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On the Trail of "New" Inca Cities: The Discovery Continues

Ever since the demise of the Inca Empire, rumors, clues, and fabulous tales of a fabled lost Inca city stuffed with gold and silver have rippled across Peru. The tales prompted searches, discoveries, and, often, reevaluations. Machu Picchu wasn't the lost and last city Hiram Bingham thought it was -- Vilcabamba the Old was the last refuge of the Incas. The search continues, though, and incredibly, new discoveries continue to occur in the Andes. First, it was Choquequirao in the early 1990s. More recently, other teams have announced the discoveries of other lost Inca cities.

The discovery of Qorihuayrachina (also called Cerro Victoria, the name of the peak it rests on), 35km (22 miles) southwest of Machu Picchu in the Andes, was announced by the National Geographic Society in March 2002. Led by Peter Frost, a group of explorers uncovered the ruins of a large settlement that might have been occupied by the Incas long before they'd built a continent-spanning empire. Among the ruins are tombs and platforms, suggestive of an important burial site and sacred rites, although there are also indications that the site was an entire city. The ruins cover 6 sq. km (2 1/3 sq. miles) and occupy a spectacular mountaintop location with panoramic views of the Vilcabamba range's snowcapped peaks, which were considered sacred by the Incas. Archaeologists, claiming that Qorihuayrachina is one of the most important sites found in the Vilcabamba region since it was abandoned by the Incas nearly 500 years ago, have high hopes that the ruins will help them piece together the Inca Empire from beginning to end.

Frost claimed the site was the largest of its kind found since 1964. Comprising 100 structures, including circular homes, storehouses, cemeteries, funeral towers, roadways, waterworks, farming terraces, a dam, and a pyramid, the city might have been occupied by the Incas who fled Cusco after the Spanish conquest. The ruins are secluded in cloud forest in the remote Vilcabamba region.

Just months after the discovery of Qorihuayrachina in 2002, the British Royal Geographic Society, led by Hugh Thompson and Gary Ziegler, announced the finding of a major new Inca site, Cota Coca, only a few kilometers away but across a deep canyon from Choquequirao (a road might have connected the two). Wholly unknown to the outside world until its discovery, Cota Coca -- 97km (60 miles) west of Cusco -- appears to have been an administrative and storage center.

Llaqtapata, rediscovered by a U.S. and British team using remote (aerial) infrared technology and reported in November 2003, is the most recent Inca city to (re)surface. Just 3km (1 3/4 miles) from Machu Picchu, it, too, had been visited by Bingham and several explorers in the 1980s, so it's open to interpretation how new its "discovery" in fact is.

How long these discoveries might go on is anyone's guess. According to Hugh Thomson, "The physical geography of southeast Peru is so wild, with its deep canyons and dense vegetation, that it is possible that there are even more ruins waiting to be discovered. The fact that we have found two in 2 years means there could be many more out there."

Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu Pueblo)

Renamed Machu Picchu Pueblo by the Peruvian government -- a name adopted by almost no one -- Aguas Calientes is quite literally the end of the line, a gringo outpost of mochileros (backpackers) outfitted in the latest alpaca and indigenous weave fashions designed to tempt them. Hats, gloves, sweaters -- they are walking (if unshaved) advertisements for Peruvian artisanship. Making it Peru's own little Katmandu, the trekkers hang out for a few days after their great journey to Machu Picchu, sharing beers and tales, and scoring a final woven hat or scarf to wear as a trophy back home.

To be honest, there's not much else to do in Aguas Calientes, which might as well be called Aires Calientes, given its sweltering heat and humidity. The town has baños termales, or outdoor hot springs -- the source of the town's name -- that are a 10-minute climb up Avenida Pachacútec. Many visitors find them rather hygienically challenged, if not downright nasty, but they're popular with folks who've completed the Inca Trail and are in desperate need of muscular relaxation (not to mention a bath). The one pool with freezing mountain water can be tremendously restorative if you've just finished a long day at the ruins, but the smell of iron is overpowering. The springs are open from 5am to 9pm; admission is S/10. Just be sure to leave your valuables locked up at the hotel.

Adventurous sorts not yet exhausted from climbing might want to climb the sacred mountain Putukusi, which commands extraordinary distant views across the river to the ruins of Machu Picchu. The trail begins on the right side of the railroad just out of town. (A signpost reads KM 111.) Veer to the right up stone steps and get ready for an athletic feat, struggling up vertical ladders (several of which aren't in the best of shape) until you reach a clearing and series of stone-carved switchbacks. At the top, Machu Picchu is nestled like an architectural model between its two famous peaks. The trek up takes about 75 minutes; the descent takes 45 minutes. Gazing across the valley at the ancient Inca city? Priceless. Although they've repaired the trail and fixed missing steps, it is still mostly for fit climbers.

Another good trail, particularly for bird-watchers, is the short trail to Mandor Ravine and a waterfall found there. From the railroad tracks, walk downstream (beyond the old train station) until you come to the ravine (about 3km/1 3/4 miles). A short climb takes you to the waterfall.

In the evening, most folks take to the bars for a few beers. A good spot for music and drinks is Blues Bar Café, Av. Pachacútec s/n (tel. 084/211-125), an airy, cabinlike two-level place next to the park on restaurant row. In the late afternoon, it's a fine place to chill and gaze out at Putukusi, the mountain across from Machu Picchu.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.