In June 2019 I embarked on an expedition to Espiritu Pampa. This is the modern name for the place known to the Incas as Vilcabamba. It was the last refuge of the rebel Incas, who resisted the invading Spaniards in this remote, mountainous region for 35 years, from 1537 to 1572.
The last Inca king, Tupac Amaru, fled from Vilcabamba with the Spaniards in hot pursuit that same year. He was captured, dragged back to Cusco in chains, and beheaded in the main square there soon afterwards.
On this expedition I was accompanied with Vince (last name), his wife Nancy (an expedition partner from Day One), and a group of friends, including some of the original participants (OF WHAT?) We launched what was subtly, although wordlessly, acknowledged to be the Last Hurrah and Glorious Sunset of the Sixpac Manco series of expeditions. This expedition is Sixpac Manco Number XXVI (yes, there really were that many – in many parts of the Andes, including Bolivia and northern Peru.)
The expedition, organized by Vince who is now in his eighties but with two new, low-mileage knees, was a four-day trek from Vitcos (another Inca “last stronghold” site in the heights of the Vilcabamba region) down to Espiritu Pampa.
Along with Brian Bauer, another luminary of Inca scholarship, I drove there to meet them. This blog is the story of that journey.
Espiritu Pampa was rediscovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911, and identified as the lost stronghold of the last Incas by Gene Savoy in 1964. The site attracted dauntless explorers throughout the late 20th century. Architect and scholar Vincent Lee was one of them, who started going there in the 1980s when the site was much more remote than today. Back then the entire region was designated a “Red Zone”, due to Shining Path terrorist activity.
Vincent Lee mounted the first of his many expeditions to remote Andean archaeological sites, which he dubbed the Sixpac Manco expedition. The name was a reference to Manco Inca, the great resistance leader, and his people’s custom of celebrating victories with rather too much beer. The name Sixpac Manco also came to stand for certain characteristics of both Manco Inca’s native rebellion and the many Sixpac Manco expeditions that followed: simultaneously heroic and well supplied with beer.
Vince, as he’s known to his friends, has made major contributions to Vilcabamba studies by, among other things, drawing up detailed and accurate maps of Espiritu Pampa and many other forest-covered Inca sites in the region. These maps remain to this day as the best available. His adventures are chronicled in his book Forgotten Vilcabamba.
We drove from Cusco, once the capital of the Incas and now a major tourist destination, through Ollantaytambo into the Urubamba valley. Today, Ollantaytambo (another former Inca town), is where the main train station is for departures start for visitors to Machu Picchu. From there the road snakes upward over a 14,200ft pass known as the Abra de Málaga. Then it drops thousands of feet down the east slope of the Andes into Peru’s Upper Amazon cloud forest.
The modern road, widened and paved only recently, hairpins its way down into the Lucumayo valley, rejoining the Urubamba river downstream from Machu Picchu. It enters subtropical forest and coffee plantations, passing through the region’s provincial capital, Quillabamba. Then continuing down the Urubamba river to Kiteni, where we had an overnight stop in the hot tropical lowlands. Next day we still had more than three hours to go, on a steep, narrow dirt road.
That last leg of the drive to Espiritu Pampa provided more than its share of adventure. The route climbed, following the Concevidayoc river up again, back into the mountains we had left the previous day.
As the road gained altitude it traversed plunging, steep-sided ravines. We came upon an unnerving spectacle, the scene of a tragedy, marked with 16 crosses, where in 2016 a local passenger van went too near the grassy, innocent-looking edge and plunged hundreds of feet to the river below, killing all aboard. Driving in Peru always had it’s risks.
The upper sections of the road were built recently. Previous Sixpac Manco Expeditions hiked in to Espiritu Pampa from the highlands in the 1980s. They had to hike out many miles and across a footbridge, now abandoned to the forest. They were lucky if they found a truck waiting for passengers and cargo on the other side. This modern road bridge has replaced it.
Soon afterwards we came to this road signpost pointing us to Espiritu Pampa, at the spot where yet another new road enters the area from the south-east
Over a rise, around a curve, and we found ourselves facing a superb view of a mountain with a settlement on its lower slopes. There it was: Espiritu Pampa, with Iccma Coya, its signature twin-peaked sacred mountain, high above it on the skyline. The fabulously clear skies, by the way, are not something to count on in this area. They don’t call it “cloud forest” for nothing. In this photo Espiritu Pampa lies along the upper end of that series of clear, grassy flat spots with scattered huts at lower left.
At that same moment red lights glowed on the dashboard of my faithful companion, La Cangreja (“The Crab” – built 1986) – my ancient but sturdy Land Cruiser. Overheating from a ruptured radiator hose. Did we have a spare one? No.
But we had enough water to refill the radiator. And after some delay and application of duct tape plus tightly wound strips of rubber inner tube around the broken pipe, Brian and I wound up with a jerry-rigged but reasonably robust roadside repair.
Continuing onward, we finally found ourselves at a parking area a few hundred yards from the site of Espiritu Pampa, nowadays also a settlement for scores of local families. We arrived at the same moment as a mule train – an increasingly rare sight in much of the Peruvian Andes, now that roads and motor vehicles are replacing them everywhere. For the first time this trip we had to go into 4WD to get up this road to the archaeological site of Espiritu Pampa, marked here by a Ministry of Culture signboard.
WHAT’S THE END OF THE STORY? WHAT DID YOU ALL FIND? I’M DYING TO KNOW AFTER THE BUILD UP THUS FAR.