Yesterday I went back to the Inca ruins of Choqana just outside of Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley to see if I could get a better idea of its original purpose.
I was accompanied this time by my friends Stijn (from The Netherlands) and Judy (from Florida) for a great day of hiking on spectacular day. Hiking is always more fun when I get to share it with fantastic people!
We started at the impressive Ñaupa Iglesia site above the small town of Pachar and hiked along the Inca Road from Pachar to Ollantaytambo that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago here: Hiking THE Inca Trail for Free in the Sacred Valley.
Peter Frost, author of Exploring Cusco, says it was a fort, but he doesn’t explain why he thinks so. The first time I visited the site two weeks ago I only explored a couple of room, but yesterday I was able to walk through most of the small complex that provides a dominant view up and down the Urubamba Valley.
After walking through all the complex, I am convinced that it was not a fort at all. Despite the imposing outside walls just above the river, there is nothing else that leads me to believe there was anything about it’s position or construction that made it a good a defensive fort.
As you approach along the dirt road from the south which generally follows the original Inca road connecting Cusco to Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu, the walls rising above are certainly quite imposing, but their position on the steep mountainside made it almost necessary for to build high. Indeed, much of the lower foundation is actually the mountain itself with Inca stonework beginning quite higher as shown in the photos below.
The site itself is actually quite small, though on the approach there is a significant set of agricultural terraces. It’s necessary to climb up to the few rooms. A couple of buildings originally had two flotheroors, but few of the rooms had more than window or two. (If you’re just staying the night, you really don’t want windows where cold drafts can creep in.)
Because of it’s small size, it couldn’t hold more than a handful of soldiers necessary to defend against even a small invading force.
Even more important is that it simply in the wrong place. Choqana sits above the river along a major Inca road, but anyone wishing to attach from farther up the valley would simply travel on the other side of the river where farm land made for a simple, easy approach to Ollantaytambo.
Also, because the Incas controlled all of the Urubamba Valley from Ollantaytambo to Pisac, there simply be no need. Those cultures they had difficulty with lay north and east of the Ollantaytambo and would approach from those two directions.
Almost all of the small rooms had a large number of typical trapezoidal niches where ceremonial artifacts were kept. Would a very small military fort have almost every wall include a large number of ceremonial and/or religious components? That just doesn’t make much sense since soldiers were distinctly separate from the “priest” class.
Of perhaps even more importance are the existence of two carved stones (below) that appear to be small ceremonial platforms. In a very small defensive fort, I wonder if Inca builders would have gone to the trouble of creating two separate ceremonial platforms. These were generally reserved for more important, religious sites.
While the walls — especially those from the south approach, are very thick — they are not particularly useful for defensive purposes. Incas generally preferred close quarters, hand-to-hand warfare with handheld weapons. The windows didn’t even provide a decent view of the surrounding countryside which would be needed for a defensive position.
Frankly, for all of the reasons described, I can see no reason to believe that Choqana was a fort. Nothing about it except its initial appearance supports that.
What it does seem to me — and this is based simply on my readings of those who have spent their careers studying the Inca culture — is that Choqana was some kind of tambo, or stopping place along this very important Inca road.
Because of the large number of ceremonial niches and platforms, my first thought yesterday was that it was perhaps even a stopping place for the Inca leader himself on his way to Ollantaytambo or Machu Picchu.
Much has been written about this famous “Inca Trail” having a number of ceremonial/religious stopping points along the way from Cusco to Machu Picchu. (I like to compare them to CHristian “Stations of the Cross”.) Being less than an hours’ walk to the Inca town of Ollantaytambo, this would make a convenient stopping place along the way.
The small number of rooms could conveniently house those who maintained the site — perhaps priests and workers who lived in Ollantaytambo, but needed a place to spend the night or escape from the weather when necessary.
(Interestingly, Andean peoples still use utilize this practice of having small shelters all over the mountains to spend short periods of time when working planting or harvesting crops of working with livestock like sheep or llamas.)
I’d love hear what others think. So much of ancient culture is still shrouded in mystery, but they were brilliant engineers and they were able to shape the largest civilization in the Americas within a very, very short period of time not because they were warlike, but because they had a purpose for almost everything they did.
They built things for a purpose and in certain places for a reason. They were logical and highly educated about the world around them. I think the ruins of Choqana are an example of just this kind of brilliance they exhibited all over the region.
Choqana is an easy 30-40 minute walk from Ollantaytambo for anyone interested in visiting. There are ruins even higher above and a trail that leads up and over the mountainside that I want to explore soon.
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