Llamas of the SunChoquequirao: Cradle of Gold
My favourite sights in Choquequirao were the Llamas of the Sun, recently discovered in the terraces on the western slopes.
I'm standing on a ridge, gazing down on the ruins of what was once believed to be the legendary last city of the Incas. The buildings of this ruined Inca city, unknown to the Spanish Conquistadores, and hence not destroyed, lie just below me, while in the distance I can hear the roar of the mighty river as it weaves it's way though lush valleys and under beautiful mountains towards Cusco. This scene might sound familiar to anyone who has been been to Machu Picchu, but I'm in fact at a different Inca site, less visited and less celebrated, but no less compelling: Choquequirao, the Cradle of Gold.
Machu Picchu is, for many, the single reason for a visit to Peru, perhaps even to South America. But the ruined city and many of the trails leading to it are being loved to death. Recently, UNESCO almost placed the site on its endangered list of World Heritage Sites. With more than 2500 visitors per day, the ruins are crowded and overrun. Equally overrun is the Inca Trail, which now has a daily limit of 500 people (approximately 300 of these are porters and guides), meaning you need
Inca Ruins of Choquequirao
View form the Sacred Platform.
to book it well in advance, and that it's always busy on the trail. These crowds can be off putting for some, so in recent years alternativeInca Trails such as Salkantay or Lares have become popular. It's conceivable that access to Machu Picchu might soon become just as restrictive.
While there are plenty of alternatives to the Inca trail, there aren't so many alternatives to Machu Picchu. The most obvious one is Choquequirao, which in terms of visitor numbers, is at the stage Machu Picchu was at perhaps 30 years ago. Choquequirao is in an equally stunning location, high in the clouds (only the Incas would build a city this high and this remote), and getting there is half the fun. While Machu Picchu can be easily visited in one day from Cusco by train, or by trekking, visitors to Choquequirao must go on foot; the most common trail is a demanding 4 day hike to and from the ruins. And I mean demanding! The Salkantay trail is said to be the one of the most difficult hikes to Aguas Calientes. We found Choquequirao far more difficult, especially Day 2, which involved an ascent of 1500 metres from the
Village of Cachora
Starting point for the hike to Choquequirao
Apurimac river all the way to the ruins. Day 1: Cachora to Chiquisika - 19km - 900m descent
Choquequirao has not yet reached the levels of popularity of Machu Picchu, meaning it can be hiked independently, without a guide. This was our initial plan, but we saw a sign advertising the trek in a friendly agency in Cusco and talked them into including us for the same price as we had paid for Salkantay, 180 USD. We were collected from our hostel at 5.20 am and taken to the bus terminal where we met our guide, Miguel, and cook, Jorge. The other two members of our group had cried off sick, apparently with food poisoning after eating cuy (guinea-pig), so it was just myself and Ruth. Quite a change from the group of 11 we had in Salkantay! This worked out very well though as our guide's level of English was similar to our level of Spanish, so we suggested speaking with them in Spanish only for four days, making the trek almost like a Spanish class.
We arrived in Cachora at about 10 am, but we had to wait around in the town until 1pm while
Miguel arranged mule hire and lunch. Cachora reminded me a lot of Mollepata, from where we started the Salkantay trek. There are only a couple of hotels here and there seems little danger of it becoming another tourist trap like Aguas Calientes (gateway town to Machu Picchu). Jorge prepared lunch in the house belonging to the parents of our arriero (mule man), Erwin, before we set off at 1pm. We had 19km to walk that first day, along a well-marked, and not too steep path. The weather was good, the views were excellent, and we were well rested after 5 days of eating & drinking in Cusco. Miguel walked at a steady pace, and we didn't have our first break until Mirador Capuliyoc , after 11.5 km. We were going so fast that we had to wait here for the mules to catch us up! One of the things I liked about the Choquequirao trail was the posts at every kilometre - you knew exactly how much hardship was ahead of you!
At the mirador we met another group doing the hike to Choquequirao. From Choquequirao they planned to continue across the mountains to Yanama and to eventually join
The way to Huncacalle
Just cross the river, over the pass, down the valley, somewhere under those clouds!
the Salkantay trail at Colcabamba, before continuing all the way to Machu Picchu: an ambitious trek lasting 7 days. After the mirador, we descended steeply via switchback paths then walked another 5km to the next break at Mirador Copamsama. The mighty Apurimac river, way below, had come into view, lit up spectacurarly by the late afternoon light. We reached the campsite at Chiquisika at 6pm, just as darkness was falling. Just before camp we spotted a tarantula on the path - but he disappeared under a rock before we could get a picture.
Our tent was already set up at camp so we had a quick rest while Erwin, Jorge and Miguel prepared our dinner. Such luxury!! Dinner was fantastic. We had popcorn and hot chocolate as a quick snack, then minute soup, followed by lomo saltado (stir-fried beef with rice, onions and chips), my favourite Peruvian dish. It was far better than the typical pasta and red sauce we would have cooked had we trekked independently. The first day had gone well, we both felt fine, but we knew the big test was Day 2, with 1500 ascent ahead of us, so we went to bed early to
At Mirador Huancacalle
Taking a break at km 11 on Day 1
get a good night's sleep. One of the other group had spotted another tarantula in the campsite, but we were so tired we quickly fell asleep. Day 2: Chiquisika to Choquequirao to Marampata - 17km - 1500m ascent - 400m descent
There I was sitting in The Cross Keys in Cusco having a lovely pint of beer having just finished the trek. Until the voice of Miguel woke me from my dreams!! I rubbed my eyes, looked outside the tent and realized it was only 4.45am. Miguel brought us a cup of coca tea and told us we had 20 minutes to get dressed and packed before breakfast. He had organised an extra big breakfast for us as we faced what he called "un dia dificil". After pancakes, bread, coffee and poncho de habas (a delicious, porridge like drink), I felt ready to climb Everest, and we set off at 6am in good spirits. The first part was fine as we descended 1.5km to the river though we could see the ominous looking zig-zag path on the opposite side of the Apurimac, which we would need to ascend later.
We had left early to avoid the late
Mountains above the Apurimac Canyon
These snow capped mountains were in view for all of Day 1.
morning heat of the canyon, and it was 6.45 when we started the ascent. This would have been very difficult with a backpack so it was just as well we had the mules! Our first stop was at the hamlet of Santa Rosa at 8am. Miguel said we were an hour early so we must have been doing something right! We saw our first snake of the trek soon after but it was dead, unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately). We had been climbing in the shade up to now but from Santa Rosa we were in the heat, making the ascent more difficult. It was a tough 4km slog up to Marumpata, our camping spot for the night. We waited here almost an hour for the mules though we had our first views of Choquequirao to keep us occupied while we waited. When Erwin and Jorge showed up they quickly put up the tent, and Ruth and I both slept for an hour, exhausted after the ascent, while they prepared lunch. I remember thinking I could get used to this kind of service!
The other group on the 7 day hike showed up when we were halfway through lunch, but
Bridge over Apurimac
We crossed this bridge on the morning of Day 2. From here it was all uphill to the ruins, an ascent of 1500 metres. I think this was a record one day ascent for us.
their cook had been left behind so Jorge had to cook for them too. It transpired the cook had been drinking heavily the night before, and when he arrived at Santa Rosa this morning he started again on whiskey. It's hard enough ascending to Marumpata when you're sober so it was no wonder he didn't show up!
That afternoon we continued on to Choquequirao a further 4 km away, 200m higher up on a ridge. It took an hour to get there but we were so excited by finally arriving at the ruins we didn't notice the fatigue. There were lovely views of the east side terraces during our hike into the ruins. Choquequirao is still being excavated and what you can see is only 30% of the entire site. The ruins are spread out over a large area, and getting to them all involves a fair amount of hiking. It's quite exciting to think you might be hiking right past an undiscovered (or uncleared at least) section of the ruins.
The entrance to the ruins is via Avenue de los Cedars, a long walkway below one of the terraces. This eventually becomes the path that leads right
Sleeping on the Job
Our guide Miguel takes a nap after the long climb from the Apurimac. From this spot we had our first view of the Choquequirao ruins (on the ridge in the background).
into the centre of the ruins, where we were met by two of the guardians sitting in the afternoon sun...with no one else in sight. After the large crowds of Machu Picchu, it was refreshing to have the Choquequirao all to ourselves. We only had 2 hours at the ruins that day so there was no way we could see it all. Our first stop was the Sacred Platform, which was used as an observatory and as a gathering place during sacrifices. The light was in the wrong place for photographs but the views of the ruins below were nevertheless stunning. In the other direction I could see faint traces of the 32 km path we had hiked along from Cachora, while 1500 metres below me the mighty Apurimac river was just about in view.
We were both keen to see the recently discovered Llamas of the Sun, so Miguel deferred our tour of the main ruins until the following morning, taking us instead down to the Llama terraces. This was a steep descent along a narrow, in some places overgrown, path. Ruth came across a snake at one point but it had slid away before Miguel could identify
it for us. The Llamas of the Sun are stunning. They consist of white stones, shaped as llamas, built into the terraces. I hadn't seen or heard of this kind of art at any of the other Inca sites so I'm pretty sure they're unique to Choquequirao. This is the type of find that might make Choquequirao as popular as Machu Picchu some day. And with 70% of the site still to be excavated, who knows what else will be found?
We had to leave the ruins at 5 to hike back to Marumpata before dark. I didn't understand why Miguel had picked Marumpata instead of Choquequirao as a campsite - perhaps it costs less - as it meant we added 8km extra to an already long hike. We arrived back after dark and almost lost our way and the path near the end, but luckily we found the farmhouse. The other group's cook still hadn't shown up, meaning they had had a very late lunch and missed out on seeing Choquequirao that day! And they were only on Day 2, with more difficult days to come! Apparently, he did eventually show up at 10pm that night, still very
A perfect location, with fine views of Choquequirao in one direction and back towards Cachora in the other direction.
drunk - it made me glad we had such a professional team leading us. Our cook Jorge had been busy that day, cooking two sets of lunches and two sets of dinners. Day 3: Marampata to Choquequirao to Chiquisika - 17km - 1500m descent - 400m ascent
Choquequirao was unknown to the first Spanish conquistadores, but it was rediscovered again in the early 18th century, long before Hiram Bingham came upon Machu Picchu. Choquequirao is a Quechua word meaning "Cradle of Gold"; perhaps it's name attracted these 18th century explorers in search of fortunes. Bingham also visited Choquequirao, in 1909, two years before his rediscovery of Machu Picchu, but dismissed it as a candidate for his "Lost City of the Incas". The buildings at Choquequirao are less impressive and fewer than at Machu Picchu, though still interesting in their own right. The stonework is noticeably less perfect than at other Inca sites - this, I believe, owes to the type of stone available in the quarries of Choquequirao.
As always with an Inca site, no one knows the exact history behind Choquequirao. One theory which I think makes sense is that it was used as a summer
The Little Shoes
Zapatitos (Little Shoes) are a common, distinctive flower in the forests at Choquequirao.
home for one of the Inca Emperors. This would help explain why it was abandoned and unknown when the Spanish arrived. This theory might explain why Machu Picchu was also abandoned and unknown. It was quite common for Inca Emperors to build new palaces and homes for themselves, as a way of putting down a mark. Perhaps Machu Picchu was built by one Inca as a place of retreat, while Choquequirao was built by a subsequent Emperor as his own "Machu Picchu"?
Jorge had never been to Choquequirao before so he came along with us the next morning. After Miguel gave us a tour of the ruins, he and Jorge went to see the Llamas of the Sun, while Ruth and I continued looking around the main ruins. The most important buildings are located on the main plaza while behind them, beside the water channel, steps lead to an Upper Plaza, with many more impressive structures. Before leaving we hiked down to the terraces on the east side of Choquequirao, a steep descent via the campsite all the way down to the spectacular rows of terracing. This again is an impressive site with fantastic views. When it came to
building cities, it seems the view was often the main criterion for the Incas.
We stayed at Choquequirao as long as possible but we had to move on at 12pm as we still had lunch and a 17km hike ahead of us. Having to return along the same path was the only negative point of the tour for me - though as the alternative was a 5 day hike to Aguas Calientes, perhaps I shouldn't complain too much! On the way back we met Miguel's former teacher taking a class of tour guides on the trek. It was interesting to hear Miguel describe his studies. His course lasted 3 years and in that time visit all the sites and do all the hikes around Cusco. Sounds like a lot more fun than my classes in University. But it's very hard work and he rarely has a day off. He had hiked the Inca Trail with one group just before our tour, and the day after we returned he would be taking another group on the Inca Jungle Trail.
We returned to Chiquisika that night, just before nightfall, and had the luxury of a first shower in 3 days.
She followed us to the ruins and back to Marumpata on both days.
Never mind that it was outdoors or that it was cold; after 57 km hiking it was very much required! The final day was a reverse of Day 1, a 19km hike with a steep ascent to Mirador Capuliyoc, with the final 11km along flattish ground. On the way back we both agreed to do no more treks for at least a week as this trek had really taken it out of us. But it was worth it for the privilege of seeing the ancient Inca city, travelling the same paths the Inca's themselves would have used, not to mention later explorers like Hiram Bingham. In the next 10 years it's possible there will be a road to Choquequirao, and Cachora might become another Aguas Calientes. So my advise to anyone is to go see Choquequirao now before the crowds!
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