On 24th July 1911, the Yale archaeologist and intrepid explorer Hiram Bingham III caught his first glimpse of the remote Inca citadel of Machu Picchu during an expedition to find the lost city of Vilcabamba, the last refuge of the beleaguered Inca Empire. Although it’s now thought that the site had been visited (and plundered) by others before him, Bingham is credited with bringing Machu Picchu to the world’s attention.
Over the years that followed, however, thousands of artefacts excavated at the site were smuggled out of Peru, souring relations between the Peruvian government and Yale University for almost a century. Efforts have been taken in recent years to return the artefacts to their rightful home.
Despite the controversy surrounding the excavation of the site, the discovery (or rediscovery) of Machu Picchu remains one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the twentieth century and has inspired generations of explorers and backpackers to embark on arduous treks along the Inca trail in order to experience the sense of wonder that Bingham no doubt felt when he first laid eyes on this majestic landscape.
Unfortunately, Machu Picchu’s fame is proving to be its undoing as mass tourism has begun to take its toll on the centuries-old stone structures, prompting the Peruvian government to limit visitor numbers to just 2,500 visitors per day. How Peru will strike a balance between the economic benefits of tourism and the protection of this cultural treasure remains to be seen.
If you’d like to learn more about Machu Picchu, its discovery and the accounts of modern-day explorers, these books are a good place to start:
Hiram Bingham and Hugh Thomson, The Lost City of the Incas (2003)- Bingham’s best-selling account of the discovery of Machu Picchu was originally published in 1948. The 2003 edition includes an introduction by writer and explorer Hugh Thomson and while Bingham’s text may be a bit dry by modern standards and many of his theories have since been disproved, it is still worth reading for historical purposes. [Buy this on Amazon/Amazon UK]
Hugh Thomson, The White Rock: An Exploration of the Inca Heartland (2002) – A detailed and gripping travel book which delves into Peruvian history and captures the spirit of the age of exploration as well as portray the tragic collapse of the Inca Empire at the hands of the Spanish conquistadors. [Buy this on Amazon/Amazon UK]
Christopher Heaney, Cradle of Gold: The Story of Hiram Bingham, a Real-Life Indiana Jones, and the Search for Machu Picchu (2011) – Heaney, who cites Indiana Jones as the reason he pursued a career in archaeology, provides an captivating account of the final days of the Inca empire and Bingham’s quest to find the lost city of Vilcabamba. [Buy this on Amazon/Amazon UK]
Mark Adams, Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time (2011) – Published a century after the rediscovery of Machu Picchu, this book is an engrossing and often humorous account of the author’s trek along the old Inca roads and is essential reading for anyone who is thinking of visiting Peru. While not an academic text, it is a good introduction to Inca history and archaeology and, quite simply, a rollicking read. [Buy this on Amazon/Amazon UK]
You can also find plenty of information about Machu Picchu over at the following websites:
- Machu Picchu (About.Com)
- Who Discovered Machu Picchu? (Smithsonian Magazine)
- Destination: Machu Picchu (Destination 360)
- Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu (UNESCO)
- Ghosts of Machu Picchu (NOVA)
- The Lost Inca Empire (NOVA)
- Machu Picchu Rediscovered: The Royal Estate in the Cloud Forest (Richard L. Burger & Lucy Salazar-Burger)
Author’s note: This blog post was adapted from a post I originally wrote for my now-defunct blog, The Amateur Archaeologist. Vilcabamba, the lost Inca city that made an appearance in the very first Tomb Raider game and in Tomb Raider: Anniversary a decade later, will be dealt with in a future blog post.