Adventure SpecialistsPuncuyoc Sacred Inca Santuary
Report of the Adventure Specialists 1999 Inca Research Expedition

Gary Ziegler info@adventurespecialist.org


The sun settles silently behind the glistening snow peaks of the western Vilcabamba range as I study my mud stained notes from the day's exploration. We have just completed four intensive days of investigating the high puna summits and cloud forested slopes of the Puncuyoc range.

Aurelio Huaman, our veteran expedition cook, mixes another round of martinis as Joan Harrell and Hugh Thomson sort through stacks of maps and papers littering the kitchen tent table. Hugh, a documentary film producer from the UK and Joan from Colorado are both experienced Andean explorers. Hugh has worked with British archaeologist, Ann Kendell and is a friend of conquest historian John Hemming. Joan, a marathon runner and art historian has been on two previous Vilcabamba expeditions. An avid researcher, she pulls details out of her head that elude my cluttered memory.

Outside, the mountain mist rolls in as the arierros, (wranglers) all members of the famous Cobos family tend to our pack mules and stir a large pot of caldo (Andean stew) over a hissing primus. Juvenal and Jose have worked many expeditions with Gene Savoy and Vince Lee . We are traveling with the best.

The Vilcabamba is an immense area of high peaks, cold uplands and moist cloud forest beginning some thirty miles northwest of Cusco. Bounded by two great river gorges, the Urubamba and Apurimac, this rugged, poorly mapped region remains sparsely inhabited and seldom visited. Only a few primitive roads penetrate its perimeter. Travel is by mule, machete and foot along steep, often treacherous, muddy paths descending thousands of feet into tropical, steamy lowlands then climbing steeply to precipitous highs over snow-covered passes.

In 1536, Manco Inca, grandson of the last great Inca emperor, Huayna Capac, fled into this remote, inaccessible wilderness following rebellion against colonial rule. Retreating from a siege of Cusco, Manco and his followers established a sort of neo-Inca state in the remote Vilcabamba. Inca religion, traditions, ceremony and warfare with Spanish Peru continued until the capture and execution of the last Inca, Tupac Amaru in 1572 (1).

The Inca built a network of stone paved roads, settlements and shrines during the rein of Pachacuti in the mid 15th Century. After the conquest, the last Incas reoccupied much of the region, modifying sites and adding new construction. Manco established his headquarters at Vitcos, while developing settlements at Espiritu Pampa (also called Vilcabamba) numerous smaller sites and a ceremonial center at Choquequirao, overlooking the Apurimac.

The mystery and legend surrounding Vilcabamba initiated a centuries old quest by treasure hunters, explorers and adventurers to locate and finally identify Manco's 'lost cities'. Modern explorers have contributed much toward unraveling the enigmas but the allure and mystery still beckons...

Early prospectors and treasure hunters must have probed the area before Hiram Bingham, discoverer of Machu Picchu, located Vitcos near the head waters of the Vilcabamba (2), More recently, Victor von Hagan, Robert von Kaupp, Stuart White, Vince Lee and Gene Savoy all explored here, generating maps and information that help our own investigations.

The Puncuyoc Range is a rugged outcrop of craggy igneous peaks and steep, densely forested valleys bordering the Vilcabamba River canyon. To the north and east, high barren hills fall away to the hot jungle valleys of the upper Amazon Basin. The range served as the last mountain barrier of the highland Inca empire. Several Inca roads connecting to nearby Vitcos, cross over to disappear in tropical tangle far below, testifying that the Incas had trade and traffic to the lowlands.

Armed with Stuart White's 1985 site survey, Vince's maps and his advice from a recent phone conversation, we launched our investigation around the principal ruins of Inca Wasi which White describes as " A complex of a dozen or more structures...having a ceremonial character"(3).

Ceremonial character...? What an understatement.. ! We are overwhelmed by the staggering impact of the 'Sacred Geography' accentuated by the location and placement of Inca construction. Sharpened machetes in hand, we follow a well made stone stairway to a raised overlook at the crest of a knife edge ridge. Far below, the Vilcabamba valley appears emerald green and lush with the hill of Rosa Pata (Vitcos) raising like the hub of a wheel from the head of the intersecting canyons. Beyond, the great ice peaks of the Pumasillo massif glisten and shimmer in the equatorial sun.

This would have been a most sacred location to the mountain worshiping Inca. Towering behind us is Cerro Idma and its rock pinnacle, Idma Qoya. Believed by local residents to be the stone embodiment of the wife of the Inca and charged with great power, the mountain receives much contemporary ritual attention. (4)

Proceeding up into a large glacier formed basin, we follow the stone walkway past more raised platforms and low walled structures to finally arrive at Puncuyoc's center piece, a unique two story building in near perfect condition. Located at 3900 meters, high on a knife edge ridge, Inca Wasi (Inca house) as it is now called, is carefully constructed with massive shaped and fitted stone doorjambs, windows and niches (5). The building shows evidence of having been plastered with a reddish clay inside and out which must have made it look something like a Santa Fe Pueblo (6). Life here for more than a night or two would have been bitter on this exposed cold mountain.

Although resembling a rather typical high status residence, some notable differences indicate its ceremonial use. The lower chambers contain large doorway sized niches with round ring stones (eye binders) set in the center. This is very similar to the so called 'puma ring' building at Choquequirao (7). Unfortunately, whatever ritual or meaning was associated with these rings is lost to history. Also, unusual for an Inca site, we find no canal or water source.

Many Inca ceremonial sites seem to be placed on a ridge with a high mountain behind and a lesser peak to the front just as is Inca Wasi. The best examples are Pisaq, Machu Picchu and Choquequirao. At each of these sites the lesser peak contains a hill top ceremonial platform (8). An exciting, exposed rock climb to the summit above Inca Wasi revealed only natural erosion. But I am coming to the conclusion that this place was built by folks with limited assets. Some things just could not be done in the grand old way (9).Puncuyoc Sacred Inca Sanctuary

The'piece de resistance' however is the view from the main entrance. Both White and Lee describe the phenomenon that greeted us but nothing could prepare us for the reality. Shortly after high noon, the image of a great white rock tower (Yurak Rumi) is reflected in the small lake in the basin below as if it were the only thing in view. This apparition can only be seen from the central doorway! Chilled from more than the mountain breeze, we stand speechless as the reality and magic of this most sacred of Inca shrines overwhelmes us.

Visiting the lake, we decided that the shores have been utilized as a working area for shaping blocks of granite into round pegs, eye binders and building stones (10). Lee reports a pile of some thirty pegs at the southeast corner of the lake. We counted more than eighty with others scattered around the lake. Several partially completed blocks near a talus slide on the north side indicate that this was probably the source. I picked up several hematite hammer stones (martillos) used in the 'pecking' technique (11).

A neat little fitted stone bano, undoubtedly ceremonial as no one would choose to bathe in this frigid water, lies just beyond the lake to the southwest (12). Below the basin, above and below a spectacular 100 meter waterfall, we mapped two groups of field stone structures each with similar sunken baths which we named Pacchac unu bajo and alto (upper and lower waterfall) The upper group was built into a large boulder, typical of Inca shrines (13).Puncuyoc Sacred Inca Sanctuary

The building walls were only one meter high. At first we thought that these were remains of fallen walls but decided that they were in fact finished and intact structures. My imagination envisioned a house with low walls and a high sloping thatched roof. This was indeed crude and hasty construction for an obvious high status site. Another curious aspect is the lack of shaped or worked boulders in the area that are typical of such sites.

The following days were spent climbing the high summits, looking in likely places for undiscovered ruins and locating Inca roads. All being super fit, we covered a weeks worth of exploration in a few days. Basically, our predecessors had done a remarkable job of locating and mapping the region. We worked from dawn to dark filling my notebook with measurements, comments and drawings. So far, we have located a few structures, corrected Vince's map and mapped an Inca road.

Moving base camp down to an unusual lake, LLana Cocha (dark lake) we examined a reported preInca settlement on the cerro (hill) above called Lump'u Moqo (14). Not much is known about the people who occupied Vilcabamba before the Inca. Only vague historical references are made to the Chancas, conquered by the Inca before the arrival of the invading Castilians. We do know that the Wari culture occupied the region some 400 years before the expansion of the Inca (15). These earlier people lived in round houses like those we examined above the lake.

So... I complete my journal. Joan reads a chapter aloud from Hiram Bingham's 'Lost city of the Incas'. Hugh sips his Martini.

Morning breaks, I stroll out for a morning necessity. Before me is an unnaturally shaped boulder sitting in the open meadow. Yes...! it is a sculptured representation of Cerro Idma raising through the mist above us. Then, Hugh points out the near hill above our camp. Of course, we find an unreported preInca settlement hidden in the dense vegetation. Several dozen circular depressions and low foundations lie hidden on the forested hill. Out of time, we make a cursory inspection then depart for our waiting transport and the bright lights of Cusco. We leave this and the moss covered shapes we passed in thick fog late one evening for the next expedition.

The story ends...for now! Puncuyoc was a very special ceremonial retreat built during the few years when Manco Inca resided at Vitcos or perhaps later by his son, Titu Cusi. Manco attempted to continue the traditions of the lost empire but lacked the resources of plentiful skilled workers.The stacks of completed pegs and unfinished building stones indicate that much more was planned...perhaps another Machu Picchu? But then....time ran out for the last of the Inca.


2006 update-contact Gary Ziegler for site plans and new information. Inca Wasi is identified as a sun temple by Vince Lee's 2005 investigations there. info@adventurespecialist.org