Chapter I: The Discovery
July 24, 1911
The gaunt, thirty-five-year-old American explorer, Hiram Bingham, clambered up the steep slope of the cloud forest, on the eastern flank of the Andes, then paused beside his peasant guide before taking off his wide-brimmed fedora and wiping the sweat from his brow. Carrasco, the Peruvian army sergeant, soon climbed up the trail behind them, sweating in his dark, brass-buttoned uniform and hat, then leaned forward and placed his hands on his knees in order to catch his breath. Bingham had been told that ancient Inca ruins were located somewhere high up above them, nearly in the clouds, yet Bingham also knew that rumors about Inca ruins were as rampant in this little explored region of southeastern Peru as the flocks of small green parrots that often wheeled about, screeching through the air. The six-foot-four, 170-pound Bingham was fairly certain, however, that the lost Inca city he was searching for did not lie ahead. Bingham, in fact, had not even bothered to pack a lunch for this trek, hoping instead to make a quick journey up from the valley floor, to verify whatever scattered ruins might lie upon the jagged peak rising above, and then to hurry back down. As the lanky American with the close-cropped brown hair and the thin, almost ascetic face began to follow his guide up the trail again, he had no idea that within just a few hours he would make one of the most spectacular archaeological discoveries in history.
The air lay humid and warm upon them, and, looking up, they saw the ridgetop they were seeking stood another thousand feet above, obscured by sheer-sided slopes festooned with dripping vegetation. Above the ridge, swirling clouds alternately hid and then revealed the jungle-covered peak. Water glistened from freshly fallen rain, while an occasional mist brushed across the men’s upturned faces. Alongside the steep path, orchids erupted in bright splashes of violet, yellow, and ocher. For a few moments the men watched a tiny hummingbird–no more than a shimmer of fluorescent turquoise and blue–buzz and dart about a cluster of flowers, then disappear. Only a half hour earlier, all three had carefully stepped around a vibora, a poisonous snake, its head mashed in by a rock. Had it been killed by a local peasant? Their guide had only shrugged his shoulders when asked. The snake, Bingham knew, was one of many whose bite could cripple or kill.
An assistant professor of Latin American history and geography at Yale University, Bingham ran a hand down one of the heavy cloth leg wrappings that he had wound all the way up from his booted ankles to just below his knees. Might prevent a snakebite, Bingham no doubt thought. Sergeant Carrasco, the Peruvian military man who had been assigned to the expedition, meanwhile, undid the top buttons to his uniform. The guide trudging ahead of them–Melchor Arteaga–was a peasant who lived in a small house on the valley floor more than a thousand feet below. It was he who told the two men that on top of a high mountain ridge Inca ruins could be found. Arteaga wore long pants and an old jacket, and had the high cheekbones, dark hair, and aquiline eyes of his ancestors–the inhabitants of the Inca Empire. Arteaga’s left cheek bulged with a wad of coca leaves–a mild form of cocaine narcotic that once only the Inca royalty had enjoyed. He spoke Spanish but was more at home in Quechua, the Incas’ ancient language. Bingham spoke heavily accented Spanish and no Quechua; Sergeant Carrasco spoke both.
“Picchu,” Arteaga had said, when they had first visited him the day before. The words were difficult to make out, filtering as they did past the thick gruel of coca leaves. “Chu Picchu,” it sounded like the second time. Finally, the short peasant had firmly grabbed the American’s arm and, pointing up at a massive peak looming above them, he uttered two words: “Machu Picchu”–Quechua for “old peak.” Arteaga turned and squinted into the intense brown eyes of the American explorer, then turned toward the mountain. “Up in the clouds, at Machu Picchu–that is where you will find the ruins.”
For the price of a shiny new silver American dollar, Arteaga had agreed to guide Bingham up to the peak. Now, high on its flank, the three men looked back down at the valley floor, where far below them tumbled the Urubamba River, white and rapids-strewn in stretches, then almost turquoise in others, fed as it was by Andean glaciers. The river would eventually flatten out and coil its way down into the Amazon River, which stretched eastward for nearly another three thousand miles, across an entire continent. One hundred miles to the west lay the high Andean city of Cuzco, the ancient capital of the Incas–the “navel” or center of their once nearly 2,500-mile-long empire.
Almost four hundred years earlier, the Incas had abruptly abandoned Cuzco, after the Spaniards had murdered their emperor and installed a puppet emperor on the throne. A large number of them had then headed en masse down the eastern side of the Andes, eventually founding a new capital in the wild Antisuyu–the mostly jungle-choked eastern quarter of their empire. The Incas called their new capital Vilcabamba and for the next nearly four decades it would become the headquarters of a fierce guerrilla war they would carry out against the Spaniards. In Vilcabamba, Inca warriors learned to ride captured Spanish horses, to fire captured Spanish muskets, and often fought alongside their nearly naked Amazonian allies, who wielded deadly bows and arrows. Bingham had been told the remarkable story of the Incas’ little known rebel kingdom a year earlier, while on a brief trip to Peru, and was amazed that no one seemed to know what had become of its capital. A year later, Bingham was back in Peru, hoping that he would become the person to discover it.
Thousands of miles from his Connecticut home and clinging to the side of a cloud forest peak, Bingham couldn’t help but wonder if his current climb would result in a wild-goose chase. Two of his companions on the expedition, the Americans Harry Foote and William Erving, had remained on the valley floor in camp, preferring that Bingham go off in search of the ruins himself. Rumors of ruins often remained just that–rumors–they no doubt thought. One thing his companions knew well, however, was that no matter how tired they were, Bingham himself always seemed tireless. Not only was Bingham the leader of this expedition, but he had also planned it, had selected its seven members, and had raised the financing bit by difficult bit. The funds that now allowed Bingham to be hiking in search of a lost Inca city, in fact, had come from selling a last piece of inherited family real estate in Hawaii, from promises of a series of articles for Harper’s magazine on his return, and from donations from the United Fruit Company, the Winchester Arms Company, and W. R. Grace and Company. Although he had married an heir to the Tiffany fortune, Bingham himself had no money–and never had.
The only son of a strict, fire-and-brimstone Protestant preacher, Hiram Bingham III had grown up in near poverty in Honolulu, Hawaii. His impoverished youth was no doubt one of the motivations for why Bingham, even as a boy, had always been determined to climb his way up the social and financial ladders of America or, as he put it, “to strive for magnificence.” Perhaps one episode from Bingham’s younger years best illustrates how he presently came to be scrambling up a high Peruvian mountain: when Bingham was twelve years old, suffocating from what he considered the dreary, strict life of a minister’s son (where for the smallest infraction he was punished with a wooden rod), Bingham and a friend decided to run away from home. Bingham had read plenty of Horatio Alger stories, and, torn between his own dreams and possible eternal damnation in hell, he decided that he might best escape by taking a ship to the mainland, and then begin his climb toward fame and fortune.
That morning, with his heart no doubt pounding and trying hard to appear at ease, Bingham pretended he was going to school, left the house, and, as soon as he was out of sight, went directly to the bank. There, he withdrew $250, which Bingham’s parents had insisted he save, penny by penny, so that he could go to college on the mainland. Bingham quickly bought a boat ticket and a new suit of clothes, packing everything into a suitcase he had hidden in a woodpile near his home. Bingham’s plan was to somehow make his way to New York City, to find a job as a newsboy, and then–when he had saved up enough money–eventually to go to Africa, where he hoped to become an explorer.
“I believe that he got the fancy from the books he has read,” the wife of a neighbor later told his parents. Indeed, young Bingham was a voracious reader. But his carefully laid plans soon began to unravel, although through no fault of his own. For some reason, the ship on which he had booked passage did not depart that day and instead remained in port. Meanwhile, Bingham’s best friend and fellow escapee–whose very different and happy home life hardly justified such a drastic undertaking–had lost his courage and confessed everything to his father. Soon, the boy’s father alerted the Bingham household. Bingham’s father found his son down at the port in the late afternoon, standing determinedly with his valise in hand before the ship that was to bear him across the seas and ultimately to his destiny. Amazingly, Bingham was not punished; instead, he was given more freedom and latitude. And, perhaps not surprisingly, twenty-three years later Hiram Bingham found himself scrambling up the eastern face of the Andes, on the cusp of making one of the most spectacular archaeological discoveries in the history of the world.
Shortly after noon, on July 24, 1911, Bingham and his two companions reached a long, wide ridgetop; on it sat a small hut, roofed with dried brown ichu grass, some 2,500 feet above the valley floor. The setting was magnificent– Bingham had a 360 degree view of the adjacent jungle-covered mountain peaks and of the clouds rimming the whole area. To the left, and connected to the ridge, a large peak–Machu Picchu–rose up and towered above. To the right, another peak–Huayna Picchu or “young peak”–did the same. As soon as the three sweaty men reached the hut, two Peruvian peasants, wearing sandals and typical alpaca-wool ponchos, welcomed them with dripping gourds of cool mountain water.
The two natives, it turned out, were farmers and had been cultivating the ancient terraces here for the last four years. Yes, there were ruins, they said, just ahead. They then offered their visitors some cooked potatoes–just one of an estimated five thousand varieties of potatoes that grow in the Andes, their place of origin. Three families lived there, Bingham discovered, growing corn, sweet and white potatoes, sugarcane, beans, peppers, tomatoes, and gooseberries. Bingham also learned that only two paths led to the outside world from atop this high mountain outpost: the path that they had just struggled up and another one, “even more difficult,” the peasants said, that led down the other side. The peasants traveled to the valley floor only once a month, they said. Natural springs bubbled up here, and the area was blessed with rich soil. Eight thousand feet up in the Andes, with abundant sun, fertile soil, and water, the three peasant families had little need of the outside world. A good defensive site, Bingham no doubt thought, as he drank several gourdfuls of water, looking around at the surroundings. He later wrote,
Through Sergeant Carrasco [translating from Quechua into Spanish], I learned that the ruins were “a little further along.” In this country one can never tell whether such a report is worthy of credence. “He may have been lying,” is a good footnote to affix to all hearsay evidence. Accordingly, I was not unduly excited, nor in a great hurry to move. The heat was still great, the water from the Indian’s spring was cool and delicious, and the rustic wooden bench, hospitably covered immediately after my arrival with a soft woolen poncho, seemed most comfortable. Furthermore, the view was simply enchanting. Tremendous green precipices fell away to the white rapids of the Urubamba [River] below. Immediately in front, on the north side of the valley, was a great granite cliff rising 2,000 feet sheer. To the left was the solitary peak of Huayna Picchu, surrounded by seemingly inaccessible precipices. On all sides were rocky cliffs. Beyond them cloud-capped, snow-covered mountains rose thousands of feet above us.
After resting awhile, Bingham finally stood up. A small boy had appeared–wearing torn pants, a brightly colored alpaca poncho, leather sandals, and a broad-rimmed hat with spangles; the two men instructed the boy in Quechua to take Bingham and Sergeant Carrasco to the “ruins.” Melchor Arteaga, meanwhile–the peasant who had guided them here — decided to remain chatting with the two farmers. The three soon set off, the boy in front, the tall American behind, and Carrasco bringing up the rear. It didn’t take long before Bingham’s dream of one day discovering a lost city became a reality.
Hardly had we left the hut and rounded the promontory, than we were confronted by an unexpected sight, a great flight of beautifully constructed stone-faced terraces, perhaps a hundred of them, each hundreds of feet long and ten feet high. Suddenly, I found myself confronted with the walls of ruined houses built of the finest quality Inca stone work. It was hard to see them for they were partly covered with trees and moss, the growth of centuries, but in the dense shadow, hiding in bamboo thickets and tangled vines, appeared here and there walls of white granite carefully cut and exquisitely fitted together.
I climbed a marvelous great stairway of large granite blocks, walked along a pampa where the Indians had a small vegetable garden, and came into a little clearing. Here were the ruins of two of the finest structures I have ever seen in Peru. Not only were they made of selected blocks of beautifully grained white granite; their walls contained ashlars of Cyclopean size, ten feet in length, and higher than a man. The sight held me spellbound…. I could scarcely believe my senses as I examined the larger blocks in the lower course, and estimated that they must weigh from ten to fifteen tons each. Would anyone believe what I had found?
Bingham had had the foresight to bring a camera and a tripod, just in case, and thus spent the rest of the afternoon photographing the ancient buildings. Before a succession of splendid Inca walls, trapezoidal doorways, and beautifully hewn blocks, Bingham placed either Sergeant Carrasco or the small boy–and asked them to stand still while he squeezed the release to his shutter. The thirty-one photos Bingham took on this day would become the first of thousands that Bingham would eventually snap over the coming years, many of them ending up within the covers of National Geographic magazine, which would co-sponsor subsequent expeditions. Only a week after having left Cuzco, Hiram Bingham had just made the major achievement of his lifetime. For even though Bingham would live nearly another half century and would eventually become a U.S. senator, it was this brief climb up to an unknown mountain ridge in Peru that would earn him everlasting fame.
“My dearest love,” Bingham wrote his wife the next morning from the valley floor, “We reached here night before last and pitched the 7 x 9 tent in a cozy corner described above. Yesterday [Harry] Foote spent collecting insects. [William] Erving did some [photographic] developing, and I climbed a couple of thousand feet to a wonderful old Inca city called Machu Picchu.” Bingham continued: “The stone is as fine as any in Cuzco! It is unknown and will make a fine story. I expect to return there shortly for a stay of a week or more.”
Over the next four years, Bingham would return to the ruins of Machu Picchu two more times, clearing, mapping, and excavating the ruins while comparing what he discovered with the old Spanish chronicles’ descriptions of the lost city of Vilcabamba. Although he at first had some doubts, Bingham was soon convinced that the ruins of Machu Picchu were none other than those of the legendary rebel city of Vilcabamba, the final refuge of the Incas.
In the pages of his later books, Bingham would write that Machu Picchu was “the ’Lost City of the Incas,’ favorite residence of the last Emperors, site of temples and palaces built of white granite in the most inaccessible part of the grand canyon of the Urubamba; a holy sanctuary to which only nobles, priests, and the Virgins of the Sun were admitted. It was once called Vilcapampa [Vilcabamba] but is known today as Machu Picchu.”
Not everyone was convinced that Bingham had discovered the Incas’ rebel city, however. For the few scholars who had actually read the old Spanish chronicles, discrepancies seemed to exist between the Spaniards’ description of the city of Vilcabamba and the admittedly stunning ruins that Bingham had found. Was the citadel of Machu Picchu really the last stronghold of the Incas as described in the chronicles? Or could it be that Hiram Bingham–a man now feted and lionized around the world as an expert on the Incas–had made a colossal error, and the rebel city had yet to be found? For those scholars who had their doubts, there was only one way to find out–and that was to return to the sixteenth-century chronicles in order to learn more about how and why the Incas had created the largest capital of guerrilla fighters the New World had ever known.