The object of his efforts was not Machu Picchu, however. He was seeking the lost city of Vilcabamba.
He and his team hiked six days with excavation and camera equipment from the city of Cusco to the town of Aguas Calientes, where he inquired at an inn about local ruins sites. The innkeeper told Bingham about an overgrown complex at the top of the hill that towers over the town. Bingham paid the innkeeper to guide him.
Midway up the precipitous, jungle-choked hill, Bingham's guide stopped and instructed a boy to take the American the rest of the way up. When they reached the ruins site, Bingham found himself on a ridge between two jagged peaks, surrounded by distant snowcapped mountains, 2,000 feet (610 meters) above the raging Urubamba River. The jungle had all but consumed the site, but Bingham could make out multiple stone-covered terraces and walls made of carved granite boulders that proved a city had once stood on this rugged, remote precipice.
Bingham later wrote that "Machu Picchu might prove to be the largest and most important ruin discovered in South America since the days of the Spanish conquest." He was right.
Bingham (upper right) with a local guide on a jungle bridge at Espiritu Pampa in Peru, hand-colored glass slide, 1911 [Image: Yale University Manuscripts & Archives Digital Images Database]
Uncovering the Past
Bingham set up his tripod and camera that day and spent the afternoon photographing. Over the next several months, he and his team cleared jungle from the ruins, uncovering exquisitely built houses, temples, steps, and terraces.
When he returned to America, Bingham wrote a lengthy article about his discovery for National Geographic, which ran accompanied by 250 black-and-white photos and illustrations. An editor's note in that issue called Bingham's discovery "one of the most remarkable stories of exploration in South America in the past 50 years."
Soon after, Bingham was awarded the first grant ever made by the National Geographic Society for archaeological research and exploration. The $10,000 sum was matched by Yale University. Bingham used the money to fund three further expeditions to excavate the site in 1912, 1914, and 1915.
To this day, archaeologists aren't sure why Machu Picchu was built. Some believe it may have been the birthplace of the Inca empire. Some think it was a spiritual or ceremonial center or even a military outpost. No evidence of a formal system of Inca writing exists, so the enigma of Machu Picchu will likely persist.
Bingham eventually did find his original target, Vilcabamba, as well as several other important Inca sites in Peru. But his towering archaeological achievement remains his work uncovering the ruins of Machu Picchu.