Altitude: 3848m (12,700 ft)
Accuracy: 8 meters
Plant life: The point of the confluence and its surrounding 100 meters is on the uppermost edge of the transition zone between altiplano moss / tussock grassland and cloud forest climbing up valleys from the Amazon basin. Most of the area is covered in either tussock grasses (flatter areas) or a one-foot-thick mat of mosses made up of a surprisingly high number of species (pictured.) These released large clouds of white spores as we made our way up and down the steep mountaintops to reach the confluence. Interspersed irregularly in the confluence are distinctly tropical plants such as cycads and bamboos (a stunted form at this altitude) mixed with species from the Ericaceae (a plant family that is found around the world, often forming a ring around high mountain ranges.)
Animal life: Even though the human population is very sparse in this area we saw surprisingly few wild animals. Cows roam unsupervised in this part of the Andes and their footprints define the shape of the terrain, making walking difficult in this soggy land. Overhead, were a few different species of birds of prey, soaring the daytime thermals and mountain ridge lift. The one pictured here, made several short passes over us, before continuing down the valley.
Nearest town: The nearest homestead (pictured) is a kilometer away over the next mountain ridge to the east. The nearest town, Yupanca (also spelled Yupancca and Yupanka) is eight kilometers away as a bird flies, and 13 along footpaths, cow paths and cross-country routes. The remoteness of the tiny homesteads sprinkled through the backcountry valleys and mountaintops may not have always been so pronounced. Around 1440 AD, Inca Yupanqui, known as Pachacuti Inca (the over-turner of the earth), invaded and conquered the region in a virtually bloodless coup (only the messengers were killed, and they by their own conquered rulers), marking the beginning of what would become the largest and most sophisticated empire in the Americas prior to European contact. Though the empire only lasted a total of 130 years, in that time they successfully annexed all of modern Peru, and much of modern Ecuador, Bolivia and Chile, building stone-paved roads, suspension, wooden and stone bridges, storehouses (and the trade routes to stock them) and other public infrastructure as they went.
The region of this confluence (Incan Vilcabamba) wasn't only the first new province of the empire, it was also its last. When the Spanish arrived in 1532, the empire was in a state of turmoil, having lost nearly half of its population (including not only the Inca but also his heir) to the disease epidemic that had spread all the way from the Spanish ruled Aztec empire in present-day Mexico. The civil war that followed, only helped the Spanish overthrow Cuzco, the capital of the young empire, and the remaining Incas retreated into the Vilcabamba region. Within kilometers of the confluence now lay remains of their finely-fitted stone buildings, temples, miradors, roads and bridges. The main structure of Puncuyoc, Inca Wasi, can be located from the confluence spot. As this two-story building sits at S 13°00.693' x W 72°56.391' (3980 meters, 13134 feet) the confluence lays only slightly north of due west of this Incan oracle building and would have been a great place to view the ceremonial (during equinox celebrations) and communication smoke signals from miradors (viewing platforms) located half way between the confluence and Inca Wasi.
Getting to the confluence: There are no direct buses from Cuzco to the area, so we took a bus to Chaullay, the fateful location of the verbal acceptance of Incan rule in 1440, and slept on the banks of that same river junction until morning. To stay dry in the tropical rain, we sat under the eaves of an abandoned building with a local coffee exporter also waiting for the noon bus toward Huancacalle. In Huancacalle, we left our excess gear at the Sixpac Manco Hospedaje and set off on a seven-day journey to Inca Wasi and the confluence. We walked downhill back along the road for three hours, losing 334 meters (1153 feet) before beginning the steep ascent up a rocky path for the rest of that day and half of the next, gaining 1171 meters (3864 ft) before our first reprieve.
The rest of the second day was spent walking without gear toward the confluence, as we were only 4 kilometers away as a bird flies. However, we soon found that four mountain ranges lay between us and the confluence, and while looking far down into a large, green river valley, we decided it was too far to reach and return before sunset, and thus the confluence would have to wait for a few days more. We hiked in the opposite direction to Inca Wasi to explore the ruins for two days, meeting the authors/researchers Vincent Lee and Bernard Bell on our way. The fifth day, we hiked along familiar terrain to a pass on the far side of the green valley, only two kilometers from the confluence. Since we knew the terrain and followed the tops of the mountains, we made it to the pass with an entire hour of daylight to spare, even with stops to check out the ruins of two Incan miradors (thanks to directions from Bernard Bell) along the way.
The next morning's weather was perfectly clear - a rare event in this area, we hid our packs and set off early. Now firm believers in the idea that walking over the tops of mountains and ridges is easier than the seemingly more direct routes along the sides, we hiked with the amazing views of snow topped mountains on one half of the horizon and green valleys leading down to the lush and soon cloudy Amazon region on the other. After three hours of climbing and descending, we rounded the head of the confluence point's valley, with the actual point tucked in a tight valley just down the left side of a long ridge (main picture). After a steep traverse and decent to get around some cliffs, we climbed back up until reaching the exact confluence point. Being a steep and slippery place with deep wet moss and tussock grasses, we took our pictures as quickly as the rapidly forming clouds allowed, delighted that the view to the east still held the mountains of Inca Wasi's Puncuyoc.
The rest of the day and half of the following, found us hiking the beautiful path descending the Challhuayoc valley back to Yupanca, passing only one person the entire way - a grandmother carrying a sleeping, ill, baby boy, in a cloth worn like a backpack, back up the mountains to his mother after receiving medication and having the health clinic examine him - a twenty kilometer (12 mile) round trip journey in very mountainous country. Amazing country, amazing people.
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