Malqui Machay: A Legend in the Making


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A jungle tucked into a mountaininside. The mosscovered remains of a sugar mill from the 19th century. Mysterious Inca-carved stone structures that may contain the most elusive corpse in Andean history. These ruins are the site of an enigmatic archaeological discovery, perhaps the most important in recent memory of Ecuador.

The name now used to refer to this location, Malqui Machay, is strongly connected both to the storyof the site’s uncovering and to its potential significance as the alleged burial place of the last Inca, Atahualpa. It is known that the emperor was killed by the conquistador Francisco Pizarro and his band in Cajamarca in the north of Perú in 1533, but his remains were never found.

Historian Tamara Estupiñán’s first clue to her discovery was the meaning of these two Quichua terms: Malqui refers to the corpse or mummy of the Inca, and machay is a word used to describe a final resting place. Estipiñán knew from a book of barely decipherable historical records that a large plot of land surrounding Sigchos had been inherited by Francisco Topatauchi, the fated emperor’s son. When she discovered that, within this same tract of land, the small community called Malqui shared territory with the expansive lands of the Hacienda Machay, the pieces of the puzzle started to fit together. In 2010, Estupiñán led an expedition to the area, and lo and behold, there were indeed authentic Incan ruins at the location.

Despite the initial curiosity generated by Estupiñan’s theory, the archeological studies done on the site were cut short. No further excavations were carried out, and work on the discovery was limited to the restoration of the already exposed evidence. Estupiñan has continued to develop her arguments from a historical perspective, and she has a new article slated for publication in the coming months.

You can visit the barely attended site by entering through an unmarked road on the road from Chugchilán to Pucayacu. Many parts of the excavation are covered only by black plastic tarps, and others are abandoned altogether. While some visitors may feel frustrated by the missing puzzle pieces, I found myself intrigued. So much is still uncovered; it was easy to imagine what it must have been like for Hiram Bingham exploring the Sacred Valley, understanding that something large lay beneath the ground he walked on, but having no way of knowing what it was or what its historical impact would be.

When you visit Malqui Machay, explore, ask questions, and let yourself be carried away by all of the possible answers.

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