Chacha Picchu

New Discoveries in Amazonas
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Aerial view over location of Chacha Picchu
Aerial view over location of Chacha Picchu, Peru
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As a sometime archaeologist and dedicated adventurer, I have been poking around backcountry Peru since the 1960s. While making an income by guiding adventure programs, I have been compiling data on Inca roads and sites associated with the last Incas. For several years, I have focused my interest on Choquequirao, an unusual Inca ceremonial site located spectacularly high above the Apurimac river some 30 miles west of Machu Picchu. I believe it to be the ceremonial center of the last Incas following their retreat from Cusco in 1536.

Intrigued by the apparent similarity of construction in photos of Chachapoya sites in northern Peru to that of Choquequirao and a nearby temple site, I discussed my observation with Cusco archaeologist Perci Paz. He shared his thinking that Chachapoya mitayos, workers imported by the Inca from distant parts of the empire, may have helped construct Choquequirao. This was all the motivation that I needed to organize a June expedition to explore this thesis.

In 1995, Frank Ciampa, an American explorer sponsored by Gene Savoy's Andean Explorer's Club, located a pre-Inca temple/city complex in a remote high cloud forest in northern Peru. Frank and I found each other through the Internet, which soon led to a plan to combine a visit to Frank's unreported find along with my proposed studies.

Library research and a review of sources soon revealed that very little information is available and few serious studies have been undertaken. In the short time that we had to prepare, I was unable to obtain a copy of the results of a five-year study by the University of Colorado at another large site, Gran Pajaten. This undoubtedly would have made interesting reading for our daily happy hour sessions in the cook tent.

Prepared or not, departure day soon arrived. Frank Ciampa, photo journalist Peter Frost (Machu Picchu Historical Sanctuary and Exploring Cusco), our Cusco field team of cooks, wranglers and a small group of participants met me in Lima in early June.

As traditional funding is rarely available for archaeological exploration, we invited paying participants to help pay the costs. Although frowned upon by professional scholars, I firmly believe that tourism funded research can be a valuable research method and perhaps the only way to finance exploration and subsequent protection of archaeological areas that would otherwise remain unknown until they are located and looted as local populations expand.

Our small team consisted of Gill Hazel from Sydney and Fiona McKone from Dublin, veterans of the epic 1996 expedition to Choquequirao. On that trip, we were forced to retrace our way from the site by the way we had come, some seven days over a most remote and precipitous part of the Andes. A massive landslide destroyed the shorter trail out to our waiting transport as we slept the last night at the ruins. The result was a forced march retreat on very short rations, adding an unplanned week to everyone's vacation. Robin Kraemer, recently retired police inspector from Hong Kong and his good humored wife, Chris, completed the team.

Starting with a visit to Cajamarca, where Atahualpa Inca was captured, ransomed and executed by the Pizarros in 1532, we continued over the Andes to the Maranon River, great tributary to the Amazon. Following a day of preparations at the mountain town of Chachapoyas, we visited the massive, impressive hilltop fortress site of Kuelap before plunging on foot and horseback into the wild cloud forest mountains of the eastern most range of the Andes. Remarkably, a major discovery of a cave site with more than 80 intact mummy bundles was happening nearby at Lake of the Condors. We were able to view uncategorized items brought from the cave and Peter made a quick photo trip resulting in excellent slides of the untouched remains.

A cursory examination revealed what appeared to be ceramics and very intact textiles from several cultures and periods. The mummies and textiles were late Inca style. The assorted pots were Inca, Chimu, Chachapoya and very curiously, early colonial. Our concern, which proved well founded, was that without prompt government protection, the cave would be looted. Fortunately, through a grant from the Discovery Channel, which filmed the site in July, the area is now under guard and most of the material safeguarded.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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