An Experience Among Lost Cities and Lost Cultures in Peru
The Rebellion of Manco Inca Yupanqui and Choquechaca
The Spanish arrival in 1532 to Peru under the direction of the Conquistador Francisco Pizarro was the beginning of the end for the Inca Empire, South America’s largest and one of its most sophisticated ancient civilizations. Through a protracted series of events in which a succession of Inca kings and nobles died from disease or were murdered, a young Inca noble by the name of Manco Inca Yupanqui was appointed Inca king by Francisco Pizarro in 1534. However by the following year, Manco became aware of the widespread mistreatment and manipulation of the Inca people by the Conquistadors.
By 1536, Manco decided to rebel and gather a native army of 200,000 farmer-soldiers to re-take the Inca Capital at the city of Cusco. Manco’s siege while lasting 10 months, eventually was unsuccessful and he retreated to the Inca fortress of Ollantaytambo. In the ensuing battles, Manco Inca Yupanqui and his army had many successful campaigns before eventually succumbing to prolonged food shortages and disease, as his fighters were one in the same with those needed to cultivate the fields.
In 1537, Manco Inca Yupanqui decided to abandon Ollantaytambo and the Andean Highlands forever, escaping to the Inca fortress at Vitcos and then deeper into the remote jungle region of Vilcabamba.
Manco and his sons maintained a quasi mini empire in the high jungles of Peru for another 35 years, and it was in search of these mysterious strongholds that later brought 20th century explorers like Hiram Bingham to the region and resulted in his stumbling upon the lost city of Machu Picchu. But it was Manco’s move to Vilcabamba in 1537 that was a momentous event not just for the dying Inca Empire (and 20th century explorers), but for the entire colonial experience in the Americas as it solidified Spanish rule in Peru and later European rule in all of South America.
This is where the story of Choquechaca begins; Manco’s retreat in 1537 to Vilcabamba was over the neighboring 15,000 foot Malaga pass, which lies just below the 20,000 foot mount Veronica and then steadily declines into the thick high jungle of eastern Peru. There are two principal routes from Ollantaytambo that access the Malaga pass; travelling by foot along the Urumbamba river for a half a day before turning and climbing over the Andes, or the more plausible option, retreating by way of the highlands up the Patacancha river, passing the fortress at Pumamarka, and heading up through Choquechaca, which later connects through a safe highland route to Malaga pass. The name Choquechaca might also give evidence that the latter path had been used by Manco’s men since “Choque” can signify gold and “chaca” signifies a bridge or opening in the local language, a name with royal insinuations; there’s no doubt that this route through Choquechaca was of high importance and likely one of the more notorious and sad in Inca history.
Choquechaca of the Past Decade
Fast forward 500 years, and the Choquechaca valley has maintained a strategic position in the high Andean life of the region, only nowadays its importance relates to its unique ecosystem with some of the region’s most abundant native forests and endangered bird species, as well as its vulnerable indigenous cultures. In fact, despite the passing of five centuries, many of the inhabitants still hold the Yupanqui last name.
Beginning in 2003 some forward thinking groups began to recognize the ecologic and cultural importance of Choquechaca and other similar areas in the Vilcanota Mountain range. Under the umbrella of the organization Asociacion Ecosystemas Andinos or Ecoan, scientists, conservationists and international financiers came together to establish a network of Private Conservation Areas of Native forests within the Vilcanota Mountain range. Its stated goals are to create and consolidate a system of native Polylepis forest reserves that are sustainably managed by local communities that preserve the native biodiversity, provide alternative sustainable uses of the forests, improve the social indicators of local families, and strengthen local communal organizations that favor conservation.
In 2005, during the early years of Ecoan’s work in the Vilcanota, I had coincidentally begun to explore the region on my own as I was living nearby in the Sacred Valley, and that's when I met the Sincha family, one of the principal families in Choquechaca. I was struck, not only by the natural beauty of the region, but also by their ancient practices and culture. In numerous subsequent visits, I began to learn about the contemporary evolution of the Sincha family, the Choquechaca Valley, and the modernization of the indigenous cultures of the Vilcanota Mountain range.
Between the years of 2006 and 2012, tourism continued to grow in the Cusco region of Peru, roads improved, and then high speed internet reached neighboring Ollantaytambo, a day’s walk from Choquechaca. All these variables accelerated the pace of modernization in the region as more of the world began to visit the Peruvian highlands. It is also during this time that I co-founded SA Expeditions and returned to visit the Sincha Family in the high valley of Choquechaca. With 7 years since my last visit, it was blindingly clear to me how dramatically the world of Choquechaca was changing...as well as my own.
Choquechaca’s work conserving its forests and improving the social indicators of the community was something that I realized I could now influence more than ever as SA Expeditions was bringing travelers from around the world to Machu Picchu. I also was aware given my own experience getting to know the Sincha family and Choquechaca what their culture and valley had to offer visitors in return. Inspired by that thought and in the spirit of collaboration, I proposed the idea to the Sinchas, who are proud and successful members of their community, and they welcomed the opportunity to share their culture, beautiful natural surroundings, and unique local history that harkens back to the time of Manco Inca Yupanqui.
Visiting Choquechaca to Strengthen Conservation and Human Understanding
When you’re in the business of experiences that you hope changes lives, it requires you to walk a tight line between ambition, realism and idealism. And at its core is the belief that responsible and thoughtful travel makes the world a better place for the visitor and host.
Responsible and ecologically-minded tourism to Choquechaca demonstrates to our hosts the inherent value in the pure natural surroundings of their home. For indigenous communities, there is always the need for firewood and at times the pressure to clear forests for agriculture. When the value of that forest through attracting tourism exceeds the value of the forest through more extractive activities, we believe responsible tourism has made a positive difference.
What do we mean when we discuss value for Choquechaca? Modernization has brought an increasing need for monetary resources. In the Choquechaca region specifically, current sources of income are from agriculture, textiles, animal production, and portering tourists on the Inca Trail. When we look at portering in more detail, we see that a typical 4-day/3-night program actually takes almost six days of a worker’s time outside of their community seeing as they require a full day to travel from their home to the trail-head. A porter earns approximately $100 of income for this and therefore in an extended family with three male heads of household, like the Sincha clan in Choquechaca, there would be in influx of $300 per week. SA Expeditions used this total as the benchmark for how much financial activity we wanted to create during our one full day visit to the community and we intended to achieve this through the use of local horses, the purchase of textiles by visitors, and direct compensation for their help in guiding and accommodating tourists for the day.
While portering will remain an important revenue source for men in the Vilcanota mountain range in the near future, it does partly attribute to the exodus of indigenous communities of the Vilcanota region to the growing cities in Peru, which in turn adds strain to the fabric of traditional cultures. This is where our ambition comes into play; we can provide a better alternative that can generate comparable financial resources to the Inca Trail that is also an activity that encourages a multi-generation, communal approach to work that values what their culture has to offer. By promoting cultural sharing in Choquechaca, we can help generate a wider range, and perhaps more gratifying source, of income-generating tourism work for the region.
We would be asking a lot if we thought our passion for the high Andes was infectious enough to bring folks from around the world to visit Choquechaca as an isolated one time trip. This is where our realism comes into play; as making a positive impact in Choquechaca and collaborating with the Sincha family to conserve their native ecosystems is something that can be done in one full day en route to visit Machu Picchu.
The full day starts by travelling in vehicle from either Cusco or the Sacred Valley up the Patacancha river valley through the town of Ollantaytambo before disembarking to go the rest of the way on horseback to the community of Choquechaca. The visit is organized in small, private groups with folks who live in Choquechaca and a guide who can facilitate communication and a deep understanding of place. Travelers spend the day enjoying incredible vistas, Inca ruins, native textiles and a catered mountain lunch. In the afternoon, it’s possible to continue on to Machu Picchu by train or return to your hotel in either the Sacred Valley or Cusco.
It’s this opportunity that SA Expeditions is excited to be fortunate enough to offer and we encourage you, the traveler, to join us and the Sincha family in Choquechaca to enrich the cycle of positive growth through responsible tourism. Which is where our idealism comes into play; we think as you sit on the green valley grass in Choquechaca, breathing in its crisp fresh air, and contemplating the meaning of tradition with the humble and admirable folks from Choquechaca, it will revitalize you with wanderlust, and demonstrate to all involved how collaboration across cultures truly impacts the world for the better.
*Photos by Andrew Dare - facebook.com/AndrewDarePhotography