I visit Peru fairly often to see family and to get away from my American bubble. While it’s always nice to be back in the motherland, during my last visit in May I was just another tourist. As you may know, Peru is home to one of the Seven Wonders of the World, Machu Picchu. Until this past May I had never visited this historic landmark, while my dad had already gone three times (we get it, Dad, you’re cool). My dad, my friend Anthony, and I traveled to Machu Picchu to explore this great landmark and I learned a lot. If I’m being honest, I felt very connected to my ancestors. However, when I asked my dad if there was a chance I might be an Incan princess his exact answer was, “Definitely not.” Anyway, there’s so much rich history about Machu Picchu and I’m excited to share some of that here.
Thanks to Hamilton, I’m now super into history so everything about my trip to Machu Picchu was super fascinating. Listen, I’m no Lin Manuel-Miranda, but I’ll try to make this history lesson as interesting as possible.
In Quechua, one of Peru’s official languages, “machu” means “old” and “pikchu” means “peak” or “mountain with a sharp peak.” So translated literally the landmark means “Old Mountain,” and you can see that mountain in every picture of Machu Picchu. The Incans built the estate around 1450 when the Incan Empire was at the height of its power. Machu Picchu was later abandoned a century after its creation due to the Spanish Conquest, which I’ll discuss in a bit. Located just northwest of Cuzco, Machu Picchu is thought to have been royal land or a sacred religious site for Inca leaders. Since the Incas had no written language, historians still don’t know the main purpose of the site.
The Spanish never actually managed to find Machu Picchu, which is a blessing because it meant they did not destroy it the way they destroyed so many other cites. For example, there’s a church in Cuzco called the Church of Santo Domingo that the Spanish colonists built on top of one of the most sacred Incan temples after demolishing it. Archeologists identified the foundation as Incan creation by recognizing the similarities between the exterior of the Church and the structure of Machu Picchu. In other words, the Spanish colonist did to the Incas what Melania Trump did to Michelle Obama at the RNC!
The point is, Spanish colonists had no idea Machu Picchu ever existed. In fact, it wasn’t until 1911 that the United States even learned about this place thanks to Hiram Bingham. More on him later.
It’s fascinating that Machu Picchu in itself was a functioning city where farmers and royalty all lived together. The city was divided into several sections that included a farming zone, a residential neighborhood, a royal district, and a sacred area.
Much like Californians, the Incas loved their sun. One of their most treasured deities was the sun and they even structured some of the royalty’s houses around the sun’s positions. In fact, Machu Picchu’s most notable structures include the Temple of the Sun and the Inti Watana stone, a sculpted granite rock thought to have functioned as a solar clock.
SPANISH CONQUEST AND THE FALL OF THE INCAS
Sadly Machu Picchu did not survive the fall of the Incan empire. Spanish colonists showed up in South America in the 16th century and no one was safe. I’m talking “Hide ya kids, hide ya wives” type of danger.
Túpac Amaru – not to be confused with Tupac Shakur (RIP) – was the last Inca to rule. When his older brother died, Túpac ordered the execution of all Spanish people living in Vilcabamba (a city founded by a former Incan Emperor) and led a poorly planned rebellion against the colonists. The unsuccessful rebellion resulted in Túpac’s death and the end of Incan sovereignty. Vilcabamba was soon after occupied by Spaniards and surviving citizens were enslaved.
Many sources claim that American archaeologist Hiram Bingham from Yale University “discovered” Machu Picchu in 1911, but as our tour guide put it, he was Machu Picchu’s very first tourist. Machu Picchu existed long before Bingham, so claiming that he “discovered” this masterpiece would be a huge fallacy. So, let’s just say Bingham rediscovered Machu Picchu. *Shouts over megaphone* Hear that, Christopher Columbus? You can’t discover something that already belongs to other people.
Our tour guide explained that Bingham was trying to reach a village in that region that was made purely of gold. Remember that movie “The Road to El Dorado”? That’s what Bingham was looking for when he stumbled across Machu Picchu. Other archeologists believe he was looking for Vilcamamba, the last Incan city.
When Bingham saw Machu Picchu, he managed to take a picture to show Yale University. Bingham then returned to Machu Picchu just a year later under the sponsorship of Yale University and National Geographic. Excavation started in 1912 and ran through 1915.
Although Peruvian institutions welcomed the exploration at first, Bingham and his team were soon in hot water. During the excavation Bingham took many artifacts back to the United States that are now located in the Yale University Museum. These items included mummies, bones, and ceramics. Peruvian locals and the government claimed these stolen artifacts belonged to them while Bingham claimed experts in American institutions should study the artifacts. Would it be inappropriate for me to visit Yale’s Museum with a sign that reads “GIVE MY ANCESTORS THEIR PROPERTY BACK”? No? Ok, just checking.
In any event, I’m so glad I got to visit this amazing manmade creation because I’m old enough to understand why Machu Picchu is so special. Also, colonialism sucks. Even though Machu Picchu wasn’t touched by the Spaniards, they still did a number on the rest of Cuzco and South America in general. I encourage you all to visit this great landmark if you are able to because it truly is something magical and inexplicable. Like I said, I felt super connected to my ancestors in a way I’ve never felt about American history (even after listening to Hamilton).
If you do decide to go, here are my three pieces of advice:
- Book your trip at least 6 months in advance. There’s a limit on how many people can enter Machu Picchu so you want to make sure you reserve your entry.
- Bring water, snacks, and sunscreen. Things can get expensive the closer you get to Machu Picchu and you don’t want to pay $10 for a bottle of water.
- DEAR GOD DON’T BRING A SELFIE STICK. It’s honestly the worst thing to bring. Don’t be one of those tourists walking around aimlessly trying to take a picture. You’ll take too long, you may injure people, and you honestly just look ridiculous.