Photograph courtesy Everett Collection
By Mark Adams, author of Turn Right at Machu Picchu
Pachacutec (ca. 1450)
This greatest of Inca emperors, whose name meant “He Who Shakes the Earth,” found time between territorial conquests to launch one of the greatest civil engineering campaigns of all time. Among the building projects he oversaw were the thousands-of-miles-long Inca highway system, the remaking of Cusco as a holy city, and the construction of several magnificent royal estates for his own use. Among them was Machu Picchu.
Hiram Bingham (1911, 1912, 1915)
As this young Yale lecturer sniffed around Cusco for clues to the location of the legendary Lost City of the Inca, he heard vague reports that some impressive ruins might be found on a mountain ridge down in the Urubamba Valley. Bingham made the first recorded visit to Machu Picchu on July 24, 1911. He received history’s first guided tour of the ruins from a young boy whose family lived at the site. His reaction? “It fairly took my breath away,” he wrote.
Cole Porter (1939)
Tourism to Machu Picchu was slow to catch on, but when the American songwriter (“Anything Goes,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”) saw a story about the ruins in an issue of National Geographic, he traveled to Peru, climbed aboard a horse, and rode up to the still partly overgrown citadel. His companion’s description of their campsite—a three-room building without plumbing that sat roughly where the $800-a-night Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge Hotel sits today, offers a rare glimpse at what conditions were like. Dinner one night was a freshly caught and killed chicken, with a few charred feathers still attached.
Pablo Neruda (1943)
This Chilean poet’s visit to the ruins inspired one of his most famous works, “The Heights of Machu Picchu.” The poem is generally agreed to have reinvigorated Neruda’s stagnant career, and he eventually won the 1971 Nobel Prize in Literature. “Heights” marked a shift in how Machu Picchu was viewed, redirecting its reputation away from the novelty status of a lost city and refocusing attention on the grand achievement of the people who built it.
Che Guevara (1952)
When the asthma-hobbled medical student named Ernesto Guevara departed Buenos Aires on a motorbike with his buddy Alberto Granado, the men planned to tour South America looking for fun and adventure. Along the way, however, Guevara picked up both a new nickname and a deep connection to the indigenous peoples of the continent, Peru in particular. In the book he wrote about the trip, The Motorcycle Diaries, he describes a visit he made at Machu Picchu, which he calls “a pure expression of the most powerful indigenous race in the Americas.”
Charlton Heston (1953)
If there’s one film that can be singled out as the likely inspiration for Raiders of the Lost Ark, it has to be the 1954 B movie Secret of the Incas, filmed the previous year on location in Cusco and at Machu Picchu. The plot is pure Hollywood—Heston plays a fortune hunter who’s scheming to swipe an ancient gold Inca sunburst that archaeologists are hunting for at Machu Picchu—but the film helped bring this archaeological wonder closer to the public.
Georgia O’Keeffe (1956)
The American painter, best known for her canvases of voluptuous flowers and sun-bleached skulls, journeyed to Peru and came away with some of the first works of art that attempted to capture the sacred side of Machu Picchu and its surroundings. Asked later to describe the citadel’s awe-inspiring setting—perched amid skyscraping Andean peaks, above a twisting whitewater river—she said, “I've never seen nature so absolutely terrifying.”
Johan Reinhard (1980s)
Though he would later become world famous for discovering frozen Inca mummies (including the “Ice Maiden”) atop peaks in southern Peru and Argentina, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Reinhard also made several trips to Machu Picchu while formulating what has come to be known as the Sacred Center theory. In a nutshell, Reinhard posits that the Inca selected Machu Picchu’s spectacular site not only because it was beautiful, but because it inhabited an especially sacred spot in the Andean landscape. Among other evidence, Reinhard showed that holy mountains (apus) stand directly to the north, south, east, and west of Machu Picchu.
Shirley MacLaine (1986)
Machu Picchu was still considered an exotic destination when MacLaine arrived to shoot a TV movie based on her book Out on a Limb. Peruvian officials were incensed when they learned the script proposed that the citadel might have been constructed by aliens, but the movie introduced Machu Picchu to millions of new seekers—and ushered in a lucrative new era of New Age spiritual tourism in the Cusco region.
Homer Simpson (2008)
While a stream of A-list celebrities began flocking to Machu Picchu in the past decade (including Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz, Susan Sarandon, and Richard Gere), perhaps none were as famous as the Simpson family. In the episode “Lost Verizon,” the family arrives at the lost city searching for Lisa; Marge falls asleep and receives a lecture on Inca history from a stone idol. Unlike most families that visit Peru from overseas, the Simpsons drive home.
National Geographic Magazine Special
Rising from obscurity to the heights of power, a succession of Andean rulers subdued kingdoms, sculpted mountains, and forged a mighty empire.
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