By Gary Ziegler ✐
Exploring two previously undocumented Inca ruins near Choquequirao in April 2016.
‘CLANK!‘ – the sound of machete striking stone reverberates around the densely vegetated hillside. “Jefe, hay muros aqui,” Adrián Quispe excitedly yells up from the dark green depression he is probing through. “There are walls here.”
Incaracay – A Place of the Inca
The Quispe family has lived here since it was a colonial encomienda held from rights of conquest by Hernando Pizarro in the mid-16th century. It is Adrián’s extensive knowledge of the region that has brought us to this remote, high mountain slope with a reasonable probability of locating undocumented Inca sites. It has been an exciting morning! Earlier, a dark colored Jergón, a small, lance-headed Andean viper noted for terrifying the Machu Picchu trekking hoards, scurried off the path into the bush.
A screeching, circling, squadron of brightly colored Andean Parakeets loudly protests invasion of their home turf. Magnificent glacier-crowned peaks mystically appear out of a swirling cloud mass in full retreat as the intense equatorial sun methodically illuminates a line of unclimbed summits of the nearly forgotten Vilcabamba range. Now, we may have found what we came for, the mountainside ruins called Incaracay, predictably named ‘place of the Inca’, just below timberline at 11,800 feet.
We are camped nearby on a small, cleared bench some six thousand feet above the sacred Inca Apurimac River raging below through a deep gorge. The name Apurimac itself suggests adventure. In Quechua, traditional language of the Andes and once official lingua of the Inca state, Apu means a powerful force, spirit or God. Rimac is to speak, or in this case, perhaps to roar – The river of the voice of God. Wow, it could be the title for yet another Clive Cussler thriller or Harrison Ford film.
I have often thought that the Inca must have had works and cultivations on the other side of the Apurimac opposite Inca Topa Yupanki’s royal estate and ceremonial complex at Choquequirao. Finally, we are now here where I have only distantly been before with binoculars and recently, with the new age, arm chair explorer’s tool, Google Earth.
With the exception of Choquequirao and the well-known last Inca cities northward in the Vilcabamba, there has been little interest in regional archaeological studies.
As with many similar places in the Andean highlands, numbers of smaller, less interesting ruins remain unknown except to local herders and farmers.
The upper Apurimac has a long, rich, cultural history dating before the 15th century expansion of the Inca kingdom into the area. Actually, the Incas may have been here a bit earlier. During National Geographic Society sponsored excavations at an Inca site north of Choquequirao in 2001, Corihuayrachina, we collected samples of early Kllke, Inca transitional pottery which indicate probably earlier occupation. Anyway, there is lots to ponder and discuss around the evening happy hour.
Human cultural evolution in South America goes back some fifteen thousand years if one accepts the most credible dating. The Andes have seen waves of cultural horizons expanding, then lapsing into inter-horizon decay and cultural dark ages.
Before the Inca, the region was incorporated within the advanced Huari state which flourished around six hundred to eleven hundred AD. During following centuries, a smaller, less sophisticated polity, the Chanca, dominated the region. Remains of round, stone foundations of wood-sided houses and barrel shaped, stone-lined burial holes proliferate the regional lower summits and inhabitable ridges. When exactly the Sun God-inspired Inca arrived to reorganize the Chanca farmers into the collective Inca state remains a topic for debate.
Not debatable is that the first recorded scientific expedition to the area was organized by Yale’s Hiram Bingham in 1910. It was his second visit to Choquequirao, the year before his exploratory probe down the Urubamba river in 1911 produced the remarkable discovery of Peru’s golden tourism goose, Machu Picchu.
Bingham and crew came down the valley to the west of our present exploration from nearby Abancay, not by the modern route used today starting at Cachora. They probably went lower down, then traversed the same mountain side missing the higher sites. They would have crossed the Apurimac about where the new foot bridge is today as the only possible way down through the cliffs near the river. It is unlikely that our newly found sites had been studied or documented.
April weather in the high Andes is never completely predictable. Intensity of the rainy season usually slacks by late March allowing reasonably comfortable, landslide-free travel. Anomalies like El Niño contribute an uncertainty to an already uncertain science.
The result is we find ourselves fogged in and soaked by a persistent drizzle while attempting to measure the alignments and sight lines to something out there in the mist that may have had significance.
The pressure is on. We have only today to complete our survey. High stone walls with multiple niches and windows appear out of the undergrowth. Could this be some important Inca shrine or ceremonial complex that missed historical reference?
How might it fit with ceremonially important Choquequirao across the river? We are determined to find out. We plunge into the project, clearing out the thorny, dense growth that has claimed the structures sufficiently enough to take photos and collect the needed data.
Several intense hours later, badly damaged but still standing remains of three, nearly identical, long, rectangular, coursed stone buildings emerge from the undergrowth and fog appearing mystically like a scene out of Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.”
Three-story high gables stand starkly upright above the ridge line, once having supported long log beams and cross members covered with high puna ichu grass.
Headed by Mark Johnson, one-time student of architecture, tape measurements of walls, entrances, windows and interior niches are carefully taken and noted in his waterlogged note book.
Wayne Ross, a fellow Coloradan and survivor of wild RF-4 surveillance flights over North Vietnam in the bad old days of that forgotten war, strings out the tape with Mark’s brother Jim, another good friend and rancher from near home Pikes Peak. Jim’s talented, fit, daughter Loren is eagerly poking about looking for what we may be missing with Carrie Howard, a recent graduate in forestry and natural resources.
Veteran Choquequirao explorers, Beth DeSilva and Jack Vetter, search the perimeters for additional walls and features. Beth has previously been to Choquequirao with me. Jack has been there twice before. He was on our Royal Geographical Society sponsored team that rediscovered and studied Machu Picchu’s extensive neighboring ceremonial complex, Llactapata in 2003.
Peter Packard, professional photographer, one time rancher, horseman and brother member of my home Colorado, Pikes Peak Range Riders group, is documenting it all with a seemingly huge, for the digital age, camera with massive lens.
Whew – I have seldom seen such enthusiasm, good work and concentrated activity from a group of archaeological amateurs. While I direct the team, long time research partner and Cusco-based educational tour guide, Edwin Dueñas, works with our Quechua-speaking local crew. By midday we have accomplished all that is needed.
The site is measured, features documented, alignments, sight lines, azimuths recorded and ample photos captured.
The unbelievable happens. Pablo and Humberto, our camp cooks, appear out of the diminishing drizzle with a hot lunch on a mule. The big dining tent is set up. We sip tea from a thermos eagerly devouring plates of causa, mashed yellow potatoes stuffed with tuna, olives, onions and vegetables.
Refreshed, energy restored, we break up into scouting teams. Some climb higher up the ridge to look for additional sites, I head down. We find a nice leveled stone-walled platform and remains of a stone-lined water canal running down the ridge. It has been a long day, time to head for camp. Where this goes can be saved for another trip.
Raqrama – Site number two revealed
The next morning breaks bright and clear, despejado as we say in the Andes. Tendrils of clouds hang over Choquequirao and distant Vilcabamba, revealing the stark beauty and special, spiritual nature of the site. Choquequirao’s magnificent location rivals sister Machu Picchu without the desecration of trains, buses and runaway tourism.
Fueled by an admittedly American coffee, eggs and bacon breakfast, we start downhill following ancient, seldom-used trails with saddle mounts and pack mules in tow. It will be too steep and dangerous to ride most of the route today. The objective is to find and document another probable Inca site lower down then join the regular trail coming from Cachora to set camp at the river near the new bridge.
The following day, crossing the river, we will head up some five thousand feet for three nights at Choquequirao then back on the long trail for Cachora, Cusco and eventually, home.
The temperature has climbed as we descend lower on the mountainside along with numbers of annoying, biting, tiny gnats. It will reach a sweltering 96°F later when we pass through the river camp on the return from Choquequirao. Someone says this is an El Niño created anomaly. Anyway, it is much hotter than I have experienced previously in the canyon.
With the Cachora to Choquequirao trail in view a steep thousand feet or so below, we stop at a large, level area, a pampa, situated below an imposing cliff outcrop at 8,150 feet. The base rock formation here, as in much of the Vilcabamba west of Machu Picchu, is an ancient sedimentary deposit compressed by heat and pressure into a complex metamorphic formation during the early Paleozoic era some four hundred thousand years ago. The occasional, later intrusive granite or basalt pluton coupled with faulting and folding, created an interesting, colorful geological mosaic. Here, the exposed rock above seems to be one of these more erosion-resistant plutons forming a distinctive cliff outcrop.
The pampa appears to have been planted in corn or beans in recent times. The few cultivable areas here are owned and worked by the Quispes along with several other extended families from Cachora. A few fat, grazing cows wander around indicating a water source nearby.
Adrián leads us to a long narrow rock, some ten feet high, forming a side of the pampa containing an imposing raised hill of dense vegetation. “Aqui está la ruina — adentro del bosque,” he proudly exclaims. “Here there are ruins — inside the trees.”
With wranglers watching after the mules below, we set about clearing away the thorny entanglement eager to see what is hidden inside. We wade in, wildly swinging machetes now, wearing gloves; a lesson learned from the scratches and punctures acquired during yesterday’s clearings. Slowly, walls and shaped-stone niches appear out of the decreasing vegetational snarl.
Wow – It’s a Cancha; two nicely made stone buildings enclosed by a surrounding wall, constructed pirca style of coursed field stone. The entranceways are framed by worked, rounded, corner stones capped by heavy, large, stone lintels. Square niches and windows line the interior, similar to many structures at Choquequirao. These generally taper inward at the top, trapezoidal-like as at Machu Picchu and other classic imperial Inca sites. This squarish architectural design at Choquequirao is one of the features that suggest the site’s later construction.
Adrián recalls that years ago, a tall, stone entranceway gave access from the outer wall into the compound but it is now crumbled into a pile of rubble. The two rectangular buildings in alignment is common, but placement parallel to the elongated, stone outcrop is not. Another unique aspect is a tall, tapered boulder included in the perimeter wall running perpendicular to the stone outcrop wall.
The entire outlying level area is enclosed by the remains of a low wall forming a surrounding plaza. Several small boulders in the plaza appear to have been placed. I suspect that they may be spiritually charged huaca stones, perhaps shaped and placed to replicate surrounding mountains, incorporating the process of camay, bringing the power of the mountain Apu to the resident’s front yard.
I cannot identify anything in particular suggesting a ceremonial purpose for the site. It does appear located in association and alignment with the stone outcrop and upright boulder which must have been of importance for the builder and occupants.
We find many Andean Inca sites built either with a solstice orientation or cardinal placed; east-west, north-south. The long axis alignment of the buildings here is about 48 degrees, nothing that I can give significance to. This northeast looking view does not seem to offer a sight line to anything prominent on the horizon. There is no waterfall or cave to suggest a dedicated roadside shrine. The access seems to have been a minor secondary trail and not a major Inca road. We will have ample time to reflect upon what Raqrama was while camped above at Choquequirao.
As John Wayne may have said, “Daylight’s a burning.” We are nearing physical/mental burnout. The comfort of camp is beckoning. The site deserves a better, intensive investigation. This will have to wait until a future trip. We head down to a deserved cold shower, eagerly anticipating happy hour at the riverside camp two thousand feet and a short hour below. It has been a successful and exciting exploration.
Conclusions and Interpretation:
The site called Incaracay by local herders was probably a group of well-made storage buildings, colcas, built for storing potatoes, corn and other products grown on the encompassing mountainside. We could not locate any ceremonial aspects, features or alignments so conclude that the group was likely utilitarian in purpose.
The design is similar to a group we identified as colas at Choquequirao. The several entranceways face west capturing afternoon sun and warm breeze coming upriver from the deep canyon below. Choquequirao had extensive coca cultivation as a result of warming created by the canyon microclimate. Storage structures here could take advantage of this as well.
Remnants of a tan colored plaster can be seen on several of the walls and niches here at both sites. At Choquequirao, Machu Picchu and other regional Inca sites, all of the pirca style walls seem to have been plastered over, inside and out.
A feature unique to Choquequirao and the high, mountain sun temple Inca Wasi, above the Neo-Inca capital of Vitcos in the Pucuyoc range , is a curious, round stone inside corner connector. We have not seen these anywhere else.
Like the colca buildings at Choquequirao, the structures had two levels, multiple inside niches, and high open windows at each end which could allow upper story ventilation. Excavations revealed raised, partial floors at Choquequirao. It is possible that these structures might have had the same.
Another possibility is that the buildings were high status residences, which the well-made entrances and general design could suggest. Several factors weigh against this: At almost 12,000 feet of altitude, they are located above the comfortable living zone. Few sites, other than mountain ceremonial structures, are found at this altitude. No main Inca road is close by to establish a need for a resident compound or tambo way station.
The site has no apparent water source other than rain, which would have been necessary for permanent residency. The water canal we found was some distance away and down slope going somewhere else.
Located on a level pampa at a comfortable altitude of 8,150 feet, this aesthetically placed solitary site with a spectacular view of the Apurimac canyon was probably the residence compound for the overseer, kuraka, of the local families, ayllu, who worked the mountainside fields. The families would have lived in small adobe or wood structures of which the archeological evidence is now gone. A more detailed investigation would likely reveal remnants of foundations and other items. We did pass by several groups of round depressions that may date from an earlier time.
[Photos generously provided by team members]
Gary Ziegler is a field archaeologist with a geology background, a mountaineer and explorer who has spent a lifetime finding and studying remote sites in the Vilcabamba range of Peru’s southern Andes. He is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and of the Explorers Club. He has featured in documentary films for the BBC, Discovery Channel, Science and History Channels. His work has been published in numerous professional journals, and he is co-author of “Machu Picchu’s Sacred Sisters: Choquequirao and Llactapata.” He has taught at Colorado College and Peru’s national university, San Marcos. He was awarded the title “Distinguished Lecturer” at NASA’s Marshal Space Center in 2013. His home base is the 4000-acre Bear Basin Ranch in the Sangre de Cristo mountains of southern Colorado. He can be contacted at: [email protected]and www.adventurespecialists.org
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