The Magic of Machu Picchu

The Magic of Machu Picchu. Photo by Dr. Mark Rothschild

I was aware of the “Seven Wonders of the World” from the time I was a teenager. I had seen pictures of the pyramids in Egypt and The Great Wall of China. However, no wonder fascinated me more than Machu Picchu in Peru. As an adult, I had to visit the “Lost City of the Incas”.

My story starts with an introduction to Hiram Bingham, a fascinating man who, after obtaining an undergraduate degree at Yale University in 1898 and a Ph. D from Harvard University in 1905, became a lecturer on South American history.

Having become entrenched in Incan culture, in 1911, he organized the Yale Peruvian Expedition to find the lost city of Vilcabamba. This city was the last to fall to the Spaniards during their conquest of the Incas in 1572. While in search of Vilcabamba and quite by accident, Bingham came in contact with a local 11-year-old boy. Together they ascended a mountain peak to an opening where, lo and behold, was Machu Picchu. Though covered with vegetation, the fine stonework of the Inca masons was in evidence. This led to the restoration of this incredible archaeological site.


Now, fast forward to the 21st century as I took the train from Cusco to Machu Picchu. From the train car we could see backpackers ascending the steep Inca trail by foot, a five-day trek to our common objective. After disembarking, we took a bus up a winding road to our destination 7,970 feet above sea level. At last, we had arrived at Machu Picchu, which is situated on a mountain ridge overlooking the Sacred Valley. It was quite evident why the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization designated Machu Picchu a World Heritage Site, describing it as “an absolute masterpiece of architecture and a unique testimony to the Inca civilization.”

I was immediately struck by how the Inca architects laid out this city to conform to the natural form of the mountains. As my eyes surveyed the buildings, I had trouble conceiving how many Inca laborers it must have taken to dispatch tons of granite from quarries, transport the material up the mountain and then assemble the blocks to build the structures that were so well preserved before me. The granite blocks were carved to produce a perfect fit as each building was assembled. There is no mortar to keep them in place.

Machu Picchu was built at the height of the Inca Empire around the middle of the 15th century. While there are several theories regarding why it exists, there is general agreement that the area was built under the reign of the Inca Emperor, Pachacuti, as a royal estate and religious retreat.


In 1520, a Spanish fleet arrived in Panama and brought with it smallpox, creating an epidemic that ushered the Inca Empire to its tragic end. This virus and other European diseases had been unknown in the Americas up to this point. An estimated two-thirds of the population succumbed during the years 1524-1526. Disease and a civil war over Inca secession resulted in abandonment of this pristine site. Amazingly, the Spanish never found Machu Picchu, which explains its preservation.

As my day was ending in this spiritual site that focused on mountain worship and the sun, I found myself in awe of the rich culture that once existed here. After having seen Machu Picchu with my own eyes, I can tell you that a trip to this most familiar icon of the Inca civilization is well worth it.


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