"We'd seen only two trekkers in the past eight days" (Rick McCharles)
Article Words : Alex Robinson | 01 October

The Choquequirao Trail

The trek to the Inca city will challenge even the most experienced hikers. But, take a chew of the coca and persevere, and you'll see one of the great sights of Peru

It was first light and the mist was clearing off the mountain. The lost city of the Incas lay just over the ridge, perched on a spur hundreds of metres above a rushing river and ringed on all sides by jagged peaks. And there wasn’t a tourist in sight.

We’d seen only two other trekkers in the past eight days. The crowds were all in Cuzco or at Machu Picchu – or on their way there, packed together in myriad herds along the Inca Trail.

No, the lost city we’d found wasn’t Machu Picchu at all. Our trail led to Choquequirao, as beautiful as its famous near-neighbour – and of equal importance – but far more remote. And far harder to reach. In fact this nine-day Choquequirao trail, newly blazed, had been my toughest walk yet: the Inca Trail paled in comparison.

It had begun six days previously in Huancacalle village – a community of tin shacks centred on a whitewashed church, a school and three shops, some six hours’ bumpy mini-van ride from Cuzco. The village was literally the end of the road. We spent a cold, rainy night there talking nervously in the campsite over hot chocolate and fried pancakes about what lay ahead.

Ruben, our guide, handed out packets of dried green leaves and some sticky gum with a thick, mossy smell. “For the altitude and the tiredness,” he told us. “It’s coca – the sacred leaf of the Incas. Chew it when the going gets tough.”

Across the Huancacalle

The next day I wondered what all the fuss was about. It was easy. We cut across the bubbling blue Huancacalle River before descending through lush secondary forest and along a long, low spur to one of Inca leader Manco Inca’s last refuges after the conquest – the Vitcos ruins. 

The chunky, lichen-covered stone was golden in the early morning light and offset by the dark greens of the surrounding hills. I could imagine watchmen standing sentinel on the walls, waiting for the arrival of the Spanish along the river valley. But this never came. Manco was murdered by trickery and the Incas ended not with a bang but a whimper.

We ate a packed lunch amid the ruins and ambled further up the valley. The path began to get a little steeper at Ñusta España – a giant boulder altar worn smooth half a millennium ago by the feet of myriad Inca girls. 

Also, the air began to get noticeably thinner after the thundering canyon waterfall of Puma Chaca. But it was late afternoon by then and we soon reached our first camp – a splash of red and yellow canvas breaking the green of the hills.

“What a view,” ruminated fellow trekker Alex as he gazed down the valley from where we’d come – and then up behind the camp to the thickening gunmetal grey cloud that loomed over the granite of the Choquetacarpo pass high above us.

Coca eases the Choquetacarpo

It was a long, hard slog up there the next morning – even the guides seemed to struggle. I’d been proud of myself when I’d conquered the 4,200m Dead Woman Pass on the way to Machu Picchu, but Choquetacarpo was far more of a killer – longer and, at 4,600m, higher too. 

As the path twisted and turned in ambling loops, the forest slowly faded into heath, the heath into paramo (high-altitude desert) dominated by moss and giant bromeliads; the river became a brook and then an icy stream. The air got thinner and thinner and climbing became tough – physically and mentally. Each ponderous step was accompanied by a long, deep breath.

As my ribcage began to ache and my head grew heavy, I reached for the coca. The taste was vile, but the effect magical. My entire mouth went numb, but my breathing and legs were thankfully revitalised.

But there was still a long way to go. When I thought we’d reached the summit the path would wind around a corner to reveal another steep, 2km stretch and we’d have to steel ourselves again. It was morale sapping. Just as I felt that I could take no more we spotted a condor soaring high and inky black in the slowly clearing sky. All our spirits lifted. Then the pass appeared, revealing itself suddenly from behind a thinning cloud.

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Somehow we found the strength to struggle over and were greeted by one of the most magnificent mountain views I will ever see. It was on a different scale to anything en route to Machu Picchu. The pass was tiny – a nick in the cyclopean granite, barely 20m wide. We stood perched over two craggy valleys gashed by glaciers, with rivers dropping on either side over hills of broken scree into moss and paramo before twisting around massive mountain spurs on the limits of our vision.

The descent took the rest of the day and most of the following morning.

The tin roofs of Yanama

We made camp next to a rushing stream that almost burst its banks as we slept. Breakfast was followed with a long and steady climb through cloudforest filled with the chirrups and flashes of parakeets and trogons. I’d only seen small patches of such forest on the way to Machu Picchu; here there were stretches extensive enough for a jaguar or spectacled bear to roam undisturbed.

When the trees thinned I saw the tin roofs of Yanama village glint at the crown of a valley ahead of us. It looked close enough to touch. But it was still a gruelling four-hour walk away.

I called home that night to an England that felt far, far away. The crackly village phonebox was pinned to the wall in the back of the mud-brick grocery store. Everything there, from matchboxes to beer, had been brought in on mule-back or foot; the nearest road was two days away across 4,000m-high passes. 

Yet farmers Felipe Olarte and Pepe Ortiega cooked up a royal feast of lamb and potatoes – which occur in infinite sweet variety in this, their native land – over hot stones and in a makeshift straw oven interred under a foot of loamy earth.

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The tiredness, beer and coca leaf tea went to our heads – especially those of fellow hikers Regina and Manuel, who were collapsing in fits of laughter around the camp table. “My legs are dead,” Regina giggled, “I can barely walk to take a pee!”

“Look at my boots!” Manuel responded. “They are completely destroyed!” He lifted his sole to show a Timberland shredded by the Andes, its rubber dangling off a sorry lip of leather. By eight we were asleep in our tents.

Curiosity of the eagle

The next day Felipe and Pepe patched Manuel’s boots up with steel wire ripped from a coat hanger and lashings of gaffer tape. Then we began another long climb out of the village along a rocky path that took us to vertiginous mountain ledges, hanging over seemingly bottomless drops. The mountain walls next to them were pocked with old Inca mines.

At one point I saw a soaring mountain eagle. Right next to me. It looked affronted: “What are you doing up here?” it seemed to say. We went higher, into the cloud, and then above it to reach the Mina Victoria pass and another jaw-dropping view over a sierra of snowy, jagged peaks.

For three hours we rushed and tumbled down a valley cut by a roaring river that poured from the mouth of a blue-green glacier. We followed it along a rocky, muddy path that took us into elfin forest, which thickened as it dropped into sweaty tropical jungle.

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Eventually we reached our most spectacular campsite yet. Our tents clung to a steep and plunging ridge looking over the Río Blanco and Apurímac valleys. The massive 5,600m Huarwaq’aqa peak towered above us, crowned with a pearly glacier. Far below, in the green of the valley, falling rain produced a brilliant rainbow in the thick afternoon sun. All was quiet but for the distant swish of rivers and the wind, swirling through air so clear we could see as far as our eyes would allow.

Paws for a sweet treat

Alex woke me from my reverie. “We’re in spitting distance of Choquequirao now,” he said. “It’s just over the back of that ridge.” He pointed to the spur that rose on the other side of the Río Blanco valley, directly in front of us. Halfway up I could see a hut as tiny as a block of Lego and behind it the tracery of some Inca terraces. “That’s tomorrow’s campsite,” he told me. “The day after that, we’ll be at the ruins.”

After the previous few days my legs had grown hard and strong, my breathing deeper; I’d lost an inch off my waist. The going was getting easier – through dry, low vegetation dominated by bushes and heath – and there was plenty of wildlife too. We saw white-tailed deer bounding off in the distance, viscacha (looking like dopey rabbits with bushy tails) and more condor high overhead.

Later, in the dead of night, I woke to hear snuffling outside the tent, the braying of the mules and a consternation of Spanish voices shouting “Oso! Oso!” It was a bear. And he’d made off with the biscuits.

There was still plenty of breakfast though, brought in by the mules all the way from Huancacalle. There was a sense of excitement in the camp. Choquequirao was only a few hours away and it was the most beautiful morning yet. The night’s rain had left the valleys shrouded in a low mist, which was gradually melting away in the golden sun. Our spirits were high – even Manuel’s, whose boots had somehow managed to hold together after repeated surgery.

After gallons of coffee and pancakes we wound our way up through the scrubby heath towards the final pass. Crossing it brought a dramatic change in vegetation. “The wind on this ridge is humid – it blows up from the Amazon,” said Ruben, “not from the Pacific, as it does on the ridge behind us.”

A rocky ledge dripping with moss and bromeliad-covered vines brought us to a twisting trail thick with black mud and vibrant tropical creepers. Hummingbirds buzzed in the trees, and the air smelt rich and damp. Then as the path cut around a corner the vegetation thinned and we all crowded together for our first glance of Choquequirao – half a kilometre below – perched on the summit of an impossibly steep ridge.

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It was a snatched peek. “No, don’t look!” cried Ruben. “Save it for later!” He pressed us on, down the trail and across a series of neat lawns lined with Inca huts to a viewpoint at the ridge’s far end: “Now you can open your eyes!”

The thrill of Choquequirao

We stood stock still for ten minutes, none of us saying a word, transfixed by the majesty of the view. Choquequirao lay at our feet, stretched over a steep mountain spur swathed in dark forest, a full, sheer mile above the snaking Apurímac valley.

The city’s scale was hard to discern at first. Most of the constructions were submerged under the trees, visible only as wavy ridges of thick jungle that flowed to either side of the valley, spilling in terraces that somehow clung to the precipitous walls of the Apurímac valley. They must have stretched over four or five near-vertical kilometres, and where they met on the summit of the spur, Choquequirao formed lawned plazas watched over by stretched, low stone buildings that looked like elongated crofters’ cottages.

But, as with Machu Picchu, what left us spellbound was the setting. This was a city built by engineer-aesthetes; master manipulators of stone and landscape, but also worshippers of Nature’s sacred space. Who else would have chosen so blessed a location?

The backdrop was a serrated line of mountains peaked with snow and glaciers and descending into the indigos and greens of high-alpine paramo and rich cloud forest. Off to the right was a massive bare ridge broken by the white downward smoke of waterfalls that seemed to drop, pause and drop again in far-off silence. The scene was kissed by rich, honey-warm tropical light.

After the hardest and most beautiful walk of my life, this was journey’s end – a place I’d be happy never to leave. And for the next two days, while the crowds of thousands crawled and bustled around Machu Picchu, we had it all to ourselves.