Searching for the Intihuatana

Anyone who’s watched the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark and longed to be Indiana Jones searching for ancient relics and lost cities understands how I felt as I took those first steps down the the dirt road out of Aguas Calientes.

Ahead was one of the most important Inca sites in the Machu Picchu region commonly known as the river Intihuatana. Yet it’s location would almost certainly be a real challenge to find as it’s location is not marked and even those who have been there before have had difficulty finding their way back.

Why look for the river Intihuatana?

What sent me off on this search? Ever since arriving in Cusco some 11 months before, my dream has been to really start exploring places that are far, far off the beaten path. Of course, moving to a foreign country requires a lot more than just visiting as a tourist. Life often gets in the way and things like being accustomed to my new home and all the countless differences in lifestyle that I would have to deal with slowed down my expectations.

I’m also one of those people who either likes to prepare as much as possible for an adventure or just heads off down some unknown path with no idea what lies ahead.

This was a bit of both. In my readings about the Vilcamamba and Machu Picchu region, I had made a list of places in high jungle — Ceja de la Selva, or “eyebrow of the jungle” as it’s known locally — that I really wanted to visit. Major sites like Vilcabamba (the last Inca capital), Vitcos, etc., were high on the list, but there are also many, many minor sites out there including some that haven’t been visited in decades. If at all.

A place known as the river Intihuatana kept coming up over and over and was particularly interesting not only for its relative proximity to Machu Picchu, but for the recent discoveries of its importance to the region.

What little I could find about the site indicated that it is not an easy place to find and the handful of photos available indicated that it had again succumbed to the jungle as it was rarely visited.

With the encouragement and help of my friend Paolo Greer — the real Indiana Jones of the Machu Picchu region — I decided that finding the river Intihuatana would be my first quest.

What is an Intihuatana?

Intihuatanas are large carved rocks generally having a stair-stepped base and a single piece (called a gnomon) rising up like a sundial. Indeed, they are frequently referred to as sundials, but that is almost certainly not the purpose they served.

The name comes from Quechua — the language of the Incas that is still spoken by most people in the Andean region around Cusco — meaning “Hitching Post of the Sun.” Interestingly, it was the name probably first coined by Hiram Bingham as we do not know what the Incas called them.

To be honest, no one knows for certain what was the purpose of an Intihuatana, but they certainly played a major role in each place where they were created. With the exception of one — the river Intihuatana — they are all found on high places above the sites in which they are located. Most were destroyed by the Spanish as an obvious attempt to erase Inca culture in attempt to ease the assimilation of the Inca people into that of their Spanish conquerors.

I’ve seen kinds of possible explanations including being semi-abstract representations of nearby mountains, solar guides to predict solstices, etc. They are often aligned with solstice sunrises and/or sunsets or important geographical landmarks. I tend to think that the purpose depends on the specific location for each intihuatana.

Following the tracks down river

With the exception of the roaring river and the sound of jungle birds, early morning is a relatively quiet time along the Rio Urubamba. For the three hours I had the tracks almost to myself with the exception of three small groups heading from Santa Teresa to Aguas Calientes/Machu Picchu.

Even at over 6000′ in altitude, parrots still dominate in the jungle. I was surprised to see an oropendula in a branch above me. I wasn’t even certain at first though the golden underside gives it away along with a distinctive call.

What makes the oropendulas so interesting is the unique nest they build that hangs like a bag from tree branches as a way of protecting their young. In the lower jungle, they are extremely common and can be found everywhere, but the nest I spotted near the river farther downstream was the first I’d seen in the high jungle.

I was not surprised at the the number of small snack stands interspersed with an occasional restaurant catering to the large number of people who have discovered the Santa Teresa route as an economical way to access Machu Picchu. Despite the high prices, it’s easy to get just about anything you would want for the relatively short hike in.

I was amazed on my way back to Aguas Calientes at the exodus of literally hundreds of people returning to Santa Teresa in the early afternoon to catch a ride back to Cusco. The numbers must go up exponentially at the height of the busy season in June, July, and August.

Despite the hordes of people going in and out along the railroad tracks, there are still people living on the other side of the river that have only one way to cross. I saw two different places where cables where strung across the river so that residents could pull themselves across in baskets suspended over the river.

Residents on the other side cross by pulling themselves across in baskets suspended from a cable

Another strange sight was what appeared to be a modern highway “overpass” in the middle of the jungle! I couldn’t figure out what was the purpose of this strange construction. Obviously there was no road overhead.

My best guess was that it was either protection in a common landslide spot or a conduit for a particularly heavy stream coming down from above. The jungle was quite thick there and, to be honest, neither explanation seems likely. Unfortunately, there was no one nearby to ask.

Imagine coming upon on this sight in the middle of nowhere.

After miles of hiking I finally arrived in the area of the hydroelectrica, but a short walk along the tracks made it clear that I was not going to find it without some help so enlisted the aid of a man pushing a wheelbarrow of stones. Without a moment’s pause he said to follow him.

We headed back along the tracks where I had already passed with this thin man pushing a very heavy load of rocks so quickly that I could barely keep up. Soon he stopped and pointed to a very nondescript trail leading into the jungle.

Despite being invisible from the trail along the train tracks, it took only a few steps before I could see something in a clearing ahead. My heart began to race as I was filled with indescribably excitement as the hidden Intihuatana appeared before my eyes.

The river Intihuatana lies hidden in the jungle.

The site is a wondrous place that held great importance to the Incas. It is in a straight line between Machu Picchu and Llactapata high on the mountainside to the south. It is also the only Intihuatana that I’ve ever heard of not being located in a high place among a major ruin site.

(NOTE: A couple of days ago one of the workers at Machu Picchu told me that there was another Intihuatana located near the river below Wayna Picchu. That is definitely something I am going to check out in the future.)

The Inthuatana is located on a large platform — all carved from the single granite rock. Nearby is another rock with two shallow basins carved in an east-west alignment. An interesting fountain is next to the basin rock with four openings for the water to drain evenly due to a baffling system that directs the water flow evenly. Underneath the fountain is a small cave, though I thought it wise not to go exploring there alone.

I spent about half an hour exploring the immediate area (and another hour on a subsequent visit a week later) picking my way through the jungle looking for more ruins. The remains of two small buildings and a number of long walls are in the immediate vicinity. Sadly, all have been overtaken by the jungle and many are not easily seen despite being only a few feet away.

Sadly, I still haven’t been able to find a circular wall and some niches that are reportedly nearby. (Sounds like a good reason to return, doesn’t it?)

This is one of the coolest places I’ve been so far in Peru. Part of this is because it is relatively unknown despite it’s importance and relative proximity to a major trail. Another part is that it took some work to get there and finding a reward like this after a lot of effort makes it even more worthwhile.

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