(above) Machu Picchu clings to a mountain 8,000 feet above sea level.

Discovering 'lost' kingdom of the ancient Inca
Stories about how it was lost and rediscovered may keep changing, but Machu Picchu itself remains an endless enchantment.

Travel Arts Syndicate

MACHU PICCHU, Peru -- The Spanish conquerors who swept through Peru in the mid-16th century thought they had successfully plundered every Incan temple in the Andes -- building ornate Spanish-style churches atop each indigenous sacred site they encountered.

They missed one. The conquistadors never discovered Machu Picchu, a green world of terraces and temples, residences and fortifications and storage buildings, tucked away in the Andes, 8,000 feet above sea level. It stood silent for centuries before it became what it is today -- one of South America's greatest tourist attractions.

For decades, the story has been that Yale professor Hiram Bingham, in a feat that smacks of Indiana Jones, ''discovered'' Machu Picchu and its treasure in 1911. In fact, according to Beto Rengifo Solano, one of Peru's leading archaeological guides, Bingham was led to the site by a barefoot, young boy. When he got there, four families were living among these grandest of Incan ruins. Its greatest treasure had long since been plundered.

A recent article in The New York Times goes one step further, reporting the existence of property records that show repeated purchases and sale of lands including Machu Picchu before 1911, and suggesting the possibility that a German logger may have made off with the site's best treasures. Other early visitors may well have included a British missionary and a German businessman.

Nonetheless, Bingham did climb up to Machu Picchu in 1911 and returned several times. He shot wonderful photographs that caught the imagination of the world, and carried away a great amount of treasure (although it now appears it may have been second-rate booty, left behind by others). He took his finds -- including mummies, ceramics, silver statues, jewelry -- to Yale, where they remain today.

Peru wants it back. In November 2008, the government announced that it would take legal action to recover the artifacts. The National Geographic Society, which sponsored Bingham's trips, supports Peru, noting that the objects were only on loan to Yale.


If the details about the ''discovery'' of this treasured Inca site are complex and ever-changing, Machu Picchu, the place, remains eternally the same and endlessly enchanting.

Theories abound about how the Incas used Machu Picchu. According to Rengifo Solano, Machu Picchu Citadel was neither the traditional ''birthplace'' of the Incas, nor was it their last stronghold in the battle against the Spanish -- two long-popular theories.

He believes that this aerie was a ''favored retreat for Inca nobility,'' built as a getaway for the Incan emperor Pachacuti around 1460. It was never self-sufficient, he says, pointing to the five different Inca paths to the site that suggest importation of coca, fruits, fibers and roots from below.

Yet, whatever its primary purpose, Machu Picchu had sacred importance, and the Incas had a keen knowledge of the heavens. Its Temple of the Sun -- built on natural bedrock -- was probably used for retreats that involved fire. On the day of the winter solstice (June 22, south of the equator) the sun shines directly through a small window in the temple, onto the center of a large rock believed to be an Incan calendar.

The nearby Temple of the Condor reflects a belief that when these over-sized birds soared into the sky, they could bring souls back to life. The Main Temple was probably used for human sacrifice, according to Rengifo Solano. An altar found littered with broken pottery, probably served as a funeral rock.

Life at the top of the world was apparently lived largely outdoors. Even the Royal Family House consists of only two small rooms, a likely sign that days here were spent out and about in the community.

Rengifo Solano points out the sophisticated engineering used in creating Machu Picchu's infrastructure, including piping in water from 2,400 feet away, and erecting 16 public fountains in the city.

The mountaintop complex was also carefully guarded. The guardhouse, located at the highest point on the site, is today a lovely place to sit and catch your breath and to snap photos of the complex below.

The green, sugarloaf-shaped, much-photographed mountain called Wayna Picchu towers above Machu Picchu and offers a sweeping view of the site on clear days. The Peruvian government has recently limited entrance to 400 people per day, which means that arriving at daybreak to register for the climb is essential. Guides advise grabbing the 5:40 bus from Machu Picchu Village (also called Aguas Calientes) to the site.


This is not a climb for those who fear heights. As the trail goes higher, it narrows, and sometimes is nothing more than abbreviated rock steps, carved out by the Incas more than 500 years ago -- when feet were clearly smaller than they are today. There are viewing (and catching your breath) platforms along the way, and as the sun climbs in the sky the morning mist begins to disappear, allowing first glimpses of Machu Picchu from above.

To get to the true summit, you need to squeeze through a narrow passageway, but if that seems too daunting (or for some hikers, simply too small), there is a large terrace where you can stand to take in the dramatic views of graceful and green Machu Picchu, in all its mysterious complexity, some 1,180 feet below.

Rengifo Solano believes that Machu Picchu may have been abandoned just before the Spanish arrived, when a civil war broke out between the Incas of Quito and those from Cusco.

''The people chose to leave, but they expected to return,'' he says.

Instead, the Spanish arrived, executing many Incas and doing whatever they could to destroy their well-developed culture. That they failed to find Machu Picchu seems nothing short of a miracle.