In the summer of 1911 the American archaeologist Hiram Bingham arrived in Peru with a small team of explorers hoping to find Vilcabamba, the last Inca stronghold to fall to the Spanish. Traveling on foot and by mule, Bingham and his team made their way from Cuzco into the Urubamba Valley, where a local farmer told them of some ruins located at the top of a nearby mountain. The farmer called the mountain Machu Picchu, which translates to “old peak” in the native Quechua language. On July 24, after a tough climb to the mountain’s ridge in cold and drizzly weather, Bingham met a small group of peasants who showed him the rest of the way. Led by an 11-year-old boy, Bingham got his first glimpse of the intricate network of stone terraces marking the entrance to Machu Picchu.
The excited Bingham spread the word about his discovery in a best-selling book, “The Lost City of the Incas,” sending hordes of eager tourists flocking to Peru to follow in his footsteps up the formerly obscure Inca Trail. He also excavated artifacts from Machu Picchu and took them to Yale University for further inspection, igniting a custody dispute that lasted nearly 100 years. It was not until the Peruvian government filed a lawsuit and lobbied President Barack Obama for the return of the items that Yale agreed to complete their repatriation.
Although he is credited with making Machu Picchu known to the world—indeed, the highway tour buses use to reach it bears his name—it is not certain that Bingham was the first outsider to visit it. There is evidence that missionaries and other explorers reached the site during the 19th and early 20th centuries but were simply less vocal about what they uncovered there.