National Geographic celebrates 100 years of Machu Picchu

National Geographic has launched a special Machu Picchu websiteToday marks the 100th anniversary of the rediscovery of Machu Picchu by explorer Hiram Bingham. That discovery became one of the greatest archaeological finds of the 20th century and has been inspiring adventure travelers to visit Peru and South America ever since. To celebrate the occasion, National Geographic has launched a fantastic Machu Picchu website that offers a wealth of information about the Inca stronghold, along with stunning photos and tips for those who want to visit the place for themselves.

The website has a number of great articles for travelers and history buffs alike. For instance, the list of top ten secrets of Machu Picchu is a fascinating read, while the gallery of famous visitors is fun as well. You’ll also find the latest theories on what the mountain-top city was used for and get to read Bingham’s own historic writings about the discovery itself. The experts at National Geographic also provide six excellent alternative hikes to the famous Inca Trail, as well as five other “must see” places to visit while in Peru. And when you’ve finished digesting all of that information, you can test your knowledge on a Machu Picchu themed quiz too.

It is highly doubtful that Bingham had any idea that his amazing find would one day become one of the most popular tourist attractions in South America. Each year, thousands of travelers flock to Peru just to visit the place for themselves, and while the site is often crowded with people, it remains one of the greatest ancient structures found anywhere on the planet. So, while you’re going about your day today, take a moment to give a tip of the fedora to Bingham and his wonderful discovery. One hundred years later, it is still inspiring a sense of adventure.

[Photo courtesy National Geographic/Jeff Bridges]

Photo of the day: Urubamba River Valley, Peru

Any time is a good time to explore a country like Peru, but the Urubamba River Valley shines in this summertime shot of the landscape, taken by Maribeth Latvis. If you venture out on a trip to Machu Picchu, which over 400,000 people do each year, the Urubamba River Valley can be explored either before or after your trip. In fact, my fiance passed through the valley while hitch-hiking to Machu Picchu. With its main attraction being the Urubamba River, the valley flourishes with life.

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A pilgrim in Peru: Part Four, visiting Machu Picchu at sunrise

On Day Four I awoke as the sun was just starting to tint the sky, and made my way to the Aguas Calientes bus stop. With about two dozen Peruvian guides and Western and Japanese tourists, I piled into the bus for the weaving 1500-foot ascent to a place I’d been dreaming of visiting for decades: Machu Picchu. I’d finally set foot there the day before and wandered its time-bridging grounds, but I’d felt like I was missing something, the connection wasn’t quite complete: I had to get there for the sunrise. As the bus jounced and switchbacked through the lightening dawn, this feeling weighed undeniably in my stomach and my head: a yearning, an expectation.

As the sky brightened, I worried that I was too late. But I had forgotten that Machu Picchu, despite its high altitude, is still a bowl surrounded by towering peaks. I raced up to the site and saw with relief that while the peaks to the west were tipped with bright sunlight, the ruins were still in shade. I made my way directly to the sun dial, known as Intihuatana or “hitching post of the sun,” which sits atop a pyramid-like construct of terrace and wall in the site’s northwest quadrant.

I positioned myself at the sun dial and waited, absorbing the stony stillness and the fresh scent of grass, the texture of tree. I watched the sun’s rays light the peaks behind and around me, slowly getting higher and higher, closer and closer.Minutes passed. The molecules in the air ever so slightly brightened. Then, in a suspended moment, light flared over the top of the mountain directly in front and touched the sun dial.

I was looking through the lens of my camcorder when it happened, and at the moment the sun appeared, rays shot out in six searing streaks at 45-degree angles. I felt like one streak was searing through me as well. I felt transfixed, transformed. For a suspended moment I felt drawn into the sun, enwrapped by the sun, plucked into some profound energy-stream of sun worship that coursed through the ground where I stood. This flowing energy seemed to stitch through me and through the world around me – the sun dial, the rock plazas, doorways and walls, the temples and the terraces. For a moment I felt a thoughtless understanding, a pure, empty-headed universe-connection, a solar spear-tip that pierced my heart and soul.

Then it was gone. A group of gossiping students clambered over the rocks, guides replayed their learned lectures, camera-wielding couples postured and posed. But somehow, everything had been transformed.

In retrospect, all I can say is that some deep energy radiates from that place. It’s a combination of the altitude, the pristine quality of the ruins themselves, the purity of the air and the sky and the sun – and something else too, a kind of spiritual energy that courses like water-springs through the site. I had felt it on the Sacred Plaza and by the Temple of the Sun, but I felt it especially at Intihuatana at dawn: the hitching post of the sun.

At mid-morning Manuel joined me and we took a walk along the Inca Trail. Most trekkers take the trail from Ollantaytambo or from an intermediate stop called Kilometer 104 along the rail line to Aguas Calientes, but Manuel and I met at the Watchman’s Hut and walked up the trail in the opposite direction, away from the ruins and toward the Sun Gate, or Intipunku, where trekkers first see Machu Picchu. We shared the paved path with orchids and llamas and workers who were trying to repair one section of the trail that had been weakened during the rains. Looking into the jungle to the right of the trail we could see more Inca walls in the thick shade. Manuel said there were probably Inca walls scattered throughout the mountains. The dense slopes seemed alive with them, echoing with the spirit of the people who tilled, ate, and slept, planted, played and prayed here 500 years before.

We reached Intipunku and then continued along the Inca Trail away from the site. We descended into a world of luxurious blossoms and thick cloud forest shadows. I remarked to Manuel that I was amazed by how well the path was paved, and he told me that at its height, the Inca empire had been laced by a network of 19,000 miles of trails, virtually all paved. I stopped and touched my hand to the rough stone and tried to conjure the imagination and organization, technology and toil, required to complete such a feat. I tried to picture the worker who had placed the very stone on which I stood, whose fingers had touched the very pocks and ridges my fingertips traced. What did he eat? Where did he sleep? What did he dream?

We walked for a half hour to a point where we could see another ruin on a mountain slope: Winay Wayna, a cleared site most trekkers detour to explore. I thought of the deep-shaded walls we’d passed before – who knew what secret cities these vast jungle fastnesses still held?

The trails wound on and on, I realized, some into the cloud forest fastnesses, some into the secret cities of the soul. And on this lonely, well-trod mountain trail, I finally felt whole.

Manuel and I returned to Aguas Calientes, where we were treated to a specially prepared lunch in the restaurant at the Sumaq Hotel, including a presentation on the proper pisco sour preparation (I sampled a number of these in the name of research) and ceviche (ditto).

After lunch we drove to Cusco, and John and Manuel dropped me at Inkaterra La Casona, a colonial house that has been lovingly converted into a stylish and exclusive hideaway – so exclusive that there’s not even a name over the door and I had to knock to be let in. After settling into this true home away from home, I explored the city’s beguiling back-street mix of cathedrals and cobblestones, museums and galleries, boutiques and bars. Past and present intertwined in the ancient Inca capital, but with threads of the local and the global woven through, too. In this way, it seemed to me then, Cusco’s shawl was perhaps the richest of all.

A pilgrim in Peru: Part One, Arriving in Peru
A pilgrim in Peru: Part Two, visiting Moray, Pisaq and Ollantaytambo
A pilgrim in Peru: Part Three, arriving in Machu Picchu
Tomorrow: A pilgrim in Peru: Part Five, going to Racchi, Tipon, Pikillacta, and off the tourist trail
Related: How to hike the Inca Trail

This trip was hosted by both LAN and Geographic Expeditions, but the opinions, joy, and amazement concerning the people and sunrise in Peru are purely my own.

A pilgrim in Peru: Part Three, arriving in Machu Picchu

On my third day in the Sacred Valley, I awoke at 5:40 to bird trills and wood smoke-scented air. I could hardly contain my excitement: Today was a day I’d been waiting for most of my traveling life: We were going to Machu Picchu!

We hit the highway at 6 am, passing sheep, pigs and cows being herded into pens and villagers in brightly woven capes and great hats walking along the side of the road. After 25 minutes we arrived in Ollantaytambo, where porters in bright red ponchos waited for Inca trail trekkers; too pressed for time to make the four-day trek, we were taking the quick route: a storybook blue train to Aguas Calientes, the town nearest Machu Picchu, where a bus would wend to the base of the site.

On the 30-minute train ride, Manuel pointed out where bridges had been washed out or railroad tracks twisted and tossed into the river by the raging floods of a few months before: stark reminders of nature’s raw power. This train, he said, had restarted operations only three months earlier. I thought of the Inca temples we’d seen and of Manuel’s words from two days before: “The Spaniards called them idolators and maybe they were — but I think they did very well; they had a big respect for nature.”

Then we reached booming, ragtag, pizzeria-and-hostel Aguas Calientes, where we walked through a maze of market stalls and boarded the bus for the 30-minute back-and-forth bounce up the dusty road to the ruins.Here’s the thing about Machu Picchu: No matter how many photographs you’ve seen, stories you’ve read or posters you’ve absorbed, nothing can prepare you for the surreal whoosh of actually being there. From the spot where the bus drops you, you walk up some narrow stairs and some winding paths, the sun beating on you, the sweat starting to trickle down your back, and then you reach a level area and take a few more steps and – whoosh! – suddenly there it is, spreading out before you, the gray granite walls and poky roof remains and green open lawns and jungly green rock-thrusts just beyond. Suddenly it hits you: Machu Picchu – I’ve arrived!

For a while you just stand and stare, absorbing it, letting it seep into you. Then eventually you become aware of the other travelers, some as stunned as you, and you decide it’s time to head into the ruins. And then time suspends, and you spend two, three, four – you don’t know how many – hours wandering, letting your hands trail along the rock, smelling the grass and the granite baking in the high-altitude sun. You visit the agricultural sector and the industrial zone, the Temple of the Three Windows and the Temple of the Condor, the Sacred Square and the priests’ chamber, the House of the Virgins of the Sun, the Watchman’s Hut, the cemetery, the Temple of the Sun and the sun dial. But what you are really doing is walking through time.

You’re imagining what it was like 500 years ago when a thousand people lived here – their woven clothes, the potatoes and maize they grew, the grain they stored, the granite they dragged laboriously from the quarry and the gold and silver and chisels, the wood and water, they used to break down and shape the stone. You imagine the runners arriving from Cusco, the robed priests, the weavers and warriors, the singers and teachers and pottery-makers.

And then you’re imagining what it was like 99 years ago, when a 12-year-old boy brought a discouraged Hiram Bingham to this rocky revelation. What must it have felt like to gaze on this tumble-jumble of intricately wrought walls and plazas, trees and vines? You imagine the crescendo of emotion and astonishment, the arc of enlightenment, as Bingham gradually realized what he’d found, what he called the Lost City of the Incas.

And then you think about what this discovery set off, a succession of events every bit as tangled and dramatic as those ruins: A foreigner recognizes the significance of this remote site, clears and plunders it, and in so doing creates a global icon that is responsible for sustaining as much as 80% of the local economy today, and that has literally put Peru on the international tourist map. This eventually encourages the Peruvian government to reallocate significant resources to study and preserve other ancient sites and artifacts in the area. The ever-swelling procession of Machu Picchu pilgrims, even as it underpins and integrates the local economy, threatens to undermine and disintegrate the site itself.

You recall what Manuel said on the train, how the torrential rain and floods of earlier this year dramatically demonstrated just how economically fragile the economy of the Sacred Valley is, how much it depends on this one site: From February to April, when floods took out those tracks from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, 78% of visitors to the region canceled their trips.

So visiting Machu Picchu is, like the site itself, multi-layered: There’s the historical backstory, the cultural backstory, and the economic backstory. And then there’s the pure human experience of being present at Machu Picchu. All of this roiled inside me as we roamed the ruins. I felt a pulsing presence there, but something wasn’t quite connecting, somehow it wasn’t getting through to me. Before the thought formed in my mind, I knew it in the pit of my stomach: I had to come back at dawn.

Manuel and I returned to Aguas Calientes late in the afternoon and I settled into the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, a glorious world of its own at the far end of town, all gracious adobe-walled rooms set among lush gardens with an outdoor sauna, pool and hot tub perfect for a post-Machu Picchu muscle-soothing soak. After a pisco sour welcome in the main lobby, I repaired to the dining room overlooking the Urubamba River; in a grand setting of exposed wood beams and flagstone floor tiles, with exquisite ceramic figurines decorating the walls, I slowly savored every bite of grilled Creole chicken with cassava croquette, washed down with an excellent Argentinian Malbec. The food was tasty, the setting artful, the service attentive and enthusiastic, and Machu Picchu soared in my head: All was aligned in my Inca cosmology. I looked at my watch. The sun god was approaching: Time for bed.

A pilgrim in Peru: Part One, Arriving in Peru
A pilgrim in Peru: Part Two, visiting Moray, Pisaq and Ollantaytambo
Tomorrow: A pilgrim in Peru: Part Four, visiting Machu Picchu at sunrise
Related: How to hike the Inca Trail

This trip was hosted by both LAN and Geographic Expeditions, but the opinions, joy, and amazement concerning the people and ruins in Peru are purely my own.

A pilgrim in Peru: Part One, Arriving in Peru

I got up at dawn and made my way in the crisp Andean air through the warren of just-opening stalls selling booklets, blankets and bug repellent, to the Aguas Calientes bus stop. With about two dozen Peruvian guides and Western and Japanese tourists, I piled into the bus for the weaving 1500-foot ascent to a place I’d been dreaming of visiting for decades: Machu Picchu.

I had to get there for the sunrise. I wasn’t sure why, but for years I had felt that something was waiting for me at Machu Picchu, that something would be revealed to me there. I’d tried to play down this feeling, not wanting to freight my experience any more than decades of posters and travelers’ tales already had, but as the bus jounced and switchbacked through the lightening dawn, it weighed undeniably in my stomach and my head: a yearning, an expectation.

For decades, Machu Picchu had been at the top of my Places to Go list, but somehow, in 30 years as a travel writer and editor visiting more than 70 countries, I still hadn’t gotten there. In the spring of 2010 I was beginning to despair that I ever would.

Then an invitation arrived from LAN Airlines, via the San Francisco-based adventure travel company Geographic Expeditions. LAN was inaugurating non-stop service from San Francisco to Lima and was looking for a few journalists to host on the inaugural flight. Friends at GeoEx offered to make my longtime dream come true: I could fly to Lima and then Cusco with LAN, take a special six-day GeoEx tour of the Sacred Valley, culminating in a visit to Machu Picchu, and fly back on LAN eight days later. I leapt.

My pilgrimage began in unexpected splendor. Minutes before boarding the LAN inaugural I was upgraded to business class, where I happily sipped champagne, dined on grilled salmon with lemon risotto and sautéed snow peas with mushrooms, and played with the amazing Transformer Seat, which offered dozens of body configurations, including my all-time favorite – the fully flat, 180-degree, lie-down-and-sleep-like-a-baby recline. That and “Would you like some more champagne, sir?” and I’d found heaven at 33,000 feet.

We landed shortly after midnight. I was blearily greeted by a GeoEx representative and guided literally across the street to the Ramada airport hotel, where I fell into a deep sleep, then walked back across the street the next morning for the 9:35 LAN flight to Cusco. Soaring over seemingly endless Andean crenellations and jagged snow-swept peaks was the first revelation of my trip.

When the lush gold and green expanses of the Sacred Valley suddenly appeared, it was a visually stunning lesson in just how remote and isolated – and idyllic – that valley is. We landed over the terra-cotta roofs of Cusco a little over an hour after we left Lima, and I was met at the airport by Manuel, my guide for the next six days, and John, our driver. And then the adventures began.

We drove first to Cusco’s Central Market, where I had a glorious baptismal immersion in the Sacred Valley. Our first stop was an extremely eye-opening stand where a jolly, stolid middle-aged woman was lifting slick, loopy intestinal parts from an industrial-size bubbling pot. “We have liver, frog from Lake Titicaca, crab, octopus, fish, and the most important ingredient, bull penis,” Manuel translated with a big smile. “Many people start the day off here,” he said. “This soup is good for headaches, vision, asthma, epilepsy, prostate – many things.” Nodding at me, the woman ladled out a long puckery octopus appendage and another thick looping body part I didn’t even want to think about.

She passed me a bowl and encouraged me to dive in. I took a deep sniff. It did not smell like chicken soup.

We walked along the slippery aisles past scurrying dogs and slurping patrons and a dizzying succession of stands. In one area fresh cows’ heads were lined up invitingly. “These are used in offerings to the earth mother to help sick children,” Manuel said. “Sometimes we use just the nose, sometimes the teeth, sometimes the horns – it depends on the illness.”

We passed huge hanging pigs and glistening fish and rainbow-colored tumbles of grains and fruits and vegetables. “In Peru we have more than 100 varieties of corn,” Manuel said, and then, waving at a stand overflowing with white, black, brown and yellow potatoes, “and more than a thousand varieties of potato.” We walked past sweet-scented flowers in a riot of colors, bright shawls and beans and beads, festival masks, great wheels of bread and cheese, and neat plastic-bagged packs of coca leaves. “Welcome to Peru,” Manuel smiled.

The market was equally fine for people-watching, including the distinctive hats that many Peruvian village women still wear. A friendly bean and coca vendor posed in her handsome white mestizo hat; a few stands later, a bread-seller proudly showed off a high-topped cream-colored headpiece dashingly encircled with a wide pink sash.

We motored on to Cusco’s central Plaza de Armas and the inviting Inka Grill, where I had the first of many delicious meals: ají de gallina, shredded chicken with nuts, cheese, and chile peppers. After lunch I began to feel a little woozy and lightheaded – Cusco is perched at 11,000 feet, after all – but Manuel passed me a packet of coca leaves and told me to chew a mouthful. The coca had a not unpleasant earthy taste, like a mix of green tea and maple leaves, and after a few minutes of concentrated chewing the lightheadedness passed. John set off, expertly threading though Cusco’s traffic-clogged streets, and in perhaps 15 minutes we were surrounded by rolling green-brown hills and terra cotta-roofed homes, many made of neatly stacked brick blocks. Beyond the grasslands and hills, snowy mountains shimmered, and in the distance a glinting river sinewed through – a landscape of breathtaking beauty I was entirely unprepared for.

As we drove, Manuel delivered a crash course in Peruvian political, cultural, and religious history: “Manco Capac is generally considered the first Inca king; he ruled the area around Cusco at the end of the 11th century. We can say that the Inca empire really began in the 15th century, under the great ruler Pachacutec, who conquered rival tribes in the Sacred Valley and established Tawantinsuyu, or ‘the united four provinces.’ ” The expansion of the empire reached its height two rulers later under Huayna Capac, who aggressively extended its reach all the way from present-day southern Colombia to north-central Chile, encompassing much of Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and northwest Argentina. This was the greatest empire in pre-Columbian America, and it lasted until Francisco Pizarro arrived with a ragged band of armored and equined soldiers in 1532. Within a year Pizarro had murdered the then-ruler Atahualpa and installed Atahualpa’s half-brother, Manco Inca, as a puppet ruler. In 1536 Manco rebelled against the Spaniards and retreated to a jungle stronghold called Vilcabamba, where he resisted and raided the Spaniards for 36 years. In 1572 that last Inca redoubt was conquered, and the last ruler, Túpac Amaru, Manco’s son, was captured and executed.

“All the colonial churches we’ve been seeing,” Manuel continued, gesturing at a distant cathedral spire, “were built by the Spaniards after they took control of the country; they were meant as a sign of power and control – the Spaniards were trying to disappear all evidences from Inca times. When the Spaniards arrived, Incas didn’t want to join them to be Christian. Thousands were killed. Finally they had to accept it when they were under Spanish control. Today 75-80 percent of Peruvians are Catholic. But of course we have the freedom to choose whatever religion we want to be.”

“What did the Incas worship?” I asked.

“When the Incas were in power,” Manuel said, “they worshipped nature: sun, moon, earth, mountains, also the puma and the condor. The Spaniards called them idolators and maybe they were — but I think they did very well; they took care of the environment, they had a big respect for nature.”

Soon we turned off the main road in a village called Chinchero, where Manuel took me to an adobe home-cum-workshop where members of an extended local family – ages 6 to silver-haired – were waiting to demonstrate the traditional way of making textiles. Strikingly dressed in red and green capes and black skirts with upturned red-brimmed hats, they showed how wool from sheep or alpacas is washed and formed into thread, how the thread is dyed using flowers, minerals and fruits (and how adding salt or lemon can dramatically change a dye’s color), and how these multi-colored threads are painstakingly handwoven into artful creations on venerable looms.

Manuel spoke with the family patriarch, who explained that his workshop is affiliated with an organization called the Centre for Traditional Textiles in Cusco. His family has been engaged in this practice for 13 years, the patriarch said, and their workshop gets an average of 30 visitors a day. “Our goal is to keep the area’s traditional textile-making alive,” Manuel translated. “In Inca times, textile-making was second in economic importance only after farming in this region. Each town has its own textile techniques, colors and designs, and many of these have historical or legendary meaning. They are very important to each place’s character and continuing.”

After the demonstration, I admired the bright hats, sweaters, blankets and shawls for sale with a new appreciation of the effort, time and skill they embodied. Though I’m usually an adamant anti-shopper on the road, I happily bought two long, intricately patterned, red, green, white and purple scarves. Sometimes shopping is just the right thing to do.

As we left the family’s compound, I reflected on the day: bull penis soup, shredded chicken, coca leaves and textile treasures. The Andean expanses of the morning’s flight seemed more than half a day away.

I glanced at my watch. It was only 4:30, but the sun was already beginning to disappear behind the mountains. Night came early and quickly here. We waved to the weavers and left in a dusty trail for the town of Urubamba and a gracious, gardened enclave called Sol & Luna, where I passed a blissful night in cosseted casita splendor.

Tomorrow: A pilgrim in Peru: Part Two, visiting Moray, Pisaq and Ollantaytambo

This trip was hosted by both LAN and Geographic Expeditions, but the opinions, joy, and amazement concerning the people and food in Peru are purely my own.