Rediscovering the Hidden City of Machu Picchu in Peru

by Julie Benson, Vice President of Public Relations

View of Machu Picchu, the hidden city of the Incas
View of Machu Picchu, the hidden city of the Incas

When I first laid eyes on the ancient citadel of Machu Picchu, I could only imagine what it must have been like for explorer Hiram Bingham on July 24, 1911. While trekking through a dense Peruvian jungle, he stumbled upon one of the greatest archeological finds of the 20th century.

There before his eyes – and now before mine – was the most extraordinary sight. He had discovered what he believed to be the “lost city of the Incas,” which had been hidden from the Western world for the past 400 years. Over the centuries, the surrounding jungle had grown over much of the mountaintop site, and few outsiders knew of its existence.

By Bingham’s side was a young Peruvian boy who served as his guide to this hidden treasure. By my side was my husband — we had decided to visit Machu Picchu to celebrate our anniversary.

The last stronghold of the mighty Incas, the largest civilization in pre-Columbian America, Machu Picchu was named one of the new Seven Wonders of the World in 2007 for good reasons. Some call it one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Traveling to Machu Picchu was an adventure in itself. The first stop on our South American cruise was Cuzco, Peru, the historic capitol of the Inca Empire and itself a UNESCO World Heritage site with its Baroque churches and palaces built over the ruins of an Inca city.

Cuzco is the gateway to Machu Picchu (which means “Old Peak) and sits 11,600 feet above sea level, high in the Peruvian Andes, where nearly half of all visitors are said to be affected by altitude sickness. We were therefore fortunate to stay at the beautiful Hotel Monasterio, a former Spanish colonial monastery built on a 400-year-old Incan foundation, where oxygen is piped into the guest rooms 24 hours a day to help prevent the ill effects of altitude sickness. The ultimate amenity!

The train from Cuzco took us to the town of Aguas Calientes at the foot of Machu Picchu, where I spent a little time shopping for local souvenirs.

The oxygen must have worked, because neither of us was affected by the altitude and we were excited for our day-long tour of Machu Picchu. We traveled there by Peru Rail’s Hiram Bingham train (heartier souls actually take four days to hike there on the famous 28-mile Inca trail), and we were quite content to ride the rails.

After a steep climb out of Cuzco, we descended into the Sacred Valley, marveling at the vistas of fields and villages in the foothills of the Andes. The end of the line was the town of Aguas Calientes at the foot of the Machu Picchu Mountain. It was there that I purchased one of the most important souvenirs of my trip. While strolling around the quaint town looking at local crafts, I found some beads.

These weren’t just any beads, but beads made from the green serpentine stone found nowhere else in the world but Machu Picchu. The mountain’s veins run rich with this mineral, said to carry powerful spiritual qualities – bringing the wearer calmness and serenity, and a deep connection with nature. I thought this necklace was the perfect item to accompany me as I explored this astonishing place.

When I first took in the vista of Machu Picchu, it was startling. The sheer beauty of these terraced ruins took my breath away. Ringed by a crown of pointed mountain peaks and lush jungle, it was even more stunning than the photos I’d seen. There were hundreds of stone structures built in the early 1400s — palaces, temples, baths, storehouses, dwellings and plazas connected by narrow lanes.

The Incas had turned the site into a small but extraordinary city. It was invisible from below and completely self-contained, surrounded by agricultural terraces and watered by natural springs. Tracing the history and purpose of Machu Picchu is difficult because the Incas relied heavily on their people to carry important information. Since they had no written language, history was passed down by oral historians from one generation to the next. Through much study, it’s now believed that Machu Picchu was built as an estate for an Inca emperor, and that the site was no doubt selected because of its position relative to sacred landscape features such as its mountains, which are purported to be in alignment with key astronomical events that were important to the Incas.

I found it hard to believe that this remarkable place had been “hidden” from the Western world for four centuries. There were no accounts of Machu Picchu in any of the chronicles about the Spanish invasion and occupation. There was nothing to document that it even existed at all. Fortunately, the conquering Spanish never found Machu Picchu, even though they suspected its existence. The site was therefore never plundered and destroyed, and so survived as a rare window onto the Inca civilization.

We were there on a sunny November day, and we were surprised that only a few other people were around – we felt as though the place was ours. We wandered among the structures, which are all made of carved, massive granite stone, precisely fitted together in interlocking patterns — using no mortar – in order to withstand the disastrous effects of earthquakes. The Inca had learned that when an earthquake occurred, the stones would lock together, allowing the entire wall to simultaneously flex, rather than crumble.

The Incas were brilliant architects and engineers, not only with their amazing feats of mortar-less stone buildings. They constructed paved roads through the mountains from Ecuador to Chile with tunnels and bridges, they built aqueducts to their cities, and they created terraced farmlands in the steep mountainsides. As I stood among the ruins, I could picture the ancient city once again alive and bustling – the perfect blending of man and nature, high in the Andes.

No one knows why or when the Incas left Machu Picchu. But as the 100th anniversary of the rediscovery of this site approaches, it’s reason to celebrate that this lost city was found, and today stands as a magnificent jewel of the mighty Inca civilization.
When I wear my Machu Picchu serpentine beads today, I’m transported back to this place of beauty and wonder. And it just might be my imagination, but I’m sure I feel their powers of calmness and serenity.