Mark Adams, author of Turn Right at Machu Picchu, uncovers the myths and mystery around the spellbinding Peruvian landmark.
This year, around a million visitors will make the epic journey to Machu Picchu - an odyssey that for most people entails a long flight to Lima, a second flight to Cusco, and then a three-and-a-half hour train ride (or four-day hike) to the ruins themselves. Strangely, almost none of these travelers will have the slightest idea what is it they're going to see. It's as if the Incas built this stone masterpiece in the clouds solely to serve as an envy-inducing photo backdrop. Which is a shame, because in recent years we've learned quite a lot about the fascinating reasons behind Machu Picchu's existence.
The most common misconception about Machu Picchu has been handed down by the American explorer Hiram Bingham III. He was the citadel's sole visitor from the outside world in 1911, the year that he is credited with rediscovering the spectacular ruins. (Three Peruvian farm families were living there at the time.)
Bingham had been searching for someplace else, the legendary Lost City of the Incas. That ghostly metropolis—officially known as Vilcabamba—was the redoubt to which a group of Inca nobles and their women had supposedly escaped (with a large stash of gold, the story went) when Francisco Pizarro and his rapacious Spanish conquistadors arrived in Peru in 1532. Unfortunately, the hyper-ambitious Bingham was so eager to prove that he'd found the lost city that he ignored evidence that Vilcabamba was actually located not far west of Machu Picchu, in the Amazon jungle. Some local guides in Cusco still insist that Bingham departed Peru with a fortune in precious metals, but the truth is that he found mostly bits of broken pottery and human remains. Most of these have recently been returned to Peru after spending a century in the United States.