Choqueiquirao - Hiking to the Other Machu Picchu
Lost Incan city site of recently uncovered white stone llamas
CHOQUEQUIRAO, Peru -- As the blistering afternoon sun lit up the ruins of an abandoned Incan city, we plunged into the cloud forest in search of llamas.
We found them a half-hour later, down a twisting, knee-crushing trail: At least 24 llamas made of white stones set in the walls of terraces that spill like a waterfall down the flanks of a near-vertical mountainside.
This wasn't some new discovery at Machu Picchu, the world's most famous Incan ruin. Rather, it was a recently excavated series of terraces at Choquequirao, Machu Picchu's lesser-known but equally fascinating twin.
Like Machu Picchu, Choquequirao (pronounced Choky-kee-Row) sits high in a lush green saddle below Andean peaks that shoot into the clouds.
Unlike Machu Picchu, which has seen extensive restoration work, crews have conserved only 30 percent of Choquequirao's ruins from the jungle. As for the llamas, the site opened just last year, according to a sign at the head of the trail. From a recently built viewing stand, we could see the outlines of terraces below that had yet to be uncovered. How many more llamas were still underneath the jungle's blanket?
Such mysteries make Choquequirao a special place. Here, it's just you and the stones and the ghosts of a great but mysterious civilization, at least for now.
"You're coming here at the right time," said Jan Willem van Delft, a Dutch mountain climber who organizes treks to the ruins. "Change is coming."
Van Delft is a former economist and businessman. About five years ago, he decided to reshuffle his life and moved to the Andes, married a Peruvian woman and built a home and small hostel in Cachora, a town four hours from Cusco.
"Some say this is the most beautiful view in the world," he said as he showed off the scenery from his backyard.
He wasn't overselling. In the foreground were foothills and fields that perfectly framed a view of the snow-capped peak of Mount Salcantay, rising more than 10,000 feet above Cachora's already breathtaking elevation of 9,500 feet.
Van Delft is one of the few trek organizers in Cachora. Most guide services are based in Cusco, a sore point with van Delft, who says the Cusco guides don't contribute much to the village's development. That's a plus for travelers now, though. Cachora remains a dusty farm town with a refreshing absence of T-shirt stands.
When staying at van Delft's hostel, Casa de Salcantay, guests have dinner and breakfast with his family, and the night before our expedition, he sketched our trek on a chalkboard behind the dining room table, making a deep V to show the vertical descents and climbs to the ruins.
"You will go through four climate zones," he said, adding that we should watch for tarantulas on the trail and keep an eye out for giant condors gliding amid the peaks. As for the ruins, "it's just stones," he joked. The splendor of the Andes would be the main attraction. Choquequirao "is just a bonus."
It's some bonus. In the indigenous language of Quechua, Choquequirao means "Cradle of Gold." It was built 500 years ago with a layout strikingly similar to Machu Picchu's. Like Machu Picchu, Choquequirao served as an important religious and political center with mansions for administrators, warehouses and farming terraces. The Incas abandoned the city during the Spanish conquest, and the cloud forest covered many of the temples and terraces.
Only a few locals knew what lay underneath until American explorer Hiram Bingham came upon it in 1909. Bingham had been searching for the last Incan refuge during the Spanish conquest and thought Choquequirao might be it. Two years later, he found Machu Picchu after being led there by a local 11-year-old boy.
For the next 80 years, archaeologists focused on Machu Picchu, leaving Choquequirao to the jungle. It wasn't until 1993 that the Peruvian government began clearing Choquequirao. Some excavations, such as the llamas, have been done only in the past few years.
The next morning, my girlfriend, Annie, and I met our guide, Hugo, a diligent farmer from Cachora who said he takes trekkers to Choquequirao about twice a month.
He strapped most of our gear on two mules, lightening our load for the grueling hike. Because of the difficulty, most trekkers use guides and mules, though we would see several hikers with full backpacks gasping for air on the ascents.
From Cachora, it's about 20 miles to Choquequirao. The trail begins as a winding path out of the farmlands to a jungle and then a subalpine zone overlooking the Apurimac valley more than a mile below, a gorge deeper than the Grand Canyon. Then as we made the 4,000-foot vertical descent to the river, cactus began to line the trail, and the intense Andean sun seemed to burn through our clothes. We camped by the thundering river that night next to two or three more boisterous trekking groups.
At 5:30 a.m. the next day, Hugo already had set up a simple breakfast and coffee. We would need an early start for the quad-busting climb to our second campsite and jumping-off point for Choquequirao. As the sun rose, we made our way slowly up a dizzying number of switchbacks to the campsite in time for lunch. Hugo made soup in a family's earthen shack, and we set off again on a two-mile hike to a shack on the side of the trail: the ruins' ticket booth. Hugo, who knew everyone along the trail, paid our entry fees, about $11 a person.
From here, we got our first good glimpse of the ruins on the hills beyond, and seeing the stone houses and terraces clinging to the mountain helped rejuvenate our legs. Soon we were in the cloud forest, a climate zone that's home to rare spectacled bears and other endangered species. We met two other American hikers who said the stonework wasn't as impressive as what they had seen at Machu Picchu but that we shouldn't miss the white stone llamas. "We've never seen anything like it before," one hiker said.
Hugo led us through the first series of terraces to an area above that once was a temple honoring the sun. Only four other visitors were here at the time as we climbed to a circular platform on a peak above the ruins where Incan priests once sacrificed animals to the gods. Two black condors glided by; clouds curled around the peaks above. In this silence, isolation and natural splendor, it was easy to imagine what the city was like after it was abandoned in the 1500s, or what Machu Picchu might have looked like 80 years ago.
From there, we descended to the llamas, which faced the setting sun. They were made of bright white stones carefully imbedded in the walls. There was even an adult llama grazing next to a baby. Who was the Incan architect who directed this artwork and why?
Hiking in the dark
We lingered too long amid the ruins and the questions they inevitably raise, and by the time we made our way back to the campsite, it was pitch black. In the moonless sky, we could clearly see the Milky Way and the Southern Cross; the trail, which skirted the cliffs, was harder to see. Hugo sent out two friends with headlamps to find us, and we were glad to see their flashlights bouncing along the trail.
That night, Hugo made chicken and rice inside a mud hut belonging to a family that lives on the side of the mountain. Children unrolled bedrolls nearby, and guinea pigs squeaked in a pen a few feet away as a static-filled radio played Latin songs in the background.
Van Delft had been right; the hike and the people along the trails had been the stars, and Choquequirao was a bonus. But a destination can make a journey more meaningful, especially when that journey stretches your physical limits.
And at least for the time being, it's hard to imagine that Choquequirao will be overrun with tourists. It's simply too difficult to reach for most, though there has been talk about building roads to the area and a funicular. Today, you and a few thousand other people a day can take shuttle buses to Machu Picchu. For the moment, you still have to earn its twin, and that makes all the difference.