Then + Now: Machu Picchu

Hiram Bingham first set eyes on Machu Picchu in 1911. Though he did not discover the striking citadel in the clouds (locals, many of whom served as Bingham’s guides, had known its whereabouts for centuries), he intended to reveal it to the world.

That chance came when the National Geographic Society joined Yale University in funding a return expedition to the site. National Geographic Magazine dedicated the entirety of its April 1913 issue to showcasing the Inca’s “wonderful city of refuge on the mountain top,” as then editor Gilbert H. Grosvenor would write. This April marks the 100th anniversary of that issue.

So when I found out I would be traveling to Machu Picchu, I pored over the photographs Bingham had taken over the course of his expeditions, imagining what it would have been like to see the now-famous archaeological site through his eyes. I brought copies of the photos along with me and spent hours comparing them with what I was seeing in an attempt to pinpoint where he had been standing when he took some of his iconic shots.

I was amazed at how much had changed — and how much had stayed the same — since the ancient Inca city had been (re)discovered, excavated, and brought to the world’s attention.

Here’s Machu Picchu, through Hiram Bingham’s eyes, and mine:


"Machu perched on a mountain top in the most inaccessible corner of the most inaccessible section of the Urubamba River. So far as I know, there is no part of the Andes that has been better defended by nature." - Hiram Bingham. (Photograph by Hiram Bingham)
“So far as I know, there is no part of the Andes that has been better defended by nature.” – Hiram Bingham. (Photograph by Hiram Bingham)


The ancient site today.  (Photograph by Jonathan Irish)
The ancient site today. Notice how the walls have been further excavated and repaired. (Photograph by Jonathan Irish)



Jonathan Irish is a program director at National Geographic Adventures and a professional photographer. Follow his story on Twitter @MagnumJI and on his website,


  1. liz
    Brisbane Australia
    October 7, 2013, 8:41 am

    When we visited Machu Picchu a couple of years ago, It was an awesome breath taking sight, under clear blue skies and a feeling of peace we sat watching the llamas eating the grass as they would have done many years before on the well preserved archaeological site.

  2. Scottie Schutt
    October 3, 2013, 4:58 am

    Good day! I could have sworn I’ve been to this website before but after browsing through some of the post I realized it’s new to me. Anyhow, I’m definitely delighted I found it and I’ll be book-marking and checking back often!

  3. Yvonne
    Vic. australia
    May 24, 2013, 4:45 pm

    Absolitely amazing! would love t9 visit.

  4. Crystal
    Charlotte, NC
    April 18, 2013, 8:50 am

    I did the 25 mile Inca Trail in 2009 and it was amazing. Too take this historic journey literally walking through clouds is awe inspiring.

  5. Reiki
    April 17, 2013, 5:51 pm

    I think Peru is a must visit place. Machu Picchu is an experience but the journey getting there was more significant than the actual being there. Its worth the trek. If you go to Peru there are so many amazing places to see. I highly recommend the amazon… I still dream of going back there to live with the monkeys and the humming birds… Yes I am an idealist! And Arequipa…. Whoo! I miss it. I could have just contemplated life in those mountains for a long long time. I regret having left there so quickly. If you ever go there and you read this before visiting please pay pacha mama my humble respects.

  6. jonathan irish
    Washington, DC
    April 16, 2013, 11:10 am

    Thanks for the suggestion, Mary! I like your idea and actually did consider showing them both in black and white originally, but the editors and I agreed it would be easier to discern the two with the newer one in color. We’ll consider this for future Then+Now posts coming soon! Thanks again for you suggestion…so glad you enjoyed this comparison.

  7. Mary
    Silver Spring, MD
    April 15, 2013, 9:21 am

    Mr. Irish, why don’t you do both pictures in black and white? I printed them out in black and white and the differences and similarities are so much more striking. Then, at the bottom of the article, put the color picture to show its current beauty. I loved Hiram Bingham’s travel book when I was a child in the 50s. I spent many hours staring at the pictures of the wonderful places he discribed. This is the start of my bucket list. Thank you, Mr. Irish!

  8. ron webb
    April 14, 2013, 2:32 am

    ever since seeing photos and stories of this magical area
    i have wanted to visit,but due to y age now 77 and lack of funds all i can do now is dream and read about this
    world wonder.

  9. Al
    April 9, 2013, 4:32 pm

    There’s truly nothing like seeing it for yourself!

  10. Bagus Baskoro
    Yogyakarta, Indonesia
    April 8, 2013, 8:03 am

    I hope someday I would be there to see that wonderful place, Che Guevara ever visit there!

  11. Mike Langford
    Cusco, Peru
    April 7, 2013, 5:46 pm

    Also, don’t forget to visit other parts of Peru, for example the Tambopata rainforest which is only 30 minutes flight from Cusco & balances nicely with visits to Cusco & the Inca, pre-Inca and colonial sites. A great way to find out more is to ”like” relevant Facebook pages & groups such as and to see what is available apart from the standard iconic sites like Machu Picchu – Peru is a wonderful country to discover.

  12. Mike Langford
    Cusco, Peru
    April 7, 2013, 5:33 pm

    An enigmatic site & a must see for everyone coming to Peru, but let’s hope that it is not damaged by over-use in the coming years. Avoid it between 10am & 2pm if you can & enjoy the peace, energy & tranquility of this amazing site.

  13. Edwin Guaycha
    April 7, 2013, 1:48 pm

    Wonderful place…I’d like to be there,,as soon….!!

  14. Raj
    Manchester (UK)
    April 7, 2013, 12:15 pm

    I want to go back. makesure you get there early (am) and before the crowds swarm and descend.

  15. Mark
    CA, USA
    April 6, 2013, 7:06 pm

    I was there in December 2010, it was AMAZING! If you go, make sure you go behind the gate for some serious hiking. You need to get there early, otherwise they will not let you in, it was awesome!

  16. Tina Bell
    April 6, 2013, 11:33 am

    I really like this blog keep up the good work!!!

  17. Anne
    April 6, 2013, 11:03 am

    Machu Picchu is one of the places I’ve been to at the top of my list, especially staying over at the little hotel at the top and seeing the sunrise. So beautiful.

  18. Paskal
    Toulouse - France
    April 6, 2013, 7:06 am

    Really amazing place, may be I’ll go there …

  19. Sergio Aguilera
    Santiago de Chile
    April 6, 2013, 6:43 am

    During 3 years I was working in Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu Town) and had the chance to visit many times the archaeological citadel. I love the view from Putukusi mountain, ¡ Machu Picchu Forever!

  20. Kinga
    April 6, 2013, 6:04 am

    i was there with my bf. we spent whole day in Machu Picchu and it was absolutly fantastic place !

  21. Martin Boardman
    Manchesterm England, U.K.
    April 6, 2013, 4:53 am

    I was at MP this February just gone, and it was as amazing as I expected it would be. The journey to get there was not so amazing (lots of problems) but in the end we made it and it was well worth the trek.

    It’s a shame that NG have not done a special 100 year Anniversary Edition to mark the April 1913 MP edition!

    I am currently in the process of writing a book about my travels in Peru. Look out for “Respect The Red Light” (Respete La Luz Roja) Hoping to do a Spanish translation too!

  22. Marilyn Ryan
    April 6, 2013, 4:40 am

    Machu Picchu an amazing discovery, did the 4 day inca trail December 2012 a trip of a life time, pinch myself even now!

  23. Fotis Papadopoulos
    Patra, Greece
    April 6, 2013, 4:38 am

    Great photos!! Must be a really mindblowing trip to make!

  24. Mirii
    April 6, 2013, 2:55 am

    I find this fascinating and will love to visit this site soon. I know though, there are plenty of archeological sites like this waiting to be found. My friend once mooted a place in Africa where excavations have never been carried out. It will be a blast to discover an ancient historical site.

  25. Reyder Ramirez
    Chiclayo Peru
    April 5, 2013, 11:52 pm

    Es uno de los lugares mas hermosos q tiene mi país, excelentes construcciones, es un lugar lleno de energía.

  26. Annie Elmidya
    April 5, 2013, 11:47 pm

    very breath-taking. surpass amazing-ness. i cant wait to visit this stunning place,..i’m going…soon. great page, thank you

  27. Francisco Sotomayor
    Peruvian living in Argentina
    April 5, 2013, 10:19 pm

    I went to Machupichu 8 times jose luis esturillo h. (the Chilean guy) the feeling of stay there it’s a no comparision feeling,
    If you will go to Cuzco before I recommend you read about the Incas and their worldview. It is very important to know about the meaning of things, often will see llamas,condors, pumas and snakes carved into the stones and you need to know what it means.
    There is an incredible experience in Intuhuatana (sundial) you must be rubbing hands for 20 seconds and place one in one of the corners of the sundial to about three inches without touching it and will feel the energy of the place and the whole arm they get hot.

  28. Daryl
    April 5, 2013, 9:41 pm

    I’ll never forget my 11 months in Peru. Machu Picchu was absolutely breathtaking.

  29. charley
    April 5, 2013, 9:28 pm

    Je vais a Machu Pichu au vacance d’ete par la trail des Incas.
    toute une aventure en perspective.

  30. ken.huggard
    April 5, 2013, 9:25 pm

    Love the place. Been twice. Pity tho. that it is now so crowded with package tourists etc.

  31. Joanna
    Chicago, Illinois (born in Poland)
    April 5, 2013, 9:23 pm

    Machu Picchu is on my “places I have to see before i die” list! I’m getting goose bumps every time I see pictures of this wonderful place.

  32. Gern Blanston
    United States
    April 5, 2013, 9:15 pm

    Kinda underwhelming.

  33. Emmanuel
    April 5, 2013, 9:12 pm

    Ruins are amazing traces of civilizations. Cambodia’s Angkor Wat is another excellent material for that. Now, I just want to go to Machu Picchu

  34. alyssa tilton
    April 5, 2013, 9:05 pm

    i remember it like it was yesterday……. i went with my parents when i was a lil girl n i can still see the grass n stones n moss i wanted to climb up to the top with my dad n my brother so bad but my mom said i was to small…. such a beautiful place…..

  35. Rachel Williams
    South America
    April 4, 2013, 5:31 pm

    Machu Picchu is amazing, so is Peru in general. There is so much to see and do. We can help you plan a trip to South America – check us out

  36. jose luis esturillo h.
    April 4, 2013, 4:50 pm

    Es un lugar que nunca podrá mostrarse en vídeos o postales , existen miles pero creo que no remplazan la vivencia personal,es mi próxima aventura , espero poder lograrlo, el contacto con la tierra , el entorno, las piedras te producen un estado espiritual inexplicable me a sucedido en otros lugares como Rapanui y otros ancestrales,
    Tengo que lograrlo.

  37. Volo
    April 4, 2013, 2:38 pm


  38. Riky
    April 4, 2013, 11:26 am

    simply wow!

  39. Leo
    Córdoba, Argentina
    April 4, 2013, 9:45 am

    There is a special energy in this place! Great comparison.

  40. Reenad
    Saudi Arabia
    April 4, 2013, 1:18 am

    In 2007, Machu Picchu was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in a worldwide Internet poll. I would like to go there

  41. Robert
    Fort Worth, Texa
    April 3, 2013, 7:47 pm

    I went in 2002. If you go, make time to hike to the top of Huayna Pucchu. Most of the photographs of Machu Pucchu are taken from there.

  42. Sameer
    April 3, 2013, 6:48 pm

    2013 Machu Pichu- clean shaven is the way to go I guess.

  43. Alex
    April 3, 2013, 3:42 pm

    Very nice Blog! I realy love it! Hold on :)

  44. Sandra
    Confluence, PA, USA
    April 2, 2013, 9:34 pm

    In May/June 2010 my husband, daughter and myself hiked the Inca trail for 4 days to reach Machu Picchu and spent a day there. What a fabulous place. Thanks to Andean Treks for one of our most memorable vacations. Add to that – our daughter met her future husband in the hiking group!

  45. RyukyuMike
    Okinawa, Japan
    April 2, 2013, 7:58 pm

    Great presentation. I love Then and Now Series !

  46. Linda
    April 2, 2013, 6:45 pm

    We’re going in June. I believe it’s like the Grand Canyon here in the US. You can see it in photos, movies, TV shows, on-line video…but until you’re standing on the rim you will not get it.

  47. Andrea
    Brisbane, Australia
    April 2, 2013, 5:36 pm

    I found the photo comparison amazing. I’ve been to historical places in Tasmania and been so disappointed at their denegration just 10 years later.

  48. Ailene H
    Sydney, Australia
    April 2, 2013, 4:59 pm

    Ticked this off my bucketlist in December 2012. Such an emotional experience. A big shout out to our knowledgeable guide Gersen, our porters & cook from Apu Andino Travel Peru.

  49. Izabela
    April 2, 2013, 3:34 pm

    I’m going there in July. Can’t wait!

  50. Stefanie
    Washington, DC, USA
    April 2, 2013, 2:37 pm

    Machu Picchu is one of those rare places that blows you away completely – punches you in the gut, really, with power and amazing natural beauty. Just as was Bingham, the Inca’s were true early innovators and you can feel it intensely in the Urubamba. Awesome perspective here, bravo Intelligent Traveler! :)

  51. Lee
    London, England
    April 2, 2013, 1:31 pm

    One day I will eventually visit this amazing place.