The Road to Ruins

By Gary Ziegler ✐
The Andean Research Expedition Report 2016 ☄

Follow the roads; they lead to ruins.”  ~ Gene Savoy

(Here is the story about what that advice helped reveal in the remote Vilcabamba range.)

“Buenos días – Jefe, buena noticia, está claro afuera”.  “Boss –  it’s clear out here.”

Adventure and discovery along a forgotten Inca road.

I stick my hand outside the tent, sleepily gripping the generously offered steaming coffee. Yes, the rain has stopped. Shrouds of retreating mist reveal views of the jagged, craggy summits of the Vilcabamba range, the first that we have had since leaving Vitcos some three days ago.

Each dry season, several of us who have been exploring and documenting lost or ignored archaeological sites in the remote, rugged Vilcabamba range of Peru’s southern Andes, pull together a new adventurous and hopefully productive project.

My focus has been on relocating Inca roads, investigating the Inca royal estate and ceremonial center at Choquequirao, Machu Picchu’s neighborhood and a network of little known archaeological sites that were built by the Cusco-based Imperial Inca.

Following the dismembering of the Inca state by European invasion, pandemic disease and civil wars, the Vilcabamba region became the final refuge and last retreat of remnants of the Inca court before finally succumbing to Spanish colonial forces in 1572. The Vilcabamba Inca, technically labelled Neo-Inca, survived in this remote, difficult to access, cloud-forested region for almost a half century.

Whew — tough folks, I think as we struggle today to dry out high tech fleece and water-logged, new age rain gear. Those were times of llama wool blankets, ponchos, wooden and hide sandals. Breakfast, lunch and dinner was a clay bowl full of dried meat, charqui, with a few freeze-dried potatoes, chuño, thrown in. If working a state sponsored project, a handful of coca leaves was likely included to help deaden the cold and altitude.

This project had been in the planning for some time. We learned where the Inca regularly built settlements and ceremonial sites from years of explorations. The mountain-based Inca preferred a temperate zone generally between 2200 and 3500 meters of altitude, neither too hot and buggy nor too cold and high. Machu Picchu sits at around 2500 meters while its sister estate Choquequirao is at 3000 meters.

With new tools available — Google Earth and quite good topographic maps — one can sit in the comfort of home plotting out likely places to find undocumented sites. The limitations are  that most sites are overgrown with dense cloud forest vegetation; and much of Google Earth imagery is of poor resolution and, understandable for the Andes, clouded over.

Dr. Gary Ziegler 2016 Vilcabamba Expedition Overview Map

An unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) such as a Global Hawk or Predator equipped with forest penetrating LIDAR could probably locate hidden sites.
They have been used successfully for archaeological reconnaissance in Central America, Asia, Brazil and elsewhere. NASA’s Airborne Science Program uses these unique aircraft and sensors to conduct observations and collect atmospheric data but the interest is not there for a minor project like this.

It seems that only a few aging climbers, explorers and adventurers have much interest in the lost cities of Vilcabamba. Peru’s Ministry of Culture fields minor regional studies staffed with competent young archaeologists but sadly, the main focus seems mega site reconstruction and squeezing the most tourist dollars out of places like overrun Machu Picchu.

So, we find ourselves back to methods that Machu Picchu discoverer Hiram Bingham used in the early 1900s. Old fashioned exploring: ropes, machetes and mules. However, we can now mark probable site locations on modern topo maps and precisely locate our finds with accurate GPS coordinates.

Jungle trail in the back country of VilcabambaI remember what the iconic American explorer, Gene Savoy told me years back: “ Follow the roads; they lead to ruins.” 

That is exactly what we are doing, following the main Inca road from the last Inca capital, Vitcos, over a wild, high and uninhabited, glaciated landscape bearing southwest toward Machu Picchu.

Hiram Bingham traveled a part of the road during his late explorations in 1915. American architect-explorer Vince Lee followed it during his explorations and extensive research in the Vilcabamba. American mountaineering anthropologist Johan Reinhard crossed over most of it in the 1980s. I later trekked much of it, branching off to map a second road toward Choquequirao in 1998. We all shared notes and stories excepting Bingham, who typically hurried through not leaving much in writing.

A few local herders and potato farmers now keep the road in use but barely passable for our loaded mule pack train and saddle mounts. Some parts are classic Inca highway, Qapac Ñan, raised stone-paved walkways and well-engineered steps. Other pieces are treacherous bogs and rock slides where the road has long since disappeared.

During empire days, local road crews would have been assigned sections to maintain. Now, a local family or two will patch up or move the trail slightly to get through but otherwise, it is a forgotten artifact of Inca organization.

We planned the exploration with a stay at the colonial era town of Huancacalle, home of old friends, the Cobos family. It was from here that I launched a first expedition to Espiritu Pampa, the historic Vilcabamba la Vieja in 1965. Juvenal Cobos and a detachment of heavily armed National Police had accompanied me. Those were dangerous times and still are in the far Vilcabamba.

Dr. Gary Ziegler has been exploring and documenting Inca archaeological sites since the early 1960s.

Gary Ziegler at the Cobos family house, 2016 and 1998. The earlier photo is from “The White Rock” by Hugh Thomson.

The epic events that happened there during the sixteenth century are expertly detailed by John Hemming in “The Conquest of the Incas” and by Kim MacQuarrie in his “The Last Days of the Incas.” These expansive books are a must-read for anyone seeking an understanding of Inca history and in particular, the complicated years of the Neo-Inca resistance.

Huancacalle is located in a broadened expanse of valley near where several canyons come together. All were Inca travel routes hosting assorted Inca and pre-Inca ruins. Dominating the landscape is the hill above the town called Rosaspata. The Inca constructed a major complex of high status buildings with an all-around view on top called Vitcos. The Neo-Inca later adopted it as their principal city.

Huaca Rosapata Several associated ceremonial sites, huacas, are nearby. On a high promontory directly north, some 4000 meters up in the Puncuyoc range, is the sun temple, Incawasi. Below Rosaspata to the east is a lush valley bottom with multiple, stepped terraces, water channels, fountains and large sculptured boulders.

Continuing around to the south lies what I consider to be the most important and sacred Inca shrine in the highlands of Peru — the great shaped boulder known as the White Rock, Yuroc Rumi or Ñusta Hispanan. Vince Lee created a diagram of the features and it has been studied by various others. Bingham found the site in 1911, following his first visit to Machu Picchu. He correctly identified it as Chuquipalta, the temple described in early chronicle writing.

British travel writer Hugh Thomson, visiting much later, entitled his classic 2003 work on Andean archaeological travel, “The White Rock,” which is another ‘must read.’

Inca archaeological site of Vitcos

Vitcos, completely cleared of vegetation where once machetes were needed to chop through the entryways.

I was amazed to see Vitcos completely cleared of vegetation, walls seemingly, accurately restored.

During a number of previous visits, the last being only a few years back, most of the complex was covered, requiring machetes to chop a passage through the immense granite portals. These carefully crafted double-jamb entrances represent the finest of imperial Inca construction. Wow — we are overwhelmed by the shear majesty and powerful, aesthetic projection that these magnificent pillars of power from the past project.

This carefully crafted double-jamb entrance is an example of the finest of imperial Inca construction at Vitcos.

The impressive double-jambed entrances to Vitcos.

The question runs through my mind, who did this? Certainly the great Inca ruler Pachacuti was influential in building here and probably his son and successor, Topa Inca Yupanki as well. I wonder, with all of the intrigues and challenges of the expanding empire, if either had taken the opportunity to venture personally to this marginal province out on the edge of imperial importance? Colleagues and I have thrown this about.  We can only speculate. Manco Inca and his Neo-Inca refugees certainly found it a grand place to use as a base.

Anyway, speculation aside, the result is indisputably a superb remnant of Inca high design. The complete layout now revealed allows me to formulate a better interpretation, which I’ll save for the conclusions portion of this report.

Following several comfortable nights lodged at the Cobos’ new Sixpac Manco Inn, we set out on the Inca road southwest and upward toward the massive glaciated peaks of the Sacsara range. The Central and most impressive summit is the puma’s claw, Pumasillo, documented in  a book by Simon Clark  of the same name which describes the first ascent by a British team in 1957. I doubt that it has been climbed much since, I find no record of later ascents. It remains a wild and seldom visited region well away from trekking hordes smothering the routes approaching Machu Picchu.

Andean Research Project Expedition, led by Dr. Gary Ziegler and Edwin Dueñas, October-November, 2016.
It was a nostalgic gathering. Our experienced head wrangler, arriero Pio Espinosa arrived after days across the province with a remuda of sturdy pack mules and an excellent complement of mountain horses. I worked with Pio on many explorations over the years but we had lost contact.

Another old companion of past adventures was our cook, Navidad Abendanio, who would head up the camp crew. It was a turning back of the clock to earlier times when we had launched from the Cobos house together to reopen the back trail to Choquequirao, to clear and survey the overgrown ruins at Puncuyoc or trek the long historic route to Espiritu Pampa. So many good memories, it was a proper start to another grand adventure.

The team was excited and eager. Most have been on previous explorations. Edwin Dueñas, long time Cusco-based, Quechua speaking research associate heads up operations. Beth DeSilva, enthusiastic expeditionist from far Cape Cod, is along on her fourth exploration.

Edwin Dueñas with local residents and field crew
John Martin,
recently retired California state judge, was on earlier projects including the memorable, arduous backpacking expedition to Palcay behind Machu Picchu in 2006.  John, besides being an old rock and roll musician of some talent, has a rich sense of humor. We humorously entitled the expedition report “Palcay, An Almost Lost City.

Intrepid adventurer Jack Vetter, a Quechua speaking veteran of the early days of the Peace Corps in Ecuador, is again with us. Jack was a valuable team member of the 2003 rediscovery of Llacatapa project and several Choquequirao visits.

The newest member is home friend and honorable mayor of Silver Cliff, Colorado, Steve Lasswell. Steve is an MIT trained engineer, member of the search and rescue unit and experienced mountaineer, a good hand to have on board.

Finally,  Mike Nowak, archaeologist, Colorado College professor emeritus and his mountain-experienced wife, Barb, complete the team. Mike and I go way back. We have climbed, guided Outward Bound courses and worked anthropology projects in the wilds of Pancho Villa’s Sierra Madre together going back to 1970.

We shared an epic adventure many years ago on a trip to Espiritu Pampa. One of our pack mules, the designated “ booze burro” fell off the trail. Fortunately, we retrieved the startled mule uninjured but most of our treasured happy-hour supply was lost. It was indeed a sobering event. Then, we had planned a visit to Machu Picchu on the return. This was before the big flood of 1998, which washed away the railroad downriver. Our plan was to take the train from the road crossing at the old Inca bridge site, Chuqisaca, upriver to Machu Picchu. Upon arriving at the bridge, we learned that railroad crews were on strike, una huelga, so no trains.

A huddled conference. Someone said, “We don’t need no stinking train” and off we went up the tracks on foot. Some sixty kilometers and twelve hours later, we walked into Aguas Calientes below Machu Picchu with dying headlamps and just enough energy left to find a roof to crash under. Anyway, too many memories, time to get back to our current trip.

“Shouldn’t we put on our rain slickers,” I rhetorically ask as thunder rolls across the summits above.

Barb and Beth have abandoned hi tech parkas for more traditional Andean rain gear, plastic trash bags with a hole to put your head through.

Dr. Gary Ziegler braves some weather on expedition to Vitcos, October-November 2016.The morning was overcast but dry, a typical Andean morning. Meanwhile, clouds had thickened. A smattering of heavy drops started to fall. This was the prophetic beginning of a storm that embraced the Vilcabama for the next three days. Eventually, the rumbling and heavy rainfall subsided into a persistent, steady, cold drizzle.

The trail climbed steadily following the right side of a lush valley passing by several small fields with grazing cows and ichu grass-thatched roof huts. Leaving the farms, chacras behind, the trail steepened, turning to exposed rocks and mud.

Hours later, Pio halted the pack string at an inviting, level pampa beside the stream. “Aquí es el mejor lugar a acampar,” here’s the best place to camp.  Mules were unpacked, horses unsaddled, all turned out to graze on lush grass. Tents were set up and camp organized quickly in spite of the rain.

Steve’s GPS put us at an altitude of 3,676 meters.  The trail had only climbed 700 meters up from Huancacalle. This was an easy day in the Andes.

Later, inside the big, dry dining tent, Edwin uncorks a bottle of vintage Argentine Malbec. Navidad appears with popcorn, a platter of deep fried quesadillas and, amazingly, a surprise cake. It is Beth’s birthday. Beth, John and I shamelessly pour out ample portions of Peru’s excellent, imitation Russian vodka while others more moderately inclined sip on the Malbec

The discussion ranges from when did Bob Dylan write “The Times They Are A-changin” to “did Jane Fonda really have an affair with Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi?”

Sometime later, following a near gourmet dinner, the topic turns to the Inca and what were they doing in this wild remote region. It was not so many years ago, as the history of human civilization unfolded.

“On the road again making music with my friends” or so Willy sang.

The route and area of exploration of this expedition, drawn by the author with first data from Steve Lasswell.

It rained all night. I always sleep well to rain and the sound of a mountain stream beside my tent. Hot coffee, a good breakfast and we are out again on the ancient trail.

I had hoped to ride a part of the route but treacherous slides and deep mud preclude mounting up other than for a short distance.

We trudge onward, soon crossing a fog-obscured pass to descend again into another drainage system. In places, we follow an excellent remnant of Inca road with raised retaining walls still in place. I note a number of very old walls and the occasional round foundation that we believe predate Inca administration of the region. Camp is placed late in the afternoon in another high pampa at 4000 meters.

A brave horse crosses the Sacsara River. (The Andean Research Expedition Report 2016)

A brave horse crosses the Sacsara River.

The following day, light rain and fog persisting, the trail winds, zigzagging, deeply eroded up and over a 4500 meter high pass. The route stays high, passing around several glacial-formed lakes, tarns.

We cross just under the glaciers of Pumasillo but sadly have a limited view through the cloud cover. We are getting a bit soggy after a couple of days of rain.

Barb and Beth have abandoned hi tech parkas for more traditional Andean rain gear, plastic trash bags with a hole to put your head through. We welcome the comforting escape from rain in the no- leaks dining tent that evening.

Whew – finally the rain stops. The next morning breaks clear. We drop steeply down into the Sacsara Valley, completing the traverse of the Inca route that I had previously traveled.

Our objective is to follow and map the continuation of the Inca road up and over the ridges to the South, then east toward Machu Picchu. Edwin had led a reconnaissance here several months back, locating the overgrown road and two undocumented archaeological sites which we would investigate. Before launching an expensive and logistically complicated expedition, we always determine in advance that something is there worth the effort.

This area had long been on my agenda to explore. Bingham reported a minor Inca site which he had briefly visited but nothing else had been reported for the region.

During work at Llactapata in 2003, we located the Inca road, aka ‘The Inca Trail,’  continuing on from Machu Picchu to Llactapata and down into the Santa Teresa Valley. We knew it had to connect with the route heading on to Vitcos. It seemed to have never been completely located or documented. We would attempt to do this.

Over the next couple of days, thanks to Pio’s knowledge of the area and Edwin’s previous recon, we found and followed the old road up onto the ridge above the Santa Teresa Valley to where it drops down again. Below there, we know that  it connects with the road climbing back up to Llactapata and on to Machu Picchu.

The long-abandoned route required extensive clearing with machetes and the building of several bypasses around blocked places. It was challenging working the horses and mules around and through the cloud forest tangle of shrubs, trees and rocks. Pio’s crew managed it with great skill.

It is interesting that the Inca had designed the route high up and around the upper ends of the several descending valleys in a long loop. This avoided a lower, shorter, direct route which would have crossed through bogs and less stable slopes. As Machu Picchu engineering expert, Ken Wright, notes, “the Inca were superb engineers.” Indeed they were.

After a long climb southward out of the Sacsara Valley, we discovered that the Inca road turns back to the East, crossing the upper end of a subsidiary drainage. We placed camp at 3500 meters at the road crossing on a grassy plain beside a substantially flowing small river.  Pio says the place is called Tambo Huayco. Tambo usually describes a kind of roadside inn or resupply station on an Inca road. Huayco means valley in Quechua. We would have expected a significant Inca site here but previously Edwin had found only a few scattered, small walls.

The only mentionable excitement happened when unpacking. My horse exploded into a full blown Colorado rodeo as I was removing the saddle bags.  We whooped and hollered  as he leaped and pitched around the meadow. Finally, exhausted, probably a bit embarrassed — his horse and mule buddies had stood around quietly in equine disapproval— he meekly wandered back to be unsaddled. Finally dried out and tired, we enjoyed a quiet night of Andean remoteness and a sky full of brilliant constellations.

Amaru Rumiyoc,  Place of the Snake Rock

The curiously shaped rock we called the Snake Rock, with a raised band that circles the rock.

The next morning: Camp is down and packed. As we are starting off, Edwin and one of the wranglers return from a scout downvalley. “You should see this — there is a big rock down there that looks just like Huancacalle’s Yurok Rumi.”  Wow, we drop everything, heading down to see what they have found.

Yes, it is big and curiously shaped, appearing to replicate the horizon to the South. On closer inspection we find what seems to be carved grooves leading down from the flattened top. If so, these are common features of Inca-shaped huaca stones.

Replication represents the process of camay; bringing the power of sacred geography and other natural features down to empower the huaca which then can be touched or ritualized first hand. Grooves were used for the pouring of offertory fluids during ceremonial events.

Soon, we are finding smaller rocks which show probable human altering. Most are out in the open meadow enclosed in low shrubs. All are partially covered with a thick reddish-colored moss. Several sit on raised, shrub-covered mounds.

Of most interest, several stones have raised long bands which appear to have been formed by lowering the surface material around them. I questioned that perhaps, the raised bands could have been caused by a vein of resistant quartz which had penetrated through the host rock when it was deep under the surface? My take is no. The bands appear to be of the same material as the rest of the rock.

One was particularly unique: The raised band circles most of the rock, giving the impression that it was embraced by a snake. We, of course, called this ‘The Snake Rock’ generating a good name for the site.

We are accustomed to the fine grained weather-resistant granite of Machu Picchu, Vitcos and elsewhere that maintains a smoothed surface over time. The rock here is considerably weathered, making it difficult to determine if it had been culturally shaped and smoothed. However, deep grooves, depressions and other unusual aspects suggest human intervention, particularly a groove that ends with a widened spout.

Reaching back to an old igneous lithology/petrology course, I identify the rock material as a diorite, composed of black biotite mica, hornblende and plagioclase feldspar.

The large grains of exposed feldspar break down rapidly, leaving a granular surface of more resistant components. This is, perhaps, a reason that this area has not previously been recognized as an archaeological site?

We had been making a late departure, enjoying the leisure and comfort of a dry sunny morning. It is a long way on uncertain trail to the next camp where we planned to do the primary exploration. As exciting as this find is, we decide to move on, giving only an hour or so to a quick look about. This means that we will need to return for a proper investigation. This new X mark on the top map will get top priority for another expedition.

The day’s trek proved to be a long, arduous journey. I had elected to hike the first uphill portion thinking I could ride later. Wrong. We crossed a high, barren ridge at 3700 meters then followed a deeply grooved trail up, down and around for what seemed an eternity. The pack string and horses were held back as the crew took turns in front moving downfall and hacking away with machetes. We all hiked.

Eventually, we reached an occasionally used trail, joining up with our trail from below. The route turned into a nicely built Inca road, kept passable by local usage.The trail continued down the shoulder of the broad ridge through dense cloud forest. An open area gave a spectacular viewing of  the distant Llactapata ridge, Machu Picchu and the glacier-crowned peaks beyond.

Late in the afternoon, we came upon the remains of a curious, single, rectangular stone-walled structure with upright pillars at each corner. It is quite similar to an Inca building at Llactapata’s Sector II. Wow — was this a structure that Hiram Bingham found in 1911?  We do quick measurements, take photos and move on. Could it be a small Inca shrine?

Site Plan Uchupampa-Yurok Rumi Ⓒ Ziegler 2016
Meanwhile, the camp crew and pack mules raced on ahead. Nearing exhaustion, we stumble into a nicely set-up camp and well deserved wind down. Later, we kicked in a healthy bonus for these guys as appreciation for extraordinary service. It was yet another exceptionally exciting and productive day. Evening discussion was predictably subdued; a couple of libations, meal, and off to bed.

Uchupampa,  Plain of Peppers

We gathered early for coffee, stools outside, enjoying the sunrise over distant Cerro San Miguel near Machu Picchu. Tents are set in a large, cleared basin, the front yard for a couple of simple huts and a small corral. Teofilio Randia, the amiable owner, joins us for breakfast. Refreshed, we are excited to get on with exploration. We have two full days here.  We had passed by a number of walls and dwelling ruins nearby yesterday that await investigation. Teofilio is eager to show us others. He calls the place Uchupampa, “Plain of Peppers.”

The camp area is dotted with circular depressions and flattened areas suggesting that it probably was a settlement site at some time. Several abandoned corn grinding stones, morteros are lying about. A deep, more recently dug hole indicates that treasure hunters, haqueros thought so as well. These are seen at every remote archaeological site.  Nothing of real value would have been found, perhaps a broken, common pot or at most a small copper item, but who can blame the locals for looking? Even if a ceremonial place, which this is not, gold or silver objects were almost never left behind by the Inca elite who had such items.

Teofilio tells us over a second cup of coffee that the old Inca road leaves the ridge here descending down into the big Santa Teresa Valley. He says it is now overgrown but remembers when it was used some years back to access the the road from the town of Santa Teresa below. Thankfully we don’t need to go down there.

Now, he and the several of his herder neighbors go the other way to a new road in the Sacsara canyon and town of Yanatile. This completes our objective of locating the missing sections of the Inca road from Machu Picchu to Vitcos. Whew — we have it all mapped.

Barb and other early risers have already been out and about.  She leads the way up a small hill to a flat pampa ringed with low-walled structures. The crew jumps in with machetes, clearing away enough of the thorny thicket to allow measuring and photos. The area contains some dozen or so round foundations ranging from 12 to 24 feet in inside diameter. Most walls are four feet high but the largest has eight feet walls. The single entranceways align west but the largest aligns southeast at 116 degrees, the angle of June solstice sunrise.

Hiram Bingham's Lost Building? Ⓒ Ziegler 2016
We huddle around what appears to be a water channel or fountain inside one of the structures. Exciting, but where does it go and where did the water come from? It may be ceremonial?

John and Jack begin wildly hopping about. It is not that exciting, I think! Suddenly, I realize we are being attacked by bees or wasps — time to get out of Dodge, we leap out the entrance! The photo or two we took will have to do, no going back in there.

Back at camp that afternoon, I discuss the water feature with Teofilio. He laughs, “Señor Gary, that was a feeding trough for sheep I put there.”

We all chuckle over that. This illustrates an issue which we regularly face in areas where sites have seen later use.  Many early structures have been turned into corals or reoccupied as living quarters in post-Inca time. Walls are removed or added onto and entranceways filled in. This possibility always requires consideration when viewing archaeological features.

Meanwhile, Teofilio’s neighbor, Prudence Saca joins us.  He has a hut and a few cows up the ridge which we passed by yesterday. I describe the curious stone-walled house with the upright pillars near there. We erupt in more laughter as he tells us that he built it himself some twenty year ago. There goes another Inca shrine…and Bingham’s lost building.

Yurok Rumi Revisited

The next morning breaks clear and sunny. We eagerly stride back up the ridge to investigate the many walls passed through on the way here. The site proves too extensive to properly survey in the day we have available. We focus on viewing each structure with addition time spend on the more important or unusual. As with the lower group of yesterday’s exploration, We discover a complex of several dozen, mostly round, low-walled houses associated with several large enclosures. These probably were llama corrals likely used recently for sheep or cows.

One mystery was a shaped and smoothed stone projecting out from one of the walls, but it did not seem to point to anything of significance.

Two unusual items caught our attention; A large block of very white quartz was placed prominently within one of the walls. The other unique item was a shaped and smoothed stone monolith projecting out from another wall. It could be a zoomorphic feature seeming to represent a snake or jungle cayman. It points outward at an angle of 300 degrees, close to the angle of June solstice sunset but nothing I positively can give significance to. The outward looking sightline did not seem to point to anything of significance. It will probably remain a mystery. I can’t recall anything like it in Inca construction or architecture.

The most interesting project was surveying a larger, rectangular, double room building with an adjoining oval-walled house built on a raised, stone-walled platform. We soon were involved removing tangle, photographing and measuring.

The structure was aesthetically placed on a mound in a central location, although built of common pirca field stone. Ground level windows, probably for ventilation, and lack of normal entranceways suggest that it was probably a storehouse, colca. The associated oval structure may have been for an overseer or resident caretaker.

It seems certain that we have re-discovered Bingham’s lost site which the locals then called Yurok Rumi.  Before following the Inca road from Vitcos during his later 1915 expedition, Bingham had climbed up in 1911 from the old hacienda at Huadquiña, now modern Santa Teresa, to visit ruins reported to be “ better than Ollantaytambo.” This was just after he had first seen Machu Picchu and before discovering the real Yurok Rumi at Vitcos.

In his classic work “Lost City of The Incas,” Bingham writes “After several hours spent in clearing away the dense forest growth which surrounded the walls I learned that this Yurak Rumi consisted of the ruins of a single little rectangular Inca storehouse. No effort had been made at beauty of construction. The walls were of rough, unfashioned stones laid in clay. 

“The building was without a doorway, although it had several small windows and a series of ventilating shafts under the house…Yurak Rumi is on top of the ridge between the Salcantay and Huadquiña valleys, probably on an ancient road which crossed the province of Uilcapampa. As such it was interesting.

Bingham makes no mention of the surrounding structures, the lower group we documented, or of the strange monolith feature. He did not see or realize that the white quartz stone probably gave the place its name. It was typical Bingham, take a quick look and move on.  But who can fault him? He had just found Machu Picchu.

That evening we throw a grand party for the staff and our new local friends. A beer run is made down to Yanatile, the nearest town only a few hours round trip. Toasts are made, first of course, traditionally to Pachamama, Mother Earth.

Jack breaks out a carefully hoarded bottle of Jack Daniels.  Following an amazingly elegant thank you speech in Quechua, he passes around ceremonial shots to all. It was a fabulous ending to a great and successful expedition. Departure was understandably a bit delayed the next morning.

The return to modern Peru: A good trail gets us down to the road head at Yanatile. Choosing to ride trotting, vaquero style, we arrive ‘tall in the saddle’ into touristy Santa Teresa a few kilometers downriver from Machu Picchu. A night of pampered comfort at Pio’s daughter’s boutique lodge prepares us for cultural reemergence in distant Cusco.

As Douglas MacArthur said: “I shall return.


Vitcos and Yurok Rumi

We know the regional history of the last Incas who occupied Vitcos from good sources. Archaeological data indicates that the main, high status constructions date from imperial Inca times, but whether this was built during the time of Pachacuti, or his successor, Topa Inca, is uncertain. Was Vitcos a royal estate or did it serve only as a regional administrative center?

Vince Lee has made extensive studies, publishing his excellent diagrams and site plans in “Forgotten Vilcabama.” The American archeologist Robert Von Kaupp and Peru’s INC, now Ministry of Culture, have undertaken studies. Sadly they do not make their reports publicly available.

I gathered a few notes and thoughts to digest later but I do want to share a concept that struck me while looking again at the destroyed temple complex centered around the White Rock.

I believe Lee concluded correctly that Yurok Rumi is a sun temple. The site was referred to as such in early documents. Principal features align with solstice angles and cardinal direction.

From our experience with similar places —the Coricancha, Llactapata and Machu Picchu— it was likely much more. It contains all the elements of sacred geography, a multiplicity of huacas symbolically important to Inca ritual: numbers of carved rocks, a large boulder appearing to replicate the horizon, a cave underneath with a pool and flows of channeled water, a carved stairs motif and protruding carved knobs which, astronomer Bernard Bell suggests, cast predetermined shadow patterns.

In long Andean belief, caves are symbolic entrances to the underworld, Ucha pacha, where ritual chanting shaman dazzled their apostles. Stairs represent a pathway to the heavens, Hanan pacha. Flowing water represents the process of camay; empowering the huaca it touches with renewal, power and fertility.

The scattered remains of a number of destroyed buildings are strewn about. Yurok Rumi or Chuquipalta as it was known then, may have had an array of shrines dedicated to different deities or apus as did the Coricancha in the imperial capital, Cusco. It will be interesting to see accurate dimensions and alignments, should the Ministry of Culture get around to excavation and restoration. The sun temple we documented at Llactapata was almost an exact replica of the Coricancha. I would expect no less here.

The Vitcos — Machu Picchu Road: direct route to Machu Picchu and Llactapata.

I like to compare the Inca road system to that of my home, Colorado. There were ‘cross the empire’ interstate highways, some of which were five or more meters wide. There were state highways and lesser county roads. Finally, there were local trails almost everywhere. I equate our route to a county road. A more import ‘state highway’ stayed north in the Vilcabamba river drainage to cross the bridge of Choquechaca. It continued over the pass of Panticolla to Ollantaytambo and on to Cusco. Another state-sized road traveled south over five thousand meters high, the Choqueticarpo Pass and on to Choquequirao. There were other roads diverging or connecting as well as a multitude of trails.

Anyone traveling to or from Cusco would have taken the Panticolla road not the winding, narrow trail past Machu Picchu. A major state road connected Choquequirao and Cusco by crossing over a high ridge of the big mountain, Salkantay. It was possible to get to Vitcos from several routes as it is to any Colorado city. The Vitcos road  passing through Llactapata is the continuation of the famous  Inca Trail, which was believed to have ended at Machu Picchu. We located the continuation during work at Llactapata in 2003.

Tambo Huayco and Amaru Rumiyoc

The site represents an anomaly in several aspects. A huaca or two along main Inca roads can be expected but in association with a colca, tambo or settlement. A group of shaped stones alone in a remote, high valley with no other evident facility other than the road passing by, is unusual. More unusual are the shapes: raised ridges, probable zoomorphic figures and the nature of the rock, a roughly surfaced, decomposing igneous material.

What do the shapes represent and why there? I have not seen anything like them before. We allowed little time for investigation. A return visit with time to examine the rocks in detail, record alignments, relative positions and develop a site plan will be a next priority project.

Uchupampa and Yurok Rumi

The site is much more than the one lone building that Hiram Bingham described.  He was correct that the structure which they cleared and measured was an Inca storehouse. He was also correct to suggest that it was probably on a principal Inca road. What he did not recognize is that his common-looking structure is situated as the centerpiece of a large surrounding settlement.

It is placed on a leveled, stone-walled mound bordering a sunken plaza on the upslope side. A large, oval house is on one end of the mound with entrance facing the long axis of the rectangular structure and aligned at 116 degrees, the angle of the December solstice sunrise.

The crude stonework may be the result of using local, fragile, flaking, metamorphic rock which is difficult to shape into anything but rough blocks and slabs. At Choquequirao and other places with a similar metamorphic issue, walls were plastered over with a rose or tan colored clay giving a sort of Santa Fe pueblo appearance. This may have been the case here but exposure on the open ridge and several hundred years of cloud forest rains would have removed the plaster.

Several smaller rectangular structures are nearby, surrounded by numerous round, low walls which we have previously suggested enclosed wood-sided structures and cone shaped ichu grass roofs. All are without windows and have a single entrance.

I suggest that this several-square-kilometer complex of  walls, dwellings, corrals and  fields was an Inca period, agricultural settlement of either imported worker families, Mitayos or represented an earlier community assimilated by regional Inca expansion.

The seemingly enshrined, Inca style storehouse on a raised mound centrally placed along with the probable Inca administrator’s residence indicates that  the Inca were in charge and wanted to appear so. As always, the exact dating is uncertain. Only definitive pottery motifs, carbon 14 analysis or something more advanced can tell us more.


Bingham, Hiram, (1952) Lost City of the Incas. Phoenix House, London (revised edition, D’Altroy, Terence. (2003). The Incas. Blackwell Publishing, London.

Hemming, John. (1970). The Conquest of the Incas. Revised edition,1993. Pan-Macmillan, London.

Hyslop, John. (1984). The Inca Road System. Academic Press, New York.

Lee, Vincent, (2000). Forgotten Vilcabamba: Final Stronghold of the Inca. Empire Publishing.

MacQuarrie, Kim. (2007). The Last Days of the Incas. Simon & Schuster, NY.

Reinhard, Johan. (1990). ‘Informe sobre una sección del camino Inca y las ruinas en la cresta que baja del nevado de Tucarhuay entre los ríos Aobamba y Santa Teresa’ Revista Sacsahuaman, no. 3:163-187, Cusco (2007). Machu Picchu: Exploring an Ancient Sacred Center, 4th edn. Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, Los Angeles.

Savoy, Gene. (1970). Antisuyo, The Search for the Lost Cities of the Amazon. Simon and Schuster, N.Y.

Titu Cusi Yupanqui. (1570). Relación de la Conquista del Perú y Hechos del Inca Manco II.

Thomson, Hugh. (2001). The White Rock. An exploration of the Inca Heartland, Orion, London. (2006). A Sacred Landscape – The search for Ancient Peru, Overlook, NY.

Ziegler, Gary. (1999). Vilcabamba, Report from the Field. South American Explorer. vol 57 (2015) Beyond Machu Picchu; Choquequirao, Lost City in the Clouds.  Peruvian Times, Lima, 2015.  and Choquequirao Field Report, Peruvian Times, Lima.

Ziegler, Gary and J. Mckim Malville (2013). Machu Picchu’s Sacred Sisters:  Choquequirao and Llactapata. Johnson Publishing, Boulder.


✐ Gary Ziegler is a field archaeologist with a geology background, mountaineer and explorer who has spent a lifetime finding and studying remote Inca 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. In 2013, he was awarded the title “Distinguished Lecturer” at NASA’s Marshal Space Center. He has taught at Colorado College and Peru’s national university, San Marcos. His home base is the 4000-acre Bear Basin Ranch in the Sangre de Cristo mountains of Southern Colorado’s Custer County, where he is former County Sheriff and a founder of the search and rescue unit.

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  1. Wonderful journal!!
    I just explored Cusco and the Sacred Valley Nov 2016 and have fallen head over heels with this region.
    I look forward to reading your future reports

  2. Well written account of a fascinating journey. Evoked fond memories of my travel through Pataconcha Cusco and Puno.

  3. Amazing story. What a life you’ve lead Gary! Could I join you in future explorations?

  4. Tony @ New Peruvian says:

    A great write-up of a fascinating expedition. I’m looking forward to seeing your next report.

  5. the envy lives

  6. Gary

    Great expedition and thanks for sharing. I was a Peace Corps volunteer near San Gaban, Puno in 1967-69 and worked with campesinos who had migrated from the highlands. That area is now connected by the Interoceanic Hwy linking Madre de Dios and to the Peruvian coast.

    I’ve read most of the books about White Rock and that special area beyond Machu Pichu.

    Keep up the good work.



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