Remote, intensely difficult, not as famous as Machu Picchu: that’s why few trekkers visit the Inca city of Choquequirau, Machu Picchu’s Sacred Sister. But I want an alternative to the eroding, overbooked trekking superhighway known as the Inca Trail—which leads to Peru’s more famous sibling.
This five-day trek will take me down into the second deepest canyon in Peru, then up the other side to reach the high perch of Choquequirau, then down and up again to return. My trekking partner, Erin, is 16 years my junior, but she hasn’t trained as much as I have in the Colorado Rockies and I hope that’ll make us even.
The first day requires a four-hour drive from Cusco to the Andean village of Cachora. Overlooking Cachora, a dizzying wall of earth thrusts jagged teeth about 20,000 feet upward to stab the sky with snow and ice: Salkantay, the tallest mountain in the Vilcabamba Range. That’s our view from Los Tres Balcones, a cozy hostel named for its three colonial wood balconies, where we spend our first night.
Salkantay (20,574 feet): giant of the Vilcabambas
At 8:00 the next morning, we hit the trail with our guide, Carlos. At the edge of town about a dozen Quechua people pick potatoes. Men lead two bulls hitched to a wood plow to churn the dirt, while women and children follow to pick the loosened potatoes. The farmer is continuing the communal tradition of his Inca ancestors: “The workers are from other farms and they will help with his crop, then later he will help with theirs,” Carlos says.
After a two-hour walk through the valley, we reach Apurimac Canyon, which tumbles to depths of more than 10,000 feet. From our mirador, or viewpoint, the misty blue Vilcabamba Mountains stretch into two distances like giant ocean swells. The Apurimac River, a seam of blue-green and froth-white, slips through their folds 1500 feet below. Carlos says, “The Inca people always built their palaces and temples at the top of a mountain… to be closer to the spirits that live in the sky. They also worshipped the spirits that live in the mountain, which they called Apus.”
Three condors pirouette overhead. The Incas believed these birds were messengers from the gods. The Quechua still consider them good luck.
“Now we go down,” Carlos says. What an understatement. We haven’t been walking two minutes when I slide and fall on my ass. The next four hours are a relentless plummet through slippery sand, bordered by fatal cliffs—ankles sore, toes mashed, knees screaming from the constant jolt of braking my controlled fall down the mountain. My clothes and lungs are coated with dust.
We stop for lunch at Chiquisca, a startling green patch of bananas, papayas and avocados. But this camp is no oasis: it’s overrun by sandflies, apparently unafraid of bug dope. The tiny creatures bite me throughout the trek, until I scratch my itchy arms into a mass of bloody welts.
After another 45 minutes downhill, we cross a hanging bridge over the river. The roaring water glitters in the sun, which breaks through the clouds just in time to overheat our trudge up the canyon’s opposite wall.
Apurimac Canyon reaches depths of over 10,000 feet.
The steep incline keeps us on our literal toes, burning our calves and quads. Carlos and a boy lead two “emergency” horses and pester us, “Would you like to ride… Would you like to ride?” until a red, sweaty, limping Erin barks, “NO! I DON’T WANT THE HORSE!” Minutes later, the boy walks past me leading a horse, Erin sitting tight-lipped in the saddle. Carlos rides the other horse, hooves at my heels—clop, clop, pause… clop, clop, pause… “You sure you don’t want to ride?”
He gets off the horse and inches along with me. On a switchback above, Erin finally prevails and steps off her unwanted mount.
I create small goals: two switchbacks, then stop… OK one switchback… oh fine to that cactus then. Charley horses attack both thighs. I try to look casual as I flop into the dirt, clutching my legs and gasping, “Dos minutos. (Two minutes.)” I assure Carlos my muscles are just “tired,” afraid he’ll force me onto the horse of shame.
After two hours of excruciating ascent, we reach camp at Santa Rosa, where I laugh with relief.
The uphill slog continues at 7:20 the next morning. It’s a sunny day—“Not good for hiking,” as Carlos points out. I’m soon drenched in sweat.
During our final push through a roller coaster of ups and downs, we glimpse the stone buildings of Choquequirau atop the next ridge, and the ruins of stone-lined crop terraces on the green slope below. The sight energizes me, but Erin’s losing steam. I beg to walk ahead. Carlos tells me to turn left at the fork and meet them at the ruins. I turn left at the fork… and get lost.
The dense trees and vines of Choquequirau’s cloud forest close in, taunting me with doubt. I rush back downhill, calling, “Car-los! Car-los!” No one. I try another path. Dead end. “CARRR-LOS!” I run uphill. A porter appears, running toward me shouting, “Carlos se preocupe!” (“Carlos is worried!”) He’s worried? The others have arrived 10 minutes ahead of me. We’ve been walking almost five hours.
The trail opens onto a square surrounded by incredibly intact, graceful stone buildings and crop terraces. Some 200 Incas once lived here. Today, just a handful of trekkers wander around, a busy day at Choquequirau—unlike Machu Picchu, where hundreds swarm daily. This site rarely received any visitors until a few years ago. Even now, the difficulty of getting here keeps all but the toughest, or craziest, trekkers away. I admire the audacity of the people who built this remarkable little city atop this precipice, some 10,000 feet above sea level and 5000 feet above the Apurimac River.
It’s a busy day at Choquequirau.
In the Sacred Square, Carlos takes us back in time, to the first inklings of Inca culture around 1100 AD, though he warns, “Be careful—we don’t have any written language, no written history of the Incan culture.” With that, he launches into an Inca creation myth: “Manco Capa and Mama Ocllo, who were brother and sister, they emerged from the Titicaca Lake. They were sent by Intitayta (the Sun) in order to found a big empire.”
The golden age arrived in 1438, with the ninth “Inca,” or “ruler,” Pachacutec. Before Pachacutec, most Inca houses were rustic huts. Like the egotistical host of a home improvement show, he ordered them destroyed and gloriously rebuilt. “Probably Choquequirau was built during his time also,” says Carlos. Choquequirau means “Cradle of Gold” in Quechua.
The conquistadors arrived in 1532 and quickly crushed the Inca Empire. But two cities tucked in remote cloud forests escaped destruction: Machu Picchu and Choquequirau. Choquequirau was likely one of the hiding places of the Incas before they fled to Vilcabamba, where they made their final, fatal stand against the Spanish in 1572.
Over the centuries, the cloud forest buried the Cradle of Gold in vegetation. However, locals have long known of this hidden city, and still hold it sacred. “People who live in this area now are the sons and daughters of the people who were living here (then),” Carlos says. Like him, they’re mestizos, Spanish and Quechua. Their beliefs are a mix of Catholicism and animism: faith in Jesus, but respect for Pachamama, or Mother Earth.
U.S. explorer Hiram Bingham came here in 1909, seeking the “Lost City” of Vilcabamba. “But he didn’t like Choquequirau,” Carlos says. “It wasn’t, I think, amazing for him.” In 1911, Bingham discovered Machu Picchu and thought he’d made his big find. Wrong again, although Machu Picchu is certainly amazing.
Then again, Choquequirau’s obscurity has left it a more tranquil place to reflect on Inca life.
The Sacred Square was once used for ceremonies honoring the natural world. The buildings facing the square have doors with double-jambs, a mark of holy places. One building is full of tall niches where mummies once stood. Nearby, a stone channel used to carry water from a mountain spring above to a small room below. There, a priest purified himself with sacred water before ceremonies. The square’s most imposing structure is the priest’s house. Carlos points out its trapezoidal tilt, a feature of Inca buildings that makes them sturdier in earthquakes. The house was once two stories, and its towering walls are topped with triangles where thatched roofs used to rest.
Inca mummies once stood in these niches.
At the edge of the ridge, we climb stairs to a circular platform, surrounded by a 360-degree view of the mountains, a low wall, and a fast ticket to the abyss below. Carlos says this platform was where priests sometimes sacrificed hundreds of llamas to keep the Apus happy.
Priests used the platform for sacrifices to the Apus.
Up another slope, a clutch of buildings sits near the sacred spring. In one building lies a niche for offerings to Pachamama. Inside, local people have recently left coca leaves. “Pachamama is always empty, always hungry,” Carlos says. “If you don’t give to the Pachamama offerings, like llama feto (llama fetus), coca leaf, or cereals like quinoa, potatoes or corn, she is going to be angry.”
Carlos next tries to sacrifice himself, by leaning over the edge of a cliff to admire some orchids.
He survives, and offers to show us the Llama Sector, a half-hour walk down the backside of the ridge—which means a long walk back up. Fed up after eight hours, Erin declares, “No more hills!” and heads back to camp. But I take another plunge through the forest, to a set of narrow, rock-walled terraces. There, in the middle of a wall, stand two white llamas, patterns of white stones embedded among the grey. We climb downstairs to the next wall: more llamas. A nearby viewing platform reveals the full effect: some 20 walls cascade downhill, and about 20 llamas march up the sides in diagonal rows.
Stone llamas march up ancient terraces.
For me the llama walls are the greatest thrill of Choquequirau, a note in stone, sent through time. Across the centuries, the Incas tell me llamas were central to their way of life; before the conquistadors brought horses, the Incas used llamas as beasts of burden. Their note also says, “We’re not primitives clawing a living from the earth. We have the time and interest to create art that reflects and celebrates our world.”
“The llamas were drawn for ceremonial purpose, because all the llamas, as you can see, are facing to the northeast,” Carlos says. That is, the walls face west, but the llamas’ noses point toward the rising sun. The terraces themselves probably weren’t used for crops; they’re too narrow. However they might have been intended to prevent erosion of the city above.
As afternoon clouds start to sprinkle, we hike back up to the empty square. Drowsy sunshine threads through the clouds, cradling the ancient city in golden light: a ghostly “Cradle of Gold.”
After a last look, I start downhill to repeat the past two days in reverse. When we reach the fork where I got lost this morning, Carlos admits he gave me wrong directions. That’s OK: at the other side of the canyon, I admit I’m wimp enough to ride a horse, at least until I feel sorry for the sweaty beast, suck it up and walk. I comfort myself by secretly laughing at the clean, fresh-faced trekkers heading the other way.