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.
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."
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. Below is a small selection of the first photos of Machu Picchu.
|The original ruins of Machu Picchu in 1911.|
|Basins were used to store water at Machu Picchu, as natural springs were some distance away.|
|Bingham crosses the Apurimac River on a raft.|
|Bingham himself photographed the expeditions. He and his fellow explorers stopped at various spots along the way to southern Peru, including Pacasmayo.|
|Intihuatana translates to "hitching post of the sun" in the language of the Inca, and is arranged to point directly at the sun during the winter solstice.|
|Hiram Bingham stands outside his tent during the 1912 expedition.|
(Photographed by Hiram Bingham; images courtesy of National Geographic, via NPR)