Endangered Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu survived the Spanish onslaught against the Inca Empire, but in the last few decades it has suffered more threats to its architectural integrity and pristine Andean environment than it did in nearly 500 previous years of existence. In the past, UNESCO has threatened to add Machu Picchu to its roster of endangered World Heritage Sites and not to withdraw that status unless stringent measures were taken by the Peruvian government to protect the landmark ruins.

Clearly, the preservation of Machu Picchu continues to face significant challenges. In the past few years, the ruins have again been named on another notorious list, the 2010 World Monuments Watch, which details the 100 most endangered sites in the world. (In 2002, in recognition of the Peruvian government’s adoption of tougher regulations on the Inca Trail and the suspension of a proposed cable-car plan, Machu Picchu was removed from the list.)

Uncontrolled development and environmental mismanagement in Aguas Calientes paired with tourism at Machu Picchu increasing from 9,000 visitors in all of 1992 to close to 6,000 on a single busy day (the site receives more than 1 million visitors annually) has meant that Peru has significant environmental and conservation issues to face.

The Peruvian government has only slowly responded to pressure from UNESCO, foreign governments, and watchdog groups, introducing measures to clean up and restrict access to the historic Inca Trail. One unique measure adopted was a debt-swap initiative, in which the government of Finland traded 25% of Peru’s then-outstanding debt (more than $6 million) for conservation programs targeting Machu Picchu. Government officials have taken positive steps to regulate the number of visitors and the traffic flow. Closures of the site for repairs and a new entrance have also helped alleviate the wear and tear of the thousands of feet that walk over the ancient stones every day. Yet clearly much more needs to be done to protect these singular ruins, Peru’s most acclaimed treasure.

Bingham, the "Discoverer" of Machu Picchu

Hiram Bingham is credited with the “scientific discovery” of Machu Picchu, but in fact, when he stumbled upon the ruins with the aid of a local campesino, he didn’t know what he’d found. Bingham, an archaeologist and historian at Yale University (and later governor of Connecticut), had come to Peru to satisfy his curiosity about a fabled lost Inca city. He led an archaeological expedition to Peru in 1911, sponsored by Yale University and the National Geographical Society. Bingham was in search of Vilcabamba the Old, the final refuge of seditious Inca Manco Cápac and his sons, who retreated there after the siege of Cusco in 1537.

From Cusco, Bingham and his team set out for the jungle through the Urubamba Valley. The group came upon a major Inca site, which they named Patallacta (Llaqtapata), ruins near the start of the Inca Trail. A week into the expedition, at Mandorpampa, near today’s Aguas Calientes, Bingham met Melchor Arteaga, a local farmer, who told Bingham of mysterious ruins high in the mountains on the other side of the river and offered to guide the expedition to them. In the rain, the two climbed the steep mountain. Despite his grandiose claims, the ruins were not totally overgrown; a small number of campesinos were farming among them.

In Lost City of the Incas, Bingham writes: "I soon found myself before the ruined walls of buildings built with some of the finest stonework of the Incas. It was difficult to see them as they were partially covered over by trees and moss, the growth of centuries; but in the dense shadow, hiding in bamboo thickets and toggled vines, could be seen here and there walls of white granite ashlars most carefully cut and exquisitely fitted together . . . I was left truly breathless."

Bingham was convinced that he’d uncovered the rebel Inca's stronghold, Vilcabamba. Yet Vilcabamba was known to have been hastily built—and Machu Picchu clearly was anything but—and most accounts had it lying much deeper in the jungle. Moreover, the Spaniards were known to have ransacked Vilcabamba, and there is no evidence of Machu Picchu having suffered an attack. Despite these contradictions, Bingham’s pronouncement was accepted for more than 50 years. The very name should have been a dead giveaway: Vilcabamba means “Sacred Plain” in Quechua, hardly a description one would attach to Machu Picchu, nestled high in the mountains.

In 1964, the U.S. explorer Gene Savoy discovered what are now accepted as the true ruins of Vilcabamba, at Espíritu Pampa, a several-day trek into the jungle. Strangely enough, it seems certain that Hiram Bingham had once come across a small section of Vilcabamba, but he dismissed the ruins as minor.

The Machu Picchu ruins were excavated by a Bingham team in 1915. A railway from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, begun 2 years earlier, was finally completed in 1928. The road up the hillside to the ruins, inaugurated by Bingham himself, was completed in 1948. Bingham died still believing Machu Picchu was Vilcabamba, even though he’d actually uncovered something much greater—and more mysterious.

Bingham took some 11,000 pictures of Machu Picchu on his second visit in 1912 and eventually removed more than 45,000 artifacts for study in the U.S. (with the permission of the Peruvian government under the agreement that they would be returned to Peru when there was a suitable place for their storage and continued study).

Peru claims the agreement was for 18 months, but the objects remained at Yale University’s Peabody Museum in New Haven, Connecticut, for nearly a century. After years of negotiations and threats of lawsuits, Yale and the Peruvian government finally came to an agreement that recognizes that Peru holds title to the artifacts. Some 40,000 museum-quality Bingham artifacts have, at long last, been returned to Peru, a selection of which are on display at the Museo Machu Picchu (Casa Concha) in Cusco, which was inaugurated to celebrate the centennial of Bingham’s 1911 discovery of Machu Picchu.

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