Adventure SpecialistsInca Cota Coca; gateway to the Vilcabamba
A report of the April 2002 Vilcabamba Expedition
by Gary Ziegler 5/2002

A small international team of specialists and local field staff supported by pack mules and horses descended on the Vilcabamba range near the ceremonial site of Choquequirao to conduct an exploration and study of a newly located Inca period settlement during April, 2002.

Site diagram and photo overview

Background- Adventure Specialists, my own adventure travel company and British ornithologist Barry Walker’s Cusco based Manu expeditions have sponsored a number of exploratory archaeological expeditions into Peru’s remote Vilcabamba. During the exploration season 2001, Cusco archaeologist, Ernesto Garcia, two field workers and I came upon stone walls and structures covered by dense vegetation on an isolated bench or pampa beside the river in the deep Yanama Canyon near Choquequirao.

Having insufficient time to thoroughly investigate, we were only able to clear a few structures attempting a rough idea of what we had found. We made sketches, snapped photos, fought off ferocious bugs and abandoned the hot bottom for the cooler heights of the Inca site Victoria/Corihuayrachina some 1400 meters above.

Over the long winter months Barry, British film maker/explorer, Hugh Thomson and I planned a return expedition for the following April. Meanwhile, National Geographic had announced with some exaggeration to the world that nearby Victoria or Corihuayrachina as it was now called, was a large major site. This, coupled with recent international development funding and publicity about Choquequirao would insure a deluge of visitors to the region in spite of remoteness and difficulties of travel. We felt an urgency to study this new undisturbed site before it was inevitably ransacked and looted, the unfortunate usual fate of unprotected archaeological finds in Peru if not immediately protected.

Advertising at Adventure Specialists’ web site and generous mention on the South American Explorers home page helped produce three contributing sponsor/participants to pay the bills in the spirit of what we call archaeo-tourism.

Barry’s old friend, Australian explorer and experienced South American guide, John Leivers joined our team along with Greg Dansforth from California and Anne and Gary Bradley from Colorado. Veteran Andean explorer ( NGS Vilcabamba Expedition 1963) Nicholas Asheshov joined us for the trip into Choquequirao.

Our very experienced Vilcabamba wranglers, Pio Espinosa and Froilan Munos headed up a team of eight mule handlers and field helpers. Cooks Ramiro Huaman and Raul Cobos rounded out the crew. All would serve as machete swingers and as explorations teams. Froilan and Ramiro are particularly skilled at measuring the size of structures as well as turning out great aji de gallena (local spicy chicken dish).

Operations- We trucked our own saddle horses from Nick’s Hotel Incaland, their home pasture in the Sacred Valley, to the start of our route at the village of Cachora some six hours by vehicle from Cusco. Scrambling down into and across the great Apurimac gorge with mounts and a string of 16 mules in tow, we passed through the large ceremonial site of Choquequirao then out several days more into the wild Vilcabamba beyond.

Following a quick camp night at Choquequirao, we humped up through deep mud over the pass, down to the Rio Blanco, then back up to camp at Froilan’s chacra (farm) below Cerro Victoria and the now infamous Corihuayrachina site.

Froilan and Victoria’s only other resident, Valentin Saca ( also our wrangler) had cut a trail down into the deep Yanama canyon. With some additional clearing, we worked our collage of horses, mules, and people down to camp beside the Yanama River. Meanwhile, the advance crew cut a trocha (trail) to the site and had the area pretty much cleared as we arrived with clip boards, measuring tape, Brunton transit and GPS (global positioning system) in hand.

We now split into three radio equipped teams. Pio’s eager squad struck out to fully explore the valley, locate and identify any and all man made features. The second, headed by John set out apprehensively with climbing rope and poles to cross the rain swollen river. We needed to know what if anything might lie on a shelf of pampa on the far side.

Hugh and I claimed the third crew with Anne, Gary and Greg along with cook Ramiro and several of the machete gang tasked with measuring walls that seemed to pop out of the brush in complex and incomprehensible arrangements. It is easy to map a building or two. The down side of charting a large site is that it is very difficult and time consuming to accurately map in proper scale. Besides it didn’t all fit on my note book page! Architect/explorer Vince Lee would have knocked it out in half of the time.

The main complex was mapped; exploring teams reported back; the extent of the site determined in the two days that we had available. We all argued interpretation and ‘what was its’ around the evening happy hour.

Froilan in his ramblings spotted what he thought are stone walls across the deep Rio Blanco from our site ( see map). Although only two hundred meters or so from our side, it is impossible to get there from here. John volunteered to lead an away team down from the camp we use on the return to Choquequirao.

Reaching the enigmatic water shrine, Pincha Unuyoc ( Registered by Hugh in 1982; Found by Barry in 1987; reported by Vince Lee in 1996...oh well so goes exploring!) on the long climb back up the Rio Blanco hillside two days later, we camp as John and Froilan chop 600 meters back down to the Rio Blanco’s junction with the Rio Yanama. Hugh monitors the radio as night fall overtakes the Vilcabamba. Late arrival...hand smashed by a rock, stung by wasps, the duo returns to share a startling discovery. They have located the long missing main Inca road and yet another settlement.

Cotacoca ( code name: Cokecola), as we decided to call the site, is situated at 1850 meters of altitude near the junction of the Yanama and Blanco rivers about equidistant between Choquequirao and the Inca settlement at Cerro Victoria. We have now determined that a main Inca road passed near the site and down the Yanama valley which has experienced much flooding and lowering of the water channel since Inca times. It is unlikely that the site was visited or known of following the fall of the last Inca Tupac Amaru in 1572. At least one early explorer, Eugene Sangres may have passed this way to reach Choquequirao in 1834. He refers in his writing to the lower Yanama Valley being a “cane growing area known as Cotacoca” although he makes no mention of ruins.

Cerro Victoria’s ridge almost 2000 vertical meters above contains rich silver deposits. The ridge within a few hundred meters of the summit is pockmarked with mine workings that may date back to Inca times. Some were last worked as late as the 1980s and certainly were worked during the colonial period. The nearby ( 1/2 day walk) colonial era village of Yanama was the base for the mining. It is doubtful that colonial or recent miners found their way down the steep and heavily forested slope to the Yanama Valley. We have found no trail or probable route connecting the two sites. Each were on separate Inca roads far removed.
This is reinforced by evidence that Corihuayrachina (Victoria) was heavily looted while Cotacoca appears untouched.

It is unlikely that any of the early visitors to Choquequirao found Corihuayrachina or Cotacoca. Although only a few air miles distant, they are a world away across a deep canyon with connecting Inca routes long lost and severed. The sites were never documented, reported or known to the outside world until our present investigations.

Site Description
Cotacoca is situated at 1850 meters along a gently sloping, hanging pampa or bench some two kilometers long, left as an erosional remnant when the Yanama river cut a deep chasm near its intersection with the Rio Blanco. The valley bottom is hot and semi tropical with a curious selection of dry region plants, cactus and acacias reminiscent of the Copper Canyon in the north of Mexico. This may indicate a micro climate environment created by the deep canyon.

Like Choquequirao, the bed rock is an assortment of metamorphic muscovite schist and fine grained yellowish quartzite. A considerable depth of alluvial deposit swept in by river flooding and canyon breakdown covers the valley floor. Much of this material is an igneous gray granite in the form of rounded river stones carried down from far up river.

Cotacoca contains some thirty plus structures including a seventy five foot long kallanca ( meeting hall ), a number of well made rectangular houses and oval-round low structures that may have been a group of wood sided store houses and residences. Two large walled enclosures (175' x 100') may have been holding pens for passing llama trains.

We have divided the site into five sectors for reference:

Sector I-Main Cancha Group
Sector II- West group
Sector III- Corrals and Walls
Sector IV- South Group
Sector V- Canal House and Canal

Sector I consists of a large walled cancha ( compound ) enclosing a central plaza bordered on three sides by unusual buildings and a smaller cancha with two well constructed houses facing each other in Inca style. An unusual feature is a thick (1 1/2 x 1 1/2 meter) wall that runs at an angle from one corner of the smaller cancha some 50 meters to point directly towards Pincha Unuyoc on the mountainside above. The group is classic Inca cancha style. See ‘The Incas and Their Ancestors’ Michael Moseley; page 75 for an illustration of a similar cancha.

Sector II is made up of 12 low walled ( 1 meter high ) rectangular, round and oval structures up to 10 meters in length that we believe contained wood sided houses. All would have had thatched grass roofs. Each has a single entrance way made from coursed, selected and squared quartzite blocks.

Sector III contains the long walls we think are llama pens. They begin some 50 meters to the south of the main chanca and run parallel and near the river course( N-S ). A stepped round wall enclosing several boulders at the far south end of one of the enclosures appears to be a huaca or small shrine.

Sector IV is an area of round ( 4-7 meter diameter) low walled structures made from large rounded river stone. This group may be preInca or represent imported worker (Mitayos) housing away from the main group. We were not able to clear and examine all of these so the exact number is unknown.

Sector V is a single rectangular house perched on a small rise overlooking the river and a wide depression running for some distance that we believe to be a acequia or water canal now left high and dry by the eroding river cut below. A long stone wall runs at a slight angle to the depression. This sector is approximately 300 meters up river from the main group.

Preliminary conclusions

Like most exploratory investigations in the Vilcabamba, our time and resources were limited, hindered by extreme conditions, physical exhaustion and difficult access. So regrettably, I must label our conclusions as preliminary. Unlike the previous season’s well funded NGS project at Victoria, we lacked the bucks and more the political dedication to obtain the required Instituto Nacional de Cultura ( INC) permit to excavate or collect samples. We examined a number of potsherds scattered about but found none with the definitive decoration and style needed for classification. I resisted with difficulty the temptation to test pit for the informative material that we know must be there in this currently unlooted site. Never the less, experience has taught me that we can learn the most about an Inca site by careful surface observation associated with the location, architecture, construction, layout and relationship to other sites.

The main group containing the large meeting hall and a smaller compound could have served as overnight lodging for the Inca or other privileged travelers. The lay out is functional rather than ceremonial. Other buildings may have housed resident administrators, quipucamayos (record keepers) workers, servants and the usual assortment of retainers living and working about such an outpost. The number of closely grouped round and oval structures may have been a combination of resident mitayo ( imported workers) lodging and store houses for corn and other commodities. As with most such sites, the surrounding area would have been cultivated and may have also been a coca growing region which the climate and altitude would permit. The flat, occasionally walled fields on the upriver approach associated with a water canal suggest that tropical fruit may has been grown as well. However the complex is not an agricultural settlement.

Cotacoca appears to have been an administrative and storage/supply center on the main road between the interior of Vilcabamba and to our surprise, the Apurimac region beyond. We discovered that the Yanama Valley road is the continuation of the Vitcos-Choquequirao route coming over Choqueticarpo pass which heads down to and must have crossed the Apurimac. We also found the missing trail up to Choquequirao branching from this road and more structures below Pincha Unuyoc, above and across the Rio Blanco. This indicates that Choquequirao may have only been accessed from this one dead end trail up the back side from the Rio Yanama via Pincha Unuyoc and the extensive agricultural settlement on that approach.

This explains why we have not been able to locate an Inca road down from the front side, perhaps another reason that colonial authorities and the Cusco Incas seemed never to have learned of Choquequirao during rebel Inca times. Access was controlled and restricted at Cotacoca. Parties without a need to know would have just been sent along what only seemed the road to the Apurimac. I now think that Victoria-Corihuayrachina may also have been a dead end connecting back to the Yanama road.

As to who built and used Cotacoca we can only surmise that it must have been initially built, abandoned and utilized at the same times as Choquequirao and Corihuayrachina/Victoria as part of a network of interconnected, economically supportive sites. The pottery and archaeological record at these sites now indicates early transitional (Kilke) occupation followed by imperial Inca then, by Vilcabamba or Neo-Inca ( Manco et al).

Our hope is to undertake or support a detailed investigation including excavation of Cotacoca that will produce more data before the site is disturbed or looted. Currently, in coordination with the Victoria/Corihuayrachina project, Froilan Munos and Valentin Saca are guarding the approaches to both sites with authorization of the INC. We have left them a stipend from our expedition account as funds from Cusco may be long in the coming.

Finally, we are very pleased with our find. It may not be an illusive lost City or legendary Piatiti but nice Inca sites, particularly a significant one such as Cotacoca are hard to come by these days. Until the next expedition....

Gary Ziegler is an archaeologist, mountaineer and explorer who has spend a lifetime studying the Incas and remote regions of Peru. He is co-owner of Adventure Specialists, a Colorado ranch based adventure tour operation that runs educational treks, horse trips and research expeditions in Colorado, Peru and Mexico's Copper Canyon. His expeditions have located the important Inca sites of Corihuayrachina, Cota Cota and Llactapata. He is a Fellow of The Royal Geographical Society, The Explorers Club and a sometime lecturer at Colorado College. He can be contacted at:

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