Everyone’s heard of Machu Pichu. It’s one of the seven wonders of the world and a not-to-be-missed place on everyone’s bucket list. But few have heard of a mystical place called Choquequiaro. Choque is a rambling site of Incan ruins the size of Machu Pichu but that have been left mostly unexcavated (only 40% of the 1800 hectares has been excavated). There’s no road to Choque, only a grueling 2 day hike with nearly 6,000ft of elevation gain on Day 2. However, as my mother always used to say (and probably still does when she parks as far away from the grocery store as possible) “you could use the exercise.” And if there was ever a good reason for exercising, Choque is it.
Choquequirao means “cradle of gold” in Quechua and was discovered late in the 20th century. It’s considered one of the “lost Incan cities.” It sits on a ridge 3085m (10,121ft) above sea level, looking down upon the raging glacier fed Apurimac river. A number of snow covered sacred mountains, or apus, including Salkantay ring the site. Choque is best known for being one of the final bastions of refuge for the last “Son of the Sun,” Manco Inca Yupanqui.
According to the tourism office, “Choquequirao was probably one of the entrance check points to the Vilcabamba, and also an administrative hub serving political, social and economic functions. Its urban design has followed the symbolic patterns of the imperial capital, with ritual places dedicated to the Sun (Inti) and the ancestors, to the earth, water and other divinities, with mansions for administrators and houses for artisans, warehouses, large dormitories or kallankas and farming terraces belonging to the Inca or the local people. Spreading over 700 meters, the ceremonial area drops as much as 65 meters from the elevated areas to the main square.”
Long story short this hike was incredible. I love a good walk in the nature but this one combined spectacular mountain passes with wildflower filled river valleys with ancient Incan ruins that rival Machu Pichu. Not so shabby.
Day 1: We leave at 4 am in a cushy private van. Definitely worth the extra money for convenience and comfort. We get to Cachora by 10 and after meeting our first 2 mules and our friendly ariero, Angel, we head off on the trail! I manage to fall and hurt my knee within 10 minutes. Angel seems unfazed but I’m sure was wondering what kind of lame gringo group he’s managed to get stuck with. We walk along a dusty road for a while and then finally hit a small town where we start the big descent into the river valley where we’ll camp. The scenery is already spectacular with snow capped mountains rising high above our tiny river thousands of feet below. On the way down we get to see a condor up close and Angel claims the condor is circling where it is so it can eat a nearby baby cow. Not sure if I believe that one…
We finally reach our camp just as the sun is setting. In a typically Peruvian manner (aka if you’re a bit overweight it’s neither rude nor frowned upon for others to observe that you’re “gordito” or a “chancho(pig)”) Angel informs us that we’re really very slow and we’ll have to leave earlier than expected the next morning in order to make it to our next campsite. The bridge across the river collapsed sometime last year so we’ll be taking a basket on a wire across in the morning. Since the mules can’t cross in the basket Angel will be crossing the river after dinner, hiking uphill 6,000ft, finding us new mules and bringing them back down by 8am the next morning so they’ll be waiting and ready to go. Quality service. While Angel takes off across the river we all cluster around a huge tarantula Paul has found until we all get scared enough to run off to our respective tents.
Day 2: A tasty brekkie of oatmeal has us up and ready to go by 7:30. We gather our belongings, make an acceptable amount of sugar water and head off to the river to try our luck with the basket. Mieke and Tucker go first leaving Paul, Lindsey and I in the next basket. As we pile into this rickety metal contraption strung high above a raging river the man tells us the basket really only holds 2 people and when questioned further about our chances of making it across we get an “ojalla! (I hope!) Ciao!” as he pushes us off.
We all make it across safely and begin our first big climb of the trip. It takes us only a few hours to make it up the climb which ends up really being rather steep. We end up in a little town called Marampata and from this sunny lunch spot we can see the ruins of Choque just a few km away! We lounge about the pretty terraces (actually the terraces of the childhood home of Angel, our trusty ariero) knitting, chatting and eating. Unbeknownst to us at the time we are being eaten ourselves. By Moscas. Tons of tiny black flies that leave a spot of blood and a huge, itchy welt. We begin to notice each other swelling and Tucker even drops a very diplomatic, “Mieke, I think there’s something wrong with your face.” We take off, surrounded by a cloud of deet, trying to make it to Choque in one piece. We finally make it to the campsite below the ruins where we enjoy a lovely dinner of peanut sauce pasta (gado gado – a crowd favorite) and a few rounds of Uno as the sun goes down on the ruins behind us. I would love to say I could barely sleep from excitement but really I just couldn’t sleep because we had placed our tent right in front of a gurgling water pipe.
Day 3: Choque and Mieke’s 24th birthday! We have a lazy morning complete with a stellar breakfast to ring in Mieke’s birthday: beer pancakes with a mango banana compote. Yum. The beer takes the place of eggs and makes for light and fluffy pancakes. After brekkie we head up to the ruins and spend the day exploring. The ruins are only about 30-40% excavated but what is there is spectacular. There were only 2 other tourists in the site for our entire day and it was incredible to have such a site all to yourself and your imagination. We trekked all over and had lots of fun.
And finally, my best jumping picture to date:
By the end of the day we were all a bit ruined out and headed back for a birthday dinner of cheesy salty fish pasta (turns out the lady had not given me tuna like I had asked for but an array of canned salty fish instead. Whoops!) and a dessert of s’mores complete with dark chocolate, marshmallows and homemade graham crackers that somehow survived the trip. We also had celebratory mulled cider with rum which was lovely and super tasty.
Day 4: Onward! Today is supposed to be a fairly short day with day 5 being humongous, with an elevation gain of nearly 10,000ft in one climb. Hoping to break that climb into 2 days we book it as fast as we can to try and make it to the midway town of Maisal. Starting with a steady climb that leads to a big descent we were in the river valley by 1, cutting Angel’s time estimate in half. Slow! Ha! Not us!
Reaching the river so early gives us plenty of time to climb uphill for another 3 hours and make it to Maisal with about an hour of sunlight to spare. The campsite is what appears to be the home of a nice older quechua couple who have an entire zoo living in their front yard. Our attempts to buy a chicken or some eggs are quickly rejected by her. Alas. Looks like it’s bolognese pasta made with carne de soya. Still quite tasty and we have plenty of time to sit outside and look at the constellations with Angel. Fun fact: apparently Incan constellations are based on the dark spaces between the stars rather than the stars themselves. Then we play the longest game of Uno ever played.
Day 5: Onward and upward! The day starts with deep fried cheesy wontons but quickly changes to a steady climb to the pass. The top signals the end of the 10,000ft climb. Huzzah! We make it to the pass and then descend through an incredibly beautiful valley to a town called Yanama. We camp in a pretty little spot by the river where Mieke and I spend time knitting while the others play frisbee. Unfortunately, in an attempt to pass the frisbee, Lindsey chucked it off a cliff. Even after 2 hours of searching our frisbee/ cutting board/ plate was gone.
Day 6: We wake up early, buy 15 eggs and make a super tasty and energy filled scramble. Filled with eggs and feeling excited about getting on the road we pack up and head off! However, we happened to ask Angel about our route for the day and he deigns to inform us that we’re a day ahead of schedule and if we head to the next town today we’ll end our trip a day early. Wanting to make the most of our time in the beautiful Choque valley we decide to just kick it for another day in Yanama. We move camps to one farther down the valley and right on the edge of the roaring river and then spend the day exploring the area around Yanama. We try to see the glacier but it remains shrouded in cloud and refuses to show itself to us. We head back to a lazy day at camp and then rally as the sun goes down to make some more salty fish pasta followed by a roaring camp fire and the rest of our s’mores. S’mores, good friends, and a roaring fire really make it easy to think you could spend the rest of your life camping.
Day 7: Our second to last day on the trail. The morning starts with a mellow climb followed by a long, flat hike to our next site. A bird tries to kill me by dropping a rock on my head but I miraculously survive after the rock lands a few feet away. The terrain quickly changes from alpine to jungle and the weather follows suit, starting with a light mist and changing to a full on shower as we continue on. We reach our next camp early and after thinking we might have to camp under a roof and on hard stones the weather begins to clear and we not only get to move our tents back outdoors but have time to wander around and explore the valley as well. Spectacular as it was on the way in, the crazy rock spires and giant boulders littering the meadow are even better under a radiant blue sky.
Day 8: Last day! A delicious pb&j oatmeal starts us off right (we made our own peanut butter and put honey and bee pollen in it!) and we pack up our stuff for the last time. After asking Angel where we should go and getting the usual “directo! arriba!” with arms pointing in seemingly useless circles we promptly get lost and hike around the old morraines for a while until we finally get our bearings and find the big stone trail that will take us to the pass. Just an hour or so off schedule. One last uphill on said cool stone path took us to the last pass of our trip and from there we started downhill on an old Incan trail (no mules allowed!). The trail was beautiful and took us all the way to a road which took us the final leg to Huancancalle.
We made it to Huancancalle after many an hour of bajaring, got in a too small vehicle for too much money and started the long trip home. 6 hours of terrifying curvy roads later we arrived back in Ollanta. It was dark, the lights in the plaza were casting a warm and cozy glow and Ollanta denizens meandered lazily around. We headed straight to our favorite pollo place where we each got a quarter chicken and some french fries over which we regaled in how nice it felt to be back in our cozy Ollanta while reliving the adventures of 8 day choque all over again.