Hidden above the Sacred Valley, a little-visited Inca ruin offers a window into the past.
Hidden high above a deep gorge in Urubamba is a little known Inca site called Ñaupa Iglesia.
In Urubamba, we cross the Pachar Bridge over the Urubamba River. Entering the Huarocondo gorge by a dirt road, we drive beside train tracks and a rushing stream until we sight agricultural terraces sitting high on the flank of a mountain. There is a turn off at a rail crossing where we park the car.
The gorge is spectacular with high mountains encroaching on every side.
The gorge (Photo: Rinda Payne)
We walk along the train tracks. While we are balancing on the rails, a train whistles. The whistle is faint, but we go into alert mode. Another whistle is louder. We step onto the grass at one side of the track. An engine attached to a car labeled Machu Picchu noses around the curve. As it passes, the man in the engine and I exchange waves.
Leaving the tracks, we follow a relatively short trail that brings us below the terraces. The stairs of the terraces are in front of us. We begin to climb, turning the 90 degree corners of the terraces and walking along them until we arrive at the next set of stairs.
The agricultural terraces (Photo: Rinda Payne)
There are stops to rest, admire the view and watch the dirt road recede into the distance. Giant agaves and a variety of cacti dot the slopes. Bright pink, yellow and blue flowers poke their heads up among the overgrown terraces. Butterflies chase each other in the sun.
I don’t look up, because if I do all I see are endless terraces rising tier after tier. I think I’ll never achieve my goal of reaching Ñaupa Iglesia.
We explore a cave with stone work and niches in the back. At the base of the cave to one side of its entrance is an opening formed of stones. The opening is aligned with one of the interior niches, which is at a slightly lower level. I wonder if it is positioned to catch the rays of the rising sun on a solstice like at the Cave of Intimachay at Machu Picchu.
There are more stairs to climb. We finally scramble up the last incline, and I collapse on a rock facing the beautifully carved altar, Ñaupa Iglesia.
The face of the boulder has a carved recess. Surrounding the recess are three steps on the left and three steps on the right, which are joined at the top. Imagine the upper half of a Chakana, the Inca cross, framing the recess.
The steps represent the three levels of the Andean world. The lower world or the underworld, the interior world (the Ukhu Pacha), the middle world or the world we live in (the Kay Pacha) and the upper world or celestial world (the Hanan Pacha).
The edges of the carvings are smooth, the angles precise.
A rectangular knob protrudes from each side of the wall adjoining the recess in the area of the lower world. Angled to the right of the face of the altar is a carved recess as tall as the top of the altar. To the left is another recess.
Unfortunately, someone blasted the top of the altar, but what remains is a perfectly sculpted structure.
To the right of the altar is a building with its stone work exposed. It has a row of four blank niches with three niches beneath them. The area where the fourth niche should be appears to have fallen down.
Facing the altar is a cave. To the left of the cave is a portal carved into the rock. Someone with a creative flair arranged offerings of five evenly spaced groups of three coca leaves covered by a small flower blossom around the door frame. There are three groups across the top of the frame and one on each side of the frame.
Offerings of three coca leaves with a blossom on top of each set of leaves are scattered on the recessed threshold of the portal. In their center is a shell filled with coca leaves and blossoms. The doorway looks like a picture frame showcasing the offerings on the threshold.
Offerings at the stone doorway (Photo: Rinda Payne)
We have the place to ourselves to explore, to meditate about the purpose of this powerful site and to appreciate how high we’ve traveled. We linger…and linger, drawn by its peacefulness until shadows begin to fall, enhancing its mystery. It reminds us of Machu Picchu in its elevation, remoteness, the climb through terraces, the exquisite carving, the surrounding awe-inspiring mountains and the faint sound of rushing water far below us.
View of the road from Ñaupa Iglesia (Photo: Rinda Payne)
On our way down, we meet a couple who parked their motorbikes on the dirt road below the terraces. The woman holds an expensive camera in one hand. It’s a quick trip. They leave the altar almost as soon as they reach it. Two helmets belonging to a different couple are perched atop one of the stone posts of the terraces. Faint voices drift down as they mount the terraces’ stairs.
About half way down, we detour to the right and take a long, steep flight of steps to the bottom, an easier and safer down than the way up. When we reach the ground, there is a white motorbike tucked into the shrubbery.
The Inca steps (Photo: Rinda Payne)
Words cannot do Ñaupa Iglesia justice. The gorge, the climb, the sudden arrival at the site, its breathtaking setting and its mood, all have to be experienced.
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