When the explorer Hiram Bingham III encountered Machu Picchu in 1911, he was looking for a different city, known as Vilcabamba. This was a hidden capital to which the Inca had escaped after the Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1532. Over time it became famous as the legendary Lost City of the Inca. Bingham spent most of his life arguing that Machu Picchu and Vilcabamba were one and the same, a theory that wasn’t proved wrong until after his death in 1956. (The real Vilcabamba is now believed to have been built in the jungle about 50 miles west of Machu Picchu.) Recent research has cast doubt on whether Machu Picchu had ever been forgotten at all. When Bingham arrived, three families of farmers were living at the site.
The stones in the most handsome buildings throughout the Inca Empire used no mortar. These stones were cut so precisely, and wedged so closely together, that a credit card cannot be inserted between them. Aside from the obvious aesthetic benefits of this building style, there are engineering advantages. Peru is a seismically unstable country—both Lima and Cusco have been leveled by earthquakes—and Machu Picchu itself was constructed atop two fault lines. When an earthquake occurs, the stones in an Inca building are said to “dance;” that is, they bounce through the tremors and then fall back into place. Without this building method, many of the best known buildings at Machu Picchu would have collapsed long ago.
While the Inca are best remembered for their beautiful walls, their civil engineering projects were incredibly advanced as well. (Especially, as is often noted, for a culture that used no draft animals, iron tools, or wheels.) The site we see today had to be sculpted out of a notch between two small peaks by moving stone and earth to create a relatively flat space. The engineer Kenneth Wright has estimated that 60 percent of the construction done at Machu Picchu was underground. Much of that consists of deep building foundations and crushed rock used as drainage. (As anyone who’s visited in the wet season can tell you, Machu Picchu receives a lot of rain.)
A trip to Machu Picchu is many things, but cheap is not one of them. Train tickets from Cusco can run more than a hundred dollars each, and the entry fees are an additional $43. In between, a round-trip bus trip up and down the 2,000-feet-high slope atop which the Inca ruins are located costs another $14. If you don’t mind a workout, however, you can walk up and down for free. The steep path roughly follows Hiram Bingham’s 1911 route and offers extraordinary views of the Machu Picchu Historical Sanctuary, which looks almost as it did in Bingham’s time. The climb is strenuous and takes about 90 minutes.
For visitors conditioned to the explanatory signs at national parks, one of the strangest things about Machu Picchu is that the site provides virtually no information about the ruins. (This lack does have one advantage—the ruins remain uncluttered.) The excellent Museo de Sitio Manuel Chávez Ballón ($8 entry) fills in many of the blanks about how and why Machu Picchu was built (displays are in English and Spanish), and why the Inca chose such an extraordinary natural location for the citadel. First you have to find the museum, though. It’s inconveniently tucked at the end of a long dirt road near the base of Machu Picchu, about a 30-minute walk from the town of Aguas Calientes.