A century ago today, the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu was redicovered by Yale University historian Hiram Bingham. Before then, the 15th-century mountain top city was not totally unknown: Bingham was led to the site by an 11 year old local boy and historic maps of the area show ruins in the area of Machu Picchu as early as 1874. But Bingham was the first to bring the knowledge of Machu Picchu to the United States, kicking off 100 years of tourism.
These days, Machu Picchu is in danger of being loved to death. As many as 2,000 visitors stream into the city every day, far more than ever lived in Machu Picchu and just as many feet were pounding the Inca Trail until 2002, when regulations were put in place to limit the number of hikers per day to 500 and require that everybody trek with a certified guide.
Last November, I hiked the Inca Trail on assignment for EARTH magazine’s Travels in Geology column. My brother and I joined a group of seven other 20-something hikers from the U.S. and the U.K. for the 4-day trek along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
Despite the red tape and the crowds (500 people a day is still a lot), hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu was an incredible experience. The trail takes you over four 12,000 and 13,000-foot Andean mountain passes in three days, through cloud forests, rainforests, alpine tundra and mountain villages that probably still look much as they did back in Bingham’s day.
Most striking are the ruins. Machu Picchu is by far the most spectacular of the ruins along the Inca Trail, but the others, while smaller, are as beautiful as their names: Runkuraqay, Phuyupatamarka, Intipata and Wiñay Wayna, meaning: the high place to watch, the place above the clouds, the place in the sun and forever young, in Quechua, the Incan language.
I have always loved ruins. To me, crumbling walls and abandoned buildings are proof that human ingenuity is timeless. When I visit places like Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde and Machu Picchu, I feel a real connection to the people of the past. They were not much different from us and we are not much different from them. Ruins make me feel better about the fate of the world: people and places may come and go but our ability and drive to create will rise and rise again.
The Incas built their empire to last. At Wiñay Wayna and Machu Picchu, 500 year old irrigation systems still channel water to the agricultural terraces, throughout the city and into homes, no pumps or maintenance needed. All the ruins feature walls that are wider at the base than at the top, tapered to minimize swaying in the event of an earthquake. Doorways and windows are keyhole shaped for the same reason. Stones are fit together so precisely, that not even a sharp knife can be wedged in between. The lack of mortar ensures that stones can shift slightly during earthquakes and resettle without collapsing.
Since its rediscovery, Machu Picchu has been extensively restored and many structures have been rebuilt. Telling the original Incan architecture from the restorations is easy: the Incan work looks like it’ll stand for centuries to come and the restored walls look haphazard enough to be knocked over with a mallet.
There’s no telling whether Machu Picchu will stand for another century. The city’s location on the saddle between two mountains makes it vulnerable to landslides and an ongoing study by scientists from the Disaster Prevention Research Institute in Kyoto, Japan suggests a large earthquake or copious rainfall could split the site in two.
Erosion wrought by hundreds of thousands of visitors is only making matters worse. Upwards of 900,000 people visited Machu Picchu in 2009, earning Peru an estimated $100 million.
At those rates, this may be Machu Picchu’s first and last centennial celebration and the numbers aren’t likely to decline: Peru’s ministry of tourism is always lobbying for more ways for more people to reach the mountaintop city: more buses, longer trains, a new cable car system and even a helipad.
When I visited in November, the low season – visitors peak in May and June – Machu Picchu was a madhouse. Granted the city is large and mazelike enough that I was able to find my own quiet corner to sit and think, but highlights like the Intihuatana stone, the Temple of the Sun and the Room of the Three Windows were packed with people all jockeying to be photographed in front of the relics and ruins.
Trekking to Machu Picchu was an awesome experience and arriving through the Sun Gate at dawn was one of the most satisfying moments of my life, but descending down into the city already teeming with people who had taken the bus was akin to climbing a mountain and finding a parking lot full of people at the summit. You can’t help but feel that you’ve earned it and they haven’t. If Machu Picchu is going to see another 100 years, I think most access should be restricted to the way the Inca meant for it to be reached: on foot via the Inca Trail.