Saying that American explorer Hiram Bingham discovered Machu Picchu is, at best, a revisionist version of history. His expedition succeeded only because Peruvian soldiers and local farmers stepped in to help; without them, Bingham could have trekked through the Sacred Valley for years and never stumbled across any ruins at all.
But without Bingham’s expedition, the world might not have known about the fantastic architectural and cultural accomplishments once achieved at Machu Picchu until much later. In fact, few people outside of Peru would have even heard of the Incas. Bingham, who grew up in Hawaii and became one of the first academics to specialize in Latin American history, played an essential role.
Between close encounters with snakes, dangerous brushes with fire, and near-fatal falls from cliffs, Bingham and his team had the adventure of a lifetime at Machu Picchu. This is their story.
In July 1911, American explorer Hiram Bingham set out from Cusco and traversed Peru’s Urubamba Valley. His mission? To discover Vitcos, the Inca stronghold that held out longest against Spanish conquistadors. It didn’t pan out the way Bingham expected, but he did find another site — one that now welcomes a million travelers every year.
The valley’s incredible scenery overwhelmed Bingham. He had never experienced anything like it, and he couldn’t help but feel impressed with the towering peaks, granite cliffs, and thick jungle. Factor in the valley’s manmade features like ancient walls, terraced land, and temple ruins, and it’s safe to say that the awestruck Bingham was completely out of his element.
Luckily, he was never alone. His first travel companion, a Peruvian soldier, helped Bingham and his team make it to Mandor Pampa, a small settlement six days outside Cusco. There, the team met Melchor Arteaga, a local farmer who wanted to know why the men were crossing the valley. When they explained their mission, Arteaga told them about two Inca sites he had personally visited: Machu Picchu and nearby Huayna Picchu.
Machu Picchu is the Quechua term for “old mountain,” and the name is no misnomer. The centuries-old site lies at an elevation of 7,972 feet (2,430 meters) and, in 1911, it was extremely inaccessible. For 50 cents, Arteaga agreed to guide Bingham’s expedition to Machu Picchu — a real bargain considering that they became the very first outsiders to view the beautiful Inca site.
The next morning, Arteaga led Bingham’s team into the jungle. A makeshift bridge, built of four tree trunks lashed together with vines, gave them safe passage over the roaring Urubamba River.
On the other side of the river, Arteaga and Bingham’s team began a steep ascent through the jungle and up a steep mountain face. Along the way, they came across grass huts where small families offered the explorers food and water. The families had built a network of paths and ladders up the mountain; by that afternoon, Bingham was gazing upon the ruins of Machu Picchu and dreaming of restoring it to its former glory.
Machu Picchu was finally on the map, but the adventure was far from over.
“The beautiful blue of the tropical sky, the varying shades of green that clothe the magnificent mountains, and the mysterious charm of the roaring rapids thousands of feet below cannot be portrayed and can with difficulty be imagined.”
— Hiram Bingham
The next summer, Bingham returned and tasked topographer Kenneth Heald many important responsibilities. Along with a team of 10 local men, Heald’s first assignment was to build a new bridge across the Urubamba River. At the best point for crossing, the river was 80 feet wide, but Heald and his team made quick work of it. The entire operation was completed in just a day and a half.
Next, Heald was supposed to make a trail from the river to Machu Picchu, but between the steep slope and thick cane jungle growth, trailblazing was a slow process. Other factors worked against the team too. Heald tried clearing the path by setting fire to the cane, but that method wasn’t very effective. One man was nearly bitten by a snake, and that incident didn’t exactly encourage anyone to pick up the pace.
The team finally reached Machu Picchu the next day, but the most eventful moment came during their descent. Heald and his second-in-command, a soldier named Tomas Cobines, lagged a quarter-mile behind the rest of the team, when the two suddenly realized that the other men had set fire to the cane.
What hadn’t worked on the first day of trailblazing worked all too well on the second day. Within minutes, huge flames tore up the mountain toward Heald and Cobines, who tried to dodge the fire. It wasn’t easy to sprint downhill through the jungle, but they were lucky to escape with only bruises instead of broken bones or severe burns.
Just a few days later, Bingham joined Heald at Machu Picchu, this time accompanied by an osteologist and an archaeological engineer. The new arrivals began excavating the ruins, where they would eventually find pottery shards, bronze instruments, and human bones, but they sent Heald on to find higher-elevation Huayna Picchu.
Heald’s most dangerous misstep of the summer came during his first attempt to reach Huayna Picchu, when he set out with Cobines and four Peruvian men.
After a few slow hours of slashing through the jungle, Heald was fed up with the other men, so he went ahead of everyone else, instructing the team to follow his machete marks up the mountain. Then, on a ridge between 2,000 and 2,500 feet above the river valley, the ground suddenly gave way beneath Heald’s feet.
He slid down, every second bringing him closer to the edge of the cliff. If he went over, he would die.
In desperation, he reached out for anything that could potentially save his life. He was only five feet away from the edge when he managed to grab a mesquite bush with his right hand; it stopped his fall so quickly that the ligaments in his shoulder tore.
Ignoring the pain in his right arm, Heald grabbed onto something with his left hand and then looked down. Thousands of feet below him, the Urubamba River looked no larger than a stream. Carefully, Heald began hoisting himself up, grateful that he had chosen to wear moccasins instead of slippery soled boots.
He hiked back down the mountain and gave himself a little time to heal, returning only five days later for another failed attempt. Then, on the sixth day after his near-death experience, Heald made it to the ruins of Huayna Picchu, where he found three small caves and several staircases carved into the stone.
It was another big moment in the Sacred Valley.
All things considered, 1911 and 1912 were important years for Peru, not to mention for historians and future generations of travelers. With massive breakthroughs in Inca archaeology and a grand total of zero deaths, the expeditions were considered a success — even if Hiram Bingham didn’t find exactly what he originally intended to.
Today, the ruins of Machu Picchu remind visitors of the lasting legacy of the Inca people and the incredible efforts of a fearless team of explorers.