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CHOQUEQUIRAO, A GREAT FORTRESS

This great construction is in the Cuzco region, on a wide Andean plateau in the province of La Convencion, Region Cuzco, in the middle of the Vilcabamba valley. Archaeologists assume it is one of the lost citadels of Vilcabamba, where the Incas sought refuge after 1536. Choquequirao is an extraordinary complex consisting of nine architectural stone groupings. It has hundreds of platforms, rooms and irrigation systems; it was built by the successors of Inca Pachacutec, Tupac Inca Yupanqui (1471 to 1493), or Wayna Capac (1493 to 1527). In this place domestic and ceremonial ceramics were used, both of the classic Cuzco style and those belonging to the permanent settlers, who were probably farmers experienced in building and exploiting agricultural platforms in the areas at the edges of the forest.

Located at 3,050 meters above sea level, on the border of the Department of Apurimac, the Choquequirao architectural complex was not built as a way-station; access to this place demands two days of hard marching along a precipitous Inca mountain road, the effort amply compensated for by the beauty of the surrounding landscape every step of the way.

Choquequirao was seemingly an economic enclave linked to the jungle and to important citadels such as Machu Picchu and Pisac. It offers an extraordinary view on the Blanco River rapids and the Apurimac canyon. Far away can be seen the fabulous snowcapped Salcantay. A major part of the complex has been cleared of vegetation, and it is surrounded by terraces cut into steep hillsides.

The Inca complex of Choquequirao is located in an area of low mountains at the edge of the forest, northwest of the Apurimac Canyon; its surroundings show a special ecology featuring abundant vegetation. The hot weather of the area alternates with cold nighttime temperatures, producing a great diversity of flora and fauna. These geographical conditions were used to the full by its builders, the Incas.

Holed up in the fortress of Choquequirao in Vilcabamba, the Incas of the Manco dynasty resisted a siege by the Spanish conquistadors for 36 years (from 1536 to 1572). As a matter of fact, they were never expelled from it.

This complex was considered to be one of the control points for entry to the Vilcabamba region, as well as an administrative center with political, social and economic functions. Its urban design followed the symbolic patterns of the imperial capital, with places set aside for worshipping the Sun God, ancestors, the land, water and other divinities, as well as royal residences, administrators' and craftsmen's housing, storage deposits, large dormitory buildings called Kallancas and agricultural terraces for the Inca and the people. The ceremonial area extended over 700 m, with a height difference of up to 65 m between the main plaza and the highest areas.

Choquequirao consists of nine sectors, including the political and religious center, the system of fountains and canals with their aqueducts, and the doorway cluster. The religious and administrative nature of this complex should be stressed. The buildings are distributed around a central plaza and the whole is completed with a very well-preserved system of agricultural terraces that supported the citadel. The archaeological remains are distributed on the lower slopes of Mt Choquequirao, grouped together in small neighborhoods, somewhat separated from each other, following an assumed criterion of rank and social function. The ceremonial area is in the section named "Plaza Principal" (the Main Plaza), whereas the upper part of the complex features a series of sophisticated buildings.

The first mention of Choquequirao appears thanks to a study of the town of Cachora, the starting point of historian Cosme Bueno's 1768 expedition. However, its existence was only disclosed in the 19th century by the Frenchmen Eugene de Santiges (1834) and Leonce Angrand (1847). The site was subsequently forgotten until in 1911 Hiram Bingham, accompanied by inhabitants of the area, visited it and drew attention to its importance. Clearing and excavation work commenced in the nineteen seventies.

The trip to these monumental remains starts in Cachora (2,800 meters above sea level), a small village of the Apurimac region, accessible by a 4-hour drive along a good road from Cuzco. This cozy little village is where we should contact our "herdsmen-guides". The trip to Choquequirao is a long and tiring one, but absolutely unforgettable. You leave Cuzco along the road to Abancay. At kilometer 154 you should take the fork to Cachora, the last town before reaching the archaeological site. From this point your trip continues on horseback or on foot. The road has recently been widened and repaired. Traveling along this road is now safer and more comfortable. Getting to Choquequirao requires good physical fitness and the right gear. Leaving Cachora (2,900 meters above sea level), one has to go down to the Apurimac river (1,530 meters above sea level) to camp. On the second day, one climbs to the site of the complex, at 3,085 meters above sea level. The same road is used for the return. It is almost impossible to get to Choquequirao during the rainy season (December through March). Besides, archaeological work is suspended at this time of the year.

These buildings reveal the advanced techniques attained in designing and planning these types of construction, as well as the level of architectural and urban planning knowledge of the builders, since different areas were clearly defined for separate functions, such as administration, religion, housing, storage and places of worship; likewise, one should recognize that they were intelligent enough to build agricultural terraces around the complex to support it in the event of siege, thanks to which, and to their supply systems, they were able to ensure permanent provisioning for the level of consumption demanded by the inhabitants of the complex.


 
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