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Path entrance to Machu Picchu. The bridge can be removed to prevent access by enemies.

The Secret Bridge to Peru’s Most Legendary City, Machu Picchu

“A devoted professor of archeology who suddenly finds himself in the far reaches of the earth trying to uncover some of the worlds’ oldest and most precious artifacts” certainly sounds like something that Hollywood scripts are made of. Indiana Jones traveling to remote jungles to find lost cities comes to mind for most. Fictional characters like Indiana Jones weren’t conceived in a vacuum, however. It is believed that this character represents the zealous ambition of early 20 th century explorers and one such explorer especially, Hiram Bingham, is believed to be a source of inspiration for the character Indiana Jones who spawned a Hollywood franchise based on his adventures. 

Hiram Bingham and the Re-discovery of Machu Picchu

Prior to 1911, Machu Picchu would have been known in most historical circles as nothing more than a place that Spanish conquistadors made up in their many tales of conquest. Chronicles of an elaborately built stone mansion in the sky built before the arrival of the Spanish seems almost inconceivable. Hiram Bingham, a South American history lecturer teaching at Yale, was an avid connoisseur of South American history and legend and had a strong desire to prove that this and other places built by the Incas were more than just a kid’s fairytale. He also had a strong desire to make a name for himself since he wanted to be remembered for more than just being the husband of the wealthy Tiffany heiress, Alfreda Mitchell.

‘The City in the Sky’ – Machu Picchu, ‘re-discovered’ by Hiram Bingham and his team in 1911

‘The City in the Sky’ – Machu Picchu, ‘re-discovered’ by Hiram Bingham and his team in 1911. ( CC BY 2.0 )

Armed with nothing more than his strong ambition and a few imprecise maps from earlier Spanish explorations, Hiram set out on his mission in 1911 to discover the mysterious Incan ruins with tips from a local by the name of Melchor Arteaga and the help of an eight-year-old local boy by the name of Pablito Riccharte.  The area wasn’t important to explorers and archaeologists of the time but Hiram would change that.  He would popularize this remote area of Peru and would indeed go on to make a name for himself as the one that re-discovered this beautiful and virtually intact “lost” city of the Incas.  After his initial exploration, The National Geographic Society funded a return expedition for the lecturer to learn more about the area and make it known to eager and interested audiences.

Hiram Bingham wasn’t the only one who found this place fascinating.  Chilean poet Pablo Neruda immortalized the splendor of these ancient ruins of this majestic city in his famous book “ Poem to Machu Picchu .”

And then up the ladder of the earth I climbed through the horrible thicket of the lost jungles to you, Machu Picchu.

Tall city of stones stacked up in steps, at last a dwelling where what is earthly was not hidden under slumbering clothes.

In you, like two parallel lines, the cradle of lightning and humanity rocking together in a thorny wind. 

Mother of stone, spume of the condors.

Highest reef of the human dawn.

britaxPablo Neruda, Poem to Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is situated in a hard to access region of Peru.

Machu Picchu is situated in a hard to access region of Peru. ( CC BY 2.0 )

The cities’ placement high up in the Andes mountain range within the Cusco Region of Peru earned it its name “Machu Picchu” which means Old Mountain.  It is far more than just a city carved into a mountain.  Historians are divided on what purpose Machu Picchu served, some believing it to be a heavily fortified city to protect inhabitants from invaders and others believing it to be an elaborate city dedicated to the gods.  Still, others believe it was a palace retreat for the emperors and nobles of the city.  Regardless of what it was used for, the place undoubtedly is a remarkable feat of human engineering, in the league of the Egyptian pyramids. Over the years, many tourists and archaeologists alike would continue to marvel at its incredible engineering and become entranced by its eerie but surprisingly stable location atop the steep mountain chain in Peru.

The Secret Bridge of Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu has certainly had its fair share of visitors over the years who have explored this legendary city.  What has become more alluring to researchers in the last decade is not the mysterious city itself but the pathways leading to it.  Hiram Bingham discovered it by taking a train to the area and climbing the rest of the way to it led by the locals who knew the area very well.  Pablo Neruda, like so many others, took the tourists’ path to the remote location.  However, a secret bridge has been discovered recently that is being described as an alternative route of access to the sky city.

The path with the Inca Bridge at Machu Picchu was constructed to make its use difficult.

The path with the Inca Bridge at Machu Picchu was constructed to make its use difficult. ( CC BY 2.0 )

Just how secret is the secret bridge and what exactly was this bridge used for? 

The answer to this is just as elusive and imprecise as the answer to what Machu Picchu itself was used for; but, it is believed that the original inhabitants of the area and Spanish conquistadors were quite familiar with this so-called secret bridge.  The road was used as trade route and to bring goods and services to the mountain top city.  The true extent of the road network is not completely known, since the Spaniards, post conquest, either dug up the road completely in some areas, or allowed it to deteriorate and fall into ruin under iron-clad horses' hooves, or the metal wheels of ox-carts. Other historians believe that the entire region may not have even been known to the Spanish at all.  They believe that the spread of smallpox through the area decimated the people in the region and that the Spanish may have never even explored the remote region of Machu Picchu, let alone used the secret bridge.

The secret path constructed across the cliff face gives access to Machu Picchu, and includes a purpose built removable plank bridge.

The secret path constructed across the cliff face gives access to Machu Picchu, and includes a purpose built removable plank bridge. ( CC BY 2.0 )

Today, the secret bridge, known as the Inca Bridge, is one of the cities’ many entry points that few people take the time or effort to explore.  The bridge is made of simple planks of wood and it is believed that these pieces of wood served in the way that drawbridges did in European castles – to keep unwanted visitors or invaders out.  The planks would be laid as a part of an entrance to the city but if the inhabitants felt threatened by incomers, they would remove the huge planks preventing the invaders from passing.

The secret bridge is a very dangerous location for visitors to frequent and today it is not allowed for visitors to cross it. It’s probably best that it remains that way as the pass is treacherous and the drop is frightening and potentially life-threatening.  However, the views from this side of the mountain are described as breathtaking by those who have had a chance to get close to the area.

Top image: Path entrance to Machu Picchu. The bridge can be removed to prevent access by enemies. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 ) ( CC BY 2.0 )

By M.L. Childs

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