Waqrapukara, the mysterious and spectacular Inca fortress in Peru that tourists barely reach

With more and more tourists arriving at the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu since 2024 began, it may be a good idea for travelers to head to another ancient Peruvian construction that few have heard of: Waqrapukara.

Our first visit to Machu Picchu in November 2020 was almost unbeatable. The fog, through which only a few rays of morning sun filtered through, dappled the ruins with a special light. The llamas and alpacas walked majestically and grazed around us. A lone vizcacha, a type of large squirrel with large rabbit-like ears, scampered among the rocks. The fresh air of the Andes was invigorating.

But the best thing was that in most of our photos there were almost no other tourists to be seen.

This was exceptional. We were stuck in Peru during the pandemic and waited patiently for ten months in the Sacred Valley of Cusco, and when local authorities began to lift restrictions, we went to visit the most iconic archaeological site in the country.

We were lucky to live an experience available to very few. More than 4,000 tourists tour Machu Picchu on a normal day. The visit can be rushed and unpleasant with so many people around and the crowd makes the comparison with Disneyland inevitable.

And the crowd could increase since on January 1, Peru’s Ministry of Tourism increased the number of authorized visitors to Machu Picchu to 4,500 daily, a figure that could rise to 5,600 on specific days.

That is likely to have a negative impact on the conservation of the ruins, but amid Peru’s economic and political problems, the government is looking for a way to increase income from its main tourist attraction. It is understandable from a strictly economic point of view. The country received 2.2 million tourists in 2023, much less than the 4.6 that arrived in 2019, before the appearance of covid.

Explore other places

It is often said that if you can only visit one place in South America it should be Mach Picchu. But in a country full of beautiful and mysterious archaeological sites, a good tip for savvy travelers is to explore other places this year.

Waqrapukara is an option. Its appearance evokes the stories of JRR Tolkien, with its two twin peaks rising above the canyon of the Apurimac River as if it were an orc watchtower over the lands of Mordor.

Located about 130 kilometers south east of Machu Picchu, within the department of Cusco, this place, whose name in Quechua means “fortress with horns”, is located at about 4,100 meters high, 1,700 meters above Machu Picchu, which makes the views from above of a grandeur greater than that of any other of the South American wonders.

And although it is about 60 kilometers from Cusco, the ancient Inca capital and center of tourism in the area, Waqrapukara is so far from the usual tourist circuit that until very recently it was largely unknown even to locals.

Sara Román, a business owner in Cusco, grew up in the 1980s in Sangarará, the town near Aqokunka, where the two- to four-hour walk to the fortress begins.

“In Secondary School we had a history class about Peru and it covered all the cultures, the Nazca, the Moche, the Chavín, the Inca and others. The teacher mentioned that there was a place called Waqrapukara nearby, but that was it,” she recalls. “They never taught us anything about the importance of the place or its history. “I was curious, but never had the opportunity to go.”

a remote place

Since it was barely mentioned in school, Román thought there was nothing special to see. Tourism is a recent phenomenon in the region. International travelers didn’t start arriving until the last decade. For his family and his community, climbing the mountains was their job, not a recreational activity. No one went there to relax or learn about the Incas.

“I once went to Santa Lucía, a town about 5 kilometers south of Waqrapukara, when I was a girl, with my aunt and her donkeys to get potatoes and corn, and to sell onions, sugar and coca leaves. Now there is a road, but then there was nothing. It took up to eight hours to get there.” So he didn’t go to Waqrapukara for the first time until last year. “I loved, above all, the landscape,” she says.

As with other pre-Columbian sites in Peru, little is actually known about the place. The fortress has some undoubtedly Incan architectural elements and modifications. Some experts believe that it was originally the work of the Canchis, a warrior people who prospered before the Incas, who ended up taking control of the area and Waqra Pukará. But according to Óscar Montúfar, from the National University of San Antonio Abad in Cusco, there are indications that its origins may be even older.

“Canchis ceramics have been found dating back to around the year 800,” he indicates. “But some recent studies near Waqrapukara and around the city of Pomocanchi have revealed a strong Wari presence.”

The place seems to have been a melting pot. “There is archaeological evidence of the Pukará culture, the oldest, of the Tiawanaku, the Wari of the Canchis and then of the Incas. The structures currently visible are from the Inca period,” says Montúfar.

Sacred place

He believes that Waqrapukara did not have a residential or military use, and emphasizes that the terraces at the bottom were used as ceremonial spaces, probably to make offerings. “When the Incas arrived they designated it a sacred place, but it was also used for rituals and pilgrimages by pre-Inca cultures,” says the expert.

Other details that suggest a possible spiritual use of the place are the door frames with triple jambs. Most Inca doors have the same trapezoidal shape, but only spaces with a religious dimension feature these three frames embedded within other frames.

“This is only found in a few very important places. Not even Cuzco, Písac, Ollantaytambo or Machu Picchu have doors with triple jambs,” says Montúfar. “It is only found in older and more ancestral sites such as the Island of the Moon, where according to the myth Viracocha, the creative deity for the Incas, placed the moon above the sky of Lake Titicaca.”

Like many other sacred places in Peru, this one is also linked to Qhapaq Ñam or the Inca Trail, a system of roads that connected the entire Inca Empire and extended to Colombia and Argentina.

“Waqrapukara has several archaeological sites nearby. There are cemeteries, a network of roads that connects to the Inca Trail, and petroglyphs. It is a large structure. The location grants territorial control over the entire area,” explains Montúfar. Another interesting aspect is how the walls and terraces adapt to the rugged terrain. It’s what makes it such a beautiful image. The terraces strengthen the orography of the place and prevent erosion and possible landslides. “They give stability to the flat platforms that are built on site.”

But the most characteristic aspect of the place is its “horns”, the pair of identical rock formations that rise above the fortress and make it instantly recognizable. Despite the name that has been given to them,

Montúfar explains that they are not horns at all, but probably the ears of a llama, an animal that is everywhere at the start of the Aqokunka trail. Unlike the animals of Machu Picchu, these have not been placed in the place to please tourists; These heights of between 3,500 and 5,000 meters are its natural habitat.