Winter Palace

The first major exhibition devoted to the Incas' fabled cold-weather retreat highlights Machu Picchu's secrets

Machu Picchu remained unknown to the outside world until the 20th century. (Frans Lanting / Corbis)
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Although I had seen many images of Machu Picchu, nothing prepared me for the real thing. Stretching along the crest of a narrow ridge lay the mesmerizing embodiment of the Inca Empire, a civilization brought to an abrupt and bloody end by the Spanish conquest of the 1500s. On either side of the ruins, sheer mountainsides drop away to the foaming waters of the UrubambaRiver more than a thousand feet below. Surrounding the site, the Andes rise in a stupendous natural amphitheater, cloud-shrouded, jagged and streaked with snow, as if the entire landscape had exploded. It is hard to believe that human beings had built such a place.

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It was more difficult still to grasp that Machu Picchu remained unknown to the outside world until the 20th century. It was only in 1911 that a lanky, Hawaii-born professor of Latin American history at Yale named Hiram Bingham—with two friends, several mules and a Peruvian guide—set out through the Andes, hoping to find clues to the fate of the Incas. The defeated remnants of that warrior race had retreated from the conquistadors in the direction of the Amazon basin. Bingham had been warned (with some exaggeration) that he was entering a region inhabited by “savage Indians” armed with poison arrows. Instead, he stumbled across the most extraordinary archaeological find of the century. The name Machu Picchu, or OldMountain, comes from the Quechua Indian term for the 9,060-foot peak looming over the site.

Now many of the items that Bingham collected there nearly a century ago—including richly embellished pottery vessels, copper and bronze jewelry, intricately carved knives unseen except by scholars for more than eight decades—are on view in the first major exhibition devoted to the Inca site ever mounted in the United States. “Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas” remains at Yale University’s Peabody Museum of Natural History, in New Haven, Connecticut, through May 4, before traveling the next month to Los Angeles, then on to Pittsburgh, Denver, Houston and Chicago.

“The exhibition will change the way people see Machu Picchu,” says archaeologist Richard Burger who, in collaboration with archaeologist Lucy Salazar, curated the show. “We’re going to break through the myths,” he adds. “The exhibition will remove Machu Picchu from the ‘world’s-mostmysterious- places’ category and show us the humanity of the Incas, the rhythms of daily life for both the elite and the common folks.”

The site’s spectacular setting, the drama of its discovery and Bingham’s melodramatic speculations regarding the Incas’ fate have all contributed to the legend of a mysterious “lost city.” For nearly a century, travelers and dreamers have elaborated exotic theories about its genesis, beginning with Bingham’s assertion that Machu Picchu was home to a cult of vestal virgins, who “found [there] a refuge from the animosity and lust of the conquistadors.

Although Bingham never encountered any poison-arrowtoting natives, his explorations were not without their hairraising moments. In the early summer of 1911, tracing “a trail which not even a dog could follow unassisted,” his small party hacked its way through dense tropical jungle and along slippery cliffs. A single misstep could have pitched them hundreds of feet to their deaths. After weeks of arduous trekking, they encountered a peasant who informed Bingham that some ruins might be found on a nearby mountain. “When asked just where the ruins were, he pointed straight up,” Bingham later wrote. “No one supposed that they could be particularly interesting. And no one cared to go with me.”

On July 24, after crossing the Urubamba on a rickety bridge, crawling on his hands and knees “six inches at a time,” he struggled up a snake-infested mountainside through nearly impenetrable thickets. “Suddenly,” he would recall, “I found myself confronted with the walls of ruined houses built of the finest quality of Inca stone work. . . . It fairly took my breath away. What could this place be?”

As with most modern visitors, I traveled to Machu Picchu by train from Cuzco, the old Inca capital less than 70 miles away, though it took nearly four hours to reach Aguas Calientes (Hot Waters), the village nearest to Machu Picchu, named for the thermal baths located there. My companion, Alfredo Valencia Zegarra, one of Peru’s most eminent archaeologists, had begun digging at Machu Picchu in the 1960s. The train chugged across a landscape of somnolent villages, and narrow, terraced valleys where farmers, in the tradition of their Inca ancestors, tilled the ancient Andean crops, maize and potatoes. As we descended—Machu Picchu, nearly 3,000 feet lower than Cuzco, lies on the eastern edge of the Andes—the vegetation grew denser, the valleys more claustrophobic. Stone cliffs towered hundreds of feet overhead. Alongside the tracks, the Urubamba surged over boulders and beneath treacherous-looking footbridges anchored on stone abutments that date from Inca times.

From Aguas Calientes, an unpaved road twisted up the mountain to Machu Picchu itself, where we at last came upon the vision that left Hiram Bingham speechless 92 years ago. When he first explored here, the jungle had almost entirelyengulfed the ruins. Since then, the overgrowth has been hacked away, making it easy to discern the plan the Incas followed in laying out the community. Two more or less distinct quadrants lie separated by a series of small grassy plazas. “The Inca envisioned all things in duality: male and female, life and death, right and left, the upper world and the lower world,” said Valencia, a stocky, amiable man of 62, as he bounded over ruined walls and craggy trails that would have challenged the equilibrium of a llama. “One can distinguish here an urban sector and an agricultural sector, as well as the upper town and the lower town. The temples are part of the upper town, the warehouses the lower, and so on.”

The Incas were just one of a host of minor tribes until the early 15th century. Then, gripped by a messianic belief that they were destined to rule the world, they began conquering and assimilating their neighbors. The Incas had a genius for strategy and engineering: they pioneered methods of moving large armies via road networks they constructed through the Andes. By the 16th century, their reach extended almost 2,500 miles, from present-day Colombia to central Chile.


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