Lisas kahauna; Inca Settlement Found Near Machu Picchu
A report from the April 2001 Adventure Specialists Expedition.

Gary Ziegler

store house group at Sapamarca

Zero, nada, nothing there but dense forest and a melodious concerto of exotic bird calls reminiscent of an old Tarzan movie...David Espejo and his crew of local helpers report back from a day long reconnaissance of the vegetation covered mountain above our camp. This is our second visit to an unusual Inca site overlooking the Urubamba River beyond Machu Picchu. The first took place last year as we searched for new ruins to complete a Discovery Channel funded film in Peru’s remote Vilcabamba.

Director Tim Toni and I hunker down around a bottle of Pisco. The filming has gone well but we need to locate something new and exciting for a climactic ending. I remember that an old map indicates a site somewhere above Chaullay, the present day town where the famous Inca bridge, Choquechaca crossed the Urubamba. This could possibly be ruins that I saw from the air while returning to Cusco by helicopter. The weather was uncertain that day and we were flying high. They could be closer to the Urubamba than I had imagined. Setting out with hope, expectations and a sense of unspoken desperation, we load the gear and crew for the long, rough drive down the Vilcabamba canyon road. Winding, narrow with staggering drops...our 2 1/2 ton Volvo truck barely stays on the roadway. At one point the outside tire of the rear duals hangs off of the edge. Max Polly, our cameraman coolly films away onboard as we wimps unload to walk this stretch. Up canyon a bit from Chaullay, we cross the Vilcabamba then head up the other side of the canyon to dead end high above at the small community of Limonpata.

With unusual good fortune we immediately find a herder who has heard of ruins seen by a relative looking for lost cows. Off we go. About three hours up, we find several remarkable buildings in cloud forest overlooking the Urubamba. They appeared untouched and unvisited. One is a multi-roomed, two story affair about 165' long in very good condition. The stone is worked and coursed quartzite much like the ceremonial center at Choquequirao. I could not have seen this from the air, We have found something new! This is not the place indicated on the map either. Have we made the discovery needed to complete the film with pizzazz ?

Several curious Limonpata residents have accompanied us. We will have plenty of help clearing. While Max and Tim poke about looking for heroic raider like places to film. David Espejo and I attempt to determine the extent of the site. This place must be more extensive than just the several structures we have seen.

Unfortunately, too little time...the going is impossible in the thick tangle. We use up the remainder of the day taking measurements, making a rough site plan and finishing the film. What is this place? My first impression is that it is a huaca (temple shrine) to the important river apu (deity), Urubamba below. The walls are well made with nicely worked corners but the structure is of a curious design. Windows and doorways are rectangular rather than the typical tapered shape. The usual interior niches commonly found in Inca buildings are missing. It seems more like a kind of well made store house similar to several at Choquequirao. For now, we are out of time and energy. Serious investigation and interpretation will have to wait until the next visit. At the road head camp, we crack a bottle of cognac borrowed from Barry Walkers’s Cusco Cross Keys Pub for just such an occasion. Flushed with success, film ‘in the can’, we stage a grand celebration!
As it turns out we had not made a new find. We had relocated Sapamarca, an unstudied site reported in 1986 (1). Unfortunate as it may be for filming promotion and the offer of immediate new funding, it matters not to us who first reported it. The extent, purpose and identity of the site remain unknown. Here was a wonderful new mystery to focus explorations on. What else is up there hidden in the high cloud forest?

Now we are back. The intense rains of January-March which preclude travel in the Andes are over. We have a quick few days in April to do a bit of exploring before other demands draw me back to my ranch in Colorado. In the grand old tradition of exploration established by Hiram Bingham and Gene Savoy, I had offered a monetary reward to villagers in Limonpata and nearby Chuquipata for information or knowledge of ruins. Several conveyed rumors of ruins near a village at the end of the road beyond Chuquipata.“Si Senor..hay ruinas grandes en cima de la communidad” Yes, senor...there are big ruins above the village. So we bump along the seldom used, death defying, zig -zag single track lane that climbs up then steeply down to end at a small village of undetermined name high up on the south side of the deep Vilcabamba River gorge.

What a surprise...! the entire community of perhaps a hundred citizens is assembled in the small plaza seemingly awaiting our arrival. A discordant band of assorted horns, strings and percussion whips out an Andean version of something like God save the Queen as we lurch to a halt in front of the waiting delegation dressed in ceremonial finery.“Bienvenidos Senor Alcalde” welcome Senor Mayor says the assembly. We are speechless! What have we stumbled into here? I was once sheriff of my home Custer County Colorado but never have I in my wildest dreams, aspired to be Alcalde of the Province of Quillabamba!

The mystery is soon solved. The community is waiting for a once in a lifetime visit from the principal political authority of the region, the Alcalde of distant Quillabamba. Apparently, Senor Alcalde has scheduled a meeting with this remote village to hear their request for the completion of a power line to bring in electricity. He has not arrived and we have. I joke that I forgot to wear a tie but humor is soon put aside. We have lucked into a remarkable opportunity. Here in front of us is everyone with information about the surrounding area. Over the obligatory salutations and toasts with freshly prepared Chicha corn beer, I explain that we are seeking ruins. Does anyone know of any ruins? Senor, busca usted oro, no? Senor, you are looking for, gold , no? I carefully explain that we are only interested in studying the past. No, we are not looking for gold! Of course they don’t believe us. Why would anyone waste time and money looking for old walls and bones?

But, unfortunately, no one knows of any ruins. Yes there is an Inca road high up at the end of the valley, the current foot-mule route to Santa Teresa and the rail head below Machu Picchu. This is a road that we identified during previous explorations (2). Someone mentions curious rock piles but no, No hay ruinas, there are no ruins. We have drawn a blank here. But all is not wasted, we can cross off a significant area of the map and what an interesting experience! We weigh our options. The best plan is to return to Sapamarka, thoroughly investigate the area and seek out new stuff there.

David tosses his mud covered pack by the cook tent. It has been a long demanding day with little to show for the effort. Studying the newly published topo map for the region, we decided that a main Inca road must have gone up from the site to connect with the high trail to Machu Picchu from the last Inca’s old capital, Vitcos.

A rounded mountain summit with saddle behind looked like the perfect place for Inca ruins (3). But no, nothing road, not even a crumbled wall. We carefully search several square kilometers. The flat area behind the nearest mountain top is ideal, even featuring several small lakes in a magical setting with Machu Picchu in sight. Most of the elements of mountain worship are present, a spring and small lake, views of important Ice peaks, view of the sacred Urubamba River, Vilcamayu the earthly embodiment of the Milky Way. Unbelievable that the Inca missed placing a temple huaca here...(4)

Our time here is not wasted however. While David and crew were poking around on the mountains above, Amy Finger, co-owner of our Colorado based company, Adventure Specialists, another crew and I completed a preliminary site survey while clearing, measuring and mapping the two principal building groups. I decide that the group we examined last year is an unusual compound of three two story, store houses colqas bound together by retaining walls (5). The field stone walls were probably plastered over with a colored clay like similar buildings at Ollantaytambo and Choquequirao although no remnant now remains. This is understandable as nearby Machu Picchu receives around 70 inches of annual rainfall (6). The clay has washed away. A stone paved channel brings water from a spring close in near the store houses. This is currently running. I suspect it has been repaired by local herders below to provide water for their use.

The second group located some 300 meters up the mountain side to the south is also unusual. The main structure is a 30 meter long rectangular, single story building without niches or windows. The north Urubamba facing side has four equally spaced doorways. Construction is mortared field stone with shaped corner stones (7). Again, it most likely was clay plastered inside and out which would have hidden the crude stone work. My immediate impression is that this is an assembly or meeting hall Kallanca but not a particularly important or high status one. Several crumbled walls and ruined common houses complete the group. Interestingly, Machu Picchu can be seen from a small clearing near the group. A number of scattered badly crumbled walls and foundations around and between the two main groups complete the site.

Spanish cronical writer Diego Rodriguez de Figueroa writing in 1565, makes reference to an Inca settlement called Sapamarka which was on an Inca road crossing the Vilcabamba River near present day Chaullay. Rarely does the modern name for a lost site represent the original name. This may however be the case for Sapamarka.

Sapa means lone, solitary or possibly important in current Quechua the continuation of the old Inca language. Marka like many terms, has several meanings, one is a place of storage. Lone store house...this fits the site with its one grand structure, a well made store house standing alone. Of course, someone has to make a joke around the camp fire! We call it Sapo Marka becouse of all of the frog like noises at night. (Sapo means toad). The rest of the site consists of lower status workers or planters housing with the exception of the long meeting hall. This is an anomaly as Kallancas are usually associated as a gathering place for state functions, meetings parties at important towns and centers. Why is this one located out in the middle of nowhere? Also, where is the Inca road. We can find no trace (8). No structure with a ceremonial function is identified. Also curious is the lack of characteristic terracing common to such a settlement.

The two main groups remind me of the yet to be studied Ridge Group at Choquequirao (9). The design and construction of several of the buildings there is strikingly similar and quite untypical of Inca architecture, but unquestionably Inca.
Some structures have no niches and other have rectangular niches, doors and windows. I have the feeling that the Ridge Group and Sapamarka are very late Inca works reflecting the limited assets available within the rebellious province of Vilcabamba (10).

In summary, Sapamarka appears to have been a late Inca settlement of common workers supporting a storage site close to the famous Inca bridge Choquechaca and the main road into Vilcabamba from Cusco and Ollantaytambo. The bridge was an important control point which must have hosted considerable traffic (11). Handy supplies would have been useful for official sorties or war parties when needed. The placement of the storage group at a higher elevation facing the Urubamba canyon would have captured the cooler breezes to help preserve potatoes and corn. The distance was not great. I estimate three hours for the upward trip, less for the return. I know of no other such facilities near the Vilcabamba road.. No main Inca road goes beyond Sapamarka. The trail up from the canyon must have been secondary now leaving no trace. Maybe the Long building was a temporary shelter for Inca troops reinforcing the bridge garrison or....?

Lisas Kahuana

We are finishing up mapping at the store house group when the radio beeps. “Jefe hay muros aqui”... boss, there are walls here...Ronald Salas and his team of local helpers have been out checking out the far mountain side over looking the Vilcabamba River. (12) I had left Ronald last November at Choquequirao with a hand full of soles (local curency) and instructions to scout out the Sapamarka area before our return in April. We planned to structure the few days we have available around his reports. It turns out that November-March was a unusually wet rainy season with the result that the scouting was postponed. Communications in the far Vilcabamba is difficult. The only method other than personally delivering a message is to use the Cusco AM radio station, Tahuantisuyu which broadcasts messages as a public service. Messages went out to Ronald. Dissapointed, hearing nothing back, we arrive in Vilcabamba without Ronald or advanced scouting. Then as luck would have it, we are most of the way up the long climb to Sapamarka when a shout from below stops us in disbelief. Here comes Ronald and a friend from Huancacalle! Remarkablly, they had just now arrived for the belated scout. Hearing that a team of Gringos was already up on the mountain, they set out to check out what was up only to find and join us!

We are camped beside the large store house structure qolca that dominates the site of Sapamarka. Having thoroughly explored the Urubamba River facing side of the near mountains, we have determined the extent of Sapamarka. To our disappointment, we can find no additional ruins in the direction toward Machu Picchu. I suspect that something significant lies up river closer to Machu Picchu but that search is left for another trip. We are out of time for now. That exploration will require another trip by truck on a nearly impassable road cut through the cliff’s above the Urubamba River, then a long climb back up to establish a new base camp.

With growing excitement, we break camp and head out to meet Ronald. Although only a bit more than a kilometer away by map distance, the walls that he reports are on the other side of a densely foliated cloud forest mountain. The going is frustratingly slow.
We climb out over a steep ridge then back into a bench like feature on the opposite side. Yes, a perfect place for a town or settlement... the altitude is right for comfort and farming, 2600 meters (13).

The terrain is gently slopping. As we pick our way through and around the tangled vegetation, the search crew has been busy. Ronald greets us with a shout. “Jefe..aqui, mira a este ” Boss... over here, look at this! We stand looking at a stone wall holding back a swampy body of water that the crew has just chopped clear. A stone canal acequia leads off into the brush. We are looking at a still functioning collection system for a spring and canal. The appearance feels Inca. I mark the location with the GPS and make a quick notation in my note book (14)

Suddenly, there are walls and houses everywhere! We split up to determine the extent of the site, some go high and others low. keeping in contact is tough but we do have three radios. Everyone is running around shouting as ruins pop out of the brush! I attempt to establish some order. We have only the rest of this day.

I hope to gather enough data to determine what we have found and produce at least a preliminary site survey. This may be our only opportunity. The expense and time involved to return here, balanced with a multitude of other priorities may preclude coming back. By the end of the day, we feel that we have determined the extent of the site, established its limits, viewed most of the structures and can make a reasonably accurate site plan from field notes. We also cleared, measured and mapped several of the more interesting features.

Field Notes Summary

1) Name of site: Lisas Kahuana. The modern name for the general area is Lisaspata. Lisas means a type of potato in Quechua. As the site seems to have been an agricultural settlement it is appropriate to incorporate Lisas in the name. Kahuana means a place of protection, protected place. Lisas Kahuana means a place where potatoes are protected. Everyone has input on this, the helpers from Limonpata, our Quechua speaking staff. We all agree that the name fits.

2) Location: A mid slope basin at 2300-2600 meters of altitude some 1400 meters above the Vilcabamba River narrowing to a conical summit at 3000 meters. This becomes a ridge which continues up into the high puna land beyond 4000 meters of altitude above.

3) Site size: Roughly one square kilometer.

4) Features: 50-100 rectangular houses, two round foundations, assorted low walls, terraces, several stone stairways, an unusual stone paved walkway with vertical standing side stones (see Photo), high flow water system, A kancha (compound) like group with plaza, stairs and walkway, a number of granite (imported) large flat corn grinding stones, a few polished hand grinding stones.

5) Construction: many structures made with mortared field stone, some with shaped, coursed corners and entrance ways. Some have gabled ends but the majority are flat walls about 2 1/2 meters high. Many are badly crumbled. The average house size is roughly 8x4 meters Some of the better preserved walls have square shaped niches inside (see photos) Some curious vertical placing of building stone is seen. The two round houses (5 meters inside diameter) have similar construction and seem to be of the same age.

6) Construction material: Rough pieces and some worked building stones of metamorphic yellow to reddish quartzite cuarcita, narrow slabs of gray slate pizzara also used in stairs and walkways.

All structures appear to be low status and common construction. A number of walls create low terraces. We found no evidence of ceremonial use. Like Sapamarka, niches and entrance ways are rectangular or square. One stone paved walkway within the site ran for 50 meters or more with the edges delineated by slabs of slate placed upright on both sides. Several stairways and associated buildings were attractively laid out and better constructed. We were unable to locate any sign of a road-trail approaching the area. Several large (1 1/2 meter), flat corn grinding stone were found. One is inside one of the round structures. Several large level open areas pampitas located some distance below the site show evidence of recent herding use. Lower down, the slopes are cleared and being used for corn planting.


Lisas Kahuana was a medium sized agricultural settlement probably built and certainly utilized after the Inca retreat into Vilcabamba in 1536. Although we presently have no comparative dating or pottery example to establish this, I base my feeling upon comparison with what I believe is similar late construction at the Inca complex at Choquequirao but this awaits additional work there (15).

Lisa Kahuana’s proximity to the nearby store house site, Sapamarka, suggests that it probably served as a principal growing area for the immediate region. In combination with Sapamarka, the settlement would have provided a sizable reserve of food for the nearby main Inca road and bridge at Choquechaca.

Notes And References

1) American Robert Von Kaupp located the site in 1986. Vince Lee sent me a copy of Von Kaupp’s unpublished report. He identified it as the Sapamarka mentioned by Rodriguez de Figueroa in 1565 and believed that it was on a major Inca route to Machu Picchu.
2) In June 1998, we traveled from Vitcos to Machu Picchu by an Inca road that crossed the wild highlands north of the Pumasillo-Sacsarayoc Range. Another road joined this one above 4000 m. coming from the direction of the lower Vilcabamba Valley and Chaullay. This must be the same road that the villagers are referring to. It would serve as the most direct route to modern Santa Teresa and up to the railhead at the Hydro Electric Plant below Machu Picchu
3) Machu Picchu, Pisaq, Choquequirao, Inca Wasi at Puncuyoc, Vitcos, all are situated on a saddle with higher peak behind and a lower in front.
4) See Reinhard, bibliography
5) From my field notes: The structure seems to be a well made storage compound of three high, well-ventilated Qolcas (store houses). This is indicated by the large upper story back windows and the tall front doorways. Excavation would probably reveal a raised platform for the back portion of the base floor with ventilation shafts. The shed type roof is common on store houses (Ollantaytambo etc.)
6) See Wright, bibliography
7) Construction rock: Metamorphic; yellow to reddish colored quartzite with some gray slate.
8) Rodriguez de Figueroa indicates that the Inca road crossing the Vilcabamba River went to Sapamarka, Tambo and Picho. My impression of the long building is that it could also have been used as temporary overnight quarters for official travelers or a reinforcing detail for the bridge Choquechaca two Inca hours below. Tambos were traditionally way stations and rest houses on main Inca roads. It is reasonable that this place could have been called Tambo during the rein of Titu Cusi Inca (1565). Picho could have been the associated settlement. Any Inca road-trail to here must have been secondary as no trace now remains.
9) This group was found by Vince Lee in 1996. As of this writing no studies other than Lee’s preliminary site plan and my own brief inspection has taken place.
10) Read Hemming for the complete story of Vilcabamba and the last Inca. (bibliography)
11) Hemming
12) Ronald Salas Cobos is an active younger member of the famous Cobos family from Huancacalle near Vitcos who have served as packers and outfitters for numerous Vilcabamba expeditions, including Gene Savoy and Vince lee.
13) Machu Picchu is at an altitude of 2430 meters. Choquequirao and Vitcos are at 3000 meters
14) We record satellite calculated positions accurate to within 20 meters. These are calibrated for the UTM square kilometer grid system to match the new topographic maps available for the Vilcabamba. Instead of coordinates in Latitude-longitude, the location of the Store House Group at Sapamarka reads UTM 85 56725 -18L 075421.
15) See reference to the ridge group at Choquequirao; number 8 above.

1) Fejos, Paul; ‘Archaeological Explorations in the Cordillera Vilcabamba Peru’, Viking Fund, Number 3, New York, 1944
2) Hemming, John; ‘The Conquest of the Incas’, Hartcourt Brace 1970
3) Lee, Vincent ‘Choqek’iraw: Inca Site Revealed’ South American Explorer, Vol. 51, 1998
‘Forgotten Vilcabamba: Final Stronghold of the Inca’ Empire Publishing, 2000
5) Rodriguez de Figueroa, Diego: `Relacion del camino e viage que hizo desde la cuidad del Inga’, ed. R. Pietechmann, Nachrichten der K. Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Gottingen, Philologisch historische Klasse, Berlin 1910 (translated by C. Markham)
6) Wright, Kenneth R. and Valencia Z, Alfredo: Machu Picchu A Civil Engineering Marvel, ASCE press, 2000
7) Ziegler, Gary: Beyond Machu Picchu: Explorations and Adventure in Peru’s Remote Vilcabamba, Crestone Press, Westcliffe 2000


BACK to the Inca Chronicles