After the Incan empire fell, the city was burned and the area swiftly became a remote backwater of Peru. The location of Vilcabamba was forgotten.
The first outsiders in modern times to come to a remote forest site that has since come to be identified with Vilcabamba la Vieja were three Cuzqueños, Manuel Ugarte, Manuel Lopez Torres, and Juan Cancio Saavedra, in 1892. The site of the ruins of the city were then rediscovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911 at the remote forest site 130 km west of Cuzco called Espíritu Pampa, and are written of in his classic LOST CITY OF THE INCAS, but he failed to realize its significance, preferring to believe that Machu Picchu, which he also rediscovered, was the fabled "Vilcapampa," lost city and last refuge of the Incas. It wasn't until the explorations and discoveries of Antonio Santander Casselli, and Gene Savoy in the 1960s, however, that many came to see this site at Espíritu Pampa as the real Vilcabamba of legend. It was the reporting of the finds of Savoy, and his 1970 book "ANTISUYO," that brought the site to wider attention.
Researcher and author John Hemming provided additional substantive confirmation as to Espíritu Pampa's significance in his 1970 THE CONQUEST OF THE INCAS.
In 1976 Prof. Edmundo Guillen and Polish explorers Tony Halik and Elżbieta Dzikowska continued to explore the long known ruins. However, before the expedition in a museum in Seville Guillen discovered letters from Spaniards, in which they were describing the progress of the invasion and what they found in Vilcabamba. Comparison between the letters' content and the ruins provided additional proof of the location of Vilcabamba.
In 1981 the party of American explorer Gregory Deyermenjian reached and photographed parts of the site, soon thereafter generating a popular article concerning the site and its history.
Later extensive archeological work by Vincent Lee, and especially his exhaustive study, his 2000 book "forgotten VILCABAMBA," gave further and even more precise confirmation that has made Espíritu Pampa the definitively accepted site of the historical Vilcabamba.
The lost city of Vilcabamba features in the educational computer game series The Amazon Trail, the Tomb Raider video game and its remake Tomb Raider: Anniversary, and the book Evil Star by Anthony Horowitz. Vilcabamba is also a playable level in the Playstation 2 role-playing game Shadow Hearts: From the New World.
The city was the location of British writer Colin Thubron's 2002 novel, To the Last City (2002). It was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, and tells the story of a group of people who set off to explore the ruins of the Inca city in what has been described as a "Heart of Darkness narrative" in a "Marquezian setting".