Beyond Machu Picchu: The Peruvian Jungle
Standing in lofty Machu Picchu in the Peruvian Andes, where the air is thin and chilly, it’s a bit difficult to imagine that a jungle wilderness is not far away. But you have to consider the distance not in terms of how far the crow flies, but in how far the crow descends. The region along the Urubamba River downstream from Machu Picchu is quiet and fairly accessible. If you descend by road from Ollantaytambo, you will see that the vegetation becomes greener and thicker as the air gets warmer and more humid. You are in fact passing through micro-climates ranging from an alpine climate, to that of the rainforest. In this part of Peru, you are never far from mountains, cloud forest, rainforest, and of course, Inca ruins.
After his astounding discovery of Machu Picchu in 1911, Hiram Bingham continued exploring. He went down the Urubamba Valley to Chaullay, and then up the Vilcabamba Valley to the village of Pukyura. There he made another significant archaeological discovery. Vitcos, which the locals called Rosapata, was a small ruin, but one that evidently had been an important site to the Incas. It was based around a trapezoidal plaza that covered a flat-topped spur. Local guides took Bingham to a place below the ruins where a spring flowed from beneath a large, white granite boulder. The boulder had been intricately carved in a style that was unmistakably Inca. It was surrounded by the ruins of what had once been an impressive Inca temple. The great rock, 15 meters (49 feet) long and eight meters (26 feet) high, was a sacred altar on which the Inca priests had carried out blood sacrifices and other religious rituals. Spanish chronicles state that two Catholic priests who witnessed the pagan ceremonies were so outraged that they performed an exorcism on the rock to drive out evil. Then they set the temple on fire.
Bingham followed a path from Pukyura deeper into the jungle, as far as the Condevidayoc plantation. There he found more previously unknown ruins at Espiritu Pampa (Plain of the Spirits). After a brief examination of some of the outer ruins, Bingham decided that Espiritu Pampa had been built by the followers of Manco Inca, the last Inca leader to resist the Spanish. He decided that the ruins were post-Conquest, because many of the roofs had what he thought was Spanish style tiling. Having already found the incredible ruins of Machu Picchu, Bingham didn’t place much importance on his subsequent discoveries. As a result, Espiritu Pampa, which was only accessible by mule, and over a rough trail, remained hidden in thick jungle vegetation for many more years. Indiana Jones would have been disappointed.
Espiritu Pampa (Plain of the Spirits)
Then in 1964 an American archaeological explorer named Gene Savoy undertook a more thorough study of the site, and would have made Indie proud. He found a vast complex of ruins with more than 60 main buildings and around 300 houses. There were temples, plazas, a main street, and even wells. This was clearly the largest Inca settlement in the Vilcabamba region. Savoy soon became convinced that this was the site of the last Inca stronghold. Here, Manco Inca held out until, through Spanish treachery, he was murdered in 1544. He is still honoured as a national hero in Peru. Ironically, this was the very site Bingham had been searching for when he stumbled upon Machu Picchu. When he did get here, he failed to realize what he had found. Further archaeological evidence, along with studies of the Spanish chronicles, have confirmed – as far as most historians are concerned – that this is the site of the legendary city of Vilcabamba, the place where the Incas made their last stand against the Spanish conquistadores.
An independent excursion to Vitcos and Espiritu Pampa isn’t just a stroll in the woods. You have to prepare for the expedition properly. You start with a six hour drive, usually by truck, to either Pukyura or Huancacalle, small villages in the Vilcabamba Valley. For a reasonable fee, you can hire guides to take you to the sites. You’ll probably have to hire mules as well. From Pukyura to Vitcos is a relatively easy uphill hike of about an hour. However, taking the trail to Espiritu Pampa is a two or three day expedition, with overnight camping. To really cover this historic region well, you’ll need at least a week. There are no services or facilities at any of the sites, and no full time staff. You’ll have to carry in everything you need. Keep in mind the strict rules against leaving litter, including toilet tissue. Once you get there, you can wander about pretty much as you please – as long as you’ve obtained permission from the National Institute of Culture.
The best way to see these ruins is by joining a guided tour. There are several adventure tour operators in Cusco that will take you there. These sites are not easy to get to, so you are well advised to take the guided tour. If you really want to visit the ruins at Vitcos and Espiritu Pampa on your own, you must first obtain permission from the Instituto Nacional de Cultura, which is the official custodian. It can be contacted through the South American Explorer’s Club in Lima, or through the local tourist office in Cusco.
This is a part of Peru in which there are often new discoveries of Inca ruins. There’s always a good chance of visiting a site where excavations are in progress. It’s a good idea to keep in mind that many of the people here are Quechua. They are of neither Spanish nor Inca descent. Their ancestors pre-date the Incas, and through centuries of imperial domination, first by the Incas and then by the Spanish, and in spite of modern pressures, they have managed to hold on to their language, costumes and customs.
My Father died of cancer in November 2009. The trek to Machu Picchu leaves on his birthday. I want to raise as much funding for the cancer centre as I can.
The people supported over the years by Penny Brohn Cancer Care have had harder mountains to climb and longer roads to walk down – why not do something amazing next year and get involved in this adventure of a lifetime!
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