The early morning mist dissipates in the landscape of palm trees and lush green forests framed by inhospitable snow-capped mountains. This journey taken by innumerable tourists every day is the very same route that explorer Hiram Bingham took in late 1911. Today we revel in a plush train – followed by a comfortable bus ride and a walk among llamas.
“It would be a dull story full of repetition and superlatives were I to try to describe the countless terraces, the towering cliffs and the constantly changing panorama,” wrote Bingham of the voyage in his book Lost City of the Incas.
After the train arrives at the village, tourists board small buses to begin the final ascent. A winding dirt road climbs higher to a panorama of dramatic cliffs and mountains until a breathtaking view appears. A series of stone buildings and terraces on the very top of the mountain becomes clear.
“With the jungle in the foreground and the glaciers in the lofty background,” reads Bingham’s words of almost a century ago, “Even the so-called road got monotonous – although it ran recklessly up and down the rock stairways sometimes cut out of the side of the precipice… We made slow progress, but we lived in wonderland.”
It takes a wild stretch of the imagination to conceive how any human being could go to such great lengths as the Inca to build an estate here. Yet nestled high in the Peruvian Andes at some 2,500 meters above sea-level amidst forbidding mountains and quite literally right within the clouds is Machu Picchu, the mysterious settlement left by the one-time rulers of much of South America, the Inca Empire.
Today Machu Picchu is defacto an impressive ghost town. For almost a century it has puzzled and intrigued scholar and layman alike, having been the subject of myth, half-truths, fictions and tall tales as storytellers manufacture competing versions of just what once existed here. It has even been the flag bearer of spiritual movements, from the hippies onwards, in which guides walk unsuspecting tourists around the site feeding them with most unlikely stories.
The spiritual movements ”They have put together a series of elements, some of which are taken from modern Andean religious beliefs, but some from North American or native Indian beliefs,” says Richard Burger, a Yale University professor and eminent Machu Picchu scholar, “Some are probably also taken from Celtic – and who knows, maybe Tibetan beliefs.”
As people have become interested in spiritual elements, Machu Picchu guides have become shamans or native priests, Burger says, who have produced all sorts of stories that they know people will get excited about. Yet Burger laments that most of these tales have very little to do with Machu Picchu. The guides tell stories of mystical energies or even perform rites and rituals.
“The guides in my mind are like Catskill comedians. They go out in front of a tough crowd and see how the tourists react to the stories they tell. Depending on the kind of reaction, that’ll probably be commensurate with the tip that they get – or at least the number of people who stay the whole tour and don’t wander off.”
Even Walt Disney tells its own version of the Inca tale in the animated film The Emperors New Clothes. While Disney’s story of the emperor Cusco being magically transformed into a llama is decidedly fictitious, in its own way that other worldly story contributes to the mythical status of the master craftsmen and warriors of the Inca.
Walt Disney’s animated movie The Emperors New Groove, like Stephen Spielberg’s blockbuster Indiana Jones series or even Mel Gibson’s graphic depictions of ancient Mayan civilization in Apocalypto have contributed popular culture’s turning ancient civilizations into its own icons. Machu Picchu is no different.
“It is very clear that Machu Picchu was built for the Inca Pachacuti who was an extraordinary ruler. He was a combination of a mystical and very political person,” says Jorge A. Flores Ochoa, anthropologist at the National University of Cusco, “He chose a very special place like Machu Picchu because it is more wonderful than any other thing.”
“He changed the Inca religion in a very short period of time, fifty years, and was very proud of the magnificence of the Incas. The state was very strong and controlled almost everything. In this sense the Incas had very strong and good engineering. Their stonework was very good too.”
The final capitulation of the Inca Evidence suggests that construction of the site of Machu Picchu started at about 1450, and it is thought to have been abandoned some 80 years later. The Spanish would go on to conquer Peru in 1532, with the final capitulation of the Inca in 1572.
You only have to walk into the airport of Peru’s capital, Lima, and you quickly recognize the stature that Machu Picchu has earned here. On billboards for credit card companies to real estate firms the mystique of Machu Picchu has become a prized association of greatness in a country that remains scarred by the Spanish conquest of these lands.
“The Incas were a society made for war,” says Rodolfo Florez Usseglio of Hidden Treasure Peru, a cultural entrepreneur from Cusco who makes a living collecting the stories of this country’s cultural past, “They conquered many different areas, from South of Chile, Argentina to Panama. They were great in the science of war and were even a society that had great communication”
“The society was a great one – among of the best in the world. When the Spaniards came here they caused a great shock. One that we have not yet overcome.”
In Peru, where the poverty can be palpable, the legacy of Machu Picchu and the powerful world that the Inca created are a reminder that this nation was once a world power to be reckoned with.
Modern awareness of Machu Picchu begins with the larger than life figure of the American explorer Hiram Bingham III, who has been credited with rediscovering the site in 1911, and literally putting the settlement on the map in the eyes of the world.
The Lost City of the Incas Bingham published his findings in National Geographic Magazine and wrote the popular Lost City of the Incas, a story that travelled the world; albeit plagued by what was later found to be myths and suppositions, such as the belief that Machu Picchu was a city at all. Burger, who has revisited Bingham’s findings, concluded that it was a royal estate.
“I think that Bingham got it wrong,” says Burger, “One of the problems that he wasn’t able to get over was that he was trained exclusively as a historian. So it was very hard for him to really see archaeological evidence as a strong foundation for inference.”
“The way he thought as a historian was that there was a very comprehensive understanding available from the chronicles and that if he could just fit what he found – these physical remains – into that framework, he would be ok. The irony, if there is one, is that he found the site that is the hardest to do that with. He found a site that wasn’t mentioned, a site that was not of very much interest to the Spanish.”
Bingham described the site as having been a center inhabited by priests who worshiped the sun with a select group of proverbial virgins of the sun. The site was also said by Bingham to have been the birthplace of the Inca. It has been found over the years, however, that there is nothing to support any of these theories.
A dispute over the Machu Picchu collection The most significant controversy about Machu Picchu is the escalating battle for the relics that Bingham collected during his first expedition. The explorer carted off the items for study at Yale’s Peabody Museum in a contentious deal that the Peruvian government today claims would have had the swift return of the items after study. It’s been almost one hundred years, however, and Peru wants them back. Despite an agreement between Yale University and the Peruvian government of Alan Garcia in 2007, the debate was aggravated earlier this year when it was revealed that the number of objects housed at Yale – originally thought to be in the neighborhood of 3,000 – is now said to be well over 40,000.
The way some Peruvians see it, Hiram Bingham was just another chapter in the country’s colonial past whereby parts of their history and culture were carted off, rewritten, and scripted for somebody else’s gain, and fame.
“The problem is not Bingham, the problem is really the attitude of the University of Yale about the collection of Machu Picchu,” says archaeologist Luis Lumbreras, himself the former head of the Instituto National de Cultura, who is intimately familiar with the case, “The problem is the attitude in relation to my country, to my laws in Peru and about the permission that made it possible to export the collection.”
While having in principal agreed to the return of a good portion of the Machu Picchu collections, Lumbreras takes exception to conditions imposed by Yale regarding the construction of a museum to house the objects before seeing their return. Yale is calling the shots, Lumbreras feels, and he doesn’t like it.
“Ninety years later the attitude of Yale is well, but… ‘we will return the collection if you have a museum under the conditions that I ask’, the great Yale. It is certainly impossible.”
Yale’s Professor Burger retorts, however, that the restrictive policy regarding the export of the Machu Picchu collections were only in effect in his later expeditions – when the explorer did not enjoy the same levels of support from the Peruvian government. The understanding for the earlier collections, Burger contends, was that the objects were taken to the United States, ‘in perpetuity’.
Entry & Arrival
Most tourists taking the trek to Machu Picchu will arrive in Lima, followed by a one hour and a quarter flight to Cusco, what was the true centre of the Inca empire. Here you will likely be greeted by locals with coca-leaf tea that is said to alleviate the effects of altitude sickness. Cusco and its churches and museums make up a beautiful city that has a unique architectural and historical heritage that is well worth seeing. While Machu Picchu is the jewel in the crown, there are numerous sites in the Sacred Valley. There is a light and sound show at the archaeological site of Ollantaytambo, and the bulky Sucsayhuaman Fortress.
Information on travel to Peru can be obtained through PromPerú, the country’s national tourism board, Calle Uno Oeste N°50 – Urb. Córpac – Lima 27, Peru.  1 2243131, http://www.promperu.gob.pe
iperu offers traveller information and assistance 24 hours a day. They may be reached at +51 1 5748000 or by email at [email protected]
Montreal-based cultural navigator Andrew Princz is the editor of the travel portal ontheglobe.com. He is involved in journalism, country awareness, tourism promotion and cultural-oriented projects globally. He has traveled to over fifty countries around the globe; from Nigeria to Ecuador; Kazakhstan to India. He is constantly on the move, seeking out opportunities to interact with new cultures and communities.