peru's most visited tourist attraction and major revenue generator with the number of visitors reaching 400,000 per year by the beginning of the 21st century. The large number of visitors to the site and the economic opportunities presented by it have been difficult to balance with the need to preserve the site and keep visitors safe while visiting it.

In January 2010, a heavy rain caused flooding which washed away roads and railways to Machu Picchu location. More than 2,000 locals and another 2,000 tourists were trapped and had to be airlifted out. The city was temporarily closed until April 1st while repairs were made.

In an attempt to preserve the site in July 2011 the authorities introduced new entrance rules to the citadel of Machu Picchu limiting visitors to 2,500 per day. Hopefully a balance between the public's desire to see this unique historical treasure, and the need to protect it for future generations can be found.

A panoramic view of the city. (Courtesy of Martin St-Amant - Wikipedia - CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Copyright Lee Krystek 2017. All Rights Reserved.