Hidden behind torrential river gorges and high mountain peaks lies the Peruvian province of Vilcabamba, known in Quechua as Huillca Pampa, the ‘Sacred Plain’. It is a notoriously inaccessible place. Except for Chuquichaca, where a bridge spans the confluence of the Vilcabamba and Vilcanota Rivers, entry is only possible at a few cable crossings or suspended bridges. This sparsely populated province of some 4000 square kilometres is protected by massive natural boundaries on all sides: to the North, the Urubamba or Vilcanota River plunges headlong through steep, densely forested canyons, and its southern border is formed by the mighty Apurimac River (Big Speaker, in Quechua) and the 5000 to 6000 metre peaks that stretch from the Salkantay to the Marcacocha range.
For thirty-six years the Incas found sanctuary from the Spanish conquerors in the fastness of Vilcabamba, ruling over an independent kingdom in an uneasy truce that alternated between appeasement and rebellion. The Spanish conquerors had stripped the Inca of his gold and enslaved a large portion of his empire while other, recently subjugated tribes readily defected to the invaders. Yet from 1536 to 1572 four refugee monarchs kept the old gods and customs alive in a country increasingly controlled by missionaries committed to the conversion of heathens. In 1571 a new Viceroy arrived in Peru with a mandate to put an end to the “troublesome” monarch and the following year sent his troops to take Vilcabamba. The Spaniards sacked the capital of Vitcos but found that the Inca had fled. His trail led them to the jungle, where he was captured and taken in chains to Cuzco, given a summary trial and sentenced to death by hanging.
Tupac Amaru’s execution ended the Inca line forever, yet in the ruins of Vitcos, the Inca’s last capital, and in Vilcabamba the Old, his final refuge, he left behind the traces of a valiant, if hopeless stand against a merciless enemy. How had the Inca, with only a small group of followers, managed to survive against all odds, relentlessly pursued by the 16th century’s most powerful military machine? Was it the difficulty of the terrain that permitted the Indians to live unimpeded in isolation? Or was it a superior military strategy that kept the conquistadores from their door?
In 1974 I was living on the Sacred Valley of the Incas in Peru, immersed in the history of the Incas and the story of the conquest. The more I learned, the greater became my determination to see for myself what I had only read about in books. So early one spring morning I left my house in the old mill of Urpihuaylla to embark on a three-week journey to Vilcabamba. As travelling companions I took two horses: Cariblanco, a chestnut paso fino stallion, and Q’orisumac, a palomino packhorse. This is the story of that trip. The pages that follow are a transcription of my notes, evening scribbles written in a damp tent found in an old and stained spiral-bound notebook that has lain buried amongst old papers for over forty years.
Sunday 13 October — day 1
It is the crack of dawn and the two horses are ready to go. Q’orisumac’s load fits comfortably on his back. He’s carrying all my gear: tent, sleeping bag, kerosene lamp, Primus stove, cooking materials and other personal effects, as well as fish hooks and spools of fishing line, mirrors and sewing implements, salt and other items with which to barter with the natives. Cariblanco is saddled and has been snorting impatiently, eager to leave. I mount and lead the packhorse across the stream, down the trail through the village of Taray and into the Sacred Valley, where the Vilcanota River wends its way downstream to feed the Amazon. The few people about at this hour are campesinos in their fields, tending neat rows of young corn in tidy plots beside the river. Smoke wafts from the scattered farmhouses as people prepare their breakfast and birdsong fills the air. Thick scotch broom bushes line the trail and their yellow flowers’ sweet scent follows us down the valley.
Flanked by tall peaks, the fertile Sacred Valley of the Incas is a kilometre-wide expanse bordering the Vilcanota (Sacred River: Huilcamayo in Quechua), known further downstream as the Urubamba. Its hundred-kilometre length is bordered by extensive Inca terracing and numerous archaeological sites, testament to its importance during the Empire. Long the favoured spot for royal Inca estates and country homes, its lower elevation and mild climate makes it ideal for the cultivation of maize, the prestige crop for the Incas, from which the fermented drink chicha is made and still consumed by the Indians in large quantities at their numerous ceremonial feasts.
Three leagues* downstream is the small town of Calca, once the palace of Manco Inca and today the administrative capital of the Valley. There’s a wide square at its centre and we tie up outside the ‘Quinta Malagy’ for a breakfast of eggs and toast. Several hours later we arrive at the town of Urubamba, behind which a trail leads up a canyon to the nevado Chicón. We follow it to the Casa Chicón, an old farmhouse that half a dozen Brazilian women have rented for the season and I have taken them up on their invitation to visit. But finding them down with some kind of intestinal flu, I spend the afternoon sipping their raspberry wine while listening with half an ear to Consuelo complain about the general state of things, distracted by the screeching of thousands of green parakeets nesting in the trees outside. Great flocks of birds from the lowlands come to nest and breed in the valley, attracted by Urubamba’s year-long spring-like weather, and the noise they make at day’s end is deafening.
*A league is the distance a man or horse travels in an hour—approximately 5.5 kilometres. It is the basic unit of measurement in the Andes.
Monday 14 October — day 2
With promises to return, I give my fond farewells to the ladies and ride into the charming colonial town of Urubamba. White-washed houses with Spanish tile roofs border a broad square shaded by an assortment of palms and cedars. Down a side street I find the market, where I tie up the horses to enjoy a fruit juice at a vendor’s stand. Further down the valley, up the Yanahuara canyon, live Carl and Tina Bernstein, a couple of American expatriates who have been living in the Valley for several years. They greet my arrival with beers and tamales and, while Tina prepares lunch, I tell them about the journey I have embarked on. They’re both keen to learn more and we spend several hours looking over maps, discussing the trails and comparing notes on the history of the Incas, a subject about which Carl knows much.
At their height, the Incas controlled a vast territory spanning the length of the Andes over much of northwestern South America. At the heart of an empire known as the Tahuantinsuyo (The Four Quarters) lay Cuzco, its military, religious and economic capital. The ruler was called the Inca and he generally married one of his sisters or half-sisters, known as coyas. Power was passed from father to son, or brother to brother, generating a dynastic line of Inca royalty that lasted three hundred years.
Although the Incas had existed since the 12th century, it was only in the century before Pizarro’s arrival, during the reigns of Pachacutec and Inca Yupanqui, that they had greatly expanded the empire, adding through military conquest and peaceful assimilation an area that spread from Colombia to northern Chile. To enlarge the empire, the Inca first offered neighbouring leaders presents of luxury goods, extolling the benefits of joining his empire. Most accepted and acquiesced peacefully, since those that refused faced military conquest and execution.
“The old chiefs of the new district were kept on in office and …their sons were taken as hostages to Cuzco to be taught the Inca system…and vacancies in the administration filled with local people or specialists brought in from older provinces…By reshuffling the population older political units would be broken and it would be more difficult for the inhabitants of a province to plot revolt. When a new province was conquered, settlers were brought into it from some province which had been under Inca government long enough to know the system, and their place was filled with the most recalcitrant elements of the new province. These settlers were called mitimaes.”*
*John Howland Rowe, Inca Culture at the Time of the Spanish Conquest, 1963
Despite an extensive nobility known by the Spaniards as orejones, characterised by the large earplugs they wore, and an influential religious class of priests, the Inca empire was primarily a military theocracy. Their principal deities were the creator Viracocha, the sun god Inti and other celestial bodies, animist beliefs that included the veneration of the Earth goddess Pachamama and the spirits of the nevados known as Apus. Considered a direct descendant of the sun, the Inca ruler enjoyed a divine status. The mummies of his ancestors were kept in sacred temples, protected by the mamaconas, consecrated women dedicated to the care of holy shrines, and brought out for ceremonial occasions. Variously described as utopian or socialist, their economy had neither markets nor currency. Peasants were required to work in agriculture with hand tools, filling granaries and deposits until a quota was met. These stockpiles were the state’s guarantee against famine. Projects that required many workers, such as serving in the military, working in gold mines, or building monuments, public buildings, bridges or roads, used a system known as m’ita. The m’itayoc required every household to provide one person who could perform a set amount of labour for the government each year, over and above the farming requirements for the state.
The Incas had no written language. Instead, they relied on a sophisticated system of communication that consisted of quipus (knotted messages) delivered by chasquis (runners) over an extensive network of roads covering the entire length of the empire with convenient, fully provisioned rest stops, known as tambos, situated every eight leagues. Although they had not discovered the arch, they were exceptional stone masons and engineers. Their fortresses and palaces were built with polygonal masonry of such precision that in the four centuries since the conquest the earthquakes that frequently rattle the area have done little to displace their perfectly fitted stones. Wheels have been found on pre-Columbian toys, but the Andes’ vertical orography precluded their use and they were not used for transportation. Loads over distances were carried by porters and llamas; they had no other beasts of burden.
After lunch I depart and continue down the Sacred Valley towards Ollantaytambo, arriving at a narrow defile where the village lies protected under a formidable fortress. Once the palace of the Inca Pachacutec, it was subsequently fortified with ramparts built with cyclopean polygonal masonry, their stones perfectly arranged to form a massive perpendicular wall that rises up the mountainside. On the hillside above it rest ceremonial buildings, barracks and other structures as well as many more fortifications. Within the complex are the springs and courtyards where the Inca and his family once rested and I can well visualise Almagro’s dread, horrified as he must have been by the sight. It is an awesome structure designed to intimidate the most implacable opponent.
I am drawn to a quiet enclosure and decide to camp next to a place known as ‘Los Baños de la Ñusta’ (The baths of the Princess), where a gentle flow of water springs from the living rock into a series of stone pools. The absolute silence is interrupted only by the soft murmur of water trickling through the sluices and I invoke the Inca princesses who bathed here and gave this sacred spot its name, recalling an old verse transcribed by Garcilaso in 1560:
In this place
Thou shalt sleep
I will come.
My reverie is interrupted by a hippie, left behind from last month’s Kumbha Mela, the Hindu gathering that brought together hundreds of New Age devotees for a week-long festival of chanting and meditation on the shores of the Vilcanota. He asks to sleep in my tent and I consent, but I spend the night regretting it, as I have to listen to his tedious injunctions against smoking, eating meat and wearing leather shoes.
Tuesday 15 October — day 3
The hippie has gone his way and I am glad to be rid him. Last night a guard showed up to tell me camping here is forbidden. I invited him to a shot of rum with assurances we’d be out in the morning. He returns today apologising for last night’s harangue and we spend a pleasant hour chatting while I strike the camp and pack the horses. Hungry for breakfast, I ride into Ollantaytambo, the small town that lies at the foot of the fortress.
In the slanting light a soft mist rests over the town and there are very few people about. The prosperity we saw in Urubamba is not evident here. The homes are simple adobe structures, their whitewash show signs of long neglect and many of the roofs have broken tiles. Yet from the ruins of a vanished civilisation springs new life. Much of the town is built over the remnants of Inca buildings and humble adobe houses rise from the heavy, perfectly fitted polygonal Inca stones. On an empty street, a paved canal runs beneath the wall and a woman is rinsing corn. I ask her about getting new shoes for Q’orisumac and she directs me to the village blacksmith, who fixes him up right on the spot, charging me 8 soles.
At the foot of a canyon further down the valley is Huayrac Puncco (Doorway of the Wind), where we set up camp in a farmer’s field. The nevado Veronica towers overhead (known in Quechua as Apu Huacay Huilca, Lord of the Sacred Tears), reminding me that tomorrow we will climb the pass that will take us around this 6000-metre peak. It is a pastoral campsite, though true to its name, the wind screams down the ravine, making it difficult to keep the Primus stove lit. Impurities in the kerosene plug the nozzle and extinguish the stove, which I clear with my little needle-tool and try relighting again. This only causes the stove to burst into flames with plumes of sooty smoke and I have to put it out and reheat the nozzle again with a little alcohol in the priming dish. After several tries I finally manage to prepare a decent lunch and spend the rest of the afternoon reading in the sun while the horses eat their fill of the tercio* of alfalfa I bought from the local farmer.
*Archaic measurement of weight still in use in the Andes, roughly equivalent to the amount a man may carry.
Wednesday 16 October — Day 4
It is a clear morning and we ride out of Huayrac Puncco, down the Vilcanota Valley (now called the Urubamba) for a few kilometres until we arrive at the small village of Tanccac. Behind it, a long narrow canyon leads up to the Panticalle Pass that will lead us over the shoulder of the Veronica and down into the tropical lowlands. A scene of bucolic serenity, the narrow trail takes us past scattered farmsteads, animals grazing quietly in the morning light. In places, the horseshoe trail is paved with finely cut stones, and I recall that this was once the Royal Inca Road to Vilcabamba. When Manco Inca fled Ollantaytambo with Orgóñez close on his heels, he ordered the road broken up, hoping that way to hamper the horses’ progress. The remains are obvious: broken stones lie everywhere, scattered along the path.
Three hours up the ravine we encounter a group of ruins. Circular houses, possibly grain bins to feed the Inca’s army, can be seen over a series of concentric terraces. A structure of very finely cut stone sits on a major outcrop, strategically commanding a view of the valley below. Next to it a huge rock is painted an odd blue-yellow. What was this? The terracing suggests long-term habitation, perhaps a distant Inca’s palace, but I find no reference to them in my notes.
The sky darkens and it begins to rain. The thin air at this altitude tires the horses and they struggle to keep their footing. On a narrow gorge near the summit lies Piñas, a lonely farm community of clustered houses of field stone, adobe and thatch. We leave it behind and follow the destroyed Inca trail into the puna, past the vegetation mark and up to the Panticalle Pass. The rain has turned to snow and we make our way over the pass drenched to the bone and freezing cold. Visibility has dropped to near zero, but we follow the Inca Road and make a rapid descent beside the Lucumayo, at this altitude a mere stream. After a few hours the skies clear and reveal an astonishing sight of majestic nevados flanking our left. Down the valley is Chachayoc, a small hamlet where a neighbour informs me that the trail down the Lucumayo Valley to Chaullay is impassable due to huaycos, or landslides. If I want to continue I must climb to the road that is carved out of the mountainside high above.
With some chagrin, I set up camp for the night at the foot of the Veronica and loose the horses to graze on the sparse ichu grass. My Quechua is only rudimentary and none of the people in the hamlet speak any Spanish; communication is unfortunately kept to a minimum.
Huddled in my tent, I pray for the sun to dry my gear tomorrow and read.
Pizarro’s arrival in Peru in 1532 coincided with the end of a bloody fratricidal war between two sons of the Inca Huayna Capac. Huascar was Huayna Capac’s heir, and he controlled Cuzco and the South while his rebellious half-brother Atahualpa ruled Quito and the North. Marching into Cajamarca with his small band of conquistadores, Pizarro immediately seized Atahualpa and held him for the ransom of a room filled with gold. For months, porters and trains of llamas from all over the empire arrived in Cajamarca with gold and silver torn from temple walls, which the Spaniards promptly melted into ingots. A few effigies and panels were kept from the furnaces to be sent home for the Emperor Charles V who, after expressing admiration for them, had the pieces cast into coins. Thus were many masterpieces of the Inca goldsmiths’ work forever lost.
From his captivity, Atahualpa summoned Huascar to his aid, only to have him killed on the road from Cuzco. A few months later, when the room was finally filled with treasure, Pizarro had Atahualpa garrotted, crowning Tupac Huallpa, another of Huayna Capac’s sons, as puppet-king in his stead. Following Atahualpa’s murder, Pizarro and his partner, the recently arrived Diego de Almagro, split the Inca’s treasure and led their army to Cuzco, the Inca capital of the Tahuantinsuyo. But Tupac Huallpa died inexplicably during their march and, upon arriving in Cuzco, Pizarro promptly crowned another of Huayna Capac’s sons, the young Manco Inca, bestowing upon him the royal fringe.
During the first years of the Spanish occupation relations with the Indians remained relatively calm. Glad to be out from under the threat of death from his half-brother Huascar, Manco was a compliant collaborator. But two of Atahualpa’s generals, the recalcitrant Quisquis and Rumiñawi, rose up in fierce opposition against the invasion and rekindled the old hostilities between Huascar and Atahualpa. In response to this threat Almagro sent Hernando de Soto on campaign against the generals in Quito and Manco joined the expedition with a large native force. Together with the new conquistadores recently arrived in-country, they defeated the Quitans and unified the empire under Spanish dominion. Manco returned to Cuzco with the conquerors a strengthened monarch, free from the intrigues of pretenders and confident of the Spaniards’ loyalty.
The now quite rich conquistadores had been allotted all the Inca palaces in Cuzco. The large numbers of Indians they’d received with their encomiendas (royal grants of land and labourers as rewards for service to the Crown), provided them with a steady income and they were enjoying a life of luxury in the city. But tensions had grown between Pizarro and his partner Almagro, who was deeply resentful of the disproportionately small share of the Inca’s treasure he’d received in Cajamarca. The Emperor Charles V had decreed the Inca empire should be divided between the two, with Almagro receiving command of the South and Pizarro the North. Cuzco, however, lay geographically somewhere between the two, and both commanders laid claim to it, threatening a new civil war between the conquerors.
Almagro used his money to raise an army and decamped for Chile, confident that he would find even greater wealth in the South. Francisco Pizarro departed for the coast to found the colonial capital (which he called the City of Kings, later renaming it Lima), leaving Cuzco in the care of his younger brothers Hernando, Gonzalo and Juan. In his absence, the brothers established a dictatorship of corruption, brutality and intimidation. A steady stream of new conquistadores were arriving each day in Cuzco, greedy for gold. But finding little treasure left to claim, they extorted the Inca through a systematic campaign of harassment and humiliation. Titu Cusi, Manco’s son, reported that in their demand for gold the Spaniards often spat and urinated on his father and, to pressure him further, the Pizarros had him imprisoned. Manco was appalled by this treatment of his royal person and disillusioned by the broken vows of those he had considered his friends. After several failed attempts he managed to escape his confinement, fleeing to the Sacred Valley, where he retired with his generals to formulate a strategy. The Spaniards remaining in Cuzco then placed Paullu Inca, another of Atahualpa’s sons on the puppet throne with the title of Sapa Inca.
With Pizarro away and Almagro off in Chile, Manco figured that retaking Cuzco would be an easy task, so he sent his general Villac Uma with 150,000 warriors to march upon the city, whose defence was under the command of Gonzalo Pizarro. Manco’s men laid siege to his old capital, setting fire to the thatch roofs of the city and engaging the terrified Spaniards in countless battles. A large host of Indians took the fortress of Sacsahuaman above the city and Juan, the youngest of the Pizarro brothers, led a desperate charge to retake it. During a skirmish the day before he had been hit in the jaw by a stone, and his face had become too swollen to wear a helmet. Spurring his horse into the fray, he was felled by a slingshot blow to the head, dying later that evening. His compatriots and their Cañari allies, however, were able to retake the fortress and put thousands of the Inca’s men to the sword.
Manco’s revolt took hold across the country and Villac Uma and other Inca generals rallied native troops against the Spanish forces, killing many, including nearly all the Spaniards left in Jauja. From Lima, Pizarro sent out pleas to Spanish governors elsewhere in the Indies asking for help in retaking Peru, and many came to his aid, sending hundreds of men and horses from Panama, Nicaragua and Mexico.
A thoroughly shaken Almagro returned to Cuzco in 1537, having found no gold in Chile. He had endured nearly two years of extreme hardships, crossed blistering deserts and ice-bound Andes only to suffer a humiliating defeat from the bellicose Mapuches, who left his troops decimated and in rags. Upon hearing of the young Pizarros’ mistreatment of the Inca, he imprisoned them both. His next move was to block the arrival of Pizarro’s reinforcements, who threatened to wrest away his tentative control of Cuzco. The two forces met on the plain of Abancay where, after a nearly bloodless battle, most of Pizarro’s men shifted their alliance to Almagro.
Now in control of Cuzco, he led a large force down the Sacred Valley to negotiate a peace with Manco. He wrote to the Inca expressing his deep concern and remorse for the treatment he’d received from the Spaniards and promised that the Pizarro brothers would be tried for their crimes. Almagro then invited the Inca to return to Cuzco, where he could live in safety, but Manco had heard rumours that Almagro’s true intent was to send him to Spain in chains and he was wary of the Spaniard’s motives. The death of some Indians by Almagro’s men in Calca confirmed his suspicions and he soon realised that Almagro was as untrustworthy as Pizarro. He retreated to the ancient fortress of Ollantaytambo and prepared for war. The Spaniards followed with their cavalry and, with a large contingent of native troops hostile to the Inca, attacked the fortress. In the battle that followed the Inca altered the course of the river and drove the conquistadores from the Valley.
But it was a Pyrrhic victory. For the eight months that the siege lasted, Manco’s army had done little more than harass the 196 Spaniards (and their Cañari allies) left in Cuzco to defend the city, and his inability to take the capital was a humiliating blow. Manco had realised that he would never be able to win back his lost empire. Despite his overwhelming superiority in numbers, his warriors’ primitive weapons of stone and bronze were no match for armoured men on horseback wielding steel swords and arquebuses. Moreover, mounted reinforcements were arriving each day from Spain, hungry for spoils. His only hope rested in retreating to the most inaccessible part of the Empire, where he hoped to live with his followers in peace, a fugitive Inca free from the harassment of the Spaniards.
And so, the Inca entered Vilcabamba.
“The Inca brought together all those of the royal blood he could find, men and women alike, and retired to the wild forest of the Antis to a place called Villcapampa where he lived in exile and solitude as one can imagine a dispossessed and disinherited prince would live…”*
*Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, Comentarios Reales de los Incas, 1609
Thursday 17 October — Day 5
This morning the sun is out but it is very cold. I gather my sodden clothes and hang them out to dry. My boots, I notice, are in very bad shape and I doubt they can be repaired; one sole has torn off and flops uselessly. I knock on the door of the village elder’s mud hut and in broken Quechua ask him about the route I’m taking. He informs me that it’s a day’s ride down the valley to the tea plantations of Huyro and two days to Chaullay, where the Vilcabamba River meets the Urubamba. But he repeats last night’s warning about the trail and introduces me to a fellow who agrees to lead me up to the road. We settle on his fee: one mirror.
With my gear now dry and the horses packed and loaded, I wait half the morning for the guide to show, but soon realise he isn’t coming—perhaps I should have offered him two mirrors. At this elevation the vegetation is very meagre and I look forward to the lower altitudes, where the horses will find decent forage. A look at the map suggests Amaybamba might be good place to rest and I break camp to head down the Lucumayo ravine under a threatening sky. Along the way we encounter a series of buildings with fine ashlar masonry and sharp granite lintels in very good condition. Their origin is clearly Inca though they show evidence of recent use.
In the pouring rain I meet a farmer tending his cow who confirms that recent huaycos have completely washed away the trail. Further travel on this trail is impossible; the only way to continue is to follow a road that flanks the mountainside five hundred metres above the river. To reach it we must climb the steep goat trail that winds between large overhanging rocks.
The ascent is excruciating. The horses struggle in the slippery mud and I dismount to let them lead, grabbing hold of Cariblanco’s tail. Q’orisumac’s load is banged about, striking the rocks as he scrambles from one foothold to the next and I hear things break. Rivulets of water cascade from above; one false step will see us tumble into the ravine. At the crest of a bluff we run into a bog that mires the horses and sinks my boots ankle-deep in mud. We climb over and find another river, but it is only a shallow stream, easy to ford. We continue on, breathing heavily, until we finally reach the road.
Tentative rays pierce the rainclouds and the mist parts to reveal a dirt road like a silver ribbon snaking its way down a valley that grows progressively greener the deeper it goes. We begin to see tea and coca growing on the hillside and after about four leagues we arrive at the tea plantations of Alfamayo. A small town of hastily constructed houses, it has the feeling of a border crossing. There is a police control for the coca transports bound for Cuzco and I am summoned to present my papers. Next door I meet señora Zamora, a kind neighbour who invites me into her house for a cup of tea. It is good to rest and get out of the rain.
As we descend into the valley the vegetation grows increasingly abundant and the hillsides are now covered by a dark green carpet of coca, tea and cacao plants. By late afternoon we encounter an abandoned house in the middle of a tea plantation, behind it a field of rich, knee-high pasture. I let the horses graze and move my gear into the ruined house, a simple wattle and daub structure with a rusting, corrugated tin roof. Under the steady drumming of the rain on the roof I admire the luxurious abundance that surrounds us, grateful for the change after the harsh conditions of the puna.
Friday 18 October — Day 6
It rained hard all through the night but the tin roof has kept me dry and the horses have been eating well. The weather clears and I put away my breakfast things and saddle up, refreshed after a good night’s sleep. We head for the ruins of Inca Tambo, finding them a few kilometres down the road on the southern shore of the Lucumayo. They are quite small, perhaps a rest stop for the Inca and his entourage or a way station for the chasquis. There doesn’t seem to be much left to them, although they probably just need excavating.
The valley walls are now completely cultivated in tea as we continue our descent to Umasbamba, where we encounter a very desultory scene: the hacienda lies in ruins. Devastated after the Agrarian Reform, nothing much remains. The number of haciendas destroyed in the political upheaval is hard to quantify. Some hacendados, wealthy landowners embittered by the expropriations, preferred to see their homes go up in smoke rather than turn them over to the Indians and many set fire to their properties. Other haciendas were ransacked by the peasants in retaliation for real or imagined injustices, and in their zeal often left only empty shells where once had stood grand mansions.
Later, I learn we’ve passed the ruins of Guamán Marca, where Pachacutec supposedly built his palace. I didn’t know about them at the time and missed visiting them. Perhaps we can explore them on the way back. At lunch time we reach Amaibamba, the centre of the tea cooperatives. It is a busy place, with people coming in from the fields while others are drying the leaves or packing sacks for market. The workers of the cooperativa are friendly and invite me in for a beer at the common hall. I ask them about Inca ruins. Amaibamba is mentioned in the chronicles as an Inca town and I am hoping to find traces of it, but they know of no ruins along the river; perhaps they are further up the mountain.
There is a steady increase of signs of ‘civilisation’ the further down the valley we progress. In this lush climate few traces of the Inca culture remain. I find none of the colourful native costumes, none of the herds of llamas so prevalent on the altiplano. Gone too, are the roofs of Spanish tile or thatch of the higher elevations. The houses here have corrugated tin roofs and walls built of cinderblocks or mud and wattle. We now find the occasional car, more Spanish spoken, less Quechua heard.
By mid afternoon we arrive at Huyro, the capital of Peru’s tea industry. Scores of people are milling about this dusty shanty town: idle plantation workers, pretty schoolgirls and a group of boys who greet our entry by running behind the horses shouting, “Gringo! Gringo! Gringo jeringo, saca tu pingo para el domingo!” To which I reply: “Cholo pocholo, cómprame un polo!” (Epithet-ridden schoolboy taunts)
Next to a large fallow field at the edge of town the new schoolhouse is under construction. I unsaddle the horses, letting them graze in the deep pasture, and stow my gear before going into town to buy supplies and make repairs. My boots are in terrible shape and I find a repair man who sadly tells me he doesn’t think there’s any hope left for them. I enquire about buying shoes, and he directs me to a shop in town where I discover that shoes my size do not exist in Huyro. I also need a chimney for the kerosene lamp, which broke against a rock during yesterday’s steep climb, but I have no luck. Huyro is little more than an outpost and does not offer much in supplies.
At the small hotel in town and I ask to take a shower. I am given a thin towel and shown into a row of dank and mildewed stalls. Feeling human and fully refreshed, I step out to find a bar. All the pretty lasses I saw upon arriving seem to have disappeared, but some of the locals stop by the bar and join me for a few beers, regaling me with stories of Vilcabamba. Afterwards, they take me on a tour of the Tea Factory where I see very little activity; the offices and warehouses all sit empty.
In the evening I return to the schoolhouse and move into an empty classroom, settling in for the night. Outside, the horses are restless, bothered by the insects. I sit at the window and gaze out at the extraordinary spectacle of fireflies lighting up the balmy night. In the candlelight, I read.
After the conquest Vilcabamba emptied out. Many of the Indians who had accompanied the Inca had either been killed in battle or died from the diseases brought by the Spaniards, against which they had no immunities. The rest moved into Cuzco in search of the economic opportunities the Viceroyalty provided. In the 17th and 18th centuries the Viceroys opened Vilcabamba to gold and silver prospectors, and most of the arrivals were Portuguese colonists.
After the mines ran dry Vilcabamba fell into oblivion and much of the area was again abandoned. In the newly independent Peru of the 1830s Vilcabamba was again settled by a new class of ‘Peruvians’ who, freed from the nepotistic encomienda system of land distribution, moved in to claim large swaths of land which they converted into haciendas. As the new masters, they cultivated coffee, sugar cane (from which they distilled aguardiente, a powerful alcohol locally known as machachicuj’cha or cañazo) and the coca leaf, all of which they transported to Cuzco on muleback over precipitous trails.
Landless peasant families, descendants of the Portuguese miners who in the past had exploited the region’s silver mines returned to the region, drawn by the opportunities for work the haciendas provided. However, in order for these colonos to live and work in Vilcabamba, they were required to sign an agreement termed Las Condiciones. These conditions defined what was expected from each settler as payment to the landlord for the privilege of living on his land. They were required to work 20 days a month for the hacendado in the cane fields, the coffee plantations, or in the palla de coca, the leaf harvest. In addition, for every steer they butchered, the hind leg and hide went directly to the landlord, free of charge. They were not allowed to build adobe houses for themselves, but were obliged to live in mud and wattle houses called millica. Moreover, all colonos were forbidden to ride any animal (horse or mule) with a saddle, a privilege extended only to the hacendado and his family.
The modern colonisation of Vilcabamba had resurrected two Inca policies. Mitimaes, the forced resettlement of entire populations was put in place to fill vast tracts of empty land, and the m’ita was reinstated. It was a system of forced labour that obliged each colono to work for the landlord, much like the Indians had been compelled to work on Spanish enterprises, providing the primary source of labour for the colonial exploitation of the silver mines of Potosí and the quicksilver mines of Huancavelica. The modern government of Peru had merely adopted these policies as its own, resulting in the disenfranchisement of many mestizo communities.
Saturday 19 October — Day 7
Near the confluence of the Lucumayo and Urubamba Rivers lies the village of Santa María, a tiny stop on the train line from Cuzco to Quillabamba*, the capital of the Concepción Valley. Much of Cuzco’s fruit, coffee, coca and cacao comes from this fertile valley and mule trains and lorries gather here to meet the train. Growers from the area have lined up patiently to unload their produce and I watch them work in silence before moving on the half league to the confluence of the two rivers where, at the little village of Chaullay, I check in with the police.
My boots will not walk another proverbial mile, so leaving the horses to graze in poor pasture at La Entablada, the only feed in town, I hobble over to the road and pick up a ride on the back of a lorry to Quillabamba*. It is a much larger town where I hope to find a greater selection of footwear. Half hour later, covered in dust, I hop off the truck and make my way to the market. I buy some overpriced trainers, toss my old boots into the trash bin and sit down for a decent lunch at one of the market stalls before catching a ride back to Chaullay. That afternoon I load up the horses and cross the Chuquichaca Bridge into Vilcabamba, setting up camp near the river.
We have arrived at the Sacred Plain at last. Tomorrow begins our exploration of this mythic land!
*The huaycos caused by the 1998 El Niño rains damaged the train line from Cuzco and as a result, 26 kilometres of track, from the Vilcanota Hydroelectric dam to Quillabamba, were torn out. Since then, produce can only be delivered to Cuzco in lorries over the Málaga Pass and the ensuing isolation has impoverished Quillabamba.
Sunday 20 October — Day 8
A column of smoke rises from the still-wet hearth, a timid fire heats a black pot for coffee water. I have pitched my tent near the Chuquichaca bridge, where the Vilcabamba and the Urubamba Rivers meet and I water and wash the horses at the river’s edge. They show evidence of a bad night. The ever-present black flies and mosquitos have not let them sleep and they both have vampire bat wounds. The bath does them good but, unaccustomed to these low altitudes, they are irritated and want to push on to the higher elevations, away from this hostile climate.
We strike camp and follow the winding Vilcabamba River into the interior. It is extremely hot and humid, and the flies and mosquitos a great discomfort, despite all the repellent I’ve lathered on. As we pass the impressive canyons of Mesacancha, where the trail has been carved from the living rock, it is easy to imagine how taxing it must have been for the conquistadores to penetrate this region, so jealously guarded by natural boundaries and fierce Indian warriors. Steep rocky walls plunge to meet the torrential river below and passage in places is very difficult. Patches where coca, coffee or bananas grow can be seen, but overall, the terrain is harsh and very little thrives among the tall weeds. We ride on in silence, hearing only the eternal murmur of the river and the squawking of the birds in the brush.
A narrow canyon brings us at day’s end to an opening in the valley where a once-elegant house, now in ruins, sits perched upon a hill. It is part of a centuries-old hacienda known as Paltaybamba. I am welcomed by the blind, 74 year-old Rosendo Delgado, who has lived on the estate since 1918. Rosendo’s son Mario puts the horses out to pasture and I follow him into a house tucked beneath the old mansion. Inside I meet four chaps deep into a t’inca, the spirited celebration that traditionally follows a sale of livestock with good machachicuj’cha and Cuzqueña beer. Two of them are sons of Rosendo. Another is Rómulo Montes Hermosa, the Justice of the Peace of Incahuasi, and the fourth is the purchaser, a man named Moisés Taya Lazarate who, recalling the most exciting days of his life, wistfully tells me the story of Paltaybamba and of his years as a guerrillero.
Years ago, the Paltaybamba hacienda controlled all the territory from Chaullay to Tarqui, an area of approximately 90 square kilometres. Its owner was José Sebastián Pancorbo, a high functionary in Leguía’s government (1919 – 1930), and his vast properties controlled all the production of coffee, coca, and sugar cane grown in the district. Pancorbo was also actively involved in the exploitation of rubber in the San Miguel Valley, and his methods for securing labourers were notoriously cruel. In 1911 Hiram Bingham witnessed how porters were recruited for his expedition to Vilcabamba and described it as follows:
“When they [the recruiters] were so fortunate as to find the man of the house at home or working in his little chacra they greeted him pleasantly. When he came forward to shake hands, in the usual Indian manner, a silver dollar was unsuspectingly slipped into the palm of his right hand and he was informed that he had accepted pay for services which must now be performed. It seemed hard, but this was the only way in which it was possible to secure carriers.”*
*Hiram Bingham, Explorations in the Highlands of Peru, 1912
The terrible abuses perpetrated on the natives by King Leopold’s men were witnessed by Roger Casement from his lonely outpost on the Congo River in 1904. His scathing indictment to the press in 1908 prompted the universal condemnation that forced the king to relinquish control over what had been his private estate. In 1911 Casement was sent to Peru. Reporting to the British Parliament that year, he denounced the barbarity under which the natives had to work, and the indignation it provoked did much to initiate the decline of the rubber industry in Peru. Yet, until well into the 1930s, with the connivance of the Church, local authorities and government officials, Pancorbo continued his rubber-gathering enterprise in a system of peonage and forced labour that was tantamount to slavery.
The miserable conditions under which the colonos had to live lasted until just over a decade ago. Syndicalism took off on a slow start here, largely due a difference in temperament between the upper and lower Valley settlers. In the lower sections, where great orange groves grow, the people were passive and generally eager to work for the patrón. However, in the upper Valley, and especially the Chaupimayo Valley, the colonos were from the start quite militant, and these differences prevented the syndicates from achieving any positive results. Those who wanted peace and who obeyed the Condiciones were called Q’ello and were earmarked for cowardice by the more militant faction. Nonetheless, during syndicalism’s formative years a strict discipline was kept. Summoned to the call of the pututo (conch shell), the colonos would leave their fields and come running to the hastily assembled meetings.
The other large estate in Vilcabamba was the adjacent Hacienda Huadquiña*, founded centuries earlier by the Jesuits as a sugarcane plantation. Since their expulsion from Peru in 1773 it had been in private hands and was now owned by the Romainville family. Since 1957, Hugo Blanco, an employee at the hacienda, had been organising the colonos into syndicates in defence of their rights, encouraging them to reject the Condiciones. Blanco and his guerrillas fought fierce battles with the landlords of Vilcabamba and, for several years, wreaked havoc in the Chaupimayo Valley. In 1962 his men took over the police post at Puquiura and killed a policeman, causing two other deaths in the lower Vilcabamba ravine of Mesacancha a few weeks later.
*The Huadquiñas hacienda, where Blanco had once worked, was expropriated from the Romainville family. It once measured 148,000 hectares (1,480 square kilometres!), but in 1974 the family owned only a few thousand hectares, used mostly for equestrian breeding and the exploitation of a few silver mines run by young Mario Romainville.
The oligarchs were well-connected and many had relatives in government who sent in troops to put down the revolt, killing many colonos in the process. The uprising culminated later that year, when Blanco led the peasants of Paltaybamba in the overthrow of the hacienda, unleashing the traumatic events that would tear this valley apart. Blanco managed to escape in the fray that followed, only to be captured the following year near Quillabamba. He was tried for sedition and sentenced to 25 years at El Frontón, Peru’s infamous island prison off Callao. But Hugo Blanco’s guerrilla war had not been in vain. General Velasco Alvarado’s 1968 coup d’état initiated an Agrarian Reform that was to expropriate most of the large haciendas and redistribute them amongst the province’s colonos.
In a general amnesty by Velasco Alvarado, Blanco was released from prison in 1970 and deported, spending the next eight years in exile in Sweden, Mexico and Chile. Since 1980 he has been a prominent political figure in Peru.
“There were frightening disorders in those days,” Rosendo recalls with vivid clarity. He had been living with his family in Paltaybamba since the age of eighteen, and that night, clutching his saddlebags, he escaped with the cooks to the trees above the house, where they watched, transfixed in horror, as nearly one hundred angry peasants armed with a single .22 rifle stormed the hacienda. Hernán Cisnaygo, Pancorbo’s son-in-law, was in charge of the estate. The crowd gave him five minutes to pack and leave. Upon asking who was responsible for the confrontation he was told by an angry peasant woman,
“Hurry up and hand over the keys! Are we such lazy people that we can stand round all day?”
Seven men escorted him to Chaullay. Moisés Taya Lazarte, the livestock buyer, puts down his beer. He was one of the seven that day, he tells me.
“We took him to the bridge on a bareback mule to make sure he arrived there alive—we didn’t want to get blamed for his death!”
After the ousting of the owners, Rosendo took possession of Paltaybamba. It was declared a ‘free territory’ and a feast was given in the mansion’s dining room. This was followed by a methodical looting and sacking of the house. The furniture was then piled in a room and set on fire. Afterwards, all the animals were butchered. Paltaybamba continued to work its sugar plantations, now in control of the peasants, but the relative calm was shattered one morning when a massive police force rode up the valley. Cisnaygo had returned with the police and nearly all the inhabitants of Vilcabamba were harassed or imprisoned. Cisnaygo leased his properties to Delgado, who kept them until 1968, when he turned them over to the Reforma Agrarian. For the past six years Paltaybamba has been the property of the Community.
Deep into the night, we get progressively drunker. These terrifying tales make my head spin. I fall asleep in the field under the stars.
Monday 21 October — Day 9
Sunrise brings with it the ever-present heat and I wake up with a splitting headache, groggy from the night before. The tip of my nose is bleeding and my beard is encrusted with blood. I find another cut on my toe. The vampires have fed off me during the night and as I wash in the stream I wonder how the horses have fared.
The Delgado family insists on keeping me for a few more days and I am grateful for the chance to rest.
Wednesday 23 October — Day 11
I take leave of my gracious hosts and ride off on well-rested and considerably fatter horses for the upper valleys of Vilcabamba. A little way up the road, I find that they have tucked into my saddlebags two bottles of their own, home-made machachicuj’cha, a drink of superb quality and extraordinary potency. Hair of the dog indeed, though I best save it for the proper occasion. As we work our way up the valley the weather cools and I decide to camp at day’s end in a small clearing near Coyaochaca, where a battle between the Inca’s troops and the Spaniards was fought on 1 June 1572.
What happened here? I review my notes.
At his capital in Vitcos, Manco Inca lived in relative peace until July 1537, when Almagro sent Captain Rodrigo Orgóñez to capture the city. Manco escaped over the passes with a few followers while the Spaniards were distracted in the sack of the Vitcos. Although Vitcos sat on a high bluff, the ease with which the Spaniards had taken it showed Manco his city was clearly indefensible: he needed to find a new capital where the Spaniards couldn’t reach him. The Chachapoyas chief had offered him asylum and Manco headed north to the high citadel of Kuelap but, mistrusting the chief’s motives, he changed his mind and retreated deep into Vilcabamba, where he built his new city in the torrid jungle depths of the province, confident that the marshy terrain would impede the horses’s passage and deter any Spanish invasion.
Orgóñez’s men had found Vitcos full of spoil and they took back many riches from the mamaconas (holy women) that lived there as well as several mummies of Manco’s ancestors. He kidnapped Manco’s son Titu Cusi and took him back to Cuzco to be kept under the tutorship of a certain Oñate, a wealthy resident of Cuzco. He also kidnapped the Inca’s wife, his sister Ccori Occllo, whom he raped and took to his estate in Yucay, burning her at the stake along with the great general Villac Uma and many of Manco’s closest officers.
The death of his beloved Ccori Occllo struck Manco hard. In retaliation he launched his second insurrection, sending his captains against Spanish convoys travelling the length of the empire, and for several years they killed many conquistadores and their native supporters. The Spaniards in Cuzco were resolved to put an end to this troublesome king however, and they crowned Manco’s half-brother Paullu, a long-time Spanish ally, as the new Inca. With Paullu on the throne of the Tahuantinsuyo, their plan was to marginalise Manco and relegate him into the role of inconsequential provincial cacique.
Almagro had recently returned to Cuzco from his meeting with Pizarro a disappointed man. He and his men had arrived in Cajamarca too late to share in Atahualpa’s treasure and his Chilean expedition had not found the riches he had struggled so hard to obtain. Compared to Pizarro’s supporters, Almagro’s men were poor and bitterly resentful. His only hope lay in obtaining control of Cuzco, whose jurisdiction was only vaguely defined in the territorial divisions laid out by the Emperor Charles V. But negotiations for the control of Cuzco had not gone well and Almagro was now in a state of war with Pizarro. After their first encounter in Abancay their armies met again in April 1538 at Las Salinas, where Almagro was captured and taken prisoner to Cuzco. He was sentenced to death in a summary trial, garrotted in his cell and his corpse put on display in the Plaza de Armas. Orgóñez was also captured and executed along with Almagro.
Gonzalo Pizarro was sent the following year to capture the Inca and easily took control of Vitcos. The Inca once again fled to Vilcabamba with Pizarro in close pursuit, but in May 1539 he defeated Pizarro’s army at Machu Pucará and returned once more to Vitcos.
After the death of Almagro, several of his followers, survivors of the Battle of Las Salinas were fearful of the Pizarro brothers’ inevitable revenge. Manco offered them refuge and for several years they lived in the palace of Vitcos under his protection.
“When Don Diego Almagro was defeated near Cuzco in the battle they call Las Salinas, Captain Diego Méndez, with 13 or 14 soldiers, fled to Vilcabamba, where Manco Inca was. The Inca received and hosted them as soldiers of his friend the adelantado Don Diego de Almagro. They were with him for nearly three years and were well treated in every way. The Inca was very acculturated to Spanish ways, and he knew the games that the Spanish played, which included ninepins, dominoes, and chess. One day while he was playing with Captain Diego Méndez, they had a disagreement over the game, which some say was chess and others ninepins, such that in anger and with little thought and [even] less restraint, the guest said of the Inca and lord: “Look at the dog!” At this the Inca lifted his hand and slapped him. The captain then drew a dagger and stabbed the Inca from which wounds he later died. His captains and Indians came seeking vengeance and tore that Diego Méndez to pieces, along with all the Spaniards who were with him in the province.”
Antonio Bautista de Salazar, The Fall of Vilcabamba, 1596
Hemming disputes this version, arguing that the murder was premeditated. Méndez and his partners had received a note from the Pizarro brothers offering clemency in exchange for murdering the Inca. Under the pretext of a game of horseshoes, they planned to create a specious quarrel to justify his killing. But Manco was unwilling to play and sat on the sidelines as referee. In the spurious argument that followed Méndez drove his knife through Manco’s chest, ending thus the life of the last noble-born Inca to rebel against the Spanish invasion.
After Manco’s murder in 1544, his five year-old son Sayri Tupac, inherited the royal fringe. The Viceroy Hurtado then began a long series of negotiations with the young Inca’s regents in an effort to persuade Sayri Tupac to leave Vilcabamba and settle in Cuzco. The Inca eventually moved to Cuzco, married his sister Cusi Huarcay (with dispensation from the Pope) and settled in Yucay. His sudden death in 1561, however, heightened tensions between the Incas and the Spaniards, who were suspected of having poisoned him.
The royal fringe then passed to his half-brother Titu Cusi Yupanqui, who was living in Vilcabamba, having returned some years prior from Cuzco. The Spanish governor-general Castro wanted Titu Cusi to accept a Crown pension and abandon Vilcabamba for good, and he embarked on negotiations that continued for years.
The Augustinian friars Diego Ortiz and Marcos García had been living in Vilcabamba for several years on a mission to convert the Indians. Friar Ortiz had befriended Titu Cusi and received permission to build a church at Vilcabamba, the first in the province. In 1568 Ortiz baptised the Inca, christening him with the name of Diego de Castro (a combination of the friar’s own name and the governor-general’s surname). During a religious celebration in 1571 however, Titu Cusi suddenly fell ill. Ortiz gave him some medicine but it was to no avail, the following morning the Inca was dead. The priest was blamed for his death and ordered to resuscitate him but, failing to bring Titu Cusi back to life, he was martyrised, dying finally near Marcanay, together with his translator, the mestizo Martín de Pando. He is buried under the altar of the church of Vilcabamba.
The royal fringe then passed to another of Manco’s sons, the shy 26 year-old Inca Tupac Amaru. In March of the following year the new viceroy Francisco de Toledo sent the Royal Emissary Atilano de Anaya to Chuquichaca with letters for the Inca. Distrustful of all Spanish intentions, Inca captains surprised Anaya in his bed and murdered him. His death, and those of the priests, incensed the new viceroy, who decided once and for all to exterminate the Inca, ordering the Governor Juan Álvarez to send a large military force to subdue him. In the expedition were knights of the Order of Calatrava, such as Martín Hurtado de Arbieto and the great-nephew of Saint Ignatius, founder of the Jesuit Order, Martín García de Loyola (who had married Beatriz Clara Coya, daughter of the Inca Sayri Tupac and heiress to vast estates in Yucay, on the Sacred Valley). The Spaniards crossed into Vilcabamba at Chuquichaca and worked their way up the valley encountering no obstacles until they arrived at Coyaochaca, where the Inca commanders had broken up the road and covered it with felled trees and thorns. Thinking the steep ravine an ideal place from which to eliminate the Spaniards, the Inca generals waited with their troops.
“The Indians were in ambush in different places on the upper slope. Others were on the slope below with lances on which to catch those who fell; and in case any should elude their grasp, they had posted Indian archers on the far bank.When the Spaniards arrived, the Indians attacked with much ferocity, and one Indian named Hualpa seized Loyola, who was leading a vanguard force of 50 men, in such a grip that the conquistador was unable to unsheathe his sword. The two fought on the edge of the precipice (Hualpa, trying to hurl the captain down the ravine) until an Indian servant of Loyola’s called Currillo drew Loyola’s sword from the scabbard and he struck a slashing blow at [Hualpa’s] legs so that he toppled, and followed this with another slash across the shoulders which opened them, so that he fell there dead.”
John Hemming, The Conquest of the Incas, 1970, p. 428
The Spaniards responded with heavy fire from their arquebuses and, after two and a half hours, many brave Indians and Inca generals lay dead. This final defeat marked the last battle between Incas and Spaniards.
My reading is interrupted by a farmer who approaches the camp to ask if I can help him clear some brush from the mountainside behind his house. He is wearing a handkerchief over his face that barely conceals a half-eaten nose and missing upper lip. This makes communication difficult, as his ability to speak clearly is impaired. I agree and we get to work, hacking away with our machetes. He is a victim of the uta fly, an infection associated with leishmaniasis, locally called white leprosy, that is quite common in the lower slopes of the Andes. In advanced cases like his, the soft tissues of the face are eaten away, leaving the victim totally disfigured.
During the afternoon’s work we uncover a bronze Inca axe-head buried in the brush. He lets me keep it in exchange for a good measure of salt. It is a poignant reminder of the Inca’s valiant last stand.
Thursday 24 October — Day 12
We are camped on a green meadow with plenty of forage. Although Cariblanco neighed all through the night at a mare in the field below, I wake refreshed to the sound of birds singing in the clear air. I’ve washed up the breakfast dishes and put away the Primus stove and note a woman tending a couple of cows in a nearby field. She agrees to trade some of my salt for sugar, but I still need more provisions: sugar, candles and whatever other foodstuffs I can find. Tomorrow I must ride on to Puquiura and see what’s available.
A terrible rainstorm descends on us in the afternoon. The sky is splintered by lightning, the deafening thunder feels as though the mountain is falling down upon us and the horses are quite frightened. Huddled in my tent, I study the chronicles and prepare my notes.
Friday 25 October — Day 13
A beautiful sunrise augurs a fine day ahead. I have heard of some ruins above Yupanqui which I hope to check out and, in the crisp early morning air, we follow the road to Vitcos. After a league the valley opens up to broad esplanades on both sides and horses and mules can be seen grazing peacefully in the meadows. The tiered terraces so prevalent in the Sacred Valley are not in evidence in Vilcabamba. There is little agriculture here, only large expanses of wild shrubs and the occasional pasture.
At Yupanqui we arrive to the end of the road. There are several houses and a store, the old road crew’s camp, where I purchase supplies and breakfast with eggs. Sitting at a table I find my old friend Rómulo Montes, with whom I had shared in the t’inca back in Paltaybamba. He is on his way home to Incahuasi and together we ride on—he on his mule, I on Cariblanco, leading Q’orisumac. Piles of polished stones lay scattered along the trail, remnants of the old Inca Road, broken up by Tupac Amaru’s generals in 1572. After another league the lovely village of Lucma appears, surrounded by tall mountains and verdant fields that summon thoughts of Austria. Above the village is the first Christian church of Vilcabamba, built by Friar Ortiz under the protection of the Inca Titu Cusi. Its beautiful coloured frescoes belie the humility of its simple thatch roof. Up ahead, a team of twenty or thirty mules is also travelling back to Incahuasi, having delivered its load of coffee to the end of the road. I am impressed by its size and comment to my companion that I hadn’t seen so many mules together in the two weeks I’ve been on the road.
“That’s nothing,” Rómulo tells me. “In the old days you would find mule trains ten times that size!”
An hour later we arrive at Puquiura, where once again, I check in with the police. Following the usual enquiries, Rómulo and I are escorted next door to the bodega where, like in an old Western, I see four or five horses tied outside. We meet three gentlemen from Arma who courteously invite us to join them at their table. The beers flow steadily and the home-made liquor is brought out.
After countless rounds, in an alcoholic haze, Rómulo and I manage to climb back on our horses and continue our way up the valley to Huancacalle, where we stop for refreshments. Standing at the bar we encounter one of the Armeños from Puquiura who’d ridden off alone, and the endless and obligatory toasts are repeated. Finally, and with great difficulty, I break away from this friendly crowd and lead the horses across the river to the ruins of Ñusta Hispana or Yurak Rumi, the ancient White Stone of Chuquipalta, as it is also known.
Yurak Rumi lies between two hills on a lonely plain. Once the most important oracle in the Vilcabamba kingdom, the sacred temple of Yurak Rumi now lies quiet, visited only by roaming bands of horses. Odd forms resembling seats or niches are carved into the massive stone. Tumbled blocks and numerous carved rocks lie strewn in the field, emanating an eerie presence. Two springs on either side have formed an enormous marsh beneath it, though vestiges of canal work under the rock indicate that during Inca times the temple had a system for channeling the water. Visible are traces of a subterranean aqueduct that most likely took the overflow to the river below. No contemporary descriptions of the shrine survive, but it must have been monumental, judging by the dimensions of the rock and the area it occupies.
Fray Diego Ortiz’s plan was to convert all of Vilcabamba, confident that having baptised the Inca, the rest would soon follow. With Titu Cusi’s permission he had built a church in Vilcabamba but that wasn’t enough for the zealous missionary: he wanted to destroy all remaining vestiges of paganism. In 1571 he received news of the sacred shrine and marched to Yurak Rumi with a procession of converts. Horrified by what he saw, he ordered the temple destroyed and set fire to all the buildings. The Indians who witnessed the blaze were said to have issued a sad moan of dismay and tried to kill the priests. It was only through Titu Cusi’s intervention that they managed to escape to Cuzco, from where they returned the following year with chasubles and cloths of damask for the church.
I set up camp on a dry patch of grass next to the ruins and retire for the night, stricken by Manco Inca’s Revenge, brought on, no doubt, by an unhealthy mix of beer and machachicuj’cha.
Saturday 26 October — Day 14
Despite its pastoral beauty, there is a ghostly sense of pain and desolation to this lonely place. It is shrouded in silence and much sadness pervades. I ride Cariblanco down the small valley below Yurak Rumi, where many horses graze and potatoes grow haphazardly on the extensive Inca terracing.
For nine years Manco Inca had lived in Vitcos in relative peace, as did his successors Sayri Tupac, Titu Cusi and Tupac Amaru. But the Spaniards weren’t at peace. As long as there were Indians still to be subjugated, their conquest of the New World would remain incomplete. The Inca and the few followers who were in Vilcabamba presented a constant threat and over the years repeated efforts were made to remove them from their sanctuary.
Following the battle of Coyaochaca, Hurtado de Arbieto and his army moved upriver, finding little opposition along the way. They marched into Vitcos, which they destroyed, carting off to Cuzco the mummies of the Incas Sayri Tupac and Titu Cusi as well as all the gold they could find. But their objective was to capture the Inca, and he was not in Vitcos. A steady desertion to the Spanish of Indians (with their wives and children) provided the conquistadores with intelligence of the Inca’s activities and, learning that Tupac Amaru had fled over the mountain into the lowlands, Captain Loyola gathered a select group of 20 soldiers and took off in pursuit.
Hoping the Spaniards could not follow on their horses, the young Inca and his followers descended the marshy valleys into Manco’s old city of Vilcabamba the Old, known today as Espiritu Pampa (Plain of the Spirits). Without skilled masons or artisans, the houses had been hastily erected and were of poor and rustic construction. There, Tupac Amaru hid in fear and discomfort, unaccustomed to the low altitude and the ever-present insects. He knew the Spaniards were on their way. Moreover, he was now in the land of the hostile Campa Indians, a fiercely independent group that had long resisted the Inca conquest. Soon, Loyola and his men reached a settlement of Campas, where they learned that the Inca had fled downriver in a raft. Cutting down trees, they built rafts of their own and chased Tupac Amaru deep into the jungle, where they found him at last in a forest clearing, huddled over a small campfire with his young pregnant wife. He was taken in chains to Cuzco, where he was summarily tried for treason against the king of Spain (including crimes that occurred before his birth) and executed.
Tupac Amaru’s murder in 1572 extinguished the Tahuantinsuyo, ending forever the largest empire in pre-Columbian America and quite possibly the entire sixteenth century world.
A closer look at the terraces reveals several monolithic stones with “seats” carved into them. From the open pampa above I can see Puquiura on the other side of the valley and Lucma further down. A trail up to Vilcabamba de San Francisco leads past Layancalla and beyond, where in the distance the snow-capped nevados wait. At the summit I find an esplanade flanked by buildings of well-defined Inca ashlar masonry. Although everything is densely overgrown with shrubs, vines and trees, several trapezoidal portals, complete with perfectly cut lintels can be seen emerging from the brush. I walk slowly through a vast network of streets and house foundations recalling that this was once Manco Inca’s capital of Vitcos.
Sunday 27 October — Day 15
It has been a very wet night. Fortunately, the ditches I dug round the tent have kept the water from accumulating underneath. Inside it is warm and damp, but nothing dries in this climate. I check on the horses, pleased their vampire bat wounds have healed, but note that Q’orisumac needs new shoes. That blacksmith back in Ollantaytambo did a poor job. I saddle up Cariblanco and ride into Puquiura, where I hear of a gringo having passed this way with much baggage and I wonder where he’s headed.
I return to the camp for lunch. In the afternoon I explore the ruins between Vitcos and Yurak Rumi, known by the local Indians as Andenpampa (terraced field). The original name is obviously long forgotten, since Andenpampa is hispanicised Quechua. It is a vast area, closed off into canchas, or enclosures, that show very fine ashlar masonry. Most of the fields have been given over to pasture, though a little corn is grown in some. I see many large rock huacas, funerary pyramids, with seats and huatanas, or hitching posts for the sun, carved into them. There are also remains of large rooms with fine lintels and excellent masonry that hold niches built into the walls, where mummies once likely rested. I also notice several marked doorways with seats carved alongside, as if entrances to confessionals or toll gates. These buildings must have been along the road from the capital of Vitcos to the shrine of Yurak Rumi, so perhaps they represent vocational stops along the way.
Back at the camp I build a very large bonfire with huge logs. It is very pleasant and helps keep the mosquitoes away. In the dying light I read Manco Inca’s emotional farewell speech to his people as he stood in Ollantaytambo preparing his departure for Vilcabamba.
“My dearly beloved sons and brothers: … I beg you not to feel pity, my desire is not to cause pain because I love you like my children. Many times have I told you of the way those people have penetrated our land under the pretext that they were children of our God Viracocha, they whose clothes and customs were so different from ours … I brought them to my country and to my people and, in return, they did terrible things to us, dispossessed me of my own land.”
The crowd exclaimed, “Do not leave us! We will accompany you!”
The Inca replied, “Sons: Do not feel pity. I will return or will send you messages. I further recommend that you do not believe a word those bearded men say, because they lie… I order that you always keep your spirits high…when they try to take away your lands, endeavour to defend them, even if it means your life.
… Beware that these men cheat, they do not do what they say… if they truly were sons of the God Viracocha, they would not have done what they have done, since Viracocha has the power to flatten mountains, make the springs flow, raise mountains where there were none, and he causes no one any harm. Instead, these men have caused us so much harm at every turn, taking our farms, our women, sons, daughters, fields, our meals… all by strength or treachery.
People who do so much evil cannot be called Viracochas, but Supay (Devil).”
Luis A. Pardo, El Imperio de Vilcabamba, Cuzco, 1972
Monday 28 October — Day 16
Cariblanco is looking a bit piqued this morning—the weather seems to have dampened his spirits. It has rained all night and it is presently raining buckets. I sit huddled in my tent, undecided where to go next. One option is to head up to Arma and Incahuasi cross the Apurimac, and return home via Cuzco. Another is to follow Manco’s trail up to Vilcabamba de San Francisco and down to the lower valleys of Espiritu Pampa, returning the way I’ve come. I will wait until the rain clears before I make up my mind.
The relentless downpour just continues with no signs of letting up, so I break camp in the pouring rain and head across the river to Huancacalle, where I knock on Julio Cobos’ door. Cobos is the current owner of Espiritu Pampa (where lie the ruins of the lost city of the Incas, Vilcabamba the Old), and he accompanied Gene Savoy on his journey of discovery ten years ago. He tells me the story of Saavedra, Espiritu Pampa’s original owner.
According to Cobos, Saavedra owed Pancorbo, the owner of the Hacienda Paltaybamba, a debt of twenty soles that he was unable to pay. Since Pancorbo controlled all of the Vilcabamba Valley, Saavedra had no place to hide. Pancorbo had a ruthless reputation for violence and Saavedra’s only choice was to leave Vilcabamba and Pancorbo’s jurisdiction completely. So one morning he took off over the mountain as far as Pampaconas, descending further into the jungle until he arrived at last to the ruins of Espiritu Pampa, which he claimed for himself. Fearful of Pancorbo’s long reach, he lived for years in isolation, carving out a meagre living in that distant outpost while earning an undeserved reputation for xenophobia. (Apparently Saavedra’s reputation came from Pancorbo himself. Hiram Bingham claimed that Pancorbo had tried to discourage him from going to Vilcabamba, warning him of the savages and the perils he would face if he went. Bingham went anyway and stayed with Saavedra and his family during the 1915 Yale Vilcabamba Expedition. He spoke very highly of Saavedra’s warmth and hospitality.)
Fascinated by this story, I informed him of my plan to travel to Espiritu Pampa and visit the ruins of Vilcabamba the Old. Remarking that I had been interested in the area since reading of Gene Savoy’s 1964 journey of discovery,
I asked him if he had any recommendations or perhaps could help me draw up a map with directions.
“In this weather you’ll never make it. The trail is very difficult and your horses will get mired in the bog. You should wait three or four months until the rains cease.”
I trade him spools of fishing line for beer and eggs and sit down for a plate of papas a la huancaína. After lunch I head on to Yupanca, losing the last of Q’orisumac’s horseshoe nails and some of my gear along the way. In Yupanca, I meet up with Victor Ricaldes, who has property outside the village with plenty of pasture. He kindly offers his field for us to camp in and I ride over to set up my tent, letting the horses loose in the tall grass.
Tuesday 29 October — Day 17
This morning I ride up to Lucma for another visit to the ancient church. I admire the fading frescoes, convinced that this is the site of Vilcabamba’s first church, built by García and Ortiz over an Inca platform. Above Lucma a ravine leads to a meadow from which a trail winds up to the ruins of Inca Huarcana and Idma Coya. A farmer grazing his cow on the meadow tells me the legend behind the two ruins: Inca Huarcana refers to the place from where the Inca used his huarca, or sling, to hurl a rock at his escaping coya. Idma Coya is the spot where the rock struck and killed the coya. The structure remains a perfectly preserved two-storey prison, complete with stone rings.
“It only needs a roof!” he smiles.
The farmer’s tale echoes the legend of Inca Huarcuna, in which the Inca Tupac Yupanqui, whilst celebrating the defeat of the Pachis tribes, saw a giant condor fall wounded from the skies onto the highest mountain in the Andes, its blood staining the snow-capped peak red. Although the horrified priests interpreted the event as an omen announcing the end of the Empire, the Inca insisted on continuing the celebrations and had a young captive princess brought over for his enjoyment. The young woman had a broken heart, having seen that her lover was among those captured, and she contrived to escape with him in the night. But they were caught in flight and in the skirmish that followed her lover was killed. The Inca then ordered the princess executed, a sentence that only brought her joy, since she desired nothing more than to join her beloved. On the spot where she was killed stands a rock in the form of a woman and it is said that none can spend an entire night there without being devoured by her ghost.
Sharing a few beers that afternoon with my host Victor at the cantina in Yupanca, my thoughts return to Manco Inca and Tupac Amaru. How lonely they must have felt, unaccustomed to insects and the relentless heat, pursued over this same terrain year after year by merciless conquistadores. In the evening I go down to the river and wash. The icy water offers great relief from the insect bites that cover my body, yet a deep sorrow creeps over me like a shadow.
Wednesday 30 October — Day 18
I crawl out of my tent to find my host Victor standing there, like a bad conscience. I know the time has come to leave Yupanca (my landlord tells me so), and I’m torn between heading home or taking the road to Pampaconas and onward to Espiritu Pampa. Both places remain equally inviting, but Cobos has insisted that the trail to Espiritu Pampa is impassable in these conditions. Still, the rains shows no sign of abating and the horses have been showing signs of fatigue, so after breakfast I spin a coin: heads to Urpihuaylla, tails to Pampaconas.
The coin comes up heads.
I strike camp and load the packhorse. Saddled up, I begin the journey home, heading steadily down the Vilcabamba Valley towards Paltaybamba, where at 14:00h we arrive at the house of señora Bocangel. She offers me lunch and introduces me to her friend Leopoldo, a nattily attired colono who boasts of a certain prestige in the area.
It had occurred to me that the easiest way to get home would be to load the horses on to the cargo train that runs from Quillabamba to Cuzco. We would get off at Ollantaytambo and save ourselves another strenuous climb over the Panticalle Pass. I invite Leopoldo to a few beers and talk him into using his local influence to get us on the tren de carga from Santa María to Ollantaytambo.
“No problem, compadre!” he replies, “The station chief is my pata!”
This is good news indeed. At 18:30h, with two exhausted horses, I cross the bridge at Chuquichaca and enter Chaullay. At the Santa María station half a league away I learn that the last train left at 16:00h, and not 20:00h, as Leopoldo had said. I move into a shack near the station and let the poor horses loose to scrounge around for whatever forage they can find. I am very tired, but enjoy the evening singing songs with a dozen of the local children—delightful kids who do much to lift my spirits. I spend the night in the shack feeding the insects’ unquenchable thirst for blood while listening to the rain on the tin roof, thankful for the protection it offers. Tomorrow we will be on the train, on our way home!
Thursday 1 November — Day 19
Todos Santos: Día de los inocentes
At first light I find the Jefe de estación at his desk busy swatting flies, dark rings of sweat under each armpit. He informs me that taking the horses on the train is out of the question until next week. He also wants to charge me an outrageous amount for the “service” and I am left with the sinking feeling that Leopoldo’s influence has been greatly overstated. A nonchalant Leopoldo then shows up at the station on his way to Cuzco, bellbottoms finely pressed, shiny hair slicked back, and I think back on how people rolled their eyes when he spoke. Perhaps it was only an inocentada*, but I’m beginning to suspect he is as crazy as they said he was.
I hike back to Chaullay, where I hope to engage a driver with an empty truck willing to take us over the pass for a reasonable fee. But after standing around the truck depot for twenty minutes in the pouring rain, I give up. I walk back to Santa María and saddle the horses. We set off, up the Lucumayo Valley at a steady pace until we reach Huayopata, where we stop for breakfast. The young girl serving the coffee is from Taray and she recognises me from home. I feel the sharp pang of nostalgia.
*April Fool’s joke
We continue up the valley to Incatambo, where a kind man serves me soup and tea. I climb the spur at the edge of the ravine to have another look at the ruin, a single house of the same quality as Yanamancha. A little below it, I observe the ruins of more buildings that, in the rain, I resist exploring. Its intimate size suggests it was merely a stop along the Inca Road, probably offering relief to the chasquis, Royal messengers who ran from one end of the Empire to the other with their quipus, messages of knotted strings. Further up the valley we reach Huamanpata (hill of the hawk), the old abandoned farm near Alfamayo, where we had stopped on our way down. I let the horses graze in the knee-deep grass and they are delighted. I am amazed by the horses’ memory. Throughout the entire journey they have shown a remarkable intelligence. They really are quite extraordinary animals.
We’ll rest here through tomorrow and then go over the pass down to Tanccac and on to Huayracc Puncco. In the last two days the horses have travelled at least twenty-six leagues: twelve from Santa María to Alfamayo and fourteen from the end of the road to Chaullay—nearly 150 kilometres. We are all quite tired and, if they don’t overeat, I expect these two days’ rest here will do them well.
We’ll rest here through tomorrow and then go over the pass down to Tanccac and on to Huayracc Puncco. In the last two days the horses have travelled at least twenty-six leagues: twelve from Santa María to Alfamayo and fourteen from the end of the road to Chaullay—nearly 150 kilometres. We are all quite tired and, if they don’t overeat, I expect these two days’ rest here will do them well.
Friday 2 November — Day 20
This morning the horses look well fed and rested, though Q’orisumac is covered in insect bites—at least I hope they are insect bites. I’ve been told that all the livestock that has been brought here has died and I have an uneasy feeling about this place. The sky is heavy with clouds that clear at noon as I wash my clothes in the stream. In the afternoon I ride up to Alfamayo for a churrasco montado and a beer at the little wayside eatery next to the police control.
Back at the camp that evening, I reread Hemming’s book while a violent storm descends from the pass, thick sheets of rain shattered by the steady echo of thunder rolling down from distant mountains.
Saturday 3 November — Day 21
The gods are with us. It is a beautiful morning and the clear blue skies over the towering nevado of Veronica offer a welcoming sight. I break camp, pack the horses and return to Alfamayo for breakfast. Señor and señora Zamora, whom I had met on the way down, serve me a generous portion of lechón with tamales and coffee at their little restaurant. We spend an hour in idle chat, admiring the magnificent views of the nevados sparkling in the sun before I mount and ride on.
After riding for several leagues, I calculate our position to be above the area where the huaycos occurred and we leave the road to follow the old Inca trail along the Lucumayo River. Though steep and slippery, it offers a straight line to the pass and we can avoid the curves of the road that goes up to San Luis and over the crest. It is mid afternoon by the time we arrive at Canchayoc, a poor cluster of houses that cling fast to the mountainside. I am affectionately greeted by the campesino who remembers us from our way through here three weeks ago and we share a bottle of beer. Warmed by my efforts to speak Quechua, he pulls out a dusty bottle of port wine, obviously saved for special occasions. It is undrinkable. I ask him directions to the pass and he assures me it’s an easy climb: “Pura pampa, fácil no más!”
Encouraged, I thank him and remount.
We continue on to the little bridge across the Lucumayo and follow the ravine up to the Panticalle Pass. Before us is a very steep climb over sheer puna. All trace of the trail has now disappeared in the sparse vegetation and the horses struggle for footing in the thin air. The reassurances of the man from Canchayoc were nonsense: the climb is very, very steep. We arrive at the crest a few hours later and I notice we are still a long way from the pass. I now understand the meaning of ‘crestfallen.’
A thick mist drifts up from below and suddenly all visibility is lost. We are climbing blind in a dense fog whose silence is broken only by the sound of the wind whistling through the ichu grass and the panting of the horses. Into this eerie emptiness we climb for hours, hoping we are on the right trail, when suddenly, out of the gloaming, an apacheta emerges. It is a sacred cairn of stones deposited by generations of travellers in honour of the Pachamama and the Apus, ancient spirit guardians to see them safely on their journey, and I know we have crested the pass. We begin our descent in the fading light towards Tanccac and the Sacred Valley in a landscape that in the clearing mist grows increasingly more beautiful. The towering nevados, now a dull gold in the last rays of the sun, seem to follow us down the valley, and we pass the silent ruins of Inca terraces, houses and grain bins, until at last we arrive at the little hamlet of Piñas.
The sun has slipped behind the mountains and it is getting dark. After twelve solid hours of riding and hiking I am very tired. A family of Indians offers to put me up for the night and I gratefully tie up the horses outside, thinking I’ll finally learn whether they take off their numerous layers of clothing for the night.
I enter the house. There are no windows, light can only enter through the corrugated tin door which is usually kept closed. The interior’s mud walls are heavily sooted from smoke and it takes me some minutes to adjust to the gloom of a solitary candle. At one end is the cooking-hearth. It has no chimney. The smoke can only exit through the thatch of the roof. Under a couple of shelves fixed to the wall a few benches surround the hearth. On one shelf sits a portrait of San Martín de Porras with a biscuit placed carefully before it, as an offering. Next to it is another shelf, with a transistor radio. At the other end of the room a bed is covered in ragged blankets and many sheepskins. Leaning against the bedpost is a chaquitaccla* and from a hook in the wall hangs an unlit kerosene lamp. Under piles of sacks two children sleep on the ground with several hens and their chicks. Dirty little cuys scamper over the dirt floor, scrounging for food with the cat and dog.
One and a half rooms are shared in the darkness by two couples, an old lady and an assortment of children. None of them speak Spanish but they are warm and hospitable. I give them all the potatoes, onions and rice I have and invite the entire family to my jar of Nescafé. The glee they demonstrate on drinking it leads me to suspect they’ve never tried it before. Afterwards, we all settle in for the night, bundled under our layers.
The ladies sleep in all their garments, I notice.
*A primitive foot plough
Monday 4 November — Day 22
I awake at the crack of dawn and saddle the horses. We follow the trail down to Huayracc Puncco, where I am warmly received by the owner who remembers my previous visit. He asks me in for coffee and gives the horses alfalfa and chala (cornstalks). After a pleasant chat I ride on to Ollantaytambo and take a room at the inn with corral space for the horses. The innkeeper sells me a tercio of alfalfa and I take the horses to the blacksmith, who gives them both shiny new shoes.
In the evening I run into my old friend, Blas, a Spanish Jesuit who runs an NGO. He has created a cooperative of weavers in the highlands and operates a school for illiterate mothers. Over the years, we have often enjoyed long philosophical conversations and this time he engages me in a metaphysical discussion about Truth and Realisation. But I find myself lost for words. Perhaps so many days with little human interaction have stunted my ability to articulate coherent thoughts. Or perhaps it is simply the weight of so much history bearing down on me that shifts my perspective and renders everything else insignificant.
It is easy to think about the Conquest in terms of morality. The Spanish conquistadores, were certainly brutal in their treatment of the Incas, yet one must remember that the Incas also built their empire with tactics that can only be described as savage. In 1532, when Pizarro arrived in Cajamarca, only a mere 40 years had elapsed since King Boabdil handed the keys to Granada over to the Catholic Kings, ending thus the reconquista, a seven-hundred year crusade to wrest the Iberian peninsula from Moorish hands. Also that year, Columbus had opened to exploration and exploitation the world beyond the Atlantic and, in the spirit of conquest, adrenalin-driven and battle-hardened hidalgos, impoverished by years of fighting, viewed the New World as a source of wealth and distinction. They saw opportunities of conquest and riches available to anyone who could afford the passage. Moreover, a Roman Catholic Church, eager to convert distant heathens, provided these men with the justification for plunder, excusing their behaviour as doing the work of God.
It must be noted that neither Pizarro or Cortés in Mexico could have accomplished what they did without the invaluable assistance of recently subjugated tribes, only too eager to be rid of one harsh master in exchange for another. Their support not only strengthened the ranks of the invading troops with men, it also provided the Spanish commanders with critical intelligence on political organisation, palace intrigues and the movement of native troops.
So the Conquest can only be viewed through a Darwinian prism, the inevitable result of a dialectical evolution where the strong supplant the weak. Morality unfortunately, doesn’t enter into the equation. If we take a linear look at History, we find that throughout the ages empires have risen through conquest, only in time to crumble beneath the weight of corruption, ineptitude and miscegenation to feed invaders hungry for an empire of their own. The tragic deaths of Atahualpa, Manco Inca, Sayri Tupac, Titu Cusi and Tupac Amaru were merely the last dominoes to fall at the end of the game. Their killers, Pizarro and Almagro also suffered violent deaths, and the colonial era they ushered changed the lives of the Andean people forever.
But the spirit of the Incas lives on in the silent citadels that lie in ruins on the mountainsides, in the Quechua language still spoken by millions and in the ceremonies to the Pachamama celebrated across the vast Andean region. Their descendants mixed with the Spanish to form the mestizo culture that live on the Sacred Plain, farming and mining as they’ve done for centuries.
With these and other thoughts circling round, I return to my room and settle in for the night. How very luxurious it feels to sleep between sheets again!
Tuesday 6 November — Day 23
Rising early, I go over to the `Pensión Bahía’ and find Blas sitting down with his partner Andrés for breakfast of eggs and toast in the courtyard. Over coffee they inform me that later this morning they’ll be driving their pickup up the Valley to P’isaq and I ask them if they can take my load of cargo to Taray. With the second horse free from having to carry the pack, I can ride the sixty kilometres to my house in a single day, switching horses when one of them tires. They heartily agree and after breakfast we load Q’orisumac’s pack onto the truck.
I watch them drive off and saddle up Cariblanco for the long ride home.
In 1974, Vilcabamba had seen relatively few people from the outside. At that time I had been living in Peru for a couple of years, avidly studying archaeology and the history of the Incas. My readings had taken me through the contemporary chronicles of Cieza de León, Guamán Poma de Ayala and Inca Garcilaso de la Vega to the nineteenth century writings of Sir Clements Markham and William Prescott. Prescott’s 1847 book was brilliant, but he was blind and had never left his native Massachusetts. I was eager to read more recent studies though, and turned to Kaufmann Doig’s Manual of Peruvian Archaeology and John Rowe’s insightful book on Inca culture in the Handbook of South American Indians.
Then I read about the explorers. Hiram Bingham famously visited it in 1911 on a well-financed expedition to search for the lost city of the Incas, finding, quite fortuitously, the hidden city of Machu Picchu, crown jewel of Peru’s tourist industry. He then made his way into the marshy lowlands of Espiritu Pampa, but in the overgrown stones he found little to convince him it was the Vilcabamba the Old. In 1964 Espiritu Pampa was again visited, this time by the explorer Gene Savoy, who is justifiably credited with having identified Espiritu Pampa as Vilcabamba the Old, the last capital of the Inca.
Reading about Hiram Bingham’s expedition and Gene Savoy’s journeys to Vilcabamba certainly piqued my interest, but it was John Hemming’s excellent 1970 history of the Conquest of the Incas that brought to life the players of the conquest’s final act in such compelling detail what finally spurred me to travel to the area. Only ten years had elapsed since Savoy’s expedition and, given the rapid changes overtaking the country, I knew I had to see Vilcabamba now, before it was gone forever.
Regrettably, I initiated the trip too late in the year, at a time when the summer rains begin and the weather makes travel difficult. Yet the three weeks I spent there gave me a taste of a lifestyle that was quickly disappearing. Mule trains still carried produce to market along narrow trails; farming implements and methods remained unchanged since the time of the Inca; highways for vehicular traffic had yet to be constructed, and mass tourism and low-cost airlines had not yet changed the face of cities. Most importantly, I returned from the Sacred Plain warmed by the enduring memory of people of easy grace and warm hospitality who welcomed me into their homes and left me with the fondest recollections of a beautiful place, lost in time.
Vilcabamba has predictably seen great changes in the intervening years. It once took me a week to travel from Taray to Chuquichaca. Now a taxi takes tourists all the way from Cuzco to Vitcos for $28 in 6 hours! Trekking companies now offer tours to all the Inca sites in Vilcabamba, complete with porters and prepared meals. The snow-bound pass I climbed twice now has a highway offering tourists views of spectacular scenery (all posted on Pinterest) and the Lucumayo River is transited by kayakers. There’s even an agency that takes cyclists to the top of the pass for them to coast all the way down to Chaullay, and the Sacred Valley is filled with resorts and fashionable B&Bs. All these changes I have gleaned from Google. Still, unable to slow the inexorable progress of time, I can only be grateful for the chance I got, so many years ago, to visit a place where time once stood still.
The three-week journey to Vilcabamba and back from Urpihuaylla (Taray) covered an estimated 500 kilometres. The climate varied, from the subtropical Sacred Valley (2900 masl) to the high altitude Panticalle Pass (4321 masl), to the tropical ceja de selva of Chaullay (1200 masl). Vitcos and Yurak Rumi lie at an elevation of 2764 masl.
Map and timeline excerpted from John Hemming’s book,“The Conquest of the Incas”, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., New York, 1970
CHRONOLOGY OF THE CONQUEST
16 November 1532: Pizarro captures Atahualpa in Cajamarca
17 June – 16 July 1533: Cajamarca: Distribution of silver and of gold
26 July 1533: Execution of Atahualpa
15 November 1533: Pizarro enters Cuzco
December 1533: Coronation of Manco Inca
6 January 1535: Foundation of City of Kings (Lima) by Pizarro
12 June 1535: Agreement between Pizarro and Almagro
3 July 1535: Almagro leaves for Chile
Oct – Nov 1535: Manco Inca attempts to flee but is imprisoned
6 May 1536: Manco’s forces attack and set fire to the city
Late May 1536: Juan Pizarro killed during recapture of Sacsahuaman
18 April 1537: Almagro seizes Cuzco from Hernando Pizarro
mid-July 1537: Rodrigo Ordóñez pursues Manco to Vitcos
26 April 1538: Battle of Las Salinas: Hernando Pizarro defeats Almagro
8 July 1538: Hernando Pizarro executes Almagro
April – July 1539: Vilcabamba invaded by Gonzalo Pizarro; Battle of Chuquillusca
26 July 1541: Francisco Pizarro murdered by Almagrist supporters
mid-1544: Manco Inca murdered by Diego Méndez and renegades
July – August 1548: Negotiations between Gasca and Sayri Tupac’s regents
7 October 1557: Sayri Tupac leaves Vilcabamba after months of negotiations
1561: Death of Sayri Tupac in Yucay; Titu Cusi crowned in Vilcabamba
9 July 1567: Titu Cusi performs act of submission to Spain in Vilcabamba
August 1568: Titu Cusi baptised at Huarancalla
Jan – Feb 1570: Friars García and Ortiz visit Vilcabamba
March 1570 Friars burn Chuquipalta (Yurak Rumi); García expelled
c. May 1571: Death of Titu Cusi, accession of Tupac Amaru
March 1572: Inca captains kill envoy Atilano de Anaya
14 April 1572: Viceroy Toledo declares war on Vilcabamba
1 June 1572: Battle of Coyaochaca
24 June 1572: Vilcabamba City occupied by Hurtado de Arbieto
24 September 1572: Tupac Amaru executed in Cuzco