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date: 07 December 2023

Machu Picchufree

Machu Picchufree

  • Willie HiattWillie HiattDepartment of History, Long Island University


Machu Picchu is an Inca royal estate constructed in the mid-15th century in Peru’s picturesque high jungle. As a seasonal retreat for celebrations, religious rituals, and administrative affairs when the Incas traveled beyond Cuzco, Machu Picchu was abandoned soon after Spanish conquistadors arrived in the Andes in 1531. The site was largely lost to the Western world until 1911, when a Yale University expedition led by Hiram Bingham lay claim to the scientific and historical “discovery” of the impressive complex of white-granite buildings and agricultural terraces. Contentious debates over cultural patrimony, conservation, indigenous rights, and neoliberal exploitation have enhanced Machu Picchu’s allure as one of the most famous archaeological remains in the Western Hemisphere.


  • History of Northern and Andean Spanish America
  • History of Latin America and the Oceanic World
  • 1492 and Before
  • 1492–1824
  • 1910–1945
  • 1991 and After

Machu Picchu is an Inca royal estate built around 1450 ce in an ethereal cloud forest in the southern Peruvian highlands. Constructed during Inca Pachacuti’s reign and abandoned soon after Spanish conquistadors arrived in the Andes in 1531, the site remained largely unknown to the Western world until July 24, 1911, when Hiram Bingham and a Yale University expedition entered the overgrown complex of white-granite stone walls and agricultural terraces high above the roaring Urubamba River. Although local farmers and traders were long aware of Machu Picchu’s existence, Bingham claimed almost sole credit for its scientific and historical “discovery.” In the ensuing century, Machu Picchu became one of the most famous archaeological remains in the Western Hemisphere, a UNESCO World Heritage site that lures more than one million visitors annually, and a symbol of pre-Columbian grandeur and purity that inspired Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Just as significant, Machu Picchu remains a flashpoint over who has the right to possess, conserve, and curate the pre-Hispanic past.

Figure 1. From the facing peak Huayna Picchu, visitors can see the Inca Trail (upper left) as it empties into the park and bisects the agricultural sector. Near the center is the disheveled quarry, a local stone source and a reminder that Machu Picchu was still under construction when the Spanish arrived. Photo courtesy of Willie Hiatt.

Although mystery and controversy still shroud Machu Picchu, research since the 1970s has illuminated the origin, daily life, and abandonment of a site that once fascinated tourists, backpackers, and New Age enthusiasts more than serious archaeologists.1 Refuting popular myths that have only enhanced the site’s enchantment, scholars theorize that Machu Picchu was neither the Incas’ mythical birthplace nor their final refuge in a gallant insurgency against Spanish conquistadors. Rather, Machu Picchu was one in a series of elaborate and picturesque country estates where Inca royals and their retainers participated in celebrations, diplomatic feasting, religious rituals, celestial observations, and administrative affairs. Only 45 miles or so north of Cuzco, the symbolic capital of the Inca realm situated at nearly 11,000 feet (3,600 meters) above sea level, Machu Picchu resides at 8,040 feet (2,450 meters) in the verdant and temperate high jungle on the eastern Andean slopes. One scholar described the site as a type of Andean “Camp David,” the U.S. presidential retreat located about 60 miles (100 kilometers) from Washington, DC. With only 150 domestic dwellings and a population of no more than 750, the site probably served as a seasonal escape for the Inca royal court primarily from May to September, the chilly fall and winter months in Cuzco.2 The site is 870 miles (1,400 kilometers) south of the equator and lies close to the Amazon River headwaters.

The popular myth that Spanish colonizers never learned of Machu Picchu enhanced the site’s anticolonial allure. Although letters, journals, travelogues, and other eyewitness accounts known as the Spanish “chronicles” did not mention Machu Picchu, 16th-century public and private documents referred to a site spelled “Picchu,” “Piccho,” or “Picho” in the vicinity of the abandoned estate. Although Bingham cited one such 1565 document, the Yale explorer omitted any reference to “Picchu,” perhaps to perpetuate his fantasy that Machu Picchu was the Old Vilcabamba (Vilcabamba la Vieja), the Inca Empire’s final stronghold against European invaders.3 Despite Machu Picchu’s enduring enigmas, why the Incas abandoned the site is no mystery. The Spanish conquest of Tahuantinsuyu, the Inca name for the empire, destroyed the socioeconomic system in which royal palaces functioned and derived material and symbolic meaning. Whereas the royal palaces Pisac and Ollantaytambo were closer to Cuzco and were more easily integrated into the colonial economy, Machu Picchu was too isolated from transportation infrastructure and markets to remain relevant in the Spanish New World.4

Far removed from its 15th-century origins, Machu Picchu remains a powerful signifier that serves far-flung political, cultural, and historical projects. Although Yale’s 2011 decision to return prized skeletal remains and relics to Peru defused a century-long controversy, environmentalists, urban planners, profiteers, ecotourists, and many others continue to debate Machu Picchu’s role in a global age. In important ways, the administration and conservation of one of the “New Seven Wonders of the World” remain even more relevant than on the day Bingham first glimpsed the mountaintop retreat.

Origins of Inca Estates

Although archaeological evidence is the primary window into the complex Andean cultures that rose and fell in the millennia before the Incas, Spanish colonial documents recorded firsthand European observations and Inca perspectives of Andean history and society at contact. Spanish chroniclers reported that the Inca ruler and his descent group used royal estates as seasonal escapes for hunting, entertaining Inca nobles and foreign dignitaries, and other pursuits.5 Besides showcasing Inca engineering skill, royal estates materialized Inca conceptions of caste and religion.6 Even before the construction of these monumental sites, the Incas had utilized political practices and spaces to naturalize political authority and to define conquered people as subjects.7

The construction of royal estates, administrative centers, and infrastructure was closely associated with military victory. Legends recounted that after new conquests, the Incas built roads and bridges to mobilize the army into new territories and to transport tribute goods back to Cuzco. Administrative hubs housed government officials and conscripted workers now toiling for the Inca state. Built in a foreign architectural style, royal estates materialized Inca superiority and reminded conquered people of a new political reality. The Incas built some estates on undesirable land in pacified regions to show off their engineering skills and techniques. Although visitors today think of archaeological sites as possessing clearly defined boundaries, the Incas conceived of estates as components within a larger system of fields, properties, and contiguous infrastructure.8

The Inca royal court and courtiers resided at country estates along with their retainers (yanaconas). Conquered people and lands supported these sites, which were considered outside the state administrative system and belonged to specific Inca kings and their descent group (panacas).9 Inca rulers sometimes awarded royal land in the form of grants to royal lineages for political loyalty. Estate ownership was private and not transferrable.10

Evidence suggests that Inca emperor Pachacuti, who built royal estates in the Urubamba Valley to commemorate military victories during his reign (1438–1471 ce), commissioned the construction of nearby Machu Picchu as well. Coveting the valley’s rich agricultural lands and access to coca regions and silver and gold mines, Pachacuti defeated groups called the Cuyos and Tambos and memorialized the triumphs with estates and palaces at Pisac and Ollantaytambo, respectively.11 A 1568 Spanish document suggests that Pachacuti also conquered land between Ollantaytambo and Chaullay in the Urubamba gorge, including a site called “Picchu” (peak) near where Machu Picchu is today.12 “Machu” (old) and “Huayna” (young) were added to distinguish the two principal mountains that bookend the estate.13

Grave goods and skeletal remains illuminate the population and daily life. An examination of the osteological sample housed at Yale’s Peabody Museum revealed that of the 174 individuals, the ratio of females to males was 1.46:1, a more even balance than Bingham’s osteologist concluded. Although the majority were adults—the average man and woman were 5 feet 2 inches and 4 feet 11 inches, respectively—the study found that the Incas also interred infants, children, young adults, and the elderly at the site. This finding undercut Bingham’s theory that young girls selected by the Inca state to become priestesses, sacrificial victims, or Inca wives had occupied Machu Picchu.14 Immigrants from diverse geological and ecological backgrounds in the central Andes largely composed the permanent servant and caretaker population.15 The Incas also imported skilled workers (camayocs) from Peru’s Chimú heartland on the north coast and possibly from the Lake Titicaca region to the south.16 An absence of skull fractures suggested no armed combat, substantiating theories that Machu Picchu was not a military outpost. Arthritis and other signs of occupational stress attested to a more reasonable workload than at other types of Inca locales. Dental analyses showed a daily diet high in sticky, high-carbohydrate foods such as corn.17

Important characteristics differentiate Machu Picchu from other kinds of Inca settlements and also from other country retreats. Not only was Machu Picchu much smaller than Cuzco and lacked the capital’s large temples and fortresses, the geographical setting, high-quality stonework, and shrines underscored its religious character and distinguished it from utilitarian sites such as administrative way stations (tambos). Although the Pisac and Ollantaytambo estates also touted Pachacuti’s military conquests, Machu Picchu’s built environment uniquely symbolized his divine power and authority.18

Organization of the Estate

The journey from Cuzco to Machu Picchu took the Incas about a week along some of the most rugged and scenic trails in the 3,000-mile Inca road system. The initial view was splendid. Spacious ceremonial plazas, steep hillsides contoured with agricultural terraces, granite buildings with thatched roofs, and sacred mountain peaks near and far greeted visitors at the Intipunku (Gate of the Sun), the final checkpoint before descent into the site. A complex design separates agricultural and urban sectors and further partitions each into upper and lower areas.19 Paths and stairways connect eighteen building groups (conjuntos), which include residences, storehouses, and workshops.20 Built in the shadows of Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu mountains at 1,640 feet (500 meters) above the valley floor, the estate trumpets Inca mastery of urban planning, hydrology, hydraulics, agricultural techniques, and other engineering practices that enabled the site to function in rugged terrain and ensured its longevity five centuries after abandonment.21

The main Inca trail bisects the agricultural sector and passes the Guardhouse, a three-sided building (wayrona) that opens up to the Terrace of the Ceremonial Rock, which the Incas transported to the site for religious purposes.22 The organic simplicity of the surrounding terraces belies their complex construction and utilitarian function. Layered with rich topsoil, rocks, gravel, and sandy material, the terraces reclaimed steep hillsides for crops such as corn, beans, and potatoes and prevented erosion and runoff. Although agricultural platforms occupy 12 acres, Machu Picchu required food cultivated in the surrounding area to support the general population.23 Like other agricultural societies, the Incas probably recycled human waste in the fields.24

Figure 2. This vantage point affords a view of the urban infrastructure, the large green plazas that divide the urban section, and the facing peak Huayna Picchu, some of whose stairs appear at the top. Photo courtesy of Willie Hiatt.

Expansive plazas partition the urban sector into the Western (hanan or higher) and Eastern (hurin or lower) sections. These designations, which the Incas employed for every town, were social as well as spatial. The trail leads to the Main Gate, an impressive doorway topped with a massive stone lintel or beam. Constructed in a signature trapezoidal style, the door served as an entryway for the Inca ruler and his family, priests, and dignitaries and frames a view of Huayna Picchu.25 The royal residential complex resides below broad terraces to the west and above a small walled garden to the east. Besides the fine white-granite, fitted stonework, and massive lintels that distinguish the royal complex, separation from other housing assured the emperor and his family privacy and sustained the myth of divine rule. At a modest 75 by 52 feet, the building in which the sovereign slept was no larger than that of elite family members but was more difficult to access. Discovered in the core of one wall a guinea pig (cuy) pierced by one gold and one silver shawl pin (tupu), a ritual offering commemorating the construction of the wall and terrace foundation.26

Although the Urubamba River rushes past on three sides below, a perennial spring on Machu Picchu’s north face provided a reliable domestic water supply and was essential to site selection.27 A spring collection system with stone-lined canals feeds sixteen fountains that still function today.28 Gravity flow carried water to the center of the urban sector, where it arrived uncontaminated at the first fountain inside the royal compound. The water proceeded to the remaining fountains along a steep stairway between the upper and lower sectors. Although the emperor’s quarters were not luxurious, the royal bath, the garden, and the site’s only private toilet underscore the amenities accorded the Inca and his family.29

Beyond domestic dwellings for elites and their retainers, prominent religious structures emphasized Inca religious views and understanding of their place in the universe. Astronomical observations, prayers, and sacrifices were central to the founding myth, which celebrated the Incas as children of the sun. Adjacent to the royal residence is the Torreón or Temple of the Sun, a semicircular, curved-wall structure designed for celestial observation. An edge cut into the platform points through the center of one window and registered the sun’s rising point in the June solstice. Beneath the temple, a cave that Hiram Bingham called the Royal Mausoleum or Tomb corresponded to the underworld from which the Incas claimed to have emerged at creation. However, the Incas did not bury elites at Machu Picchu but instead transported them by litter back to Cuzco for mummification.30

Farther to the west are the Sacred Plaza, where the Temple of the Three Windows looks down on the main plaza, and the famous Intiwatana (Hitching Post of the Sun), a stone sculpture atop a natural pyramid with views of all sacred mountains. Separate blocks of granite form an impressive stairway up to the Intiwatana, the site of important religious activities. One theory holds that the sculpture was the central position where surrounding sacred peaks were aligned.31 Huayna Picchu, located on the northwest side and accessible by a trail that passes the Sacred Rock, provides one of the most comprehensive views of the estate. The rounded peak is omnipresent in photographs, either as a signature backdrop or popular observational platform. Visitors encounter steep terraces, tunnels, shrines, carvings, and other structures during the hour-long ascent. The snow-covered Salcantay, a revered Andean mountain, looms in the distance. Some ruins at the apex were under construction when the Incas departed.32

Machu Picchu’s transcendent beauty belies important facets of its construction and modern significance. The seeming organic harmony of Inca architecture, stones, and the broader natural environment occlude the intricate planning, choreography, and construction that the Incas invested in the site. A significant portion of Machu Picchu’s construction lies underground and is invisible to awestruck visitors.33 The extensive but unkempt stone quarry, which provided a local source of high-quality granite, is one of the few reminders that Machu Picchu was a work in progress when the Incas abandoned the site. Furthermore, pristine vistas occlude the politically charged climate that has surrounded Machu Picchu since its unearthing. Whether proven right or wrong, Bingham’s conclusions shaped the Machu Picchu narrative in important ways.

Bingham’s “Discovery”

As a historian, geographer, and explorer but not a trained archaeologist, Hiram Bingham displayed intuitive insight into Machu Picchu’s history and significance but also drew erroneous conclusions that have proved difficult to dislodge.34 The explorer showed little interest in the careful analysis of archaeological layers and contexts, known as stratigraphy, and was more concerned with recovering objects.35 Debates since the late 20th century over who has the right to possess and interpret another’s cultural past, as well as new understandings of North America’s neocolonial footprint in Latin America, have tarnished Bingham’s legacy north and south of the Río Grande. The explorer who fancied himself an early Indiana Jones is just as likely to be viewed today as a plunderer and grave robber, a complex symbol of U.S. hegemony and cultural condescension.

Bingham (b. 1875–d. 1956) was born to Protestant missionaries in Honolulu, Hawaii. After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Yale University in 1898, Bingham married Alfreda Mitchell, a granddaughter to the founder of the Tiffany and Company jewelers. After the 1898 Spanish-American War relieved Spain of its final New World possessions, Bingham saw the cultural and historical affiliations between the United States and Latin America as an opportunity for North American economic and political gain. Bingham landed a modest position as a lecturer in the Yale graduate school after finishing a master’s in history at the University of California, Berkeley, and a PhD in history at Harvard. After tracing Simón Bolívar’s trail across Venezuela and Colombia in 1906, Bingham spied an opportunity to return to South America and explore Spanish trade routes by serving as a delegate to the Pan-American Scientific Congress in late 1908 in Chile. During the trip, the thirty-three-year-old Bingham observed that Quechua Indians were a “backward race” and that he understood how “brave, bigoted, courageous” Spanish conquistadors had quickly defeated them.36

Following the conference, Bingham made a propitious detour through the southern Peruvian highlands to Cuzco, the former Inca capital. The visit transformed him. Struck by pre-Columbian beauty and complexity, Bingham concluded that the important struggle came not during the independence wars in the 19th century but at Spanish contact more than three centuries earlier. While traveling with a friend by mule to Lima, Bingham reluctantly accepted a local official’s invitation to visit the Inca site Choqquequirau, which meant “City of Gold” in Quechua and was said to be the Incas’ final refuge. Impressed by the complex of terraces and buildings, Bingham tucked several small artifacts into his bag and returned to the United States.37 Disappointment followed when Bingham learned that others had visited Choqquequirau before him. Even more troubling, Spanish chronicles claimed that the Incas made their last stand at Vilcabamba, not Choqquequirau. Unraveling this mystery became Bingham’s obsession.38

Although Alfreda’s family fortune had funded her husband’s first two South American trips, Bingham began raising his own money for a third, more intellectually prestigious junket, this one to locate the Vilcabamba ruins. Mostly Yale scholars and graduates staffed the 1911 Yale Peruvian Expedition, an eight-member interdisciplinary team that included Isaiah Bowman, assistant professor of geography; William Gage Erving, an orthopedic surgeon; and Harry Ward Foote, assistant professor of chemistry. A mountain climber, a Danish topographer, and several Yale undergraduates also joined the expedition.39 Bingham chose not to invite archaeologists.40 An eager press reported on Bingham’s self-styled mission to find “lost cities” in the Andes. Asked if Yale planned to keep recovered treasure, Bingham declared that any artifacts found would belong to the Peruvian government.41

After arriving in Cuzco on July 2, the expedition struck out north in search of the Incas’ final refuge seventeen days later. For all of Bingham’s planning, success hinged on locals navigating the team through the high-jungle terrain to the ruins. Tragedy struck early when an Indian boy perished in the Urubamba River with topographical equipment strapped to his back. Expedition members reported to Bingham that they had urged the boy to return to shore, but the youth had slipped and was lost in the current. However, locals claimed that team members had sent the boy ahead to test the waters, and that after the river swept him away, Bingham’s men removed the equipment and pushed his body back into the water. Undeterred, Bingham ordered the expedition ahead. Beyond an initial journal entry, Bingham never again mentioned the boy’s death in public. One of Bingham’s sons wrote years later that maybe his father “felt Indians were more expendable than surveying instruments.” The death was the only casualty that Bingham’s expeditions ever sustained. 42

According to Bingham’s own account, the Yale party had heard through local muleteer Melchor Arteaga about impressive ruins “at a place called Machu Picchu on top of the precipice near by [cq], and that there were also ruins at Huayna Picchu, still more inaccessible, on top of a peak not far distant from our camp.” Bingham promised Arteaga one sol (fifty cents) to guide the group to the ruins. During the climb, local Indians sustained Bingham’s men with gourds full of water and the enticing promise of more-impressive ruins ahead. Farther up the ridge, the team entered an overgrown complex of walls and terraces: “Surprise followed surprise until there came the realization that we were in the midst of as wonderful ruins as any ever found in Peru.” 43 Though isolated and largely concealed beneath jungle foliage, the ruins were hardly lost to the world. Not only were campesinos raising potatoes, maize, sugarcane, and other crops on the site, graffiti scrawled in charcoal on the three-windowed temple, “Lizarraga 1902,” staked a crude claim to the estate nearly a decade before the Yale party arrived.44

Science proved instrumental in Bingham’s justification of the discovery. Though many undoubtedly had known of and entered the site before him, Bingham touted himself as the first to photograph, analyze, and chronicle Machu Picchu’s historical and scientific significance. Bingham reasoned that only “a few Indians and half-castes” and possibly “one European” had glimpsed the site before him.45 The Yale expedition’s techniques and technologies, including photography, mobilized the notion that universal scientific claims trumped national sovereignty, thus justifying the collecting of artifacts and analysis in the name of human understanding.46 However, Bingham’s overreliance on Spanish chronicles and lack of training led to fundamental misunderstandings. On the basis of his perceived connection between the three-windowed building and the mythical three windows or caves from which the Incas claimed to have emerged at creation, Bingham concluded that the site was the mythical Inca birthplace Tampu Toco. Bingham alternately hypothesized that Machu Picchu was the Old Vilcabamba, where Manco Inca rallied the final military resistance against the Spanish.47

Machu Picchu’s unearthing came as U.S. businesses and prestigious North American and European universities were expressing interest in the region and its cultural artifacts.48 Back at Yale, Bingham began planning for additional expeditions and large-scale excavations that would deliver the university an impressive antiquities collection. Though uneasy about the science, politics, and neocolonial cast of the enterprise, the Yale Corporation and the National Geographic Society backed a second expedition, which departed in May 1912. Despite increasing resistance from local amateur archaeologists, museum directors, newspaper editors, and local indigenista intellectuals concerned with protecting Peru’s cultural heritage, the Peruvian government in November 1912 offered Bingham a deal with one important stipulation: Yale received authorization to remove the Machu Picchu treasures, but Peru reserved the right to demand their return. Though humiliated that Peru had placed conditions on the extraction, Bingham’s consolation prize was that absent a complete inventory, only Yale knew exactly what the collection contained—and therefore, what might one day need to be returned.49

The Machu Picchu tombs produced the finest treasure. Yale’s 107 excavated graves yielded a minimum of 174 individuals who represented the remarkable diversity of the population. The university listed 5,415 artifacts, among them ceramics, hundreds of bronze pieces, and some silver, tin, and stone antiquities. Including bone fragments and potsherds, the Machu Picchu collection totaled 46,000 pieces. Although the ship ferrying the 136 boxes back to Yale nearly sank when it ran aground on the New Jersey shore, the collection reached Bingham’s office in early 1915. The Yale Daily News greeted the artifacts with the headline, “Peruvian Trophies Here.” 50

In a 1916 National Geographic account, Bingham acknowledged that the Peruvian government had given Yale permission to take the artifacts on the condition that they be returned in eighteen months: “The whole matter has assumed a very large importance in the eyes of the Peruvians, who feel that we are trying to rob their country of its treasures.”51 The controversy took its toll. Angry and disgraced, Bingham had left Peru in 1915 not to return for more than three decades. In the Machu Picchu story, he was hero and villain, a passionate and intuitive explorer who played the arrogant and acquisitive Westerner to perfection. His worldview steeped in American exceptionalism, capitalist enterprise, and scientific authority, Bingham sent Machu Picchu on a path toward international fame and controversy.

Historical Trajectory

Although Machu Picchu remains a Peruvian symbol of modernity and nation-state aggrandizement, regional, national, and international groups have staked competing claims to its historical and political meaning. Fitful tourism campaigns associated visits to Machu Picchu with patriotism and national development, yet the site’s symbolic power spilled far beyond Peru’s borders. Pablo Neruda and Che Guevara visited in the mid-20th century and found the raw materials for a modern Latin American identity. Art imitated life when actor Charlton Heston swaggered into Machu Picchu in the early 1950s as a slick North American adventurer searching for a sacred Inca relic. By the 1990s, Peru’s aggressive neoliberal policies made Machu Picchu a magnet for privatization and foreign investment and exacerbated tensions between the Lima-based government and the highland provinces. Debates over cultural patrimony, indigenous rights, and regional autonomy continue to swirl about Machu Picchu like the high-jungle clouds that lend the site such beauty and mystery.

Oriented toward the “modern” and mestizo coast, the oligarchs who dominated the Peruvian government and economy early in the 20th century hardly could have predicted Machu Picchu’s coming fame.52 Although Peruvians began promoting Machu Picchu as a tourist destination soon after Hiram Bingham’s discovery, few travelers visited until the Cuzco railroad line advanced along the Urubamba River to within a few kilometers of the ruins in 1928.53 Beginning in the late 1920s, the Touring and Automobile Club and the Cuzco chapter of the Rotary Club touted Cuzco and Machu Picchu visits, and in 1929, the Archaeological Institute of Cuzco became the first government agency to manage tourism. Machu Picchu remained a source of pride and chagrin for an underdeveloped country. A local reporter once disparaged a new access to the park as a “goat path” that was inappropriate for tourists.54 A guide school that opened in 1946 winnowed official (informed) guides from unauthorized (misinformed) guides, professionalizing a responsibility that once fell to local farmers. In the early 1940s, a special train service began ferrying foreigners and affluent Peruvians to Machu Picchu, newly designated as its own municipality. Anxious to market the ruins to U.S. tourists, diplomats and tourism promoters began scrubbing Bingham’s legacy and now presented him as a symbol of hemispheric cooperation.55 Bingham returned to help inaugurate a new road in 1948.56

Though abandoned and largely lost to the world, Machu Picchu stood as a symbol of pre-Hispanic purity and innocence. Neruda, one of six Latin Americans to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, ascended on horseback in 1943 and claimed that nothing he had witnessed in India or China compared: “After seeing the ruins of Macchu Picchu [cq], the fabulous cultures of antiquity seemed made of papier mâché. India itself seemed minuscule, gaudy, banal, a popular fair of gods, compared to the proud solemnity of the abandoned Inca towers. . . . Now I could see the whole of America from the heights of Macchu Picchu.”57 The visit inspired his 1945 poem Alturas de Macchu Picchu (Heights of Macchu Picchu), which locates in the ruins a lost but recoverable past:

Kiss these secret stones with me.The torrential silver of the Urubambamakes the pollen fly to its golden cup.The hollow of the bindweed’s garland,soar above the silence of these mountain coffers.58

Although contradictions abound in celebrating ruins as a symbol of hope and renewal, Neruda heard a pan-Latin American voice echo among the remains.59

A revolutionary icon and North American and European filmmakers soon followed. Guevara visited in 1952 during a South American motorcycle tour and characterized Machu Picchu as “the pure expression of the most powerful indigenous race in the Americas—untouched by a conquering civilization and full of immensely evocative treasures between its walls.” On the eve of his participation in the Cuban Revolution, Guevara could not resist an anti-imperialist jab at North American tourists who did not grasp the “moral distance” separating them from Machu Picchu’s heroic occupants.60 Two years later, Heston played shady adventurer Harry Steele in The Secret of the Incas, filmed in Cuzco and Machu Picchu. Heston’s brown leather jacket and fedora later inspired the Indiana Jones adventure series starring Harrison Ford. Two decades later, Huayna Picchu’s rugged beauty advanced an anticolonial message in German director Werner Herzog’s 1972 film, Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes). In the stunning opening scene, excessively outfitted Spaniards with horses, canons, and litters descended Huayna Picchu’s steps en route to a disastrous Amazon campaign. Westerners were out of place in that context.

As commercial aviation bolstered tourism, visitors streamed to Machu Picchu. Monthly visits increased to 400 (1947), 7,000 (1954), 50,000 (1970), and 146,000 (1980) before terrorism and economic crisis slowed the pace in the 1980s.61 Over the decades, elite tourists gave way to diverse socioeconomic groups seeking mystical, spiritual, and other experiences. In the 1960s, Cuzco residents complained that hippies had established a nudist camp in the ruins and caused “many ladies to faint upon bumping into a completely nude hippie.”62 Following Nepal and Tibet, Peru began promoting mystical tourism in the 1980s, wooing New Age enthusiasts with promises of renewed energy at sites of magnetism and spirituality. Cuzco anthropologists taught workshops on Andean religion, which became a new “commodity.”63 In 2013, the Ministry of Culture called a new wave of nude tourism “disrespectful” and a threat to “cultural heritage” and began arresting disrobing visitors.64

In 2007, Machu Picchu joined Mayan archaeological site Chichén Itzá in Mexico and the Christ the Redeemer statue in Brazil as one of the New Wonders in a nonscientific competition based on telephone and Internet voting conducted by a private foundation. Six years later, an estimated 1.2 million tourists visited and contributed $1.5 billion to Peru’s economy.65 Today, most travelers board planes at Lima’s Jorge Chávez International Airport for the approximately ninety-minute flight to Cuzco, then depart the Cuzco or Ollantaytambo train stations for Aguas Calientes, the small tourist town at the base of the park. No roads to Machu Picchu exist. Porters carry food and equipment for thousands of backpackers who each year hike the 24-mile Inca Trail. Due to high-traffic wear, the trail closes each February for maintenance and trash removal. When a decade-long controversy over a luxury helicopter service to Machu Picchu resurfaced in 2006, officials quickly grounded the tours over concerns that noise was interrupting not only the natural habitat of the spectacled bear, the red-plumed Andean cock of the rock bird, and other park species, but the visitor’s experience as well. News that a malfunctioning camera crane had taken a gash out of the sacred Intiwatana during production for a Cusqueña beer commercial horrified Peruvians in 2000.66

Management practices and the construction of space have far-reaching implications for Machu Picchu as a protected site, a tourist destination, and archaeological ruins.67 In the 1990s, President Alberto Fujimori’s accelerated neoliberal reforms brought new threats by turning over increasing authority for the administration of Machu Picchu’s space and tourist activities to for-profit companies. The government privatized the railway line, the hotel at the entrance to the park, and bus lines from Aguas Calientes.68 However, popular mobilizations and general strikes forced the cancellation of a planned cable car to the park to avoid spoiling Machu Picchu’s natural beauty and trampling regional autonomy.69

A continual challenge for South America’s most popular tourist destination is the balance between conservation and exploitation. Calling for better management practices and master planning from the Peruvian government, UNESCO has threatened to place Machu Picchu on a list of endangered sites.70 One challenge is fragmented institutional control of Machu Picchu, now divided between the Ministry of Culture (historical structures) and the Ministry of the Environment (nature preserve). Another problem is that the municipality of Aguas Calientes, which is not subject to an urban plan, has shown little concern for preservation just beyond Machu Picchu’s boundaries and has allowed construction in prohibited areas.71

Yale’s reluctant decision to return artifacts to Peru helped close a contentious chapter in Machu Picchu’s history. After a 2007 agreement between the university and Peru fell through, Peru filed a lawsuit in federal court and soon began making a moral argument for the collection’s return. Peru threatened criminal charges against Yale. Peruvian President Alan García requested that President Barack Obama intervene, and then oversaw protests in Lima and Cuzco. Protests went international when runners in the New York Marathon wore shirts demanding the return of the artifacts. Yale finally agreed to begin the return of the artifacts in time for the 2011 centennial of Machu Picchu’s “discovery.”72 In 2012, a final lot of 35,000 pieces were flown to Cuzco, where the best pieces are to be displayed at the new Casa Concha Museum.73

Discussion of the Literature

Although anthropologists and archaeologists have long expressed interest in the Incas, Machu Picchu scholarship is comparatively sparse. Books as diverse as John Hemming’s The Conquest of the Incas (1970), Michael E. Moseley’s The Incas and Their Ancestors: The Archaeology of Peru (2001), Terence D’Altroy’s The Incas (2003), Gordon F. McEwan’s The Incas: New Perspectives (2006), and Carolyn Dean’s A Culture of Stone: Inka Perspectives on Rock (2010) devote minor attention to Machu Picchu. However, Richard L. Burger and Lucy C. Salazar’s Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas (2004) incorporates some of the latest archaeological analysis of the site and definitively characterizes Machu Picchu as a royal estate, not the citadel that Hemming’s Machu Picchu (1981) and others imagined just a few decades earlier. Kenneth Wright and Alfredo Valencia Zegarra’s Machu Picchu: A Civil Engineering Marvel (2000) combines new findings (and discoveries) with a thorough analysis of the foundations, walls, hydrology, drainage, and building techniques that make Machu Picchu much more than meets the eye. Bethany L. Turner has published important work on isotopic and osteological analyses of human remains from Machu Picchu, leading to more-nuanced understandings of diet, immigration, and social class.74

The weight of new scholarly attention has fallen on Bingham’s unearthing and the evolution of Machu Picchu into international stardom. The most comprehensive examination of Bingham and his vast archival collection is Christopher Heaney’s Cradle of Gold: The Story of Hiram Bingham, a Real-Life Indiana Jones, and the Search for Machu Picchu (2010). Published on the eve of Yale’s decision to return artifacts, this scrupulously researched narrative history is sharply critical of Bingham’s plundering and indicts the university’s refusal “to recognize the expedition’s place in the hemisphere’s history of exploitation.”75 A review of early-21st-century dissertations suggests a veritable cottage industry of Machu Picchu scholarship. Mark Rice’s exploration of tourism and indigenous nationalism, Amy Cox Hall’s examination of scientific practices and visual technologies in making Machu Picchu “discoverable,” and Keely Beth Maxwell’s analysis of space and nature suggest new interest by young scholars. Yazmín López Lenci’s El Cuzco, paqarina moderna: Cartografía de una modernidad e identidades en los Andes peruanos (1900–1935) (2004) situates Machu Picchu within larger indigenista debates.

Primary Sources

Since the late 20th century, analyses of a select view documents have dislodged the myth that the Spanish never learned of Machu Picchu. Although Spanish chronicles indeed do not mention the estate, John H. Rowe, Luis Miguel Glave, and María Isabel Remy have analyzed other 15th-century colonial texts that refer to a site in the vicinity of Machu Picchu.76 The modern archival record necessarily begins with Hiram Bingham. The “Bingham Family Papers” and the “Yale Peruvian Expedition Papers” are among the plethora of documents and personal papers at the Yale University Library. Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History and the National Geographic Society Archives in Washington, DC, house other related materials. The letters and personal papers of Albert Giesecke, a North American who served as rector of the Universidad San Antonio Abad del Cuzco when Bingham unearthed Machu Picchu, are housed at the Instituto Riva-Agüero in Lima. Giesecke was one of the important local players who aided Bingham far more than the explorer admitted.77 Although incomplete, two Cuzco newspaper archives are a good source for news coverage about the Yale expedition and Machu Picchu. El Comercio is housed at the Biblioteca Municipal del Cuzco and includes the important years of 1911 and 1912; El Sol is at the newspaper’s office, but unfortunately the collection does not begin until 1913. The Archivo Histórico del Cuzco within the Biblioteca Municipal includes scattered documents about Machu Picchu, including visitor logs in the 1910s.

Further Reading

  • Burger, Richard L., and Lucy C. Salazar, eds. Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004.
  • Cox, Amy Elizabeth. “Framing Machu Picchu: Science, Photography and the Making of Heritage.” PhD diss., University of Florida, 2010.
  • Maxwell, Keely Beth. “Lost Cities and Exotic Cows: Constructing the Space of Nature and Culture in the Machu Picchu Historic Sanctuary, Peru.” PhD diss., Yale University, 2004.
  • Rice, Mark Charles. “Selling Sacred Cities: Tourism, Region, and Nation in Cusco, Peru.” PhD diss., Stony Brook University, 2014.
  • Wright, Kenneth R., and Alfredo Valencia Zegarra. Machu Picchu: A Civil Engineering Marvel. Reston, VA: ASCE Press, 2000.


  • 1. Richard L. Burger and Lucy C. Salazar, eds., “Introduction,” in Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004), 2.

  • 2. Salazar, “Machu Picchu: Mysterious Royal Estate in the Cloud Forest,” in Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas, 24–27.

  • 3. John H. Rowe, “Machu Picchu a la luz de documents de siglo XVI,” Histórica 14, no. 1 (1990): 139–140.

  • 4. Salazar, 47.

  • 5. Ibid., 26.

  • 6. Susan Niles, “The Nature of Inca Royal Estates,” in Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas, 49–50.

  • 7. Steven Brian Kosiba, “Becoming Inka: The Transformation of Political Place and Practice during Inka State Formation (Cusco, Peru).” PhD diss., University of Chicago, 2010, 1–4.

  • 8. Niles, 49–53.

  • 9. Salazar, 26.

  • 10. Niles, 51.

  • 11. Ibid., 50.

  • 12. Rowe, 141.

  • 13. Salazar, 26.

  • 14. Burger, “Scientific Insights into Daily Life at Machu Picchu,” in Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas, 43.

  • 15. Bethany L. Turner and George J. Armelagos, “Diet, Residential Origin, and Pathology at Machu Picchu, Peru,” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 149, no. 1 (2012): 73–75.

  • 16. Salazar, 27–28.

  • 17. Burger, 88–89.

  • 18. Salazar, 25–27.

  • 19. Kenneth R. Wright and Alfredo Valencia Zegarra, The Machu Picchu Guidebook: A Self-Guided Tour, rev. ed. (Boulder, CO: Johnson, 2004), 1–5.

  • 20. Ibid., 18–19.

  • 21. Kenneth R. Wright and Alfredo Valencia Zegarra, Machu Picchu: A Civil Engineering Marvel (Reston, VA: ASCE Press, 2000), 1.

  • 22. Ibid., 7–8.

  • 23. Ibid., 36–39, 47.

  • 24. Ibid., 30.

  • 25. Ibid., 15–18.

  • 26. Salazar, 30–33.

  • 27. Wright and Valencia Zegarra, 7.

  • 28. Ibid., 19.

  • 29. Salazar, 31–32.

  • 30. Ibid., 30–33, 40.

  • 31. Wright and Valencia Zegarra, The Machu Picchu Guidebook: A Self-Guided Tour, 51, 57.

  • 32. Ibid., 130–131.

  • 33. Ibid., 13.

  • 34. Salazar, 24–25.

  • 35. Amy Elizabeth Cox, “Collecting a ‘Lost City’ for Science: Huaquero Vision and the Yale Peruvian Expeditions to Machu Picchu, 1911, 1912, and 1914–15,” Ethnohistory 59, no. 2 (2012): 293–294.

  • 36. Christopher Heaney, Cradle of Gold: The Story of Hiram Bingham, a Real-Life Indian Jones, and the Search for Machu Picchu (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 22–24, 38–40.

  • 37. Ibid., 40–51.

  • 38. Ibid., 65–66.

  • 39. Salazar, 23.

  • 40. Burger, 86.

  • 41. Heaney, 73.

  • 42. Ibid., 79–83, 85–86.

  • 43. Hiram Bingham III, “The Discovery of Machu Picchu,” in Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas, 10–13.

  • 44. Heaney, 91.

  • 45. Ibid., 93.

  • 46. Cox, 294.

  • 47. Salazar, 21–22.

  • 48. Ricardo Donato Salvatore, “Local versus Imperial Knowledge: Reflections on Hiram Bingham and the Yale Peruvian Expedition,” Nepantla: Views from South 4, no. 1 (2003): 68.

  • 49. Heaney, 155.

  • 50. Ibid., 150, 165–166.

  • 51. Cited in Kimberly Alderman, “Yale Agrees to Return Machu Picchu Artifacts to Peru: Ethics-Based Repatriation Efforts Gain Steam,” Cultural Heritage & Arts Review (Fall–Winter 2010): 3.

  • 52. Mark Charles Rice, “Selling Sacred Cities: Tourism, Region, and Nation in Cusco, Peru,” PhD diss., Stony Brook University, 2014, 3.

  • 53. Keely Beth Maxwell, “Lost Cities and Exotic Cows: Constructing the Space of Nature and Culture in the Machu Picchu Historic Sanctuary, Peru,” PhD diss., Yale University, 2004, 78.

  • 54. Ibid., 134, 147.

  • 55. Rice, 11.

  • 56. Ibid., 124–126.

  • 57. Cited in Enrico Mario Santí, Pablo Neruda: The Poetics of Prophecy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1982), 116–118.

  • 58. Pablo Neruda, “The Heights of Machu Picchu,” in The Poetry of Pablo Neruda, Ilan Stavans, ed. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), 157.

  • 59. Cecilia Enjuto Rangel, Cities in Ruins: The Politics of Modern Poetics (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2010), 267.

  • 60. Ernesto “Che” Guevara, The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey, edited and translated by Alexandra Keeble (Melbourne, Australia: Ocean, 2004), 109–111.

  • 61. Maxwell, 132.

  • 62. Ibid., 130.

  • 63. Jorge A. Flores Ochoa, “Contemporary Significance of Machu Picchu,” in Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas, 114.

  • 64. Evie Liu, “Peru to Tourists: ‘Stop Getting Naked at Machu Picchu!’” CNN, March 20, 2014, accessed December 11, 2014.

  • 65. Rice, 1.

  • 66. Fury at Sacred Site Damage,” BBC, September 13, 2000, accessed December 21, 2014.

  • 67. Maxwell, 3.

  • 68. Ibid., 150–152.

  • 69. Flores Ochoa, 117–123.

  • 70. Luca Zan and Maria Lusiani, “Managing Change and Master Plans: Machu Picchu between Conservation and Exploitation,” Archaeologies: Journal of the World Archaeological Congress 7, no. 2 (2011): 331.

  • 71. Ibid., 333–334.

  • 72. Alderman, “Yale Agrees to Return Machu Picchu Artifacts to Peru: Ethics-Based Repatriation Efforts Gain Steam,” 3–4.

  • 73. United States Returns to Peru Last Machu Picchu Artefacts,” November 13, 2012, accessed December 21, 2014.

  • 74. Turner and Armelagos, 71–81; and Bethany L. Turner, George D. Kamenov, John D. Kingston, and George J. Armelagos, “Insights into Immigration and Social Class at Machu Picchu, Peru Based on Oxygen, Strontium, and Lead Isotopic Analysis,” Journal of Archaeological Science 36, no. 2 (2009): 317–332.

  • 75. Heaney, 232.

  • 76. Rowe, 139–141.

  • 77. Heaney, 79.