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Published: November 5th 2021
Choquequirao in the mist
One of my favorite things about the rainy season is the mist and clouds that make photos more dramatic.
The most important things to know about Choquequirao are that it is much bigger than Machu Picchu and that the trail to get there is very steep and has significant elevation change. (This blog and many more photos are on my website https://heatherjasper.com ).
The Choquequirao ruins are all of the things you want in an archeological site: beautiful, mysterious, extensive, unique, fascinating, etc. They have been classified successively as a fortress, a ceremonial center, a city and the last residence of the Inca. In my opinion, the most important aspect is that they were never discovered by the Spanish during the decades of conquest. I was very disappointed to hear from local families that they have been thoroughly looted throughout the 1900s. However, the site is so massive and so little of it has been properly restored that we don’t really know how much is still covered by the jungle. We also don’t know what is still covered by the jungle.
In Quechua, Choquequirao means “cradle of gold” and many theorize that there were gold mines nearby that were exploited during the Incario. However, as with so much Inca history, the
What's left to be done
Archeologists estimate that the entire hillside to the right of the ruins that have been restored is also covered with Inca houses and terraces. It will take a long time and a lot of work and money to uncover what is still hidden.
original name of the site is still up for debate. (For the record, Machu Picchu is not the original name of that site either). Like all Inca cities, it includes a main plaza, royal quarters for when the Inca visited, a temple for the sun, large buildings called kallankas
, storage buildings called collcas
, platforms called ushnu,
barracks for soldiers, a prison, walled-off houses separate from the rest of the site for priests, an administrative center and lots and lots of terraces for agriculture and hillside stabilization.
Like all Andean cities or towns, it is divided into the upper half, hanan and the lower half, hurin. This is only one of the innumerable examples of the Inca concept of duality. In this case, the hanan is more important because that’s where the Inca’s residence is. The residence is easily distinguished by the higher quality of stonework and the channeled water that leads straight to a shower and bath.
The most famous part of the ruins are terraces with white quartz llamas built into the walls. We know that they’re llamas and not alpacas because they’re too skinny to be alpaca and the elevation of the site is too low
The flattened top of the hill in the mist is the usnu, also sometimes written as ushnu. It was probably used for ceremonies though it certainly as an incredible view up and down the Apurimac River canyon.
for alpaca to be happy there. The elevation of Choquequirao is llama territory. Unfortunately, because I was there on a particularly misty and rainy day, I didn’t get to see these. I’m planning to go back in April when the hills are full of wildflowers and the rainy season is mostly over. I would rather spend three nights in Marampata to get a full two days at the ruins, rather than just one. With two days I should be able to see everything that has been uncovered by the restoration work and jungle removal.
I hope that you now know enough about Choquequirao to want to go there. Here comes the catch: the trail is steep and until they do more trail maintenance, it’s a minefield of loose rocks.
The relevant elevations are these:
Trailhead at Capuliyoc: 3033 meters / 9,951 feet above sea level
Apurimac River at the bridge: 1000 meters / 3,281 feet above sea level
Marampata: 2918 meters / 9,574 feet above sea level
Choquequirao ruins: 3,104 meters / 10,184 feet above sea level
Basically, over the four or five or however many days you take to visit Choquequirao (I
The small terraces in the foreground are unique in that they're almost square. Archeologists have found seeds that indicate they were used for medicinal plants, rather than regular agriculture. Their placement near the house of the Inca also points to a more ceremonial use than an agricultural one.
recommend six days and five nights), you will descend and then ascend well over 4,300 meters / 14,100 feet. Where you begin at Capuliyoc, you can clearly see the Choquequirao site and the village of Marampata. That means you start with the descent down to the Apurimac River, followed by the ascent up to Marampata and Choquequirao, then the descent back down to the river and ascent up to Capuliyoc. Not even the trail from Marampata to Choquequirao has any flat sections. It’s a constant descent to the lower terraces of the ruins, from where you climb up to see the rest of the archeological site.
My group got up early and was usually on the trail by 6:00 a.m. because early in the morning, the canyon is still in shadow. The lower you get into the canyon, the hotter it is, because you’re not too far from the equator and low elevations in the tropics are always hot. There is a lovely afternoon upcanyon wind, but between about 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. I don’t recommend doing much hiking.
Our first breakfast was at Capuliyoc and lunch at Chiquiska, both on the side of the river that’s
The restoration puzzle
The lines and numbers on the rocks show that this wall was found intact. Archeologists draw the grid on the standing wall before disassembling it to reconstruct it with cement.
part of the Apurimac region. Once you cross the bridge over the Apurimac River, you enter the Cusco region. This is significant because the Cusco region has a big budget for supporting tourism, while Apurimac does not. The families in the Cusco region have received solar panels, cooking ranges big enough to cook for large groups and even monthly checks or supplies during the worst of the pandemic. The families in Chiquiska didn’t get anything during 2020 and the Cconaya family had to sell 25 of their 40 mules to survive.
The first day we hiked from Capuliyoc all the way down to the river, jumped in the cold water to rinse off and then hiked up to a place called Santa Rosa. This isn’t even big enough to be a village. It’s only one family who has a few tents. We brought our own, which was the main reason we needed pack horses. If you call ahead, you can reserve one of their tents and eliminate the need to carry them, since the other places along the trail rent cabins. We had both dinner and breakfast there before setting off early in the morning.
The second day
Hard at work
The employees of the Ministry of Culture who work at Choquequirao have great stories. If you see one taking a break, take a moment to ask them about their experience working at Choquequirao and what they have learned about the ruins.
was all uphill, but we had done enough the first day that we were faced with only five kilometers. When we got up to Marampata I did exactly what everybody does, which is stop at the first house. There are plans for a sign at the entrance of the village with names of all of the families offering lodging and meals, so that people realize that they have lots of options. We stayed with Panchita, who has several cabins to rent and serves meals in a large kitchen and dining room that she built with her family in 2020. Her food was good, her dog friendly, the chickens and cat hilarious. She also has some beautiful flowering bushes that attract hummingbirds. I saw my first Green-tailed Trainbearer, which was spectacular. You can contact her son Juan Carlos Covarrubias on WhatsApp at +51 973 181 754 to reserve a cabin.
The third day we spent all day at the ruins, but it wasn’t a rest day. It’s still a hike from Marampata to Choquequirao, and it’s all a steep descent, which becomes a steep ascent in the afternoon. My phone recorded 27,954 steps and 106 flights of stairs climbed. For
Even with a full day, it's not possible to really see everything at Choquequirao. I plan to go back with two days at the ruins next time.
a person my height, that's about 12 miles or 19 kilometers.
The fourth day we walked back down to the Apurimac, went swimming before crossing the bridge and hiked up to Chiquiska. Maykol Cconaya Puga, who we had hired for the pack horses, lives there and his mother Melchora does all the cooking. While he spent 2020 making adobe bricks and new cabins, she watched cooking shows on Youtube. Especially considering where they are, the cabins are very well made, and the food is fantastic. You can contact Maykol on WhatsApp at +51973 687 005 to reserve a cabin.
The fifth day was like the third: all uphill but not too far. We left Chiquiska at 6:00 a.m. and arrived at Capuliyoc at 9:00 a.m. Walking slower would have been more comfortable but the longer it takes, the higher the sun is. We choose the physical discomfort of walking uphill on loose rocks without stopping over the physical discomfort of an equatorial sun beating down on us. Breakfast was at 5:00 a.m. and lunch at Capuliyoc was at 11:00 a.m.
There are more photos below, so scroll down.
For more information about Choquequirao: https://books.openedition.org/ifea/5995?lang=en
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