Machu Picchu and the Real Indiana Jones

Visitors exploring Machu Picchu 
Credit: Amanda Kerr 
Hamid Amirani - 3.21.19

For tourists, adventurers and photographers alike, Machu Picchu is an essential destination. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983, Machu Picchu represents the incredible engineering genius of the Incas. Built in the mid-15th century, archaeologists estimate it was inhabited for about 80 years before being abandoned. Except for local Peruvians, Machu Picchu was unknown to the wider world until its discovery by a real-life Indiana Jones in the early 20th century.

Yale University Professor Hiram Bingham went to central Peru in 1911 in the hope of finding the lost city of Vilcabamba. Stopping at a plantation called Mandorpampa, he spoke to the plantation owner. "He said that on top of the magnificent precipices nearby there were some ruins at a place called Machu Picchu."

Bingham later described setting sight on Machu Picchu for the first time. "We found ourselves in the midst of a tropical forest, beneath the shade of whose trees we could make out a maze of ancient walls, the ruins of buildings made of blocks of granite, some of which were beautifully fitted together in the most refined style of Inca architecture." The Incas' ingenuity was particularly noticeable in the remarkable absence of any mortar to hold each block in place.

Bingham was cognizant of the import of what he had found. "The superior character of the stone work, the presence of these splendid edifices, and of what appeared to be an unusually large number of finely constructed stone dwellings, led me to believe that Machu Picchu might prove to be the largest and most important ruin discovered in South America since the days of the Spanish conquest."

He noted that Machu Picchu seemed to have "escaped the notice of the Spanish conquerors and to have remained practically unknown" until his first visit in July, 1911. It was known to locals, of course, but Bingham was  "the first to make a photographic record of the site."  

The first photo of Machu Picchu 
Credit: Hiram Bingham, National Geographic Creative

"Would anyone believe what I had found? Fortunately, in this land where accuracy of reporting what one has seen is not a prevailing characteristic of travelers, I had a good camera and the sun was shining," Bingham later said.

The intrepid explorer personally knew George Eastman, the founder of Kodak, who provided him with a special camera, a Kodak 3A modified to take 120-degree panoramas. "The panoramic version of that camera wouldn't come out for a decade,” but because of their friendship, Eastman gave it to Bingham, as well as free film. To reciprocate, Bingham reported favorably on "the ability of Kodak's film to withstand and be developed in tropical regions."

The typical stone walls of the city 
Credit: Hiram Bingham, National Geographic Creative

A wide angle view of the Sacred Plaza at Machu Picchu 
Credit: Hiram Bingham, National Geographic Creative

When Bingham returned to the site in 1912 for a further expedition, Kodak supplied three cameras, 10 wooden tripods, and film for 3,500 photos.

Bingham's account of his expedition contains a detail that is amusing now for revealing how little human nature has changed but certainly wasn't funny for him and his team of excavators at the time, as they had to expend a great deal of effort "erasing from the beautiful granite walls the crude charcoal autographs of visiting Peruvians, one of whom had taken the pains to scrawl in huge letters his name in thirty-three places in the principal and most attractive buildings." Even back then, some folks couldn't resist such a juvenile urge!

There is still uncertainty as to the purpose for which Machu Picchu was built. It's been surmised as having been a military outpost or spiritual haven. Bingham himself described it as "essentially a city of refuge. It is perched on a mountain top in the most inaccessible corner of the most inaccessible section of the Urubamba River. So far as I know, there is no part of the Andes that has been better defended by nature."

The Yale archaeologist stressed that Machu Picchu was a wonder that had to be experienced first-hand. "The beautiful blue of the tropical sky, the varying shades of green that clothe the magnificent mountains, and the mysterious charm of the roaring rapids thousands of feet below cannot be portrayed and can with difficulty be imagined."

But before the general public began arriving there in droves to take photos, it was still a serene spectacle in 1945 when Life magazine photographer Frank Scherschel visited to take images described as "quiet and majestic." The "erosion and degradation that tourism has brought" were many years away.

If you plan to visit Machu Picchu to take your own photos, it's recommended to go after 3 p.m. As one photographer explains, "The mountain closes at five, and most people will have left by that time. I had the most zen-like time walking through the ruins undisturbed, getting a real feel for how this city was."

Official rules for visitors are periodically updated, so make sure you're aware of what you can and can't do while on the site. The most recent changes prohibit the use of tripods and selfie sticks.

While you're there, you may see some of the alpaca who live in the area. Cecilia uses alpaca fiber for camera straps. Stay tuned for a future blog post on that very topic!

To read the full original article written by Hiram Bingham that was published in 1913 in National Geographic, visit:

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