The story of Machu Picchu and indeed the Incas ends almost as impossibly as it began. As Pachacutec predicted the Spanish arrived in Peru in 1532 led by Pizarro and his entourage of Conquistadors in search of the gold and riches he believed, quite rightly, the Inca Empire owned. It was the first time the empire was seriously threatened, not just with war but by the infectious diseases the Spanish brought with them. Rampant disease spread throughout the empire causing the single most devastating loss of life in the Americas, with the Inca population reduced by two thirds from 12M to just 4M.
In fact, the Spanish conquest was accomplished without massive battles and warfare due in part to the disease, but also the naivety of the then Inca emperor Atahualpa. He promised the Spanish “two rooms of gold as high as a man’s outstretched hand” in return for his freedom. He delivered the $50M (in today’s money) and was promptly killed to allow the Spanish to raid Cusco where they thought they would collect the rest of the treasures.
But the Inca royalty and elite had retreated to Machu Picchu and shut up shop, just as Pachacutec had intended. They should have been safe there for years with the natural defences and self-sufficient life he had created in their secret hideaway. The Spanish knew the legend of “a hidden castle in the sky where the kings lived” but had simply failed to discover it, just as Pachacutec had planned. However, in 1572 there was a rumour that the Spanish had identified the location of the citadel and were on their way in. Machu Picchu was abandoned.
The small population deserted their utopia by creating a trail out the back door with a bridge constructed over the valley and its 400 metre drop. They took what they could and having crossed the bridge destroyed it and retreated into the mountains.
We hiked to what little is left of the bridge and the Incas’ escape route. It looked intimidating to us even with the introduction of steel handrails to grasp hold of and keep us away from the edge. It must have been terrifying for the five hundred or so making their getaway with as much as they could carry. The trail we hiked, as the Incas had all those years ago, had been built into the side of the mountain about a metre across and ended of course at the collapsed bridge. We could see where it picked up again across the valley and disappeared into the craggy mountains. Nothing much would have changed in the 450 years since they fled and retreated into the mountains, it was quite possible to visualise how they escaped, ending their days at Machu Picchu and extinguishing the last glimmer of the glorious Inca Empire.
As we stood on the path where their escape bridge had been, our guide Saiber recounted the denouement to the 4 day story he had enthralled us with. The unbelievably poignant and sad end to this story is that Pachacutec had, as always, done a wonderful job. The Spanish never did find Machu Picchu, it was abandoned needlessly. The hidden castle in the sky became the Lost City of the Incas and was left to be reclaimed by the jungle, not to be seen again for nearly 350 years. How dreadfully tragic.
The mystery of Machu Picchu continues to this day and Pachacutec is still keeping us all guessing over 100 years since its modern day discovery. The Yale sponsored and wonderfully named Hiram Bingham III found the Lost City on 24th July 1911. After years of searching, certain that there must have been an exit for the Incas from the invading Spanish, he came across a young family at the bottom of the mountain and asked about any local ruins. Their son Pablito said something like, “Oh! Yes, there’s a town of tumbledown houses up there where I play all the time.”
Led by the local farmer Melchior Arteaga and young Pablito, 339 years after the Incas left, the Lost City was found and Machu Picchu was rediscovered, what a moment that must have been. It was in surprisingly good condition having had the jungle largely protect the buildings from the weather. In fact the restoration only accounts for 35% of what we see now. Hiram Bingham III removed all 200,000 priceless artefacts left behind at the Inca exodus promising to return them to Peru after analysis. Unfortunately, the contract was lost and over a 100 years later Peru is still asking for its property to be returned.
But you can’t keep a good man down. Even if he is buried. Somewhere. Pachacutec died aged 90 and although it may seem blindingly obvious to us, the real identity of his resting place has been the subject of much debate and controversy for many years. There is a story that he was entombed in Cusco Cathedral and the Spanish, frustrated in not finding the riches they expected, took his body out into the square and burned it in front of his Inca subjects. I do hope that’s not true. Some believe he was taken to Huayna Picchu the peak opposite Machu Picchu and buried there overlooking his creation. Although this is largely based on the assumption that everything had been excavated, researched and studied at the citadel. I’ve even heard his body was taken to the new capital Lima, but I don’t believe that can be true.
In February 2010 French engineer David Crespy was taking some measurements on a small path never used by tourists or the archaeologists, when he noticed the presence of what appeared to be a “door” sealed with rocks, at the foot of one of the main buildings. “This is a door”, Crespy immediately thought, clever engineer. He claims to have been unaware that someone, a funny or bright tourist, or an archaeologist with a sense of humour (doubtful), had written on a stone above the entrance the word “treasure” and drawn an arrow pointing downwards. Bizarre but true.
Crespy and Thierry Jamin, an explorer and historian, a sort of French Indiana Jones – he even has the same hat – applied to excavate the sealed entrance. The Cusco branch of the Ministry of Culture responded with a clear “ninguna possibilidad”. So, they used geo-radar and electromagnetic sensor equipment to investigate behind the blocked doorway, technically not excavation I guess. They discovered the existence of a large burial chamber, with a considerable amount of gold and silver, and a whole underground structure that housed a dozen cavities they believed were family graves. They were convinced they had found Pachacutec’s tomb.
It seems like the best kept secret in Peruvian history had been solved, making it the largest and most important discovery ever at the world famous site. The Director of the Ministry of Culture gave his permission for Crespy and Jamin to carry out observational studies at the site and by 2016 they were ready to excavate the tomb. How exciting. The Cusco branch of the Ministry of Culture responded with a clear “ninguna possibilidad”.
Or put another way, as the Director of Culture said, “Permission was given to carry out observational studies. But when they proposed to excavate based on some hypothesis that a laser scanner may have detected an Inca tomb and there were some steps lined in gold, it has been completely denied because this goes against the reality”.
Or put another way, the politicians want the discovery to be 100% Peruvian. Who can blame them after that scoundrel Hiram Bingham III ran off with all the treasures last time?
During our visits we saw red tape and “no public access” around new construction areas at the site and the Crespy / Jamin project is still being pursued although being met with much controversy and resistance from the government. As Saiber said, ‘Hopefully this mystery will be uncovered soon,’ but I’m not sure I agree. I like the idea that Pachacutec still has the upper hand 500 years after his death. Maybe just like the Spanish never found his Machu Picchu, it’s right we should never find him.
That night we had dinner with Saiber and reflected on what we had seen and heard, still making me swallow hard when I think of the past glory of Pachacutec, his people, what they had achieved and the tragic end. I wondered how different the world would be if the Incas had been allowed to flourish, they achieved so much in such a short time. I have developed a huge amount of admiration for a civilisation I scarcely knew; I guess that’s what this adventure was all about.