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Raiders Of The Lost City

June 2024
22min read

In July 1911 the author’s father climbed a remote ridge in Peru to discover, amid an almost impenetrable jungle, the fabled lost city of Machu Picchu, last capital of the Inca Empire. Or so the story goes.


During the seventy-five years since Hiram Bingham first climbed the knifelike ridge above the Urubamba canyon, in Peru, and set foot in the lost Inca city of Machu Picchu, thousands following his trail have felt their spirits lifted by the grandeur of the setting and the splendor of the granite ruins. The great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda was inspired to make Machu Picchu the focus of an epic poem on human suffering and aspiration. Scholars, unable to find a written record of its building or its builders, have puzzled over the mystery of its origin. Inevitably the ruined city, often half hidden by the vapors that drift up from the chasms below, has been the subject of myth.


Not least of the mythmakers was Bingham himself. His mythmaking concerned not only the history of what he had found but also the circumstances of its finding. As a small boy I had heard my father tell of his Peruvian adventures, but with little comprehension. I was, of course, too young to understand how he had come to be an explorer or the significance of what he had found. But some years ago I came upon a collection of letters he had written my mother from Peru during his 1911 expedition. They made me question some of the impressions I had gathered from him and his books. I began a search of the voluminous files of his Yale Peruvian expeditions at the Yale library and the thousands of his photographs preserved at the National Geographic Society.

What I found differed in important respects from the story of the discovery of Machu Picchu that had taken shape over the years. The accepted version, which had evolved not without my father’s encouragement, was that he had set out to find a lost city, the last capital of the Inca Empire, and that after long and arduous search he had found it, buried in an impenetrable tropical jungle on an almost inaccessible ridge of Machu Picchu Mountain. Much of this story turned out to be myth.

He had indeed been looking for the last Inca capital, and he did find it; but it was not Machu Picchu, nor was it the chief objective of his 1911 expedition. He stumbled on Machu Picchu not after a long search but within forty-eight hours of beginning his first field trip. The ruins were not in an impenetrable wilderness but just off a road that served a thickly populated region. It was not hidden in the jungle but largely exposed by local farmers who had cleared the ruins to grow crops. And with barely a hundred houses it could be called a city only by courtesy.

The mythology includes his explanations of what he had found. In Lost City of the Incas, he identified the ruined city as Vilcabamba, the refuge to which the last Incas had fled from the Spanish conquistadors. He also identified it with Tampu-tocco, the original home of the first Incas, from which they had emerged to establish their great empire. None of these ideas are accepted by any of the leading historical scholars and archeologists of today.

Yet no one who visits Machu Picchu today can fail to be impressed by the grandeur of its setting. The unspoiled magnificence of its great granite walls seems to demand some romantic history such as Bingham imagined for it. To question his mythmaking, moreover, is in no way to diminish his extraordinary achievements as an explorer. The Yale Peruvian Expedition of 1911, which he organized and led, was a great scientific expedition. The discovery of Machu Picchu was only one of its accomplishments and not, he believed at the time, its most significant.

In 1911 Bingham was thirty-five years old. He had recently been appointed an assistant professor of Latin American history at Yale. His annual salary, for part-time teaching, was only a thousand dollars. His field of interest was the countries of South America that had emerged from Spanish colonization. He was not an authority on the continent’s pre-Columbian history, nor was he an archeologist. How did it come about that such a man, at the beginning of his academic career, should have led an expedition of such importance? How did he happen to make the most spectacular, if not the most important, archeological find of the New World?

Part of the answer is that although reared in poverty as the son of retired missionaries, he had married a granddaughter of the founder and president of Tiffany & Company, who had made a fortune in jewelry and silverware and left it to his descendants. Hiram Bingham did not have to support his large family. He could accept a nominal salary and heed the call in Rudyard Kipling’s “The Explorer“:

“Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges—Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!”

By 1911, when he organized the first Yale Peruvian Expedition, he was the father of six little boys. He did not care for babies in the diaper stage, and as the number of his small children grew, he eagerly sought escape from domesticity. That explains part of his urge to go exploring. In addition, being ambitious and proud, he had no intention of coasting along on his wife’s money. Driven to make a name for himself, he sought hardship and danger as a way to preserve his self-esteem. And of course, he would not have become an explorer had he not been adventurous. However, the particular promptings that led him to explore the Urubamba canyon in July 1911 were fortuitous—almost trivial.

The promptings that led him to plan the trip were almost trivial.

He himself wrote that his interest in looking for a lost city of the Incas began with a chance invitation from a local Peruvian official a couple of years earlier. He had been on a trip across South America, investigating economic conditions that might prove favorable to expanded American trade and investment. Passing through Cuzco, he was persuaded by an official to visit a newly accessible place called Choquequirau, where there were ruins believed to be those of the fabled lost city to which the last of the supposedly treasure-laden Inca rulers had fled from the conquistadors. My father was not impressed by what he saw at Choquequirau. But contrary to what he implied in writing about it later, neither was he then moved to look “behind the Ranges” for the lost city. Returning to his teaching duties, he soon became restless and eager to go exploring again, but he thought of Central America and Brazil, rather than Peru, as possible targets for a new expedition.

It was a woman who steered him back to Peru. Her name was Annie Peck, and she was a famous mountain climber. For years Bingham had read accounts of her exploits. In 1895 she had made news by climbing the Matterhorn, not quite the first woman to do so but the first to set off boldly in knickers rather than a long skirt. On some of her later climbs she wore a mask to protect her face from snow burn; the mask had a mustache painted on it.

It was easy for a male chauvinist like my father to make fun of her, but she was a brave and gallant lady. After some years as a classical scholar, a college teacher, and a travel lecturer, she conceived the idea of making a first ascent of the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere—the “Apex of America,” as she called it. Aconcagua, which at 22,834 feet actually was the highest, had been climbed; however, Annie Peck believed Mount Huascaran, much farther north, in Peru, was higher. After several unsuccessful assaults on the mountain, she claimed success at last on her sixth try, in August 1908. In an article in Harper’s magazine the following January, she boasted that she had reached an altitude greater than any man or woman before her. Bingham must have read her account with distaste. His male pride was undoubtedly offended.


Miss Peck’s claims were, however, soon challenged by another woman mountain climber, Fanny Bullock Workman, who said she had climbed higher peaks in the Himalayas. She sent a team of surveyors to Peru to determine the true height of Huascaran. They found that it was not as high as some of the peaks Mrs. Workman had climbed, its elevation was definitely less than that of Aconcagua, and furthermore, the peak Miss Peck had climbed was not even the real summit. Miss Peck conceded that her estimate of its altitude might be wrong, but she still claimed she had climbed higher than any other American, man or woman.

That might have settled the imaginary feud between my obscure father and the famous woman explorer had it not been for a book that was sent to my father for review in the summer of 1910. A footnote caught his eye. It mentioned a mountain in southern Peru named Coropuna that, with an estimated elevation of more than twenty-three thousand feet, was now presumed to be the “culminating point of the continent.”

My father observed that if the author was right, Annie Peck’s claim to have reached the “apex” might finally be put to rest, and he decided he’d like to climb the mountain himself. To reach the highest point in the Western Hemisphere would both win him fame and meet that aggressive female’s challenge to male supremacy. The fact that he had had no experience with serious mountain climbing did not deter him. But it did make him realize that to raise funds for an expedition and win academic sponsorship, he would have to have a more scholarly objective than an unclimbed mountain.

A fortunate coincidence helped him: Choquequirau, where he had failed to find the lost city of the Incas, lay a hundred miles due north of Coropuna. He conceived the idea of an expedition that would link those two objectives; he could include them both in a geographic and geologic survey along the seventy-third meridian of longitude, south from the Amazon basin to the Pacific. This would take him straight across the Andes, which here turn in an easterly direction. As he neared the Pacific, he could make the climb that might put him on top of the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere. It was a daring concept, and if he carried it out, he would put to rest forever the pretensions of Annie Peck. In his view exploration was a man’s prerogative.

By March 1911 the plan for what came to be called the Yale Peruvian Expedition was shaped. With a party of men from various scientific disciplines, he would head north into the wilderness from Cuzco, exploring the lower Urubamba River and the ancient province of Vilcabamba, and so on to the head of canoe navigation in the Amazon basin, then would turn south up the valley of the Vilcabamba River and over the Cordillera Vilcabamba and continue over the central and maritime ranges of the Andes to Coropuna and the Pacific. One additional objective not far off the seventy-third meridian was the mysterious Lake Parinacocha, reputed to be the largest lake entirely in Peru.

The plan was approved by the Yale Corporation, thanks partly to the interest of its secretary, Anson Phelps Stokes, who was a personal friend of Bingham. By late spring of 1911 the young Yale professor had raised enough money to pay the expenses of a geologist, a topographer, a naturalist, a “surgeon,” and, last but not least, an experienced mountain climber—designated “engineer.” At the last moment a Yale undergraduate, whose father offered to pay his expenses, was added with the title of “assistant.” The total funding for the seven-man expedition came to just under twelve thousand dollars. Included in that sum were eighteen hundred dollars contributed by my mother from her Tiffany funds. My father was able to raise an equal amount by selling a building lot he had inherited in Hawaii and getting a five-hundred-dollar advance from Harper’s magazine for four articles.

Harper’s seemed most interested in the projected climb of Coropuna, perhaps because of the controversy over Annie Peck’s claims. She now heard of my father’s plans and wrote him that she had been intending to climb Coropuna herself but was willing to let him accompany her. He was furious and wrote an insulting reply.

His party sailed from New York early in June. With the Panama Canal still unfinished, the group crossed the isthmus by rail and caught a West Coast steamer at Panama City. My father was outraged to find that Miss Peck, apparently out to beat him in a race for the summit, was a fellow passenger. He had planned to make his assault on the mountain in October, after the other objectives of his expedition had been completed and when he believed he could expect the best weather for the climb. He was not going to demean himself by changing his plans now and entering into a race.

In a letter to my mother he professed to find Miss Peck amusing. He described her as a “hard-faced, sharp-tongued old maid,” at least five years older than the fifty years she had given the purser as her age. Actually she was over sixty. He was a young man, but hardly in a mood to admire the courage of an elderly woman.

Miss Peck lost no time. In Arequipa she found two men willing to join her, obtained equipment, and hired mules to carry her party to the foot of the mountain. With four Indian porters assisting, she set off for what looked like the highest peak of the massif. On July 16 she climbed two of the mountain’s several peaks. On the higher of the two she raised a banner emblazoned with the words VOTES FOR WOMEN. Her instruments gave an elevation of barely twenty thousand feet. She could see other peaks of the range that might be a little higher, but she was certain none of them reached the height she had estimated for Huascarán. On her return she claimed a first ascent of Coropuna but, comparing it with her previous more difficult climbs, made light of the achievement.

Two months later, after his notable discoveries of Inca ruins at Machu Picchu and Vilcabamba, my father made his far-better-prepared assault on the mountain. He was sure that Miss Peck had climbed the wrong peak. He took a different route and headed for what from another direction looked like the highest peak.

He and four companions established a base camp at the snow line. Then, after two days of grueling work, mostly over soft snow, they camped at twenty thousand feet, which my father thought was a record for a mountain bivouac. They reached the top the next morning. Their instruments showed they were well above twenty-one thousand feet but, to their dismay, far short of Aconcagua’s height.

They proceeded to take photographs. One of these, still preserved, shows a snow dome looming up not far away and blotting out a section of the distant horizon. My father was worried by that neighboring peak, but after sighting along a pocket level, he persuaded himself that the bothersome dome was really 250 feet below him. Convinced that he had climbed the highest peak, he put up an American flag.

Many travelers on the road below had heard of the ruins.

Bingham’s story of the ascent of Coropuna was the first of his four planned articles to appear in Harper’s; his account of the discovery of Machu Picchu was not published till a year later. He felt he had achieved a major climb, perhaps the greatest feat of his expedition. The American Alpine Club, to his satisfaction, denied Miss Peck’s claim and gave him credit for a first ascent.

Unfortunately, much later and after his death, an official survey by the Peruvian government found that the nearby snowy dome he had photographed, which neither he nor Miss Peck had climbed, was the true summit of Coropuna. topping the peak he had climbed by fifty feet. It was finally climbed in 1952 by an Italian. Piero Ghiglione.

But that was in the distant future. Back in June 1911, having made no change in his plans after his encounter with Annie Peck on the steamer, Bingham had taken his party on to Cuzco the base he had selected for the exploration of the Vilcabamba region.

He divided his party into three working groups. He himself would do all the archeological exploring. The others would make maps of the areas explored or carry on with their scientific specialties. On July 22, with all supplies on hand and a string of mules for transport, he set off down the Urubamba canyon road, taking the doctor and the naturalist with him.

It was a surprisingly good road, one of the best in Peru, wide enough for two mule trains to pass. It had been blasted out of the cliffs to provide easy access to the vast haciendas of the lower Urubamba Valley, whose rich plantation owners had previously had to send their produce to market via the high and sometimes snowy pass of Panticalla. Many of the travelers on the thoroughfare had heard of the ruins on the ridge between Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu. Some of them, crossing the river on the San Miguel bridge, had even noticed a building that notched the skyline fifteen hundred feet above them. But none of them had been moved to climb up the cliffs to see what was there.

Just two days after leaving Ollantaytambo and five days after leaving Cuzco, my father camped at Mandor Pampa in the canyon below Machu Picchu. There in a primitive hut he found a mestizo named Melchor Arteaga. My father had heard about Arteaga in Cuzco. He kept a small tavern for travelers and did a little farming on what level land there was at the bottom of the canyon. Some months earlier he had told the rector of the University of Cuzco, who was making a trip down the valley, that there were extensive ruins on the top of the ridge. The rector, Dr. Albert Giesecke. had planned to visit the ruins during the dry season, which was now at hand, but gladly passed the information on to Professor Bingham.


So now, on the morning of July 24, 1911, the professor, not expecting anything special, set out alone with Arteaga as guide to have a look. Arteaga led the way across the Urubamba River on a primitive log bridge, not far from where tourist buses now cross on a steel bridge.

My father told the story of the discovery many times, in books and magazine articles and on the lecture platform. I have had access to his pocket diary and the letters he wrote my mother at the time. I have been able to reconstruct the events of the day with precision, and it is clear that his published accounts, while factually accurate, are likely to leave a reader with some erroneous impressions.

For instance, he frequently described the site as one of the most inaccessible in the Andes. Before the building of the canyon road in 1895, it was indeed inaccessible. Not only were the canyon walls too steep for any trail along the river, but the overland trails connecting Machu Picchu with the rest of the Inca road system had long been severed by landslides. However, thanks to the modern road, my father came upon Machu Picchu almost inadvertently.

Even the climb up to the ruins from the river was hardly perilous. The trail was used regularly by the three families of tenant farmers he found living in the ruins, and it took him no more than an hour and a half, after leaving the river road, to negotiate the steep path up to the first of the tenant huts. The buses that carry tourists up that same slope today, on a series of hairpin turns, make it in ten or fifteen minutes.

The most misleading impression given by my father’s accounts was that the ruins were all but hidden in the dense vegetation. Photographs he took on that first day but never published tell a different story. From the highest point in the ruins he took a series of pictures giving a panoramic view of the site to the east and south. It shows that a large part of the city had been cleared by the Indian families: they had removed the overgrowth from the terraces on which the buildings stood in order to obtain level land for corn and other crops. The trunks of felled trees lay where they had fallen on top of many of the buildings, but few of the ruins were hidden.

One of the most striking of the thirty photographs Bingham took that day depicted the carved outcrop of a ledge at the culminating point of the city, the sacred Inti-huatana stone, to which the Incas believed the sun was tied. The stone and two human figures next to it —Bingham’s military escort and a little boy, son of a local farmer—appear in the middle of a planting of corn.

Not only the photographs he took that day but entries in his pocket notebook tend to raise questions about the accounts he later gave of his discovery. On one page of the notebook appears a rough map of the central part of the city, a confirmation that much of it was exposed to view. Other entries indicate that he did not appreciate the importance of what he had found and that it did not occur to him that it was the “lost city” he was looking for. For one thing he did not think of it as lost. “This place discovered in 1902 by Lizarraga,” he wrote on one page. He had seen the name and date scrawled on some of the walls. Apparently he did not think it worthwhile to spend any length of time in the ruins.

He did make a sketch of the layout of a group of buildings that he identified as “temples” around a “sacred plaza,” meticulously measuring and jotting down the dimensions, even to the height, width, and depth of the windows of one building. He listed the subject matter of a few more pictures—making a total of thirty for the day—and then noted his return to the Indians’ hut. He had rested there on reaching the top of the ridge and been given a drink of springwater and some sweet potatoes, and he now wrote in his notebook that he had paid thirty centavos for his “lunch.” A final entry for the day indicated simply that his descent of the ridge took just twenty-seven minutes.

What he told his tentmates is not known, but one of them, the naturalist Harry Foote, who had spent the day collecting insects, was so little impressed that his diary entry for July 24 reads only: “No special things to note.”

The next day’s entries in Bingham’s diary offer further clues to what he thought of his discovery. Obviously he was anxious to get on with his search, not thinking he had found what he was looking for. Unfortunately two of the pack animals had escaped during the night, and he had to wait the whole morning while the muleteer went in search of them. He used the time to jot down what his guide, Arteaga, had told him about the man whose name he had seen scrawled on some of the walls: “Agustin Lizarraga is the discoverer of Machu Picchu,” he wrote, “and he lives at the Ponte San Miguel.” The San Miguel bridge was three or four miles down the road.

He then began writing a letter to my mother, describing the beauties of the canyon and reporting that he had “climbed a couple of thousand feet to a wonderful old Inca city called Machu Picchu.” At this point the muleteer arrived with the mules that had been lost, and Bingham got his mule train under way without finishing the letter.

The Indian families had removed much of the overgrowth and planted corn.

He soon came to the San Miguel bridge, a modern steel-and-concrete structure. Agustin Lizarraga was not at home. He too was a mule driver and was presumably off with a packtrain on the Cuzco road. A picture Bingham took of Lizarraga’s hut with the Machu Picchu ridge in the background shows the tiny silhouette of a structure against the sky. Many travelers must have seen it before Lizarraga had enough curiosity to investigate.

Bingham had spent only one afternoon at Machu Picchu and had continued the next day with his search. How could he have so underrated the importance of what he had found? Part of the explanation may lie in his background. His academic specialty was history, not archeology. His interest in the Incas focused on what had happened to their empire at the time of the Spanish Conquest. The last of the Inca rulers had fled into the mountains and maintained a semblance of independent authority over a rump empire for more than thirty years. Their last capital was the “lost city” Bingham was looking for, and the clues he was relying on were references in the writings of contemporary Spanish chroniclers. What he had seen on Machu Picchu Mountain did not fit his clues.


The next evening, however, at the home of a wealthy plantation owner several miles downriver, he learned that none of the nearby planters, even the owner of the vast tract of land that included Machu Picchu, knew of its existence. He began to have second thoughts. In the letter to my mother, which he finished the next day, he wrote: “It is unknown and will make a fine story. I expect to return there shortly for a stay of a week or more.”

Actually, he did not return, though he sent two of his party back to enlarge the clearing begun by the Indians and make a map of the entire city. For a while, as he considered that he might have underrated Machu Picchu’s importance, he toyed with the idea that it might have been the last Inca capital after all. “Yesterday,” he wrote his wife on August 3, “I came to the conclusion that my new ruins (the fine ones at Machu Picchu) must be those referred to in the Chronicles by the name of Vitcos or Pitcos. Pitcos is an easy transition from Pichu or Pitchu. Machu simply means ‘old’ in Quechua. The description given by Ocampo in the XVIIth century fits very well, and so does that of the Augustinian monk, Father Calancha. It is really most exciting, for Vitcos (or Pitcos) was the actual residence of the last three Incas who lived over here in Vilcabamba after the Spanish Conquest. In fact it was, as you know, with the hope of making this discovery that I came.”

His new theory did not last long, however. For within the next couple of weeks he had found two other sites. One of them was much more clearly identifiable as Vitcos, the last Inca rulers’ principal residence and capital. It was located on a hill overlooking the Vilcabamba River valley some thirty miles northwest of Machu Picchu. There Bingham found what appeared to have been a military stronghold and the remains of a royal palace, which he paced out as having been well over two hundred feet in length, much larger than any of the buildings at Machu Picchu. An enormous carved boulder and the remains of several stone structures clinched his identification. This was indeed Vitcos, and the farfetched “transition” of Picchu into Pitcos and Vitcos was forgotten.

The area around Vitcos had been continuously inhabited for more than three hundred years, and most of the stonework had long ago been pulled down to make enclosures for cattle or for housing in the nearby villages, so even though the mountain setting is fine, the ruins lack the unspoiled beauty of Machu Picchu. The site, moreover, was until recently not nearly as accessible, so it has attracted little tourist interest, although it can now be reached by automobile.

The other notable site was the real “lost city” of Vilcabamba, the largest city of the rump empire. It was destroyed by the Spaniards when they finally captured the last Inca ruler. A new provincial capital was then established at the head of the Vilcabamba valley. This small town has been called Vilcabamba ever since, while old Vilcabamba was abandoned and forgotten.

All Bingham was able to see there, in a hasty descent into the rain forest of the Pampaconas River valley, were the remains of a few buildings thickly overgrown with jungle. Another explorer, Gene Savoy, followed his trail some fifty years later and found that these buildings were at the edge of what had been an extensive Inca city. It must have been far more populous than Machu Picchu, but it seems to have lacked any striking architecture. Its setting in a lowland valley cannot be compared to Machu Picchu’s and has discouraged excavation.

The name given to the site when my father visited it was Espfritu Pampa, the Plain of Ghosts. The leading Inca historian today, John Hemming, in his book The Conquest of the Incas, cites documents that have clearly established it as the site of the city of Vilcabamba.

My father was correct in his first identification of these ruins. In his first published report of the Yale Peruvian Expedition’s work, he named the site “ViIcapampa or Espiritu Parhpa.” But he was never quite sure. Understandably, having seen so little of the extensive city later described by Savoy, he found it small and unimpressive compared with Machu Picchu. A year later Bingham developed the theory that Machu Picchu was the real Vilcabamba, though he still clung to his identification of Espiritu Pampa as another Vilcabamba. No wonder a careful reader of his Lost City of the Incas is likely to be confused.


Then, to add to the romantic history that he felt Machu Picchu deserved, he developed the story of how the Virgins of the Sun had been sheltered there after the conquest until eventually they all died and the city was deserted. Early studies of the bones found in burial caves at Machu Picchu in 1912 suggested that they were mostly those of women. But current osteological studies throw doubt on that finding and, therefore, on the appealing legend.

My father’s discovery of the three sites, Machu Picchu, Vitcos, and Espiritu Pampa, all in the course of one month, was a remarkable feat. Yet this was only one of the achievements of his expedition. He went on to climb Coropuna and then investigated and mapped the previously almost unknown great Lake Parinacocha, one of the largest lakes in Peru. Nearby he noted the remains of pre-Inca civilizations, but with time running out he did not investigate.

Meanwhile, other members of his expedition contributed to its scientific character. Anthropological studies of Indian types were made by the expedition’s surgeon. Thousands of specimens of the flora and fauna of the area were made by the expedition’s naturalist, Professor Harry Ward Foote. Over the years more articles about Foote’s collections have appeared in learned publications than have resulted from the work of all the other members of the Yale Peruvian expeditions combined.

After one afternoon at Machu Picchu, he continued his search.

The survey of the seventy-third meridian of longitude, the project that my father had thought up to tie together his two principal objectives in 1911, was carried through in the face of enormous difficulties by Professor Isaiah Bowman and a Danish topographer, Kai Hendrikson. The maps they made widened geographic knowledge of a strip of land extending all the way from the Amazon basin to the Pacific.

My father was, I think, envious of Dr. Bowman and mentioned little of his contribution to the expedition in his own writings. Long before Bingham found time to write a book about Machu Picchu, Dr. Bowman published his own account of the findings he made on the expedition, a solid work entitled The Andes of Southern Peru, in which are inserted the maps of the seventy-third-meridian traverse. Later Bowman had a distinguished career as head of the American Geographical Society and president of Johns Hopkins University. He helped redraw the map of Europe after World War I as an adviser to President Wilson at the Paris Peace Conference. Some of the unease between him and my father may have derived from the difference in their height: Dr. Bowman hardly came up to my father’s shoulder.

Another member of the 1911, expedition whom my father tended to slight was the Yale undergraduate, Paul Baxter Lanius. At a critical point in Bowman’s survey of the lower Urubamba, Lanius fought his way over a hazardous mountain trail to bring a mule train of essential supplies to Bowman’s aid. Later, during the period when my father was completing preparations for the Coropuna climb, Lanius organized the first excavations at Machu Picchu.

Within six months of Bingham’s return from Peru at the end of 1911, he was off on a second Peruvian expedition, sponsored this time by both Yale and the National Geographic Society. Its objective was described as a continuation of the work of the 1911 expedition, with no particular emphasis on Machu Picchu, but a complete clearing of the ruined buildings and the terraces revealed the entire city for the first time. The result was such a remarkable collection of photographs that the National Geographic magazine devoted its entire April 1913 issue to 250 of them, accompanied by an article by Bingham entitled “In the Wonderland of Peru.” This in effect made Machu Picchu known to the world. When Bingham’s claim to be its discoverer was later challenged, he cited Columbus, who, though not the first European to set foot in America, made it known to the world and so is credited with having discovered it.

The principal discoveries Bingham made on a third expedition, in 1915, were of the old Inca roads connecting Machu Picchu with the rest of the Inca Empire. Trekkers by the thousands now go over these roads, causing major peril to fragile archeological remains.

Some of the myths he invented or believed have had a life of their own.

My father returned to Machu Picchu only once thereafter. That was in 1948, after a notable career in politics that included eight years as a United States senator from Connecticut. He had only recently finished writing his last book, Lost City of the Incas. The occasion for his visit was the dedication of the Carretera Hiram Bingham—the Hiram Bingham Highway.

Some of the myths he invented or came to believe in have had a life of their own since his death in 1956. But his attribution of great significance to Machu Picchu as a place of major importance in Inca history, either as Tampu-tocco or Vilcabamba, has not stood the test of modern scholarship.

Recent excavation of a number of similar, if smaller, settlements first reported by my father, in the once thickly populated mountain region between the Apurímac and Urubamba rivers, suggests that Machu Picchu’s history was not unique. Later discoveries of manuscripts and historical records confirm the location and chronology of Vitcos as the last Inca capital and Vilcabamba as the major population center of the rump empire, but no reference to Machu Picchu has ever been found, nor any support for its identification as a city of refuge from the Spanish conquerors. It may even have been abandoned for lack of an adequate water supply before Pizarro appeared on the scene.

One persistent myth that my father did his best to discourage was that he made use of others’ discoveries to find lost treasure and that he secretly shipped a hoard of Inca gold out of Peru. That one may be laid to rest only with a lessening of the social tensions of contemporary Peru. But Hiram Bingham is still recognized as the scientific discoverer of Machu Picchu, and his fame as a great explorer should remain for a long time. In any case, the splendor of the fabled Inca citadel will outlast all its myths.


Alfred Bingham recommends several books about his father’s work and the archeological exploration of South America. Of Hiram Bingham’s own writings, Lost City of the Incas (1948) presents his final story about Machu Picchu, thirty years later. It has been reissued in hardcover by Greenwood Press and in paperback by Atheneum. His Machu Picchu, a Citadel of the Incas (1930) is available in a lavishly illustrated edition from Hacker Art Books. John Hemming’s Conquest of the Incas (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973) is a fine history that includes an evaluation of Bingham’s work. In Antisuyo (Simon and Schuster, 1970), Gene Savoy, a later explorer, tells of retracing Bingham’s steps and finding other “lost cities.” A Search for the Apex of America, by Annie Smith Peck (1911), is the book that irritated Hiram Bingham.

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