Jul 242013


Today is the anniversary of the day in 1911 that a local farmer’s son took Hiram Bingham to the ruins of Machu Picchu, eventually launching a massive project to free the city from the dense jungle that had overgrown it, and turning it into one of the most visited historic sites in the world.

Bingham was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, and attended O’ahu College, now known as Punahou School, in Hawai’i from 1882 to 1892. He went to the United States in his teens in order to complete his education, entering Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, from which he graduated in 1894. He obtained a B.A. degree from Yale University in 1898, a degree from the University of California, Berkeley in 1900, and a Ph. D. degree from Harvard University in 1905.  He taught history and politics at Harvard and then served as preceptor under Woodrow Wilson at Princeton University. In 1907, Yale University appointed Bingham as a lecturer in South American history.

Bingham was not a trained archaeologist. Yet, it was during Bingham’s time as a lecturer that he discovered the largely forgotten Inca city of Machu Picchu. In 1908, he had served as delegate to the First Pan American Scientific Congress at Santiago, Chile. On his way home via Peru, a local prefect convinced him to visit the pre-Columbian city of Choquequirao. Bingham published an account of this trip in Across South America; an account of a journey from Buenos Aires to Lima by way of Potosí, with notes on Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, and Peru (1911).

Bingham was thrilled by the prospect of unexplored Inca cities, and in 1911 returned to the Andes with the Yale Peruvian Expedition of 1911. On July 24, 1911, Pablito Alvarez, son of a local Quechua farmer, led Bingham to Machu Picchu, which had been largely forgotten by everybody except the small number of people living in the immediate valley (possibly including two local missionaries named Thomas Payne and Stuart McNairn whose descendants claim that they had already climbed to the ruins in 1906). Also the Cusco explorers Enrique Palma, Gabino Sanchez, and Agustín Lizarraga are said to have arrived at the site in 1901. Pablito and his father knew of the city because for years they had made periodic trips to the site to take artifacts to sell. So it is not quite fair to say that Bingham “discovered” Machu Picchu.  The significance of his trip there was that Bingham was the first outsider to consider reclaiming the site from the dense jungle that overgrew it.

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Machu Picchu is one of the greatest archeological sites of all time because the Spanish conquistadores did not know of its existence. So what is there to this day represents an Inca city in completely unspoilt condition.  When Bingham arrived he found that a few of the buildings had collapsed but most were still standing. The roofs, made of timber and grass were gone, of course, but in general the city was exactly as it was when it was abandoned by the Inca.  Bingham photographed the site extensively and returned in later years with specialists to begin the restoration process, with funding and supervision from Yale University and the National Geographic Society.  Restoration still continues, and some archeologists believe there is more to be discovered buried in the vicinity. Unfortunately the crews took a large number of artifacts back with them to Yale, and currently the Peruvian government is negotiating for their return.


Machu Picchu was built around 1450, at the height of the Inca Empire. The construction appears to date from the period of the two great Incas, Pachacutec Inca Yupanqui (1438–71) and Tupac Inca Yupanqui (1472–93). It was abandoned just over 100 years later, in 1572, as a belated result of the Spanish Conquest. It is possible that most of its inhabitants died from smallpox introduced by travelers before the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the area. The latter had notes of a place called Piccho, although there is no record of the Spanish having visited the remote city.

Machu Picchu is situated above a loop of the Urubamba River, which surrounds the site on three sides, with cliffs dropping vertically for 450 metres (1,480 ft) to the river at their base. The location of the city was a military secret, and its deep precipices and steep mountains provided excellent natural defenses. The Inca Bridge, an Inca rope bridge, across the Urubamba River in the Pongo de Mainique, provided a secret entrance for the Inca army. Another Inca bridge was built to the west of Machu Picchu, the tree-trunk bridge, at a location where a gap occurs in the cliff that measures 6 metres (20 ft). It could be bridged by two tree trunks, but with the trees removed, there was a 570 metres (1,870 ft) fall to the base of the cliffs.

The city sits in a saddle between the two mountains Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu, with a commanding view down two valleys and a nearly impassable mountain at its back. It has a water supply from springs that cannot be blocked easily, and enough land to grow food for about four times as many people as ever lived there. The hillsides leading to it have been terraced, not only to provide more farmland to grow crops, but to steepen the slopes which invaders would have to ascend. The terraces reduced soil erosion and protected against landslides.

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The site is roughly divided into an agricultural sector and an urban center, the latter divided into the upper town and the lower town. The temples are part of the upper town, the warehouses, the lower. The architecture is adapted to the natural form of the mountains. Approximately 200 buildings are arranged on wide parallel terraces around a vast central square that is oriented east-west. The various kanchas or compounds are long and narrow in order to exploit the terrain. The extensive terraces have sophisticated channeling systems to provide irrigation for the fields. Numerous stone stairways set in the walls allowed access to the different levels across the site. The eastern section of the city was probably residential. The western, separated by the square, was for religious and ceremonial purposes. This section contains the Torreón, the massive tower which may have been used as an observatory.
Located in the religious zone are the primary archaeological treasures: the Intihuatana, the Temple of the Sun and the Room of the Three Windows. These were dedicated to Inti, their sun god and greatest deity. The Popular District, or Residential District, is the place where the lower-class people lived. It includes storage buildings and simple houses. The royalty area, a sector for the nobility, is a group of houses located in rows over a slope; the residence of the Amautas (wise persons) was characterized by its reddish walls, and the zone of the Ñustas (princesses) had trapezoid-shaped rooms. The Monumental Mausoleum is a carved statue with a vaulted interior and carved drawings. It was used for rites or sacrifices.


The Intihuatana (“hitching post of the sun”) is believed to have been designed as an astronomical clock or calendar by the Incas. The sculpture carved out from the rock bottom of the sun temple is interpreted as “Water mirrors for observing the sky.”  The Intihuatana stone is one of many ritual stones in South America. These stones are arranged to point directly at the sun during the winter solstice. At midday on November 11 and January 30 the sun stands almost above the pillar, casting no shadow at all. On June 21 the stone is casting the longest shadow on its southern side, and on December 21 a much shorter one on his northern side.
The central buildings of Machu Picchu use the classical Inca architectural style of polished dry-stone walls of regular shape. The Incas were masters of this technique, called ashlar, in which blocks of stone are cut to fit together tightly without mortar. Many junctions in the central city are so perfect that it is said not even a blade of grass fits between the stones.

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Some Inca buildings were constructed using mortar, but by Inca standards this was quick, shoddy construction, and was not used in the building of important structures. Peru is a highly seismic land, and mortar-free construction was more earthquake-resistant than using mortar. The stones of the dry-stone walls built by the Incas can move slightly and resettle without the walls collapsing.

Inca walls had numerous design details that helped protect them against collapsing in an earthquake. Doors and windows are trapezoidal and tilt inward from bottom to top; corners usually are rounded; inside corners often incline slightly into the rooms; and “L”-shaped blocks often were used to tie outside corners of the structure together. These walls do not rise straight from bottom to top, but are offset slightly from row to row.

The Incas never used the wheel in any practical manner. Its use in toys demonstrates that the principle was well-known to them, although it was not applied in their engineering. The lack of strong draft animals, as well as steep terrain and dense vegetation, may have rendered the wheel impractical. How they moved and placed the enormous blocks of stones remains a mystery, although the general belief is that they used hundreds of men to push the stones up inclined planes. A few of the stones still have knobs on them that could have been used to lever them into position; it is believed that after the stones were placed, the Incas would have sanded the knobs away, but a few were overlooked.

I was in Machu Picchu for my birthday in 2012 and had a celebratory meal in the neighboring town of Aguas Calientes. However, this was alpaca steak, so giving a recipe is not likely to be very helpful.  But, I stayed in Cusco, the Inca capital, for a week, where I sampled many wonderful Peruvian specialties including the national dish, ceviche, at a famous cevichería, serving 25 styles of ceviche and nothing else.  The one pictured is ceviche erótico, raw shellfish marinated in lime juice and squid ink.

Ceviche in Machu Picchu

Ceviche in Machu Picchu

There is an ongoing debate as to the origins of ceviche. Some claim the idea of “cooking” raw fish by marinating it in citric juices was introduced by the Spanish, others believe it was first created in Polynesian islands (where it is still popular). But archeological evidence seems to support the hypothesis that it was first created in coastal Peru prior to the arrival of the Spanish.  The recipe, as such, is very simple.  Cut very fresh firm fish into bite sized chunks and marinate it for several hours, or overnight in lime juice with onions and hot peppers.  It is usually served with corn, whole or on the kernel, and slices of sweet potato.  Both vegetables are eaten cold. It is also customary to have a small glass of leche de tigre (tiger’s milk), the leftover milky marinade, along with the ceviche.  Ceviche is considered in Peru as primarily a lunch dish.

Classic Peruvian Ceviche


1 pound white saltwater fish (albacore, sole, snapper, halibut etc)
1 cup lime juice  (lemon or sour orange will work)
1 tbsp salt
1 rocoto chile (chile manzano in Mexican markets) or 1 habañero
1 medium onion, sliced very thinly
4 tbsp chopped cilantro


Cut the fish into small pieces, 1 inch squares is best.

Salt the fish, then  put it into a zip top bag along with the citrus juice sliced onions and the chile chopped fine. Zip the top leaving a small hole, and squeeze all the air out.  Then close it completely. You can marinate the fish in a non-reactive bowl with a lid, but I find the zip top bag method preferable because all the fish is evenly coated with marinade.

Chill this in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours. I usually do it overnight.

To serve, place the fish on a plate and top with the onions and chiles, and garnish with fresh cilantro.  Serve with cold corn and sliced sweet potato (as pictured).

Serves 4

As a variant you can use shellfish mixed in or on their own.  Best for this are clams, scallops, and squid (with tentacles). You can use crab or lobster too, but they need to be precooked.