Backdoor to Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu was first seen by an American 100 years ago. Close to a million visitors are expected to visit this year

Machu Picchu, the ancient stone city, has been hailed as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Perched high in the Andes it takes and experienced guide, and a steady pair of legs, to reach. Mark Adams of The New York Times Travel bring us through the clouds and into celestial realms of the past in The Hidden Route to Machu Picchu

AS we neared the end of a very long climb up a very steep ridge, my guide, John Leivers, shouted at me over his shoulder. “It’s said that the Spaniards never found Machu Picchu, but I disagree,” he said. I caught up to him — for what seemed like the 20th time that day — and he pointed his bamboo trekking pole at the strangely familiar-looking set of ruins ahead. “It’s this place they never found.

He was pointing to Choquequirao, an Incan citadel high in the Peruvian Andes that so closely resembles Machu Picchu that it’s often touted as the sister site of South America’s most famous ruins. Both are believed to have been built in the 15th century and consist of imposing stone buildings arranged around a central plaza, situated among steep mountain ridges that overlook twisting whitewater rivers, with views of skyscraping peaks — known as apus, or mountain deities, to both the Incas and their Quechua-speaking Andean descendants — in several directions. Both are almost indescribably beautiful.

But there’s no question about which sibling is more popular. An estimated 3,000 people make their way through Machu Picchu’s corridors on a typical day. Between breakfast and lunch at Choquequirao, I counted 14 people, including myself, John and a few scattered archaeologists.

This year, which marks the 100th anniversary of Bingham’s achievement, up to a million visitors are expected to visit those ancient ruins — a sharp rise from last year’s roughly 700,000, one of the highest attendance figures ever. Most of those pilgrims will hear the tale of Bingham’s 1911 trip. But few of them will know that the explorer also located several other major sets of Incan ruins, all of which approach his most famous finds in historic significance. After Machu Picchu — where he lingered for only a few hours, convinced that more important discoveries lay ahead — Bingham continued his hunt for vanished Incan sites.

His 1911 expedition turned out to be one of the most successful in history. Within a few hundred square miles, he found Vitcos, once an Incan capital, and Espiritu Pampa,the jungle city where the last Incan king is thought to have made his final stand against the Spanish invaders. A year later he returned, and came upon Llactapata, a mysterious satellite town just two miles west of Machu Picchu whose importance is still being decoded.

The Hidden Route to Machu Picchu