Barely anyone has heard of Waqra Pukará. I certainly hadn’t. It is located reasonably close (130km) to Machu Picchu, in Peru, and is empty of tourists most of the time.

       January 2024 will see the start of even bigger crowds at Machu Picchu, and savvy travellers may be wise to head to the stunning edifice of Waqra Pukará instead.

       On a typical day at Machu Picchu, more than 4,000 tourists are allowed into the site. The experience can feel rushed, photos are often obscured by the hordes of people, and comparisons to the jostling crowds of Disney World are inevitable. That experience is about to get significantly more crowded. Starting from 1 January 2024, Peru’s tourism ministry has increased the number of daily allowed tourists at Machu Picchu to 4,500 – and that limit could reach as high 5,600 on specific, high-traffic days.

       Waqra Pukará looks like something out of a Tolkien novel, with its prominent twin peaks looming up above the Apurimac Canyon like a “Lord of the Rings” “Orc’s” watchtower surveying the land of Mordor (see picture above). Located roughly 130km south-east of Machu Picchu, within the greater Cusco Region and along the Apurimac River, the “fortress” (Waqra Pukará translates to “horned fortress” in Quechua, the language of the Incas) sits at a stunning 4,100m – roughly 1,700m higher than Machu Picchu – making the views from the top far grander.

       Waqra Pukará is only about 60km from the Inca capital, and current tourist hub, of Cusco, but it is so far off the beaten tourist path that, until recently, even the locals didn’t know much about it. Sangarará, is the closest village to the Aqokunka trailhead, from where it’s a two- to four-hour hike to the fortress.

       Like so many other pre-Columbian sites in Peru, very little is known about the site itself. While Waqra Pukará has obvious Inca architectural flourishes and modifications (they eventually assumed control of the fortress), some believe the original site was built by the Canchis, a war-like people who thrived before the Inca rose to power. But according to archaeologist Oscar Montúfar, a graduate of Universidad Nacional de San Antonio Abad del Cusco, there are clues that its origins go back even farther.

       “They have found “Canchis” ceramics from around the year 800 CE,” said Montufar. “However, new studies carried out around Waqra Pukará, and especially near the town of Pomacanchi, have shown a very strong “Wari” (an earlier culture) presence. There is also archaeological evidence of the Pukará culture, which is the oldest in the region. That means that the Waqra Pukará site has been home to then the Pukará, Tiawanaku, the Wari, the Canchis and then the Inca civilizations. However, the structures that we see there now are from the Inca period.”

       Montufar believes that Waqra Pukará was not residential or military, noting that terraces, below it, were used for ceremonial plants, likely for offerings made at the site – and that the scale would not have supported a large, year-round population (the site itself is only about 12 acres). “When the Inca came to Waqra Pukará, they designated it a sacred place, but it was used for ceremonies and pilgrimages with pre-Inca cultures as well,” he explained.

       Further signs of its spiritual significance lie in the detail of the door frames, which feature triple jambs. Most Inca doors have the same trapezoidal shape, but only the most venerated places feature these three recessed frames-within-frames.

       “This is only seen in a very few places that were very important. Even Cusco, Pisac, Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu don’t have triple door jambs,” said Montufar. “It is only found in older, ancestral places like Maukallaq’ta, Isla del Sol [both rumored to be the legendary “birthplace” of the Inca] and Isla de la Luna [where Viracocha, the creator deity of the Inca, raised the Moon into the sky] on Lake Titicaca. It was used as a place for special rituals.”

       Like so many sacred places in Peru, Waqra Pukará is also linked to the Qhapaq Ñan, or Inca Trail; a system of roads that connected the Inca Empire throughout Peru and extended as far north as Colombia and south to Argentina.

       “Another interesting aspect of Waqra Pukará is how the walls and terraces conform to the natural curves of the topography. That’s what makes it such a beautiful sight. The terraces strengthen the existing topography to prevent erosion and landslides. They stabilise the wide flat platforms that were built on the site.”

       The most distinctive aspect of the site, however, is its “horns”, the twin rock formations that rise above it and make it instantly recognisable. Despite its name, Montufar says they aren’t horns at all – but more likely the ears of the llama, sightings of which are practically unavoidable during the trek up from Aqokunka trailhead. Unlike the animals at Machu Picchu, these aren’t brought in for tourists; these higher elevations (around 3,500 to 5,000m) are the animal’s natural habitat.

       Visiting the site is an unforgettable experience. It’s a ten kilometer trek roundtrip from the trailhead and back, and while the path is fairly intuitive, you likely won’t see any other hikers, so a guide is recommended.

       “The Apurimac Canyon is super beautiful, and the trail from Aqokunka trailhead is really easy … Once you’ve got to the archaeological site, you’ve done all the hard parts,” said Cass Madden, an avid hiker who’s lived in Cusco for six years. However, she noted that the altitude can make things seem much more difficult, so spending some time acclimating nearby in Sangarará, chewing coca leaves or drinking coca tea, is something she strongly advises.

       The most breath-taking moment is rounding a bend and seeing the “horns” suddenly loom up in front of you. Once you’re inside, it looks and feels more like an Inca site, but from afar, the twin rock outcroppings look primal, almost Neolithic – and unlike anything else you’ll see in Peru.

       Within, you’ll find multiple enclosures, a window perfect for photo ops, a niche where the Inca may have placed a venerated mummy, and a stone, table-like altar where llamas – and who knows what else – would have been sacrificed.

       The exact purpose of Waqra Pukará, its age and original inhabitants, however, are still to be determined. For those seeking the mystical atmosphere of Machu Picchu but with a fraction of the crowds, Peru’s horned fortress awaits.

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