Machu Picchu was made possible only by the fabulous wealth of the imperial elite. When the Spaniards decimated the ruling class, in the 1530s, survivors would likely have fled into hiding. Some may have moved to new lowland towns that the Spanish founded. Others probably returned to homes in other parts of Peru. Once Machu Picchu was abandoned, it virtually disappeared. The only evidence that the Spanish even knew about it are brief references in two colonial documents. Wrote one Spanish official: “This night I slept at the foot of a snowcapped mountain . . . where there had been a bridge from ancient times that crossed the River Vitcos to go to . . . Pichu.”
By the 1570s, the Spanish conquest of Peru was more or less complete. The old Inca world gradually slipped away. Sacred shrines were razed or converted to churches, ritual plazas turned into market squares. Harsh punishment was meted out to those who persisted in the old beliefs and practices. Still, the Inca legends survived, molded into the shapes of ceramics, woven into the patterns of textiles.
And nostalgia for Inca times still infuses Peruvian culture. Discouraged by their nation’s crumbling economy and chaotic politics (President Alberto Fujimori, accused of corruption, fled to Japan in November 2000), many Peruvians idealize Inca rule as a kind of Camelot. To this day, amid Machu Picchu’s ruins, villagers make offerings of coca leaves, cigarettes, liquor and cookies, gifts of prayer to the gods of the mountains. Or perhaps to the invisible Incas themselves, who Peruvians believe will someday return in all their glory.
And what of Hiram Bingham? He returned to Machu Picchu twice during the 1910s to conduct field research, eventually shipping hundreds of artifacts home to the PeabodyMuseum at Yale. He reluctantly ended his work in the region in 1915, only when he was accused by Peruvians— unjustly, as it turns out—of stealing tons of gold. (In fact, what gold there might once have been at Machu Picchu had probably been removed to buy the freedom of the last real Inca emperor, Atahuallpa. He was taken prisoner by the Spaniards, only to be executed in spite of the fabulous ransom the Incas had collected by stripping sites across Peru.) Bingham became lieutenant governor of Connecticut in 1922 and a U.S. senator in 1924. To his last days he remained convinced, wrongly, that he had discovered both the legendary birthplace of the Incas and their secret capital, Vilcabamba, where legends say they hid from the Spanish for years after the conquest.
One morning, Valencia and I climbed Huayna Picchu (YoungMountain), the peak that towers 600 feet over Machu Picchu. From our starting point, it was impossible to discern the switchback path that levered itself up a narrow cleft in the cliff face, through clumps of orchids, yellow-flowering yucca and spiny shrubs. At times, the trail, cut from stone, seemed more like a ladder than ascending stairs, each rung no broader than the width of my foot. At the summit lay the ruins of several Inca structures, at least one a temple. From the peak’s wind-whipped crest, the traces of old Inca trails were visible, disappearing down into the jungle. Valencia said more ruins lay hidden below, among the trees, unexplored, unmapped. “There are still mysteries here,” he said. “There is more to discover, much more.”