Lost in the Andes

When it comes to ancient ruins of the Andes, most people immediately think of the famous Machu Picchu. Until 1911 when archeologist Hiram Bingham ‘officially’ discovered the ruins, they lay hidden in dense forest and morning mists, high on a hill above the thundering Urubamba River. Thought to have been built by the Inca ruler, Pachacuti Inca Yapancui, the sanctuary of Machu Picchu covers an area of 5 square km’s. It is part of the larger Machu Picchu Heritage site, spanning an area of 32,600 hectares and home to numerous archaeological wonders and a myriad of magnificent flora and fauna.

Getting to the ruins is no small feat and is 10 km longer than the trek to Machu Picchu on the famed Inca Trail. It is a grueling trek in part, with 8km’s of endless switchbacks to reach the campsite close to the ruins. Despite being larger than Machu Picchu, only about 30% of the ruins have been cleared, revealing some truly unique discerning features. Decorating the sides of some of the terraces, are white inlaid rocks creating the shape of Llama. In other places, the rocks are used to create the shape of a woman.

While about 3000 tourists pour into Machu Picchu each day, other ruins, no less beautiful lie deserted; visited by few and unknown to many. One of these is Choquequirao said to have once housed about 150 people and totally self sufficient in terms of food and water. Extensive terracing spans the ruins which hug the side of the Capuliyochill, the top of which was leveled off by the Inca to create a flat platform 30by 50 m wide.

In the northern part of the country almost 1000km away from Machu Picchu, stands another unknown hero, the citadel fortress of Kuelap. This massive complex spans 110m x 600m and comprises hundreds of stone buildings in varying stages of ruin. With its characteristic high yellow walled entrance and green grasses shimmering in the sunlight, it sits on lofty heights of 3000m and looks down over the Urubamba valley below. Getting to the ruins does not need to involve endless kilometers of uphill trudging; well, not if you take the tour bus. The Peruvian Government plans to make this the “second Machu Picchu” and if plans to install a cable car up to the ruins go ahead, as with Choquequirao, it soon will be.

Apart from being master builders of terracing, the Inca were also gifted in hydro engineering and the 3500m high Tipón is all about honouring water and the life it provides. Harnessing water from a spring high up in the mountain, the engineers of Tipón constructed 12 terraces with stone lined aqueducts to bring water down a total of 130m in altitude, from 1.35km away. Path and stairs were laid alongside the aqueducts, snaking their way up steep hill sides in places with a 30% gradient. These ruins are remarkably peaceful with a serene stillness about them.

The ancient Peruvians ability to harness water was not restricted entirely to agriculture, and while these are not, in reality, considered ruins, they are certainly an incredible sight and said to possibly pre-dates the Inca Empire. At the end of a remote dusty road near the town of Moras hundreds of kilometres from the sea, at an altitude of 3800m, lies a whitewashed mountain. Hundreds of terraces grace the hillsides, built solely for the purpose of harnessing salt. Each salt pond, is roughly 30cm and measures 2×2 metres. Narrow funnels channel water from one pond to the other down the side of the mountain. The ponds are individually owned by about 600-700 families and the salt is gathered by hand into large bags, where it is carried up to the top and transported to the nearby town by donkeys.

Myriads of ruins lie strewn across the Andes, from southern Chileto central Peru, many no less beautiful than the popular Machu Picchu. Each provides a point on a massive roadmap that encompasses a vast empire that once ruled the Andes. For the Inca people, many of their secrets still lie buried in the cloud forests, waiting for a chance, to reveal their mysteries.

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