Why do we love the idea of lost cities? From Plato’s Atlantis, to James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, to National Geographic’s current television program “Lost Cities with Albert Lin,” the idea of a lost city has held an exceptional allure for us for over two millennia. What is it in our collective imagination that drives us to find a mysterious, unexplored, utopian place? Are such cities—once thriving, populous places, now “silent”—reminders of the ephemerality of human existence? Are they reminders of our own hubris, a foreshadowing of the end of our own glittering cities? In the early twentieth century, Machu Picchu, in its mountain fastness, was ripe to become a new “lost” city, packaged and presented for an ever eager market.

In 1911, when Yale University historian and professor Hiram Bingham first laid eyes on Machu Picchu, the...

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