Our backpacks had traveled ahead on the backs of the mules. Nobody can keep up with the muleteers; they advance without pausing because they are sick of the scenery. Such was not the case with Walter: since we had got off the bus he had had his eye glued to his camera.
The trail is surrounded by typical highland vegetation until the first pass at Kapuliyoq, some 2955 meters above sea level and an excellent viewing point from which, if one looks hard, the ruins of Choquequirao can just be made out.
It is here that the trail descends, almost spiraling among the trees crammed with lichen, moss and beautiful bromeliads, as a condor cut through the increasingly warm air. Our energy was draining as the descent seemed interminable, until we saw the sunflowers and shady grove of Chiquisqa. Here and there papaya and custard apple trees stood. My companion arrived sore-footed, to put it mildly.
Walter Hupiu, of Chinese descent, moustache and long hair, addicted to cigarettes and the click of his shutter, walked slowly with his gaze wandering all around him, as if in search of something far away. He would raise his camera, change the lens and shoot, his eye against the camera and a cigarette jutting from his mouth.
Partial view of Choquequirao from the Ushnu, or ceremonial platform.
Magic of Choquequirao
At night, the distant stars, the sound of the wind as it ran through the canyon lifting the leaves and ruffling our tents, made us feel like we had crossed a virtual frontier. The next day we rose early while the mosquitoes left red dots on our skin.
Juana Covarrubia, a Chiquisqa resident, told us that the songs we heard as we awoke were those of doves, toucans and a local bird known to her as the tulla. We were all excited by the knowledge that today we would reach Choquequirao.
We continued our descent to Rosalina Beach, located 1600 meters above sea level. We knew we had a long day’s walking ahead of us, for Choquequirao stands at an altitude of 3050 meters. At Rosalina we crossed the suspension bridge over the Apurimac River: the river of Argüedas, the great “speaking river”, as its name implies in Quechua, the great Apurimac that breaks in curling green waves on its way to the Atlantic.
The ascent seemed interminable, an endless winding path. Each pilgrim’s step one more sin atoned for. A little shade and water soon revived us. We passed Santa Rosa, another hamlet ideal for camping, where travelers can sample a little home-brewed alcohol. My knees were wondering when we would arrive, and my entire body was hoping that each curve would be the last, until at last we reached our campsite at Marampata, where we encountered several hikers stretched out on the grass, some of them scantily clad, all of them exhausted from the effort. Some of the paler walkers were sunbathing. After four hours of climbing, we deserved a long rest before continuing to Choquequirao.
Choquequirao is, of course, much more than an archaeological site nestled in the rugged high forest. To begin with, it is definitely a magical place. Under our feet the vegetation crackled as we walked along captivated by the magnificent agricultural terraces built to harmonize with the topography, many of them lost in the forest still (some 70% of Choquequirao is still covered with vegetation). We climbed up to the main plaza with its walls that snake along following the contours of the hill.
Down below, very far below, the silver thread that was the Apurimac river could be seen. But is from the Ushnu, or ceremonial platform, that the best panorama can be appreciated and one senses that there is magic in these mountains. The snow peaks of Ampay and Pumasillo absorbed the last light of the day and Choquequirao was enveloped in shadow.
Choquequirao must have been conceived in response to the need to colonize the Amazonian lowlands and maintain control of the sacred coca leaf cultivated in the lower valleys. The following morning, together with the archaeologist Eduardo Pacheco, we explored the area still not open to the public: Sector VIII, difficult to reach and still covered in thick vegetation.
There are some 134 agricultural terraces. On one of the last rows we came across a group of beautifully carved designs on the wall of a terrace. There can be no doubt that when Choquequirao is finally fully excavated and restored it is going to receive visitors in large numbers. And that is something for which we are not prepared, and rather than publish so many glossy books about the citadel, it would be better to concentrate on formulating a good system to minimize garbage, which can now be seen along several sections of the trail.
In 1710, Juan Arias Díaz brought the first news of the citadel. He was followed by the foremost cosmographer of the Kingdom of Peru, Cosme Bueno, who in 1768 produced a description of the provinces of the diocese of Cusco which included Choquequirao. Since then, the ruins have had many distinguished visitors, including Eugene de Sartiges, Charles Wiener and Hiram Bingham. Little of the site was visible then: a few walls without the beautiful ornamentation that can now be seen amid the luxuriant vegetation that once almost entirely covered the site.
In 1834, the Comte de Sartiges, a French adventurer, who was in search of a mythical lost treasure of the Incas, after several days trekking, did what perhaps all of Choquequirao’s earliest visitors did: he broke down walls and dug holes in search of gold. After all, Choquequirao actually means “cradle of gold”.
We left Choquequirao, but we could not help turning around several times to glance back at that infinitely beautiful place. There exists there a perfect communion between the city designed by man and the extraordinary scenery at sunset, when the condors fly and clouds hang suspended in the sky. In the serenity of that imposing silence a non-aggression pact seemed to exist, one of mutual respect between mankind and nature. Our journey continued with its interminable ups and downs.
In contrast with the forests that surround Choquequirao, the landscape became more arid, scattered with the Andean plants known as tarwi and chillka. At the bottom of the canyon we could make out the Yuraqmayu (“White River”). On reaching the river we bathed under a sun that burned pitilessly. The head muleteer conversed with his mules as he had done since the beginning of the trip: he spoke with them in a language that was not Quechua, a kind of hypnotic mantra that he whispered to them.
As we traveled together Valentín, a forty year-old muleteer, had just one reply to all my questions: You are from Cachora? “Yes boss”. Do you have children? “Yes boss”. You are a good walker, aren’t you? “Yes boss”. What is your name? “Yes boss”.
Among Condors and Peaks
Who understands nature! On the other side of the White River we climbed a hill with all the characteristics of a cloud forest, with colorful cocks-of-the-rock and toucans flying around. We rested at Maizal, where the moon regaled us with its somnolent light. A thick and damp mist forced us to close the tent and wait until the following day, submerged in a deep sleep.
When Walter, Juan Asin, our guide, and I were ready to leave, the muleteers and the mules were already on their way to the next stop, with the aim of waiting for us there with food ready to calm our implacable hunger. Once again, we crossed another high pass at San Juan, 4100 meters above sea level.
There were no mosquitoes to bother us there, and we came across many abandoned mines, some of which we explored, and we were able to confirm that they had been used for the extraction of copper, silver and other minerals that were now scattered around as shiny fragments. According to local inhabitants, these mines had been the property of the Romainville family, who had exploited the region until the 1980s.
At five in the afternoon we arrived at the village of Yanama with its stone houses, a public school, a kiosk, a football pitch and a miraculous telephone. Hebert, our cook, enjoyed his work, always surprising us with the most exotic dishes. He would produce ice cream for dessert, a delicious spaghetti carbonara or a filling Peruvian dish like “lomo saltado”. We camped, dined and chatted. Our conversation lasted well into the night under the incandescent light of the gas lamp.
Early, we left the village behind as we crossed a gently rising esplanade covered in fields and eucalyptus groves and, hours later, we found ourselves surrounded by grasslands of ichu and yareta (characteristic highland vegetation). To our left stood the Pumasillo chain of mountains, a range over 5000 meters high. They remained close to us in all their magnificence as if they had emerged from beneath our feet, with their cold wind and the vital presence of the cycle of life.
It is here that the most important rivers in the area emerge: the Yanama, where we wet our boots, and the Totora on the other side of the mountain. We had lunch at the foot of the final pass, the Yanama Pass at 4690 meters above sea level and the highest point on our route: another spot from which to observe the placid flight of condors.
The steep slope we were on obliged us to watch our every step. But once at the top a single glance left us marveling at the scenery around us. This is a trek of extraordinary beauty. Salkantay, the highest peak in the Cusco department (6271 meters), stood before us and guided us on our way. Turning our heads slightly we were able to see the dozens of shades of green that were the highland forests that awaited us. We left a few stones on the cairns at the top of the pass.
Old and Beloved Machu Picchu
At this stage we had forgotten our tiredness and painful feet and we descended at a run to submerge ourselves in the luxuriant vegetation. The hamlet of Totora appeared, but we did not stop, continuing instead another three hours until we met an old peasant. We asked him if it was worth continuing, if the trail ahead was steep or we should make camp. The man limited himself to replying. “Yes sir, the road climbs and falls, whether you are coming or going. If you are going, it climbs, if you are coming, it falls”.
In some sections we walked in Indian file along a very narrow path between deep abysses. A bad smell led us to a dead mule lying below. We eventually reached Collpapampa, a small and very beautiful place. Walter caught up with me; his feet were hurting him after a stone had got into his boot. We sat on the grass, ate and talked, no cold to chill us and our tiredness gone.
Escorted by the bamboo of the forest, with passion fruits beginning to appear, as well as orchids, we enjoyed the shade of the trees. This is the prelude to the great forests of the Amazon. The mosquitoes returned to attack us. We stopped at an unexpected little shop to calm our thirst with a beer, many children approached to give us fruit, asking for nothing in return.
Without realizing it we had reached Sahuayaco Beach, the land of coffee, where most groups that make this route climb aboard buses for the forty minute drive to Santa Teresa, not far from Machu Picchu. But we wanted to reach that emblematic citadel as the Incas had before us: along narrow paths through the mountains.
From Sahuayaco Beach, jus before dawn, we climbed a hill caressed by the friendly sound of the wind and the songs of birds. Suddenly, the forest cleared and we were able to see the Inca constructions that had drawn the attention of the distinguished Inca researcher Tom Zuidema. Ahead, bathed in blue light, were the unmistakable forms of Machu Picchu.
It is true that in architectural terms old and beloved Machu Picchu is more imposing than Choquequirao, but in terms of magnificent scenery, Choquequirao wins the day. But none of that mattered as, step by step, we crossed an Inca bridge. The clouds seemed to boil beneath our feet. The Urubamba River was a vague winding brown ribbon beneath the skeleton of this great city. The echo of our shouts rebounded off the walls until they gave way to a sense of happy stupefaction.
How to get there:
From Cusco, it is a 150 kilometer (93 miles) drive along a good asphalted road, passing the villages of Anta, Limatambo, Curahuasi, Saywite, before reaching the turn-off for Cachora. Some 15 kilometers of the total distance are made along a dirt road.
What to take:
Trekking boots are recommended, a sleeping bag, rainproof jacket, warm clothes for the cold nights, thick socks, a flashlight with extra batteries, plenty of water and money in small bills and coins. Also remember sun block, insect repellent, camera with extra film, sunglasses and hat, swimwear and a walking stick.
>> more photos in our Galleries <<