The Trek To Vilcabamba
In the shadow of the Andes mountains, hidden underneath the forbidding vegetation of the Amazon jungle, lies one of Peru’s most incredible secret treasures: Vilcabamba. As the location of the last vestiges of the Inca Empire before its destruction by the Spanish, Vilcabamba is a place of special symbolic and historical importance. However, due to its abandonment in the dense overgrowth of the Peruvian selva, its exact location was a mystery for much of the last several hundred years. Only in recent decades has the city of Vilcabamba been definitively identified as the site of Espíritu Pampa near the banks of the Chontabamba River, a tributary of the Urubamba.
It is possible to visit the site of Vilcabamba today; however, the hike to the location is quite difficult and only recommended for experienced hikers. The path descends all the way from snow-capped Andean mountains to the thick of the jungle, passing through rugged and possibly dangerous terrain. Nonetheless, a visit to Vilcabamba is extremely rewarding for those who are willing to put in the work. Due to its extremely remote location, this site is only visited by a few dozen tourists every year. It’s actually possible to find yourself completely alone at the ruins, a magical experience that cannot be matched by many other sites of such historical importance. Continue reading below to find out how you can visit this amazing site.
First, a little history
In the aftermath of the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire, the remnants of its government fled from the Imperial capital of Cusco to the city of Ollantaytambo, lead by Manco Inca Yupanqui (the son of emperor Huayna Capac). Eventually deciding that Ollantaytambo was too close to the Spanish forces in Cusco, Manco Inca and his followers fled to Vitcos and finally to Vilcabamba which they established as the capital of their new state in 1539. From this location, safe from the Spanish in the remote obscurity of the jungle, Manco Inca and his successors ruled this Neo-Inca State for almost 40 years.
The Incas and Spanish more or less coexisted during this time; it wasn’t until 1572 that the Spanish launched a campaign to capture the region. During the 1560s, the Inca ruler Titu Cusi Yupanqui had entered into negotiations to surrender in exchange for accepting a crown pension, having gone so far as to be baptized into the Roman Catholic Church. These negotiations continued to progress until Titu Cusi’s sudden death in 1571, at which point his brother Túpac Amaru assumed power.
Unaware that control of the empire had changed hands, the Spanish sent two ambassadors to continue negotiations with Titu Cusi. The new ruler Túpac Amaru promptly had these ambassadors assassinated. Declaring that this act had “broken the inviolate law observed by all nations of the world regarding ambassadors” the Spanish Viceroy Francisco de Toledo declared war against the Neo-Inco Sate on April 14, 1572. Within weeks the Spanish had captured a crucial bridge from which they laid siege to the Inca capital of Vilcabamba.
The lightly-armed Incas fought valiantly to repel the siege, but they were continually forced to retreat in the face of the powerful Spanish artillery. On June 24, the Spanish finally entered Vilcabamba to find it abandoned and completely destroyed, with the Incas having fled further into the jungle to regroup. The Spanish would eventually capture this remnant and Túpac Amaru would be tragically executed in front of a crowd of thousands in the central plaza of Cusco. The site of Vilcabamba, the final stronghold of the defiant Inca, would subsequently be forgotten to history.
The location of Vilcabamba was unknown for many years and the site eventually took on a legendary status among some explorers and historians, who hoped to uncover this famed “lost city of the Incas.” The first to visit the site in modern times were three Cusco residents named Manuel Ugarte, Manuel López Torres, and Juan Cancio Saavedra, in the year 1892. A few years later, the famed explorer Hiram Bingham also visited the site, which was then called Espíritu Pampa (meaning “the plain of ghosts”). Bingham failed to recognize its importance, believing that he had already found the historical “Vilcabamba” at Machu Picchu. It wasn’t until the work of Antonio Santander Casselli and Gene Savoy in the 1960s that Espíritu Pampa was rightfully associated with the historical city of Vilcabamba. Later archaeological work by Vincent Lee cemented this research and the location is now definitively established.
How to get there
Espíritu Pampa, the location of the legendary Inca city of Vilcabamba, is located about 500km from the city of Cusco on a plateau near the Chontabamba River, a tributary of the Urubamba. It is highly recommended to attempt this trek only with the help of a local guide, as the path can be quite rough and dangerous. The trek generally takes around 7 days, but can be done in as little as 3. There are also a number of side excursions that can be added to the trek, including an extension all the way to Choquequirao. Guided tours to the site can be arranged from the city of Cusco. Here is a typical basic route taken to the site:
Day 1: Cusco to Huancacalle
Day 2: Huancacalle to Ututo
Day 3: Ututo to Vista Alegre
Day 4: Vista Alegre to Concebidayoq
Day 5: Concebidayoq to Espiritu Pampa
Day 6: Espiritu Pampa to Kiteni
Day 7: Kiteni to Cusco
This route follows the same basic route that the Incas would have followed as they fled from the Spanish, passing through a diverse array of landscapes.
What to bring
It’s best to check with your tour provider to clarify what items you should and shouldn’t bring with you on the trek. The following items will usually be recommended:
- Walking shoes and socks
- Regular pants
- T-shirts (long-sleeved and short-sleeved)
- Trekking boots
- Warm sleeping bag
- Waterproof pants and jacket
- Sunglasses and sunscreen
- Baseball cap or bandana
- Fleece for extra warmth
- Warm hat and mittens
- Enough food and water for the duration of the trek
Groups travelling without a guide will also need a warm tent and possibly a mule or donkey to carry their belongings. However, as stated above, it’s strongly recommended to only attempt this trek with a professional guide.
How to find a guide
The best way to find a guide to help you visit the legendary Inca city of Vilcabamba is to ask in one of the many tourist agencies in the center of Cusco. Even if they don’t offer this specific trek, they should be able to point you to another agency that does offer it. There are also tours available to book online at Peru For Less, Apus Peru, and Haku Travel, among others. It should be possible to find a guide at the beginning of the trek in the town of Huancacalle, as well.
We hope that we’ve inspired you to check out Vilcabamba, the legendary lost city of the Incas. If you decide to put in the hard work to hike to this site, you’ll be one of a very small group of people who have seen this secret treasure.
Of course, while you’re in Cusco, there are a plethora of other amazing sights that you must see while you’re in town. Besides the inimitable Machu Picchu, you can visit Huamantay Lake, Maras and Moray, Rainbow Mountain, and many others. If you’d like to continue your journey into other regions of Peru, we also highly recommend booking a ticket on Peru Hop. This service allows you to travel flexibly and see all the major attractions of Peru from Cusco all the way to Lima. ¡Buen viaje!