The International Writers
Trek the Andes
the Real Lost City of the Inca
of thousands come back from Peru unaware that just about 100 km
or so from Machu Pichu lies another magnificent complex. Choquequirao
has taken over from over-crowded Machu Picchu as the true Lost
City of the Inca.
Machu Picchu is
one of those things you cant miss, even if you hate crowds and
band wagons. It is undoubtedly gorgeous and profound. However, all that
"lost city" stuff sounds like a cheap cliché these
days. What is so lost about a shiny train, a bunch of new coaches, international
cuisine, inflated tourist trap prices, tactical formations of retired
Japanese and millions of North-American kids screaming for mommy?
Machu Picchu is a Very Much Found City of the Inca.
Peru is the land of adventure and this is why I came here. Yes, I enjoyed
Machu Picchu, it was beautiful. But it was no adventure.
Then I heard of Choquequirao. And
I smelled fish. Another city
nearby, bigger than Machu Picchu? You mean a proper lost city where
no-one goes, close to Cuzco? Whats wrong with it? Is it just a
bunch of rocks? Or are you giving me another "lost city" pitch?
Too good to be true. I mean, its not that unknown a few
tour shops in Cuzco advertise it, yet it falls on deaf ears.
I went, I saw, I surrendered. It was the best decision of my Peru trip.
Choquequirao was stunning. And it was true. The reason I had it all
to myself? There is no luxury train! Simple as that. O tempora o mores!
I know there are thousands who dream of a genuinely lost Inca city they
can enjoy in solitude and serenity. This article is for you. Believe
me, this is what you are looking for when you wince from the Inca Trail
hype in Cuzco.
Choquequirao: 3030 m altitude, 60 km round-trip over 5 days, transport:
none, terrain: gorgeous.
Choquequirao was actually first discovered way before Machu Picchu.
However, it is less preserved and the excavation works are more recent.
To date, only about 30% of it has been recovered mainly the top
(and most important) part. The slopes are still largely buried. How
does it compare to Machu Picchu, I hear you ask. Well, it doesnt.
They are different cities altogether. Choquequirao is built very differently,
more conventionally. Palaces, religious structures, living quarters
and military constructions surround the ample main square. Many of the
buildings are 2-3 stories. The city is dominated by a magnificent ceremonial
hill with the top chopped off and turned into a religious arena and
an observatory (6 of the peaks and 2 of the rivers sacred to the Inca
can be viewed from here). The slopes hold a vast number of structures,
from simple shacks to well-preserved large agricultural terraces. The
overall area covered by Choquequirao is 1810 hectares, much bigger than
that of Machu Picchu.
Choquequirao is more than just a pretty face. They call it a sister
of Machu Picchu, I would call it a brother. While the Virgins of the
Moon were dancing around in MP, Choquequirao kept everyone fed and safe
it was the administrative, military and economic centre of the
whole area, as well as a bearer of a strong religious significance.
Choquequirao is where the remnants of the Inca had their last days.
The archaeological work here is slow due to inaccessibility and low
funding, but it seems that what they do find makes Choquequirao more
and more significant every year.
Choquequirao is a genuinely lost city. Harshly inaccessible from either
side, it is no wonder it never got discovered (even in our days of New-age
Machu Picchu worship). This little corner of paradise is firmly locked
by the guardian mountains. They isolate this spot from the whole world,
like a ring a soundproof padding. There is only the low-flying condor
and the rainbow reaching the city from the bottom of the valley. We
could almost touch that rainbow.
But thats still not the best thing about Choquequirao. Lost in
the middle of nowhere, surrounded by silent mountains, it was absolutely
empty. And with that comes freedom. There was an invisible team of archaeologists
somewhere, my guide Victor, Felipe and Rolando (two Austrian guys I
came with), and an English / Peruvian explorer with his loyal Sancho
Panza. Yet it was still the end of the high season. No ticket booth,
no security, no supervision, not even a toilet. It was all up to our
ethics. We were not on a tour, we were guests here the camping
ground was on one of the terraces. We wandered wherever we wanted (respecting
the archaeological restrictions), day or night. Choque is particularly
magic after nightfall, if you have the guts. Its not for the faint-hearted
to walk around the ruins surrounded by wilderness, hearing whispers
of ghosts and wondering which sacred grounds you are trespassing.
Like I said, the reason we could have a Lost City all to ourselves was
because there was no train. You had to beat the trail for two days,
and it was not all a Sunday promenade.
The starting point is Cachora, a charming sleepy village at the bottom
of a valley. A bus from Cuzco drops you off just before it gets to Abancay.
You have to spiral downwards for two hours to get to the village.
Once there, things were easy to find. Cachora is the mule depot of the
mountain range. There is a pretty basic hotel, a basic place to eat
some potatoes or soup, and a basic shop to buy basic provisions. Water
is not essential if you have purifying tablets you will come
across many springs on the way. Im not sure, but I think they
pretty much pull whatever villager is available when you ask for a guide.
They are all good anyway. Our guide for the trek was Victor a
farmer who had done the 7-day trek to Santa Teresa 12 times. Luigi (my
buddy) and me also rented two mules: one for the backpacks and one for
riding, if required.
The first day is a gradual shedding of civilisation. We went through
the village, kids running after us, adults smiling and wishing good
luck. Then some farmland with an occasional campesino. Then an abandoned
hacienda and a short forest trail, and, finally, the mountains.
For three hours or so it was a leisurely promenade on a wide flat trail.
just the birds, the sun and the peaks bathed in sunlight.
The road wound round the bends like a box of chocolates: at every corner
a new view, more impressive than the one before. A wall on the left,
a drop on the right, and a bunch of summits as far as the eye can see.
Later, the soil changed from grey rocks to red powder and we began our
descent into the Apurimac river valley. We reached the Chiquisca camping
station right in time for the dark. It was no more than a cleared patch
of wood, 20 m in diameter, looked after by a 14 year old girl living
there in almost total solitude. That was the most institutionalised
accommodation we were to encounter for the rest of the trail.
We woke up in the
clouds, literally. They were all around us. You could wash your face
in them. Our guide took us to the edge of a cliff and pointed out the
task for the day. A vertical wall going all the way into the sky, the
trail a thin cord zigzagging schizophrenically over its face like a
crack. It looked totally intimidating. But first we had to come down
into the valley and cross the Apurimac river that separated us from
So we did, slowly, savouring the stereotypical scorched cactus scenery
of the valley. The bridge was modern and strong (I guess the government
attended to that in search of some tourist revenue). Finally, the ascent:
3 hours of mind-numbing grunt work. Left, push, right, push, left, push,
right, push. Water was going by the gallons. But the views were unobstructed
and once you detach from the physical effort you mind floats in the
Three hours later we came across a few huts (Santa Rosa settlement)
and rested with one of the owners. We stayed for a while, tired and
soaking up the sunny afternoon with our numbed brains. Could have stayed
there forever. Then another 2 hours of grunt-work ascent and we break
the gradient finally there, on a flat top. Looking back at the
thin silver string of the river down in the valley, I couldnt
believe we got so far.
There were a couple of huts at the top. We camped outside the house
of the local bear hunter, an amazing guy full of life. He warmly welcomed
us to his wifes cooking. The reason he is so happy is because
from his porch you can see the most beautiful sunset panorama on the
Next morning we got our first sighting of Choquequirao just a few steps
from the settlement. But it took another one and a half hours of beating
the trail to get there. We dived into the woods, stepped out of a bush
and there we were on the terraces of the Lost City, just like
that. No gates, no tickets, not a soul.
Choquequirao was the jewel of my trip. Sure, Machu Picchu is gorgeous
and if you are looking for convenience, you can be there and back in
one day. Choquequirao takes 4 days of hard walking and that is why it
is so serene, challenging, profound and rewarding. It is a true Lost
You get back the same way you came. For me, the journey to Choquequirao
was the first leg of the 7-day trek over the mountains to Machu Picchu
(if you wanted to know whether that could be done). But thats
This trek took place in August 2002. There have been some changes, although
minor. The entry to Choquequirao is now purchased at 10 soles, this
lasts you as long as you want. The camping on the terrace now includes
toilets and an emergency line with Cachora. The destination is also
getting more popular, although still far from crowded: in the high season
of July / August there were an average of 50 visitors on site plus about
the same number en route at any time. Hurry before they build a railway!
The trek can be completed in 4 days if needed, but you only get 1 hour
on site: you carry on straight to Choquequirao on your 2nd day, have
a tour in the morning and set off, arriving to the Apurimac river crossing
by night. For any treks to Choquequirao make sure you have adequate
footwear and you are accustomed to the altitude: that second day will
get you sweating and your ankles twisting.
Alex finally slowed down when he found his true love Valencia,
Spain. He is currently working on http://www.valenciavalencia.com
a Valencia City Guide - a comprehensive resource on Valencia for the
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