01/16/2012 09:54 am ET Updated Mar 16, 2012

Travelogue: 100th Anniversary Of Machu Picchu Discovery

There's been a lot of interest in Machu Picchu lately. Huffington Post travel readers recently ranked it Number One on the "1,000 Places To See Before You Die" bracket.

Last July 25 marked the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the "Lost City" by Hiram Bingham.

I visited Machu Picchu in March 1986 as a W.K. Kellogg National Leadership Fellow. It was a memorable experience because I felt I touched the hand of God there and understood my smallness in the immensity of Creation. Here is an excerpt from my journal.

We rode the train from Cuzco to Machu Picchu trekking through the Andes Mountains, which are full of terraced agricultural land. Sometimes we'd see Indian farmers working, sometimes a village of adobe-brick houses. The colors were greens of many hues from very different looking plants.

At the train station we were met by the ever-present vendors, and it was there I bought a hat for $2 after bargaining it down from $3.

As we descended into the Sacred Valley of the Incas, we followed the Urubamba River (named the Vilcamayo or Sacred River by the Incas), which was a very muddy white water with rapids so strong that no one has been able to navigate them and live.

Machu Picchu is built on the flat top of a mountain 2,000 feet above the Urubamba River that encircles the five-square-mile area. A bus took us from the train to the Hiram Bingham Highway, which climbed to the top of the mountain via switchbacks.

(When the bus goes down the mountain, young boys try to beat it to the bottom by running straight through the forested area. If they win, tourists offer them a propina or tip, which usually amounts to about six cents.)

The mountains have very pointed peaks that thrust themselves straight up into the sky. Clouds hover around the peaks and luckily for us, the sun was out so that we could catch a clear view of them. But the clouds continually move and change the unbelievable sight before us.

Machu Picchu is but one small area of the world but I feel genuinely dwarfed by its beauty and majesty. Yet, it makes me feel a part of a whole, incredible universe where I realize that, as a human being, I am but a part of Nature, one very small part. This is humbling.

As I walked among the ruins of Machu Picchu I wondered how the Incas managed to remain subservient to God and Nature. Most all of the rocks to build the city were cut from the surrounding mountains but in several places the structures were worked in the existing mountain. What an incredible feat of imagination and engineering!

According to Kenneth Clark in the PBS series, "Civilization," architecture reflects man's view of his reality. The Incas who built Machu Picchu must have been very reflective people and very much in touch with their environment. Their relationship with their gods also seems to be one where they acted as "co-creators" of beauty while remaining in deference to them.

Every one of my travel companions has been in awe of this place, which perhaps has given us an experience of our "clay feet" that have union with God/Earth. Ordinarily, as Americans we work so hard at controlling or commodifying Nature that we often miss or forget its essence, that is, until we come to places like Machu Picchu.

I am reminded of the Amish who believe it is necessary to view God's great earthly wonders because it helps them to see His power and glory. That's why they visit places like Niagara Falls. Machu Picchu does this to me, too.

The uplift of these mountains is tremendous--it goes straight up. If you consider that the land was relatively horizontal and then uplifted into mountains, there must have been incredible change--and noise. Geologically speaking, this area is a wonder.

Machu Picchu is the second oldest civilization that I have visited during the fellowship. The first was Mexico City, the land of the Aztecs. Walking among ruins of a once-great civilization affects me. I try to imagine life here, but more importantly, I realize I'm walking the same trails that others before me walked--and I don't mean the tourists. In this way I feel connected to history and to a people who created a great civilization. What incredible people they must have been to build cities like this.

Our archeologist speaker tonight said that the Incas are the Greeks of the Americas and should be regarded as such. He estimated he is six percent Inca and he seemed very proud of it. This pride was something the fellows would experience a lot as we got to know our speakers and guides.

Hiram Bingham III (1875-1956), historian, explorer, treasure hunter and politician "discovered" the city that the Incas had abandoned 400 years before and which the Spanish conquistadors were never able to find. (He was the inspiration behind Hollywood's Indiana Jones character.) About 1,000 people were living there at the time.

Although other explorers had "found" Machu Picchu years before, Bingham was the first to scientifically explore and publicize the place that had been covered in an overgrowth of jungle trees and vines. The entire April 1913 issue of National Geographic was devoted to his work there. Bingham also wrote about it, notably Inca Land: Explorations in the Highlands of Peru (1922) and Lost City of the Incas, a 1948 best-seller.

Machu Picchu was revered as a sacred place at a time quite a bit before the Incas "adopted" it as their own. The five-square-mile complex of palaces, baths, temples, storage rooms and about 150 houses arranged around a central plaza was completely self-contained. It was surrounded by agricultural terraces and watered by natural springs that could accommodate the population that lived there. Here is an example of the stone cuttings that were fitted together without mortar. Their construction was well-suited for earthquakes because they could sustain tremors without collapsing.

"These structures, carved from the gray granite of the mountaintop, are wonders of both architectural and aesthetic genius," according to Sacred Sites. "Many of the building blocks weigh 50 tons or more yet are so precisely sculpted and fitted together with such exactitude that the mortarless joints will not permit the insertion of even a thin knife blade."

There is great speculation about why the Incas built Machu Picchu. Some say it was an estate and retreat site for Pachacuti and his royal court to relax, hunt and entertain guests.

Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui (or Pachacutec) was the ninth Sapa Inca (1438-1471/1472) of the Kingdom of Cuzco, which he transformed into the Inca Empire called Tawantinsuyu. In less than a century the empire had grown from about 155,000 square miles in 1448, to 380,000 square miles in 1528, the year Pizarro and the Spanish conquistadors arrived.

In Quechua, the language of the Incas, Pachakutiq means "He who shakes the Earth," and Yupanqui means "with honor". During his reign, Cuzco grew from a hamlet into the capital city of an empire that within three generations stretched from modern-day Ecuador to Chile (about the size of the eastern seaboard of the United States) and included Peru, Bolivia and northern Argentina. Pachacuti is considered a national hero in modern Peru. During the 2000 Presidential elections, the mestizo Indian population gave candidate Alejandro Toledo the nickname Pachacuti.

Others speculate Machu Picchu was a nunnery or a training center for priestesses, although that theory has been debunked since skeletal remains there were half male and half female.

Bingham thought it was the birthplace of Inca society but that theory has since been disproved, too, when archaeologists determined that it was Espirtu Pampa, about 80 miles west of the Inca capital city of Cuzco. Actually, Bingham was looking for Vilcambamba la Vieja, the last stronghold of the Incas before the Spanish conquistadors took over, when he found Machu Picchu.

A 2009 study by Giulio Magli, an astrophysicist at the Polytechnic Institute in Milan, Italy, postulated that Machu Picchu was a pilgrimage site and a scaled-down version of a mythic landscape from the Inca religion. Worshipers could symbolically relive the harrowing journey of Manco Capac and his sister, Mama Occlo, who both rose out of Lake Titicaca to found a great city.

As legend has it, they were given a golden staff by the Sun, their father, who bade them settle permanently at whatever place the staff should sink into the earth. Through a series of adventures, geomantic resonances, and astronomical correspondences, the site of Cuzco was chosen. According to the most frequently told story, four brothers, Manco Capac, Ayar Anca, Ayar Cachi, and Ayar Uchu, and their four sisters, Mama Ocllo, Mama Huaco, Mama Cura (or Ipacura), and Mama Raua, lived at the Paccari-Tampu [tavern of the dawn], several miles distant from Cuzo. They gathered together the tribes of their locality, marched on the Cuzco Valley, and conquered the tribes living there. Manco Capac had by his sister-wife, Mama Ocllo, a son called Sinchi Roca (or Cinchi Roca). Authorities concede that the first Inca chief to be a historical figure was called Sinchi Roca (c. 1105-c. 1140). Thus the foundation for an empire was laid.

Machu Picchu sits 9,090 feet above sea level and 300 miles south of Lima. It is one of the most visited places in South America with 250,000 visitors per year. Four years ago it was voted one of the Seven Wonders of the World in a global Internet poll.

After Bingham's discovery, National Geographic magazine awarded him a $10,000 grant that was matched by Yale University where he was a professor of history and politics. This money afforded him three more expeditions to the site, which also led to the taking of 44,000 pieces and sparked a long-standing controversy between him, Yale, and Peruvians. This past March, 366 of those pieces were returned in time for the 100th anniversary celebration.

Seven hundred guests celebrated the anniversary on July 8 complete with a symphony orchestra, fireworks and a breathtaking light show. To read more and see photos of the celebration, see the Daily Mail story.