Machu Picchu may well be firmly on the tourist map, but the Inca heartland around Cusco is scattered with ancient, lost cities as isolated today as they ever were. No trains, no hordes, no hotels, no restaurants here...
The ruins of Choquequirao are one such place - a huge complex built, once again, high on mountain saddle at over 3,000 metres altitude (the Incas obviously didn't like building "easy" stuff...). The complex is as large as, if not larger than, Machu Picchu, and it has been only partially excavated and restored. Getting to Choquequirao is not the simplest of tasks, and although some very
hardy souls attempt the 62 kilometre, four-day return trek by themselves, it's easier to join a group from Cusco. Demand is so low that getting a group together can be something of a challenge, but I strike it lucky - an Englishwoman and two Belgians are to join me on this famously challenging hike.
Joined by our voluble guide Alex we set off on a public bus westwards out of Cusco towards the village of San Pedro de Cachora, a 160 km, three hour drive along (once again) vertiginously twisty roads. After lunch in Cachora
A day's hike...
The tiny red dots indicate the path down from Capuliyoc (2900m) down towards the Apurimac river (1500m)...it's even tougher than it looks. Imagine the way back up!
we load our camping gear and provisions onto a pair of mules under the watchful eye of Don Mariano, our arriero
or horseman. And off we go...
. The walk to Choquequirao is without doubt the hardest hike I've done so far on this trip. And, in fact, the hardest I've done in my life so far (yes, Cotopaxi was harder, but it wasn't a hike). The horizontal distance, 62km, is one thing. The desniveles
, or vertical distances, are quite another. In the 48 hours of the walk, we descend from the Mirador de Capuliyoc (2,900 metres) to the Río Apurímac (1,500 metres) - which we cross using a rather frightening pulley-cart, the bridge having been washed away months ago by a flood - and back up to the ruins of Choquequirao themselves, at 3,000 metres. That's almost three vertical kilometres...and it all has to be done in reverse as well, on the way out. The path is, at times, dizzingly steep, zig-zagging exhaustingly up and down hillsides (on a trail like this one, going downhill is almost as bad as, and occasionally worse than, going up). Much of the trail is plagued by biblical proportion of tiny
sandflies which you can barely see and definitely not feel - as if sucking your blood isn't enough, they leave behind hideously itchy welts which don't go down for days and days. My clothing-dissolving 80% DEET gel hardly seems to work. The climbs, under the pounding tropical sun, are brutal. The blood is there - goodness knows how much I've donated to those wretched flies. The sweat most certainly is. And we all, I think, are crying a little bit inside at times.
But, as for Machu Picchu, the sight of the Inca citadel of Choquequirao perched high above the Apurímac gorge and almost completely swallowed by thick jungle, makes all that slog worthwhile. The ruins of Choquequirao are truly spectacular, with huge blocks of steep terraces tumbling down towards the river below, beautifully-preserved buildings, doorways and ceremonial platforms. And, unlike Machu Picchu, we have the entire citadel to ourselves. Magical.
And I'll tell you another thing: I'm not doing any hiking again for quite some time
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