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Lost Inca Outpost On Assignment

Lost Inca Outpost On Assignment

Lost Inca Outpost
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By Peter FrostPhotographs by Gordon Wiltsie

Could this mountain stronghold also have been the home of an earlier, as yet unknown people? An expedition probes the intriguing ruins of Cerro Victoria.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

As our horses climbed the steep, dusty trail, I wondered who was weariest, the humans or the animals. The horses were stumbling on the slippery rocks and the mules had that mean glint in their eyes—but then, so did we. When photographer Gordon Wiltsie's horse gave a shuddering sigh and actually laid down beneath him, I decided it was the animals.

We had footslogged three days, sometimes leading our mounts, sometimes riding, to get to this remote valley in the Vilcabamba mountains of southern Peru. Plodding in a long, unruly train of mules and horses—42 pack and 9 saddle—our animals had bolted, strayed, and sometimes thrown us, but we needed them. They were carrying enough gear and supplies to last us a month in the field.

Nine of us—archaeologists, explorers, journalists, and a cartographer—had started our journey in Cusco, the old Inca capital. We were joined at the small town of Huancacalle by a dozen wranglers and their animals, who would help us reach our goal, Cerro Victoria, a 12,746-foot (3,885-meters) peak in the southern Vilcabamba Range, where in 2001 our team had found a previously unknown Inca settlement, Qoriwayrachina. 

Remnants of the settlement, whose name is Quechua for "where wind was used to refine gold"—referring to nearby mines—were scattered over 16 square miles (41 square kilometers) of steep slopes. They included the remains of more than 200 structures: circular dwellings, agricultural storehouses, roads, funeral towers, cemeteries, and ceremonial platforms. Although the ruins lack the grandeur of the lost city of Machu Picchu, 22 miles (35 kilometers) to the northeast, they raise new questions about the Inca, whose royalty had withdrawn to the Vilcabamba region in 1537 to wage stubborn warfare against the Spanish. Had Qoriwayrachina been a refuge for followers of Manco Inca and his sons, the last Inca kings? Was it also a supply center, channeling food and precious metals to Choquequirau, the Inca retreat one valley farther south? Was it built by a previous culture in this steep, forbidding place—and if so, why?

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

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VIDEO Photographer Gordon Wiltsie talks about the grueling expedition to find one of the last Inca hideouts in Peru, an up-and-down adventure they dubbed "elevator archaeology without the elevator."

AUDIO Hear the entire interview. (recommended for low-speed connections).
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Join the team in their excrutiating hike in search the Cerro Victoria ruins.

What can be done internationally to discourage thieves from looting archaeological sites and selling artifacts on the black market?

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In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

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Mountains of refuge 
Crisscrossed by deep gorges and festooned with waterfalls nearly a thousand feet high, the Cordillera de Vilcabamba stretches 160 miles (260 kilometers) northwest of Cusco, the old Inca capital, into the rugged heart of Peru. In 1537 Manco Inca, one of the last Inca kings, took what was left of his army into the safety of these cliffs and crags after an unsuccessful attempt to recapture Cusco from Spanish hands. A hundred years earlier, the greatest Inca emperor of all, Pachacuti, had built a summer retreat at Machu Picchu, tucked under the spires of the Vilcabamba Range. Manco Inca also needed a retreat, not to escape the summer heat but the guns and horses of the Spanish, a place so inaccessible he could launch forays against Peru's conquerors with impunity. He found this some place within the range. 

From deep within his mountain stronghold he sent out raiding parties to harass the Spanish, reclaiming Inca treasures and fostering rebellion. The Spanish launched attacks against him, but the harsh terrain made their horses useless. On foot they became easy targets for guerrilla fighters hurling boulders and shooting arrows down on them from mountainside bunkers. Eight years passed before Manco Inca discovered that even his Vilcabamba fortress couldn't protect him from treachery within.

After Francisco Pizarro was murdered in 1541, several of his assassins, all Spaniard's seeking to create their own chain of power in Peru, fled to Manco Inca, who welcomed the hated Pizarro's killers. They enjoyed the safety and hospitality of the Incas' Vilcabamba capital for three years, probably until Peru's new viceroy sent letters encouraging them to return to Cusco under his protection. A chronicle records what happened next. At a time when Manco Inca's troops were busy raiding, the assassins killed once more, attacking the Inca king from behind and stabbing him again and again. He lingered for three days, long enough to hear that he had been avenged. His attackers, cornered in a building that had been set on fire, were either burned alive or were killed attempting to flee the flames.  

The independent Inca state survived for 28 more years under the rule of three of Manco Inca's sons. Then in May 1572, a force led by 250 Spanish fighters set out from Cusco determined to breach the Incas' defenses and capture Tupac Amaru, the last Inca king. The battles were fierce, but this time the Spanish succeeded in reaching the Incas' mountain capital. They discovered the city burned and the king gone. After pursuing him for more then 300 miles (500 kilometers) across rivers and jungle and on into the Amazon, they caught up with him, put him on trial in Cusco, and beheaded him in front of his followers. With his death the mighty Inca reign ended.
—Jeanne E. Peters
Did You Know?

Related Links
Archaeology in Peru
Learn more about Peru's spectacular archaeological sites and the many cultures that occupied this varied landscape.
Lonely Planet Travel Guide 
Travel city streets and country roads throughout Peru. Discover trekking, canoeing, and horseback riding in the Andes wilderness.
History of Peru
Explore Peru's rich historical heritage and the stories behind each Inca king who ruled over an empire that once stretched from Ecuador to Chile.


Carlson, John B. "America's Ancient Skywatchers." National Geographic (March 1990), 76-107.
D'Altroy, Terrence N. The Incas (Peoples of America). Blackwell Publishers, 2002.
Hemming, John. The Conquest of the Incas. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970.
Rostworowski de Diez Canseco, María. History of the Inca Realm. Cambridge University Press, 1999.
von Hagen, Adriana, and Craig Morris. Cities of the Ancient Andes. Thames and Hudson, 1998.


NGS Resources
Brandt, Anthony. "Twenty Years on the Inca Trail," Adventure Magazine (February 2003), 34-35.
Cock, Guillermo. "Inca Rescue," National Geographic (May 2002), 78-91.
Donnan, Christopher. "Moche Burials Uncovered," National Geographic (March 2001), 58-73.
Muller, Karin. Along the Inca Road: A Woman's Journey Into an Ancient Empire. National Geographic Books, 2000.
Reinhard, Johan. "New Inca Sacrifices Found in Peru's Andes" National Geographic (March 1999), Geographica.

Adams, Harriet. "Along the Old Inca Highway," National Geographic (April 1908), 231-50. 


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