For a tourist in Huaraz, a visit to the Willkawain and Ichik Willkawain archaeological sites is both easy and educational. To get there just requires a short trip by taxi or combi from the city. Alternatively, you can take a two-hour nature hike from the town of Marian, east of Huaraz, but you’ll need a guide who knows the route. Either way, it’s a pleasant way to spend a morning or afternoon.
Why is the site important? The main building at Willkawain is the largest burial structure (mausoleum) of its kind in the entire department of Ancash. In fact, there are no other structures which have three full floors, though there are some that have more doorways or interior rooms, but none can match the sheer volume of this one. In addition, it’s the only building that has a built-in ventilation system extending from the first to the third floor. All of this space served for storing and caring for the mummy bundles of the revered ancestors of the local people, who were descendants of the Recuay culture (100 to 700 A.D.). Towards the end of this earlier culture, burial practices changed from predominantly underground tombs to the use of above-ground buildings called chullpas, structures made of stone and mud mortar with square or rectangular ground plans and one to three stories. The interiors of the bigger buildings are usually divided into two or more rooms, sometimes with separate entrances, which may have been used by separate kinship groups. These were in use for several centuries at least, possibly from 700 to 1000 A.D. during the time of a local culture which we can call “Willkawain”.
History: While Willkawain has surely been known by local people for centuries, it has only been studied scientifically since the late 19th century when the engineer Pablo Chalón first measured it. Then, it was visited briefly in 1919 by Dr. Julio C. Tello of Peru and was finally investigated by means of excavations in 1938 when American archaeologist Dr. Wendell C. Bennett, of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, dug at Ichik Willkawain. His work uncovered a large, rectangular pit containing offerings of fine pottery of diverse local and exotic styles, some coming from coastal valleys and others from the northern and central highlands. This early find was corroborated by further excavations in 2006 that uncovered a second offering pit. Apparently, local elite groups maintained trade contacts with other regions during a time when the Huari Empire was spreading out from its capital in Ayacucho, but by no means does Willkawain appear to have been conquered by the Huari.
What should I see? At Willkawain you will first visit the small exhibit room that has bilingual materials to inform you about the history and distinctive characteristics of the Willkawain period. Then, you can tour the largest mausoleum, entering the three floors by separate entrances on different sides. The classic views for taking photos are the entrance to the second floor and the niches on the back side. Each floor has five to seven rooms and the ventilation duct can best be seen from the third floor, using a flashlight. The structure is very solid with meter-thick walls and megalithic lintels, door jambs and roof slabs. The Ichik Willkawain complex is a one-kilometer walk away and consists of many smaller chullpas and two residential structures.
What should I imagine? When you enter the different levels of the main mausoleum at Willkawain, you should bear in mind that you are entering the world of the venerated dead ancestors. It is very probable that the rooms of this building were filled with the seated and bundled corpses of the deceased relatives of the people who built it and of their descendants for several generations, at least. It was a collective burial site that could have contained hundreds of “mummy bundles”. Crouch down in one of the rooms and imagine yourself at eye level with these ancestors.
Remember: For the culturally-oriented visitor, this site is a “must see”. A taxi will charge about 15 to 20 soles to take you to Willkawain, while a combi van that leaves from the corner of Jr. Cajamarca and Jr. 13 de Diciembre near the Quillcay River will charge you only 1.3 or 1.5 soles, but takes slightly longer, about 45 minutes, to cover the 7-8 kilometers. In either case, you can return to Huaraz by combi. In accordance with a national tourism policy, the site is not open to the public on Mondays, but can be visited Tuesday through Sunday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. In addition, at the Museo Arqueológico de Ancash on the west side of the Plaza de Armas of Huaraz, there is currently an excellent exhibit of the diverse pottery recovered in 2006. It´s also open Tuesday through Sunday, 8:15 am to 6:30 pm.
By: Steven Wegner.