Hiram Bingham: World-famous as The Discoverer of Machu Picchu


It’s remarkable that Machu Picchu was first brought to the attention of the world in 1911. The Spanish invaders at the time of the Conquest and during certuries of colonial rule, never discovered the city, and nobody ever led them there, suggesting that the site had long since been abondoned and forgotten.

In the nineteenth century explorers like Eugenie de Sartiges, George Ephraim Squire, Antonio Raimondi and Castelnau never reached Machu Picchu, although most of them crossed the Andes to the almost inaccessible ruins of Choquekirau, built high above the Apurimac river. In fact, the outside world simply stumbled upon Machu Picchu, for it had never been lost to those who lived around it. Those same people eventually led the American explorer, Hiram Bingham, and his team to the site in 1911. Hiram Bingham, now world-famous as the discoverer of Machu Picchu, did not initially travel to South America to explore the land of the Incas. In fact, the Hawaiian-born Yale and Harvard educated historian first journeyed south from the United States to complete his study of the great nineteenth century liberator, Simon Bolivar.

In December 1908, Bingham attended the First Panamerican Scientific Congress in Santiago, Chile. It was there that he decided to follow the old Spanish trade route from Buenos Aires to Lima, and it was to that end that he traveled to Lima and hence to Cusco.

In Cusco Bingham made the acquaintance of one J.J. Nunez, then prefect of the Apurimac region, who invited him on the arduous trip to the ruins of Choquekirau, thought at the time to be the site of Vilcabamba, the much sought “last resting place of the Incas.”


On his return to the USA, Bingham decided to organize another expedition to Peru. He arrived in Lima in June 1911 where he began to study the seventeenth-century chronicles of Antonio de la Calancha and Fernando de Montesinos. The writings of these two men first inspired Bingham to seek the last two capitals of the Inca, Vilcabamba and Vitcos. Leaving Lima in July, Bingham returned to Cusco from where he journeyed on foot and by mule through the Urubamba Valley, past Ollantaytambo, and on into the Urubamba gorge.

On July 23, Bingham and his party camped by the river at a place called Mandor Pampa, where they aroused the curiosity of Melchor Arteaga, a local farmer who leased the land there. Through Sergeant Carrasco, the policeman who was his guide and interpreter, Bingham learned from Arteaga that there were extensive ruins on top of the ridge opposite the camp, which Arteaga, in his native Quechua, called Machu Picchu, or “old mountain”.

According to Bingham, “The morning of July 24th dawned in a cold drizzle. Arteaga shivered and seemed inclined to stay in his hut. I offered to pay him well if he showed me the ruins. He demurred and said it was too hard a climb for such a wet day. But when he found I was willing to pay him a sol, three or four times the ordinary daily wage, he finally agreed to go. When asked just where the ruins were, he pointed straight up to the top of the mountain. No one supposed that they would be particularly interesting, and no one cared to go with me.”

Accompanied only by Seargeant Carrasco and Arteaga, Bingham left the camp around 10 am. After a short while the party crossed a bridge so unnerving that the intrepid explorer was reduced to crawling across it on his hands and knees. From the river they climbed a precipitous slope until they reached the ridge at around midday.

Here Bingham rested at a small hut where they enjoyed the hospitality of a group of campesinos. They told him that they had been living there for about four years and explained that they had found an extensive system of terraces on whose fertile soil they had decided to grow their crops. Bingham was then told that the ruins he sought were close by and he was given a guide, the 11-year old Pablito Alvarez, to lead him there.

Almost immediately, he was greeted by the sight of a broad sweep of ancient terraces. They numbered more than a hundred and had recently been cleared of forest and reactivated. Led by the boy, he re-entered the forest beyond the terraces. Here young Pablito began to reveal to Bingham a series of white granite walls which the historian immediately judged to be the finest examples of masonry that he had ever seen. They were in fact, the remains of what we call today the Royal Tomb, the Main Temple, and the Temple of the Three Windows.


As evidenced by his writings, Hiram Bingham was genuinely inspired by the beauty of the region he was exploring.

According to Bingham, “I had entered the marvellous canyon of the Urubamba below the Inca fortress. Here the river escapes from the cold plateau by tearing its way through gigantic mountains of granite. The road runs through a land of matchless charm. It has the majestic grandeur of the Canadian Rockies, as well as the startling beauty of the Nuuanu Pali near Honolulu, and the enchanting vistas of the Koolau Ditch Trail on Maui, in my native land. In the variety of its charms the power of its spell, I know of no place in the world which can compare with it. Not only had it great snow peaks looming above the clouds more than two miles overhead; gigantic precipices of many-coloured granite rising sheer for thousands of feet above the foaming, glistening, roaring rapids, it has also, in striking contrast, orchids and tree ferns, the delectable beauty of luxurious vegetation and the mysterious witchery of the jungle. One is drawn irrisistibly onwards by ever-recurring surprises through a deep, winding gorge, turing and twistng past overhanging cliffs of incredible height.

Above all, there is the fascination of finding here and there under swaying vines, or perched on top of a beetling crag, the rugged masonry of a bygone race; and of trying to understand the bewildering romance of the ancient builders who, ages ago, sought refuge in a region which appears to have been expressly designed by nature as a sanctuary for the oppressed, a place where they might fearlessly and patiently give expression to their passion for walls of enduring beauty.”


Other people saw and even lived at Machu Picchu before Hiram Bingham even set foot in Peru, but had neither the means nor the opportunity to bring the “lost city” to the attention of the outside world. Bingham himself found two families living at the ruins and was led to the main plaza by a young boy. As early as 1894, a local farmer called Agustin Lizarraga led one Luis Bejar Ugarte to the ancient city. This same Lizarraga took his friends Gabino Sanchez and Enrique Palma on a treasure-seeking trip to the ruins on July 14, 1901, visiting all the accessible parts of the then uncleared site. When Bingham arrived at the ruins he found the rock that the three friends had signed with their names and the date of their visit. In his later writings, however, he downplayed this discovery.

The three treasure hunters met Anacleto Alvarez (whom Bingham later encountered) who told them that he had been living among the ruins for 8 years, where he grew his crops of corn, yucca, sweet potatos and sugar cane on the fertile soil that the Incas had carried up from the river valley to build Machu Picchu’s magnificent 300 meter high series of terraces!


16th Century Records

Part of the fascination felt by visitors who discover the scenery of Machu Picchu is due to the lack of accurate information about the origin of the place and why the Inca decided to occupy and settle the area. One’s imagination can wander freely among the walls and ancient structures and gaze at the hot, humid, surroundings extending toward lush sub tropical forests. The testimonies are eloquent, a marvelous world with an exceptionally rich and varied nature. Also, one can not help but suspect that although there are no documents which verify such events, something important occurred in this place during the Inca period. The past is covered with a mantle of mystery. Some years ago documents from the 16th century were revealed which refer to the existence of this region and the presence of pre-Hispanic ruins. Up until that time there were testimonies by 19th century travelers, including the Frenchman Charles Wiener and the Italian Antonio Raimondi, who had pointed out the existence of important archaeological ruins in the area. But up until the time of the arrival of Hiram Bingham there were no reports from explorers who’d recognized nor studied them.

Based on the general inventory of knowledge known about the Sanctuary is the documentation of a hacienda belonging to the Augustinian friars who received these lands as an inheritance in the 16th century. They were witnesses of the life and death of the final Incas who also lived with the people of this region and undoubtedly were familiar with the landscape and structures. The Augustinians attended the conversations held between the Spanish emissaries who demanded the submission of the Incas to the dictates of teh Spanish crown and Roman Catholicism. The tension experienced by the Incas, who were under siege from the Spanish expeditions, affected the relationship between the friars and the native masters. In the midst of such conflicts the lack of understanding between the two bands led some friars to pay with their lives. For all of these reasons the presence of the Order of St Augustine in the region continued up until the 19th century when the members of this religious order left Cuzco. Their goods and lands were sold or purchased by private parties and by the State.

Through the Augustinian friars and the documents which they left behind, we know that agricultural activities were conducted on vast expanses of land in the area during the colonial period. However, such records fail to mention the presence of significant pre-Hispanic structures in the Machu Picchu area. Of course the people in the settlements were not concerned with such matters. The friars were interested in the income from the lands and the native labor force. These were not times to think of increasing the archaeological heritage by a few more stones, much less based on lands which were considered isolated and far off from the point of view of the inhabitants of the city of Cuzco.

The Incas were finally subdued when Tupac Amaru was executed by order of the Viceroy Francisco Toledo in 1572. The references to Picchu which can be found in 16th century documents were erased from the memory of those who played a leading role in the colonial history of Cuzco. The tax records of the Augustinian friars are the only testimony of the existence of these stones which conserve the mystery and charm of pre-Hispanic life in the region. Bingham had not seen such records.