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Vilcashuamán is an Inca experience like no other

“Vilcashuamán is now a small village, remote on its hill-top, perched on the ruins of the great Inca city whose temples have been pillaged for building blocks.” – so said the Canadian explorer, anthropologist and academic John Hemming.

In five short centuries Vilcashuamán has gone from being a thriving Inca city located at a vital strategic crossroads to a geographically isolated rural backwater… Albeit one replete with incredible archaeological and historical treasures. Vilcashuamán was founded by the Inca Pachacutec after Inca forces defeated the Chanka in a bloody battle which is re-enacted annually in Vilcas Raymi – a colorful festival in the last week of July.

The current plaza pales into insignificance when compared to the Inca square which could hold 20,000 people. (Photo credit: Eduzam)

Then and now

In its heyday Vilcashuamán enjoyed an incredibly strategic location on the Qhapaq Ñan at the point where the main North-South highway intersected the road from Cusco to the coast. Nowadays it is a forgotten backwater accessed via a (geographically spectacular) 3-hour drive from Ayacucho…itself a remote regional capital.

Living museum

The ruins of the ancient Inca city are so much a part of the modern Peruvian town that it is almost impossible to say where the ruins end and the town starts. The most obvious example of this is the Spanish church built atop the ruins of the Inca Temple of the Sun, but shops, houses and schools are also nestled against or perched on top of Inca walls and foundations.

Dr Jon Beasley Murray, an expert in Latin American Studies, describes the surreal experience of visiting Vilcashuamán more eloquently than I could: “There is no measured distance between contemporary life and sacrosanct historical artefact: no ropes, no fences marking off the museal from the everyday.”

Things to see

Due to its remote location at 11,500 feet above sea level, Vilcashuamán is not a very popular tourist destination. But those who make the effort are rewarded with some of the most fascinating and important Inca ruins on the planet.

The Ushnu has been restored to its former glory. (Photo credit: Fer121)

Ushnu: This enormous altar or sacrificial platform is the largest such Inca structure ever discovered. The pyramidal structure comprises four superimposed platforms and a flight of 36 stone stairs leading to the top. At the top there’s an enormous double throne (for the Inca and his coya or ‘chief wife’) carved from a single block of stone. It’s impossible to resist the urge to try the throne out for yourself. And with good reason: the views of the kallanka (great hall) and the temples of the sun and moon, not to mention the surrounding countryside are epic.

Temple of the Sun: The Inca worshipped Inti, the sun god, and every province had a Temple of the Sun which was maintained by male and female priests. The temple at Vilcashuamán was second only in importance to the Qurikancha in Cusco…Which, coincidentally, was also used by the Spanish as the foundation for a catholic church.

Piedra del Vaticinio: This is a carved stone featuring a pool which leads into two zig-zagging channels. The Incas used it for divining the future of the empire, predicting the agricultural season, and even determining the future of a couple!  Chicha (corn beer) was poured into the pool and allowed to flow into the channels. If the chicha in the left-hand channel arrived at the bottom first, it was a good omen. But if the chicha on the right-hand side reached the end first, it was all doom and gloom. If you make the pilgrimage to Vilcashuamán you can even try it for yourself...

Puya raimondi is known as the Queen of the Andes in English and as Titanka in Quechua. (Photo credit: Jonathan Hood)

Intihuatana: This complex near Vischongo, about 10 miles from Vilcashuamán, was used as a retreat by the Inca elite. It features an Inca sundial (this is where Intihuatana gets its name) as well as a palace, a temple, a defensive tower, and an Inca stone bath which is today used by the locals as a laundromat! Intihuatana overlooks the gorgeous Pomacocha Lake and also borders the largest forest of Puya raimondii (an otherworldly species of giant bromeliad) in the world.

This video does a pretty good job of introducing most of the main sites and it even has English subtitles:

Now that we’ve whet your appetite let us take you to Vilcashuamán. If you ’re the kind of traveller who likes to dig deeper, it can’t be beat…

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