Choquequirao - Machu Picchu's Sacred Sister

Exploring the Last Inca Refuge

Just below the equator lies a place of mystery and romance. Raging glacier fed rivers roar through deep canyons slicing the igneous spine of the Andes. Towering ice peaks hover like sentinels over mist-shrouded jungles. Lost civilizations and forgotten cities beckon the adventurous. An immense area on the eastern slope of the Andes, The Vilcabamba, remains unmapped and one of the least explored areas on Earth.

In the year 1536, three years after the fall of the Inca empire to Spanish adventurer Francisco Pizarro, the Incas staged a rebellion against the Conquistadors. Manco Inca, grandson of the great emperor Huayna Capac, led his followers in retreat from a failed siege of Cusco. The rebels established court in the remote Vilcabamba triangle, maintaining vestiges of Inca tradition, religion and statehood out of reach of Spanish authorities. A centuries old conflict has raged concerning the location and identification of Manco's capital, Vilcabamba Vieja and other important sites including Machu Picchu.

During May 1994 and October 1995, my self, a Peruvian trained archaeologist/historian from Westcliffe, Colorado, and British ornithologist/explorer, Barry Walker, who lives in Cusco, led an expedition searching for Manca's bastion. Together we had logged more than twenty-five years studying the ancient civilizations of Peru, and we were determined to follow previously unstudied Inca highways to Choquiquirao. We hoped to solve the mystery surrounding the location of the last Inca cities and a sacred ceremonial center, probable refuge of the last Inca ruler. We now believe that Choquiquirao is that center.

Eco-tourism, a concept of using paying participants to fund operations, supported our expeditions. In 1994, ten guests, twelve support staff and twenty eight horses and mules accompanied us on a rugged 15 day adventure across ridges and valleys at altitudes varying between 4,000 and 15,000 feet. I returned with a group the following year. Using a Garman GPS navigational computer, we charted the new finds and plotted Inca roads. Working with Peruvian archaeologist, Perci Paz, members helped clear and excavate a temple.

Findings of the expeditions indicate that Choquequirao is a much more important site than had previously been thought. The central area represents complexes of carefully constructed stone ceremonial buildings associated with baths, fountains and canals. Other areas contain compounds of multiple storied dwellings and store houses. Massive stone-walled agricultural terraces dominate the approaches. Analysis of building material suggests a unique architectural style necessitated by brittle metamorphic rock differing from that of Machu Picchu and the Cusco area. The discovery of the remains of an Inca town and temple near Choquiquirao indicated the presence of a substantial population.

The expeditions established that a major Inca road connected Choquequirao with Vitcos, fitting the description given by the only known visitor to the area during the time of the last Incas. Recent identification of important Inca sites with sacred geography places Choquequirao as one of the most important of ceremonial centers. An artificially truncated hill near the principal plaza served as a ritual platform and celestial observatory affording sighting to six different ice peaks considered sacred to ancient Peruvians.

The equatorial sun, The Inca God Inti, sets directly over Nevado Panta, closest of the high peaks. Like the famous Machu Picchu, Choquequirao is perched on a high ridge overlooking one of the two great rivers, sacred Apu or gods to the Inca, that rush downward to the Amazon. Choquiquirao is three times higher above the river, 6000 feet in all, than Machu Picchu. First visited and described to the western world by a French explorer during the eighteenth century, Choquequirao is best known from a visit by American explorer Hiram Bingham in 1910. Remoteness and inaccessibility have discouraged visitors and serious study. It is estimated that fewer than 150 outsiders have viewed the site in this century.

A Peruvian archaeological team with limited funding has recently mapped out the major site complex and has begun restoration and preservation of part of the structures. Although only limited excavation has yet been undertaken, ample evidence exists that Choquequirao was continuously inhabited and that construction continued after the arrival of the Spanish to Peru in 1532. Choquequirao appears to have been abandoned undiscovered by Spanish authorities.

Suggested Reading

Lost City of the Incas: The Story of Machu Picchu and its Builders, Hiram Bingham. Atheneum, 1972.
The Incas and Their Ancestors, Michael Moseley. Thames and Hudson, 1992
The Conquest of Peru, William H. Prescott. New American Library, 1961. A CLASSIC
The Conquest of the Incas, John Hemming. Hartcourt Brace 1970.
Machu Picchu, The Sacred Center, Johan Reinhard. Nuevas Imagenes, Lima. 1991

Thanks to Gary Ziegler of Adventure Specialists for sharing his experiences in the Inca ruins of Peru.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Jun 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication



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