Machu Picchu, Peru

About Machu Picchu, Peru

In 1911 an American explorer, Hiram Bingham, time-traveled to the lost culture of the fabled Inca empire, which disappeared with the Spanish conquests. Bingham was exploring Peru when a local farmer, Melchor Arteaga and a young boy named Pablito, told him about ruins which he called Machu Picchu, or Old Mountain. Bingham, of course, was not the first person to discover Machu Picchu. Peruvian farmers in the region had long known about and visited the mountaintop ruins. But he was likely the first to make a photographic record of the site. Before departing from the mountain and the unearthed ruins that would make him famous, Bingham spent four hours documenting Machu Picchu with a special Kodak camera.The ruins Bingham saw that day—and he saw only a fraction of them, as so many were obscured by centuries of lush overgrowth—had been there since the 15th century, when the Incas built a city for purposes still debated today. Many believe it was a royal retreat for the emperor Pachacuti and his entourage, while others maintain it was a temple honoring the divine landscape on which it sits.

Whatever Machu Picchu's origins, Bingham’s announcement of its existence to the world brought with it mixed outcomes: On the one hand, fascinating history and breathtaking scenery for generations to discover. On the other, that very attention—to the tune of more than 1 million visitors a year—has posed to a grave danger its existence. When LIFE’s Frank Scherschel trained his lens on Machu Picchu and the surrounding areas in 1945, the erosion and degradation that tourism has brought to the site were still decades away. The photographs he made are quiet and majestic, devoid of people and imbued with a sense of awe at the remains of a once magnificent city.