After visiting Machu Picchu, we were keen to visit more Inca masterpieces, and so signed up for a 4 day trek to another mountaintop citadel called Choquequirao. Meaning ‘cradle of gold’ in Quechua, is believed to have been the last refuge of Inca rulers who fled Cuzco after its leader, Manco Inca, was defeated by Spanish conquistadors.
Although considered to be Machu Picchu’s twin city, Choquequirao is still very much off the tourist trail. A highly controversial cable car has just been approved by the Peruvian government, which will whisk 400 people per hour to the site, but for now, the only way to reach these wonderfully remote ruins is on foot.
So with our mules loaded and our guide, Silvio, leading the way, we set off.
Amazingly, ten minutes later, we were lucky enough to see two huge condors fly within 15 meters of us. The scale and grace of these birds is extraordinary. It is not surprising that they were considered sacred in Inca culture, and are still revered by indigenous South Americans from all countries today.
The second day of the trek was definitely the most challenging. We set off well before sunrise, and started by crossing the raging River Apurimac. Two bridges had already been swept away and so, whilst waiting for bridge number three to be completed, the locals decided to string a high tensile wire with a retractable basket, bearing a worrying resemblance to a shopping trolley, across the canyon, to allow two people to be pulled across the river at a time. With the river successfully negotiated, we just had a relentless uphill climb of over 1,500 vertical meters on a steep, zigzagging, sandy path to contend with. We made good time though and arrived Choquequirao by late morning.
Like its cousin, Machu Picchu, Choquequirao is draped over the fold of a mountain and is surrounded by steep precipices. Even from afar it was clear that the buildings and agricultural terracing of Choquequirao are as well-preserved as those of Machu Picchu, its ‘top-of-the-world’ views equally spectacular, yet, arriving at the ranger’s station, we realized we were going to be the only ones there. Whilst signing in, it became apparent Machu Picchu has more visitors in one day than Choquequirao has in a whole year.
Organised in much the same way as Machu Picchu, distinct upper and lower levels of accommodation were built around a central plaza, with ritual places dedicated to the earth, water and other divinities at the highest points, and steep walled terraces surrounding the complex.
Many archaeologists estimate Choquequirao may be larger than Machu Picchu, though no one can be sure yet, since only 20-30% of Choquequirao has been cleared for tourism. The rest, for now, remains hidden under vegetation. In 2005, a series of agricultural terraces were discovered, staircasing hundreds of feet down towards the Yanama River. Bricked into their gray stone face are huge decorative mosaics of more than two dozen, 2 meter high, white llamas. These have been only partially excavated, and so you can really understand how the city has been lost to the jungle for centuries.
Having left the site, we returned the way we came on the morning of the third day. As a fitting farewell from this extraordinary place, Silvio, who was pulling us across the river in the shopping trolley, suddenly stopped (when we were right in the middle of the white water torrent below), to point out three huge condors soaring majestically down the valley towards us.