A refreshing breeze gusted up from the edge of the trail, but I hugged the canyon wall rather than risk the kilometer drop to the Apurimac river below. I gripped my trekking poles in cramping fists; I’d been hiking uphill under a heavy pack for nine hours but had yet to catch the Germans. I pressed on out of eagerness to reach my goal- and fear of having to negotiate the narrow, rocky path in the dark.
I rounded a bend and gasped, “Holy shit.” My mouth stayed open. Huge swaths of the mountainside appeared clad in concrete like the Hoover Dam. It had to be artificial, but this was too remote a corner of Peru for a modern civil engineering project. But not an ancient one. I extended my telephoto lens as a makeshift spyglass: not a solid wall, but dozens of Inca terraces stacked so steep I hadn’t seen the strips of ground between them. I aimed my lens at the ridge atop the mountain and saw the setting sun shining through stone houses. Days of research, travel, and grueling hiking had led me to Machu Picchu’s sister-city: Choquequirao, the Cradle of Gold.
I’d first heard of Choquequirao while reading Hemming’s Conquest of the Incas. Whereas Machu Picchu receives as many as 5,000 visitors per day, Choquequirao sees half that in an entire year. The site is most easily accessible via a 56km in-and-out hike across some of South America’s most grueling terrain.
I returned to Cusco from Machu Picchu to inquire about expeditions to Choquequirao. An afternoon of searching on foot and online yielded mixed results: a handful of tour agencies would do it, but not for less than $2500((Extensive haggling brought them down to $600/person, minimum 4 people)). I had the guides break down the expenses:
– van to Cachora, the last village accessible by roads (no public bus service)
– cook, mule drivers, mules
– tents, sleeping pads, stoves, gas, sleeping bags, food, water
– experienced guide familiar with such a remote region
– hiring everyone to spend 5 days away from the comforts of home and family to hike a tough trail (by even Peruvian standards).
I asked around for any groups leaving that week that split the cost without luck. “It’s not well known,” one of the agents explained, “a big time commitment, and a hard trail. Three times harder than the Inca trail. Maybe more.”
That night I asked around the bars and hostels in Cusco and even put up posters calling for adventurers.
Lots of people were intrigued, but unable to make such extensive last-minute plans. I started hoping for rejection, though. I liked the idea of striking off for Choquequirao alone and testing myself against the Andes, mano-a-montaña.
It took two days to gather all the information and gear I’d need. A recursive chain of referrals worthy of a Zelda quest led from a tour agency…
…to an information center
…to the Ministry of Culture
…to a cartographer’s shop
…to an antique book shop
…to a regular bookstore
…in search of an accurate topographic map of the trail- of which only one copy remained in stock. I also grabbed a Quechua phrasebook; I’d be traveling through parts of Peru where Spanish still hasn’t spread even 500 years after the conquistadors.
I visited one of Cusco’s museums where I found a scale model of Choquequirao that I used to hand-draw 3D maps of the site. I rented all the camping gear I’d need and purchased a compass, knock-off Northface coat, and a hunting knife.
I found a reputable guide to annotate my trailmap with good campsites, water sources, and local families who could provide meals. The last guide I consulted actually had a group leaving in two days and offered to take me for just $300 since I was already outfitted. “It’s dangerous to go alone,” he told me. “Los Senderistas.”
The guide was referring the Maoist guerrillas of the Shining Path- terrorists who’d inflicted a version of China’s bloody cultural revolution on Peru’s countryside through the 80s and 90s. I knew that the current government had cracked down quite effectively, but there were still pockets of resistance in Peru’s rural areas where coca farms fueled the drug trade. They’d even robbed a group of hikers en route to Choquequirao at rocket-launcher-point a few years ago.
I sensed that this was mostly just aggressive Peruvian salesmanship, so I politely declined. In the unlikely chance I was waylaid by the Shining Path, they’d most likely just want my camera and cash.
I allocated 4500 calories per day and planned and packed each meal down to individual Snickers bars. I stopped by the Cultural Ministry to get explicit permission to enter and photograph the ruins at night (they said it was fine as long as the on-site archeologists were fine with it), and boarded a bus toward Abancay.
Abancay’s far removed from the Gringo Trail, so I got to experience discount bus service as a Peruvian. This meant the man who sold bus tickets joined us for the ride as a sort of conductor/entertainer/salesman. Once we were under way he gave a safety briefing instructing us to wear seat belts. This segued into a broader discussion of health, including how their Inca ancestors used to live to be over 100, thanks to natural remedies- remedies that he was offering right now, for less than pharmacy drugs. He walked the aisles cracking jokes and even hosted a brief trivia game- which of course segued into a pitch for a joint pain relief cream. I asked him to make sure to have the driver stop halfway to Abancay at the fork in the road for the village of Cachora.
The bus reached the fork around 9pm, and I was relieved to see a taxi driver waiting- just as Wikitravel had promised! I stepped off the bus, the man I had taken for a taxi driver stepped on, and before I could say a word the bus pulled away- leaving me alone at the dark crossroads.((I have since made a few edits to the Choquequirao Wikitravel))
Walking two hours down the dark mountainside to Cachora was absolutely out of the question. I’d either break my neck or get mauled by farm dogs. Worst case, I’d set up my tent and wait for morning, but I saw a few mud brick houses with lights on, which I approached.”
“Hola!” I said loudly and awkwardly. “¿Hay taxista?” Hopefully a taxi driver lived in one of these houses. This was a remote and somewhat lawless region, and not a good place to be out alone after dark. There was no response from the first house.
I repeated at the next house and got a response. “[Yes, the house at the end of the row.]” There were no lights on there, and no response besides a barking dog.
I started looking for a decent spot to set up a tent away from the road, when I heard a car approaching. Every car is a taxi for the right price, so I stuck out my arm and waved.
As luck would have it, it was actually the taxi driver, returning from an unusual late-night fare. I asked if he’d take me to Cachora, but he said he was done for the night. I recognized the beginning of negotiations, and eventually hired him for five times the standard fare. It felt like robbery, until I remembered that it was only $20, I’d typically pay twice that for an Uber from Manhattan to Brooklyn, and this was sparing me a huge amount of trouble and potential danger.
The taxi took me down twenty minutes of winding switchbacks to a bed and breakfast in Cachora where I was welcomed by a grandmother and two immense dogs. My room was spartan, with concrete floors and walls, but the bed was quite comfortable and there was electricity to top off all my batteries.
The next morning brought complications. My host put me in touch with a bunch of the locals, but no one was willing to rent mules or work as a mule driver due to planting season. I offered to pay extremely well if any of the mule drivers had archaeological or historical knowledge of the ruins, but my host informed me that just about everyone with an education had been driven off or killed by the Shining Path in the past decades (they used to work their fields by day and sleep in the hills by night for safety. The Path would often kill for no reason other than to instill terror. The government’s soldiers committed atrocities of their own, as well- it was not a good time.)
I wasn’t enthused by the idea of paying through the nose to drag an unwilling farmer away from his fields and family and to have to make five days of awkward small talk. I spread out everything I’d brought and repacked only the absolute essentials. That meant:
– no knife. Against humans it would be wiser to avoid escalation and negotiate, and against dogs my trekking poles would give me extra distance.
– no compass. It looked like the trail would be easy to follow: down, then up, then back.
– no stove. no pasta, no oil. I’d eat my ramen cold.
– no ukulele. no rum. I’d have to rely on my personality to make friends and influence people.
The guest house’s TV was playing The Emperor’s New Groove with the real Andes in the background out the window; I took this as a good omen. I cinched my pack straps, took my first steps toward the mountains, and snapped a timer-selfie.
After walking down to the road I took a 7km taxi ride to the actual trailhead. The one-lane road was death-defying even by Peruvian standards, but the mountain views were commensurately extraordinary.
We drove to where the road ended in a vertical kilometer drop and the trail began. My pack was still obscenely heavy (ultralight hiking gear is hard to come by in Peru) and I was sweating after a hundred steps. My week in the Sacred Valley had acclimated me to the 3000m elevation, but it was going to be a long 47km. I felt very glad to be 28; at my age I should be able to just suck it up and power through the ordeal.
My meditations on my own virility were interrupted when I reached a squash-court sized plateau where a local man and his daughter were sitting and enjoying the view. We greeted each other in Spanish and the girl (she looked to be ten) offered me some choclo– sweet, delicious jumbo popcorn from Peruvian maize. (I love choclo, and it can’t come to America soon enough.)
The father was surprised to meet an American, and the girl hadn’t even heard of the United States. I told her it was far to the north. She told me her name was Isabella and asked how many sons and daughters I had. “None,” I laughed. “I’m not married.”
“How old are you?” she asked.
“Do you have a girlfriend.”
“Nope. No wife, no girlfriend.”
Isabella’s face lit up, and I handed her back the choclo to derail her line of questioning. Quecha culture is very family oriented and “Hi, what’s your name? How many kids do you have?” is a normal way to open a conversation with a stranger.
“You’re going to the ruins?” the father asked. I nodded. “Good luck. It’s a hard trail.”
“Are there any branches in the trail? Any place I might get lost?” I asked.
“No. Actually, the ruins are right there!”
I followed his finger across the valley. He indicated patches of gray rock atop the green mountains and told me they were buildings. He pointed to a nearly vertical slope on the opposite side of the valley. “There’s the trail. Keep going up and you can’t get lost.”
“Will you take me to the ruins Papa?” Isabella asked.
“Later, when you’re bigger.”
I thanked the man, said goodbye, and walked to the edge of the plateau. Brown dirt switchbacks zigzagged down the mountainside. I counted sixteen before deciding it made no difference. The only way forward was down.
I made good time down the rocky path and used my trekking poles to spare my knees the impact from my heavy pack. I had good travel insurance, but this seemed like a particularly bad place to tear one’s ACL nonetheless.
It’s hard to put in words the raw enormity of the Andes. Base-to-peak, the Appalachians would fit cozily within the canyon. Going by elevation, Mt. Washington would barely poke through the valley floor. But the Andes are striking not so much for their size, but their character.
These are young mountains, sharp-peaked and craggy. White glacier caps, alpine meadows, forests, and jungle cling to the mountainside. Farmers cultivate small fields at crazy angles that end in crumbling precipices. The whole valley looks like God came to earth drunk and angry and just started wrecking the place.
After a few kilometers I saw two travelers resting at a bend in the trail. I greeted them in Spanish and asked where they were from, since the 6’3” black man and his pale blonde companion didn’t look to be from around those parts. They answered in German, so I replied, “How about English?” and we had our lingua franca.
They offered me some bread and I split a Nature Valley bar((I was packing literally a dozen such bars plus almost as many Snickers and Milky Ways)) with them. I noticed that they lacked hiking packs and instead carried their things in woven blankets in the local manner. The girl wore sneakers, but her boyfriend had flip flops.
“Are you heading to Choquequirao?” I asked.
“Yes, then Machu Picchu.”
I was impressed. It’s possible to walk along the old Inca paths from Choquequirao to Machu Picchu, passing many ruins on the way. Only a couple hundred travelers each year have the time and ambition to tour Peru that way, and it takes a well outfitted expedition with pack mules about ten days.
“That’s quite the trek,” I said. “Isn’t it hard carrying all your food and gear in blankets?”
“Tents and sleeping bags are all expensive, and we don’t need them,” he said confidently. “The Peruvians carry everything they need in blankets on their backs like these, then sleep under them at night.“
His girlfriend nodded, less enthusiastically.
They seemed woefully under-equipped, but I gave them the benefit of the doubt since they had to know what they were doing to have even managed to reach such an obscure corner of Peru.
They were going to rest a while longer, but I wanted to press on before the shadows on the canyon wall grew any taller. I reflected that racing the Germans to the Cradle of Gold sounded very much like something Indiana Jones would do.
The sun dipped behind the mountains just as I reached a few mud-brick huts with million-dollar views of the Apurimac valley below. Hand-painted signs advertised hot food and a place to pitch a tent. I heard friendly banter in an indistinct language coming from inside. I announced myself and asked about dinner.
A grandmother wearing the typical Andean bowler hat prepared a hearty meal of potatoes on rice, served with fish fresh-caught from the Apurimac River below and all the coca tea I cared to drink.((4.5/5 stars, $3.50)) Guinea pigs squeaked and scurried underfoot and nibbled whatever scraps fell from the table where they’d eventually be served themselves.
I chatted with the family about the other parts of Peru I’d been and told them about Boston. They talked to me about family, farming, and the weather- the same topics people’ve talked about since people could talk.
I strained to understand the grandmother’s accent when she spoke to her family- I kept picking up phonemes that sounded more like Hebrew than Spanish((e.g. the uvular ‘ch’ from “chanukah”)) and realized she was speaking Quechua. Out of my dozen word vocabulary I was able to thank her for dinner and say “it’s nice here”. The younger men and I stepped outside for some fresh air away from the cook fire for a nightcap of chicha and to talk about women. Several expressed interest in moving to bigger towns or cities, though they’d miss the tranquility of the mountains.
I walked over to my tent in the dark and took out my camera to practice some astrophotography despite some clouds in the sky.
I awoke at 5am fully rested and ate a hearty breakfast of salami, cheese, and a Nature Valley bar dipped in peanut butter. I walked down switchbacks for an hour and a half, passing donkeys laden with enormous sacks of coca leaves sufficient to make ~$12,500 of cocaine((a quick Fermi approximation: 20-40kg of leaves / 370kg leaves/ 1 kg pure cocaine * $100/g = $5,000-$20,000 street value on that donkey’s back. Value added from shipping and handling offset by dilution to 60-80% purity of consumer product. Median income in Apurimac region is <$10/day.))
An hour’s hike brought me in sight of the bridge, and the only crossing of the Apurimac for a very long way. When the rockslide had destroyed the old bridge, several years went by when the only way to cross was via a basket on a rope pulley. This made transporting mules difficult, but not impossible.
Another 45 minutes brought me to the crossing itself. A ranger jogged out from a cluster of stone buildings to have me check in my name and itinerary. He was surprised to find a solo traveler, much less an American, and encouraged me to fill my water bottles and take a few minutes to rest and eat a second breakfast. He told me I’d need my strength for the climb ahead.
I crossed the bridge and remarked on the low, but swiftly flowing river below. November is when Peru’s rivers are at their lowest, which happened to be when the conquistadors began their conquest. The Incas cut their rope bridges to cover their retreat, but the rivers were just low enough that month to permit the Spanish to cross elsewhere.
Carrying my pack all the way down from Cachora was hard work, but hauling it back up was another thing entirely. After fifteen minutes and just four switchbacks I’d sweated through my shirt. It was 8am and already the sun was blazing. The canyon wall loomed endlessly above. Fortunately I’d come prepared with more than Snickers bars to help get me up the mountain: a 12 hour audiobook, Turn Right At Machu Picchu.
I began listening to the account of an NYC travel editor who decided to leave his desk and actually go on one of the adventures he’d always been writing about- in the form of a month-long trek across Peru. I grinned to hear his itinerary– his first destination would be Choquequirao.
I’ve always liked books, but listening to someone narrate an adventure as you experience it in realtime is surreal in a very cool way. The author described scrambling on all fours, blistering his feet, and cursing the trail I was following that very moment. Hiram Bingham((Machu Picchu’s modern discoverer and the real-life inspiration for Indiana Jones)) had recorded in his journal that the climb had “nearly killed him”. And these guys all had mules carrying the bulk of their provisions.
At one point the author’s guide instructed him to walk near the edge of the trail to catch the upward breeze from the valley. I cautiously approached the edge, and sure enough there was a refreshing breeze to cool my sweat-drenched skin.
I climbed for three hours, but kept my mind focussed on the book and maintaining a steady pace. I’d trained up to a half-marathon before leaving America just in case– and this was the case. I finally reached some abandoned houses with a water hose down from a glacial stream. I sat down for a nutella/peanut butter tortilla lunch with salami and cheese.
As I was about to leave I met a French couple coming down the path. I purified some water for them, and they gratefully offered me some walnuts. The hike ahead is many times longer, they told me. But the destination would be worth it.
The four and half hour hike behind me turned out to have been just a warm up. The trail inclined even more steeply, the sun burned hotter, and the air grew thinner. But with each step the view became more impressive- a tangible reward for my exertion. The switchbacks from yesterday’s descent zigzagged faintly in the distance on the other side of the valley.
I stopped for water every hour or so at waterfalls. They were marked as rivers on my map, but flowed so steeply that the distinction was more epistemological than hydrological. At one stream I reached down to fill my bottle, and dozens of tiny insects alighted on my shirtsleeve. I nervously filtered the water as I watched them crawl my clothes. I’d just read about them in Turn Right at Machu Picchu, and these same moscas had devoured the author, leaving him with dozens of itching blisters. Most hikers in Peru have forearms and calves covered in scars from these bugs, which are generally considered far worse pests than mosquitos.
Occasionally some Peruvians leading mule teams would pass me coming down. “Dos horas más,” they’d say by way of greeting. “Two hours more.” Anyone going up could only have one thing on their mind.
By this time I’d drunk six liters of water since morning, yet never needed to pee. Salt from dried sweat cracked and flaked on my pack straps, and my hands and triceps started to cramp as I pulled myself up the trail with my poles. I hadn’t exerted myself like this since all-day summer fencing camps in my teens. I needed electrolytes or my legs would start cramping, so I tore open a ramen flavor packet and mixed it in my water. The 300% daily recommended serving of sodium and delicious MSG did the trick, and I pressed onward and upward.
Seven hours and almost 2000 meters after crossing the Apurimac, I started walking much faster. I was confused at first, since my level of exertion hadn’t increased. The ground was leveling off.
I reached Marampata as the evening sunlight turned golden. That even a village as tiny as Marampata exists is a testament to humankind’s ability and desire to make a home anywhere. Homes perch on the edge of cliffs, and haphazardly terraced fields end abruptly in crumbling ledges. The village feels like its built as much on sky as ground, and though the buildings mud brick and corrugated metal, their siting recalls the ancient Incas’ flair for dramatic architecture.
My eye caught on some crates of Powerade being unloaded from a mule. My quadriceps cried out for their glucose and potassium, but I tried to play it cool and bargain a little. The man was asking 10 soles (about $3.50) which was obscenely expensive by Peruvian standards. He explained that everything in the village had to be carried up by mule. Rather than immediately counter, I asked his advice on the remaining trail to Choquequirao and if I could get there before sundown.
“Yes, no problem!” he told me. “The ruins are close, just another half hour.”
I thanked him and offered 8 soles for the Powerade, which I downed in several gulps.
From Marampata the trail became much steeper and rockier and snaked up and down. After an hour the sun had nearly set and despite the Powerade and Snickers bars, my legs were weakening from exhaustion. I’d known that Peruvians were infamous for politely telling you what they thought you wanted to hear, regardless of its veracity.((It occurs to me now in writing this that maybe he was just messing with me because I wouldn’t pay no $3.50 for his Powerade.))
That’s when I saw the stone terraces armoring the hillside, and the golden sunset through the temples of Choquequirao.
I shuffled up and down the trail, alternating my weight between cramping triceps and quads. I took out my headlamp in anticipation of the rapidly darkening trail. Finally I encountered the first branch in trail, and there was an archaeologist waiting for me.
I greeted him in Spanish. He asked how many more were coming, and was surprised to find me alone. It was his job to await visitors and collect the site’s entry fee- about $12. I still had hopes to reach the ruins in time for night to do some astrophotography, so I asked him if I could get the site leader’s okay.
“There’s no leader here,” he said confused. If I wanted permission, he said, I had to ask the Ministry of Culture in Cusco (which, of course, had told me to seek the chief archaeologist’s permission.) The point was moot, though. If I wanted to enter the site at night, there was no one to stop me. However, if I wanted to enter the site at night, I’d have to hike up another couple hundred meters in the dark along crumbling paths straddling the abyss.
The archaeologist showed me a place to camp near their hut located on a grassy plateau ending in a fatal drop just past the latrines. I pitched my tent by the light of my headlamp and crawled inside, my muscles like jelly. I wolfed down links of salami (I knew I’d need as much protein as possible to repair my legs) and scribbled a few pages of notes in my journal, but soon passed out mid-sentence.
I unzipped my tent the next morning to find myself camped out on an enormous Inca terrace.
Coming up next, part 2 with all the awesome ruins pics…