Machu Picchu, Vilcabamba, and The Search for The Lost Cities of the Andes

According to Inca oral history, Pachacuti also had had a profound religious experience when he was young, a sort of epiphany that revealed to him both his divine nature and a vision of a nearly unbounded future.

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Machu Picchu, Peru [Photo:]

The following excerpts were adapted from the author’s book, The Last Days of the Incas, published by Simon & Schuster

“If you take a map of the Vilcabamba area and put a map pin at every major imperial Inca site, then you can see that there’s a big hole in the pattern, right along the Apurímac River, downstream from Choqquequirau. There are two Inca roads that lead into that area—and the Incas wouldn’t have built them unless they led somewhere. There could be another stone city in there, but who knows? I guess that’s one of the reasons why we all keep coming back.” ~ VINCENT LEE, 2005

To understand how Vilcabamba and Machu Picchu were once intertwined, one has to go back to the decades in which both were constructed: presumably in the mid-fifteenth century. In the early part of that century, the ethnic group known as the Incas lived within a small kingdom centered around the valley of Cuzco, one of many such small kingdoms in the Andes and on the coast. The Incas told the Spaniards that they were led by an old Inca king named Viracocha Inca. Faced with an approaching army from the powerful kingdom of the Chancas, the Inca ruler fled, leaving his adult son, Cusi Yupanqui, behind. The latter quickly took charge, raised an army, and somehow miraculously defeated the invaders. Cusi Yupanqui then deposed his father, arranged for his own coronation, and changed his name to Pachacuti, a Quechua word that means “earth-shaker” or “cataclysm,” or “he who turns the world upside down.” The name was a prescient one, for Pachacuti would soon revolutionize the entire Andean world.

According to Inca oral history, Pachacuti also had had a profound religious experience when he was young, a sort of epiphany that revealed to him both his divine nature and a vision of a nearly unbounded future. Wrote the Jesuit priest Bernabé Cobo:

It is said of this Inca [Pachacuti], that before he became king, he went once to visit his father Viracocha, who was . . . five leagues from Cuzco, and as he reached a spring called Susurpuquiu, he saw a crystal tablet fall into it; within this tablet there appeared to him the figure of an Indian dressed in this way: around his head he had a llauto like the headdress of the Incas; three brightly shining rays, like those of the sun, sprang from the top of his head; some snakes were coiled around his arms at the shoulder joints . . . and there was a kind of snake that stretched from the top to the bottom of his back. Upon seeing this image, Pachacuti became so terrified that he started to flee, but the image spoke to him from inside the spring, saying to him: “Come here, my child; have no fear, for I am your father the Sun; I know that you will subjugate many nations and take great care to honor me and remember me in your sacrifices”; and, having said these words, the vision disappeared, but the crystal tablet remained in the spring. The Inca took the tablet and kept it; it is said that after this it served him as a mirror in which he saw anything he wanted, and in memory of his vision, when he was king, he had a statue made of the Sun, which was none other than the image he had seen in the crystal, and he built a temple of the Sun called Qoricancha, with the magnificence and richness that it had at the time when the Spaniards came, because before it was a small and humble structure. Moreover, he ordered that solemn temples dedicated to the Sun be built throughout all the lands that he subjugated under his empire, and he endowed them with great incomes, ordering that all his subjects worship and revere the Sun.

Soon after becoming king, Pachacuti wasted no time in remaking the world according to his unique vision, beginning with the city of Cuzco. There, he undertook a major rebuilding campaign, reorganizing the layout of the capital, tearing down old buildings, creating new boulevards, and ordering a host of palaces and temples to be built. All of these were constructed in a new style of stonework that Pachacuti preferred—later referred to as the imperial style—stones cut and fitted together so perfectly that the skill and artistry displayed would eventually become famous as one of the wonders of the New World.

Not satisfied with defeating the Chancas, however, the ambitious young king soon led his army into the nearby Yucay (Vilcanota) Valley, conquering two ethnic groups, the Cuyos and the Tambos. To celebrate these victories, Pachacuti ordered the construction of a royal estate, called Pisac, in the center of the Cuyos’ territory; he then ordered that a second royal estate to be built among the conquered Tambos, at a site called Ollantaytambo. The twin estates were unusual, however, in that they were destined to be privately owned by the conqueror himself. It was a model that would soon be copied by succeeding Inca emperors and also by a small number of high-ranking Inca elites. Theirs would be the only privately held lands within the rapidly expanding Inca Empire.

Pachacuti created his new estates with a number of specific purposes in mind, perhaps the most important of which was to support his own family lineage. Each new Inca emperor was supposed to found his own panaca, or descent lineage, in essence becoming the patriarch and founder of a new family line. The crops and animal herds raised on Pachacuti’s private estates were thus slated to be used to support the members of his royal panaca. After his death, the estates would continue to be used and maintained by his descendants.

A second purpose for building the royal estates was to commemorate Pachacuti’s recent conquests: when complete, they would serve as monuments that would reflect the new emperor’s boldness, initiative, and power. Finally, the estates were also meant to serve as secluded royal retreats— luxury resorts located well away from the capital where the emperor and a select group of relatives and elites could rest, relax, and commune with the local mountain gods.

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Kim MacQuarrie

Kim MacQuarrie is a four-time Emmy Award–winning filmmaker and award-winning author who has lived and worked all over the world. Educated in the US and France, he lived for five years in Peru and spent some of that time living with a recently contacted tribe in the Amazon jungle, only 100 miles from Machu Picchu. He is the author of Life and Death in the Andes and The Last Days of the Incas, as well as three illustrated books about Peru. He currently divides his time between the US, Peru, and Thailand. Visit him at

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