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100 Years of Mystery: The Discovery of Machu Picchu

100 Years of Mystery: The Discovery of Machu Picchu

“Above all, there is the fascination of finding here and there under swaying vines… the rugged masonry of a bygone race; and of trying to understand the bewildering romance of the ancient builders who, ages ago, sought refuge in a region which appears to have been expressly designed by nature as a sanctuary for the oppressed, a place where they might fearlessly and patiently give expression to their passion for walls of enduring beauty.” -Hiram Bingham

During Hiram Bingham´s fateful 1911 trip to Peru in search of Vilcabamba, local farmer Melcho Arteaga told him about the ruins on “Old Mountain” while he and his party camped riverside at Mandor Pampa.  Although bad weather made Arteaga reluctant to show Bingham the way, he was convinced by the offer of a 1-sol payment.  Bingham, Arteaga, and his interpreter crossed a precarious bridge and intimidating 2000ft slope to arrive at a small hut where a group of campesinos told Bingham they´d been living there for years and farming on an extensive system of terraces they´d found.  Bingham continued on with Pablito, an 11 year old boy who took him to the ruins.

What Bingham saw was more than a hundred ancient terraces fortified with fertile river valley soil carried up by the Incas, cleared of growth and in use.  Passing the terraces and entering the subtropical forest they beheld white granite walls and ancient structures which, though partially hidden by earth and five centuries of growth, appeared to Bingham to be the finest masonry he had ever seen.  The site had evaded the attention of the Spanish invaders probably because the long since deserted city had already been forgotten. Throughout the centuries of colonial rule it had lain relatively unmolested. Only those living nearest these ruins knew they were there.  At the time, aside from base materials (terraces on which to grow crops, stones to use for construction), the ruins were not considered to be of much interest or value.

When Bingham arrived there were already a couple families living at the ruins.  Treasure hunters searching the ruins for valuables had left their names and the date of their trip etched in rock a decade earlier. Both the treasure hunters and Bingham met Anacleto Alvarez, who lived there and grew his crops on the fertile soil that the Incas had brought up from the river valley to build the terraces.  And yet, while Hiram Bingham may not have discovered Machu Picchu, his academic interest and efforts to bring it to the attention of the world may well have saved it.  Over the next several years the historian conducted the first archaeological excavations and documented and mapped the site.  In 1913 National Geographic devoted an entire issue to Machu Picchu, and over the following decade Bingham wrote popular books dedicated to the site.

What became known as the Lost City of the Incas has inspired worldwide interest ever since it was brought to international attention.  The roughly 5,000 artifacts found there were transferred for study and have provided priceless information about the Incan Empire.  Also, it is in Machu Picchu that one can observe the only intact Intihuatana stone ever found, although in the time of the empire this was the main sacred object in all major cities.  Machu Picchu is unquestionably the greatest Inca site in the Americas to have escaped the colonial period unscathed.  A large part of its fame, however, is that it remains an enigma; scholars could not and cannot agree as to the purpose it served and why it was abandoned even before the Conquest.  Some believe it to have been a ceremonial center, royal resort, military citadel, or even the very birthplace of the empire.

The Inti Raymi and Cusco Aniversary Celebrations

The Inti Raymi and Cusco Aniversary Celebrations

For the last year Cusco has been anxiously preparing for the festivals of this June and July.  As the faithful are setting off on the Qoyllur Rit´i pilgrimage and beautification projects are underway in Machu Picchu Pueblo, the streets of the Imperial City are already starting to fill with costumed dancers and musicians for Intí Raymi, the Festival of the Sun.  (We wrote about the celebration in an earlier post.)  The Festival´s central day, the 24th of June, falls on the Day of the Peasant (formerly celebrated as Day of the Indian) as well as Cusco´s Anniversary.  The celebrations won´t end until they reach their climax on July 7th when Peru celebrates the 100th anniversary of the discovery of Machu Picchu.

Official Program: Friday, 24th of June 2011

This day not only kicks of Intí Raymi, which we wrote about in an earlier post, but is also the day Cusco celebrates its anniversary.  No expense has been spared, so be sure to make it to the Imperial City in time!

08:15   The 5th Mountain Brigade hoists the rainbow flag of Tahuantinsuyo

08:30   Cusco´s Archbishop heads Mass and the Te Deum at the Basilica Cathedral

09:00   Act I of Intí Raymi

It all begins with the Sun Greeting at Qorikancha, the Temple of the Sun, as various characters of importance in the time of the Inca empire gather for the Incan Emperor´s Salute to the Sun.  Expect the air to fill with the noise of traditional Andean Instruments and conch shells as the streets are covered with flowers for the procession to the Main Square

10:30   Meeting of the Times at the Main Square

From his huaca, Incan altar, the Inca formally addresses the Mayor of Cusco

13:30   Central Ceremony at the Fortress of Sacsayhuamán

The main part of the celebration includes the Chicha de Jora rite, a (realistically faked) black llama sacrifice, and the fire rite.  There will be dancing, jubilation, divining from llama blood and viscera, and sacred bonfires.

The dancing, music, and overall celebrating won´t stop at Sacsayhuamán, fairs and concerts will continue throughout the day in the main streets of Cusco.

It´s a lot to get to in one post, so check out our earlier posts on Qoyllur Rit’i and Intí Raymi for some fascinating information about some of the celebrations, and check back here soon to learn where to go and what to do for the big Machu Picchu Centennial.

Inti Raymi- The Incan Festival of the Sun

Inti Raymi- The Incan Festival of the Sun

Inti Raymi (Quechua for Sun Festival) honors Inca theology´s supreme deity, the sun.  The celebration begins on June 21st, which was the first day of the Incan solar calendar as well as the winter solstice.   This is New Years Day- the Inca Edition.  During the time of the Inca Empire, this was the most important ceremony of the year.  Tradition holds that it dates back to the first Inca, Pachacutec, although its observation was forbidden by the Spanish during the time of the conquest.  Since its rebirth in 1944 Cusco has presented a theatrical reenactment of the opening ceremonies based on the chronicles of Garcilazo de la Vega.  Come watch Cusco come alive as more than 50,000 spectators witness and more than 500 actors, dancers and musicians perform.  After the opening ceremonies festivities continue throughout the week, with elaborately costumed dancers, street fairs, and free concerts.

A Trip Through Time

The week´ s events are kicked off at the impressive Temple of the Sun, Qorikancha, by the ceremony proper.  Cusco travels back in time as characters representing the most important function aries and nobility of the Incan empire appear among the music of the conch shells, quepas, and tamborcillos, culminating with the appearance of the Inca, who calls on the blessings of the sun.  Afterwards the procession directs itself along flower-strewn streets towards the Plaza de Armas (Cusco´s main square), where a large huaca (Incan altar) has been constructed for the coca ritual, where a priest divines the will of the Sun: good fortune, but conditional upon the sacrifice of a llama.  The entire coterie continues on to the fortress of Sacsayhuamán just outside the city for the main part of the ceremony.  Here the Inca will perform the chicha de jora (fermented corn drink) rite, a (realistically faked) black llama sacrifice, and the rite of fire.  Actors dance around burning stacks of straw while priests divine the Incas future from the llama blood and viscera, and from the smoke released when the heart is thrown into the main, sacred bonfire.  When the I nca shows satisfaction, the place erupts in jubilation.  A fter the main day of ceremonial events, the fun continues through fairs, dances through the streets, and free concerts which fill the streets.

Travelers´ Tips

  • This is t he 2nd largest festival in South America and rooms get scarce- just this once, you´ll want to book in advance.
  • More than any other time of year, the streets of Cusco are packed with people- dancers and musicians in the streets and spectators crowding the sidewalks- this is the time to be especially wary of pick-pockets counting on your distraction.
  • Tickets can be bought by those who want prime seating for the main ceremony at Sacsayhuamán.  Many, however, choose to simply gather in the surrounding area.
  • Expect prices to soar in keeping with the demand…train and bus tickets, rooms, food- everything costs more.  (Don´t worry- Pirwa´s prices will stay the same throughout the festivities.)
  • June is wintertime in Cusco, but the cold tends to be limited to the morning and evenings, and the afternoon sun can still scorch.  Prepare for the variability of Cusco´s climate by dressing in layers and remembering the sun screen.