Wilderness hike to Machu Picchu’s sister city of Choquequirao

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Imagine you’re on a Peru vacation, marveling at an ancient citadel perched high atop jungle-clad mountains. The sun rises through the morning mist to reveal breathtaking views of vast stone ruins and endless rows of iconic terraces. You’re here witnessing the instantly recognizable views of Peru’s world-famous site of Machu Picchu, right? Wrong.

Mist rises over the terraces of Choquequirao, Peru. Photograph: Matthew Barker 2010

Mist rises over the terraces of Choquequirao, Peru. Photograph: Matthew Barker 2010

Welcome to Choquequirao, a site of equal, if not greater, importance to the more famous ruins of Machu Picchu, as well as significantly larger and incomparably more remote.

Choquequirao, which means “Cradle of Gold” in the native Quechua language, is thought to have acted as the administrative and military capital of the Vilcabamba region, and eventually as the rearguard of the Inca as they retreated from their strongholds in Cusco and the Sacred Valley towards the jungle, desperately resisting the Spanish conquest.

Thanks to its isolation, a full two days hike from civilization, the site receives a fraction of the visitors that make the journey to Machu Picchu. When I arrived at the gates in the late afternoon, there was not another soul on site. Around 8,000 people visit annually – compared to the almost one million visitors that arrive at Machu Picchu each year.

The route begins in the small town of San Pedro de Cachora, a farming settlement surrounded by rolling hills where life seems to have gone untouched by the passing of time. The campesinos here still live in rough adobe-walled homes, the smell of smoke from indoor fires fills the air, and the sight of three gringos passing through is still enough to raise eyebrows and a few friendly smiles.

After loading mules with our equipment, our guide Sergio insisted on marking the start of our journey with a small ceremony. Splashing a few drops of the barely palatable, but enormously popular chicha beer onto the ground, Sergio called on the traditional Andean gods of the mountains and mother earth to give us safe passage. “With the permission of the Apus and the protection of Pachamama,” he called, and then we were off, on the long march to Choquequirao.

Rising away from settled farmland and into an increasingly severe landscape, the ancient trail eventually brought us out onto a perilous ridge, skirting the side of a deep, broad canyon. Several thousand feet below was the thundering Apurimac River (which literally means “talks to mountains” in the native Quechua language). Despite the distance we could still hear its roar, swollen with the melt water running down from the glaciers and snowcapped mountains that towered above our heads.

Eventually our ledge began to descend. Entering a humid, semi-tropical forest we got the first real sense of moving away from the Andean altiplano towards the high jungle, and eventually, several days away, the beginnings of the Amazon: the frontier of the Andean world, where the Inca ultimately sought their final refuge.

The trail to Choquequirao leads from the mountains towards the jungle below. Photograph: Matthew Barker 2010

The trail to Choquequirao leads from the mountains towards the jungle below. Photograph: Matthew Barker 2010

After a long descent we arrived at the valley floor and our first campsite, on the banks of the river. Down here the mosquitoes swarm like they do in the jungle, but there remain echoes of the Andean world that we had left earlier – chicha was still for sale at least. We tried another glass; a lukewarm and milky beer brewed from corn which has been activated and fermented by human saliva. No matter how many times you try it, the taste never gets any better.

The campsites, like route itself, are well-maintained and equipped with facilities not found on most other Andean trails. The campsites all have running water, shower and toilet blocks and even small shops selling snacks and drinks.

Despite this unusual degree of luxury, the sites were all but deserted and we spent the first evening alone, with nothing but the sound of the Apurimac as company.

But no amount of comfort the night before could have prepared us for the sheer physical ordeal of the second day. From the valley floor to what seemed like the roof of the world, a sheer, never-ending uphill struggle to Choquequirao.

To deal with such a steep incline, the trail is forced into an almost infinite series of zigzagging turns and as the strain builds, each turn starts to blend into the last. The distance between ourselves and the river seemed to stay fixed, as though we were merely walking on the spot. As the stinging sweat dripped into my eyes, the climb became less a physical challenge, and more of a mental battle. Just keep walking… Just make the next bend… Just take one more step…

Taking multiple stops to fill up on water, nuts and dried fruit, we dragged ourselves through this purgatory for hours, until eventually we crawled out onto the level track that leads towards the stone gates of Choquequirao.

Stepping into the site’s fully-restored central plaza for the first time made our earlier ordeal well worthwhile. With not a single other person anywhere to be seen, we suddenly found massive reserves of energy to explore the ruins. From the plaza, deep rows of agricultural terraces reach down back into the surrounding valleys, while rising above on a small mound is the ceremonial rock.

“Have you got enough strength to go and see the llamas?” Sergio cried. “Yes!” we yelled back. And back down the mountainside we went. Choquequirao’s llama rockwork is fast becoming the site’s signature feature, and as the setting sun cast its red hue over the terraces, giving the stone llamas a luminous glow, we understood why.

Llama rock work on the terraces of Choquequirao, Peru. Photograph: Matthew Barker 2010

Llama rock work on the terraces of Choquequirao, Peru. Photograph: Matthew Barker 2010

“We don’t find designs like this anywhere else in Inca architecture,” Sergio explained. “Who knows why they did it here. Maybe they were trying to restore some glamour to their failing empire, maybe it was the tradition of earlier civilizations like the Chachapoyas who lived here before. I guess we’ll never know.”

It takes at least a full day to fully explore the entire site of Choquequirao and after lunch on the third day we were ready to leave and begin the long downhill journey back.

The fastest and simplest way to leave Choquequirao is to follow the original trail back to San Pedro de Cachora but we chose to vary the route and head in the opposite direction, crossing the Apurimac further downstream at an old colonial hacienda called San Ignacio.

Back in the sub-tropical environment of the valley, the trees of San Ignacio were alive with the screech of parakeets, the branches dripping with mangos and avocados. As we unloaded the mules a commotion broke out among the porters, pointing back across the valley from where we’d walked. Somehow, on that distant wall of rock a porter had spotted a tiny black dot and identified it as one of the region’s most elusive and rare creatures, the spectacled bear.

“I’ve lived here my whole life and I’ve only seen four of those!” a porter told me with a flash of excitement that is rare among Quechua-speaking indigenous Peruvians.

As the twilight faded into the night we sat down for one last meal with our guide, the porters even producing a carton of wine, and we enjoyed our memories of the trials and tribulations of the previous days. We had a few more hours of walking until our pick-up at Huanipaca the following morning but the hard trekking was over; finally we could relax and enjoy our achievement.

Sure, we hadn’t toughed it out alone – with our porters, mules and running water campsites, we’d enjoyed the trekking equivalent of a luxury hotel. But we didn’t care. We’d fought our own minds and bodies and hiked to Choquequirao, one of the most important but under-visited sites in the Andes. We were proud.

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