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Peru Director Discovers Lost Inca City

Tim DeWinter, the director of our Projects Abroad Peru programme tells us about his incredible recent discovery of an Inca settlement:

"Those who think that the frontiers of exploration have all descended into ocean depths or flown out beyond the rings of Saturn take heart and read on" - Vincent Lee

Finding an Inca wall

Can one find a whole "forgotten" city in the 21st century? Is that still possible? With modern satellite images surely everything has been found already? Well, our adventure proves that in the Antisuyo, remote provinces north of Cusco, there are still discoveries to be made by the intrepid and adventurous.

Since 1994, when I arrived in Peru, walking in the Andes has been one of my favourite pastimes and while working for UNICEF from 1997 onwards, I had the opportunity to combine work and pleasure. No Peruvian UNICEF consultant was keen on leaving their families behind to go to the remotest areas of Cusco. I, on the other hand, was single and loved it, so basically from Monday to Friday I walked in this land reserved for the strongest under an impossibly blue sky, marvelling at the beauty and ruggedness of this wonderful mountain range.

Inca wall

Several years later, working for Projects Abroad in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, with a family of my own, I had fewer opportunities to hike off into the unknown. However, one of the programmes that Projects Abroad runs in Peru is called the Inca Projects and in 2005 we decided to combine the archaeological and community development activities with exploration and hiking. Our volunteers loved the prospect of doing treks in the less touristy parts of the Andes and we enjoyed organising it for them. Maps have always been a source of hidden walks for me and I studied them whenever I could. I have many topographical maps of the region and studied these carefully before hiking a new route, so we knew what we would be up against.

My friends Americo, Carlos, Walter and myself decided to explore a mountain ridge in the region known as the Eyebrow of the Jungle, next to the Lucumayo river in the Huayopata district. Our team's field experience and friendship would make this an enjoyable trip. I had a hunch that there would be some kind of Inca structure up there, it was a strategic viewpoint and other small Inca structures where known to be a few hours walk further upstream the Vilcanota river.

Jungle near site

We started the day early at 5am, but were held up by some local farmers that had used the road up towards the hill for making mud bricks. We carried 65 pound rucksacks for the three day hike we had planned and it was hot and humid. By midday, our luck turned, we stopped at a clearing and met a hunter, his name was Eloy. One of the golden rules of exploration is to listen to the campesinos, they know where everything is. Eloy was no exception to the rule.

He told us he knew of a small wall and after having shared lunch with him, he took us further up the hill. The forest was dense and challenging, the rucksacks were left behind and we marched on with our machetes in hand, swinging at all the dense green foliage blocking our path. Eloy showed us the wall; it turned out to be a room, mostly still underground, covered in bush and by the years of decomposing forest. The amount of tangled growth is hard to explain unless you have experienced it. It was a typical Inca house, of normal proportions, and next to it another one, and another one. We immediately thanked the magical apu mountain spirits which mean everything to the campesinos and are directly linked to the Pacha Mama (Mother Earth).

More overgrown terraces

Eloy was not surprised by our small ceremony, but he was shocked that for many years he had been hunting in these forests without having had a clue of their importance. He became excited and told us that if these bumps on the jungle floor were walls, then he knew some more bumps on hills close by. That was when it hit us, more bumps! This was not just a small settlement. We decided to go back and set up camp and for Eloy to take us to the other bumps early the next day.

Sleeping was difficult as our adrenaline levels were high and at 5am the next morning we were ready. Eloy arrived at the campsite and we took off for what turned out to be an amazing day of exploring. We walked through forests and found many tombs, circular, rectangular and square structures hidden under the thick of the jungle floor. The remains were so heavily overgrown that we are still unsure of the extent of the ruins, but having found over 40 structures in different places on the hilltops, with over 2 miles between them, we were confident that it played an important role in one of the best and largest networks of paved road ever built by pre-industrial man, the Qapaq Nan. The realisation that it must be connected to Machu Picchu, the beautiful and wonderful city in the cloud forest and the best known site in the Antisuyo, made it even more exciting.

Our team

The settlement looked over an extremely fertile and extensively cultivated glacial valley on one side and on the other side was the Vilcanota Valley. Machu Picchu was a one day walk upstream. Needless to say, what we had found had huge potential.

Were we on the verge of finding a missing link and opening a real new Inca Trail?

When we later arrived back in Cusco we suppressed the temptation to go straight to the local radio and TV stations and decided to consult the National Institute of Culture (INC) first. Maybe they knew about the ruins, maybe they had more information about them, maybe they had a map already?

Tim in the jungle

Projects Abroad had signed a formal agreement with the INC last year and our many contacts were able to investigate if their Site Registry knew anything about this site, they didn't. The result was amazing; no one had surveyed this site or bothered to visit this strategic geographical feature. If the INC was unaware of our findings, we had to regulate this quickly, letters were sent, all mentioning our willingness to share information and receive a visit from one of their investigation teams.

On September 29th 2006, we took two archaeologists with us back to the area. Francisco Solis and Italo Oberti are recognised archaeologists in the region and were eager to be part of these initial stages. They were amazed by our finds. They confirmed that it was a big Inca settlement, probably over 500 years old and pointed out the stone and thatch building techniques of the highland Incas. They were surprised by the many different types of structures and thanked us for contacting them so quickly, as many findings are kept secret from the INC so people can ransack the place beforehand.

Trekking through the forest

The Incas didn't like the lower altitudes with the mosquitoes and diseases, the heat and humidity, so maybe the cooler Lucumayo Valley, a wonderful food basket, was worked by the inhabitants of our newfound city. The land itself provided the materials for building and the fertile valley was there for farming, maybe even producing food for the inhabitants of Machu Picchu, just a day's walk away!

What we did many others could have done and still can do. There must be numerous unstudied ruins, unexplored valleys and hilltops, especially on the edge of the rainforest, still waiting to be discovered.

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