Earlier this month SA Expeditions’ founder and Chief Explorer Nick Stanziano shared a real-time adventure through the highlights in Cusco, the Sacred Valley of the Inca and Machu Picchu. Nick also embarked on the ‘Trek Less Traveled’ when he took a three-day trek to the oft-forgotten Inca citadel at Choquequirao – hidden among the cloud forests of southern Peru.
In 1911, Yale historian Hiram Bingham stumbled upon a lost city on a mountaintop in the cloud forest of Southern Peru. The scientific discovery of Machu Picchu – published in National Geographic in 1912 – changed not only the course of the small magazine, but also shared with the world for the first time, the wonders of the Inca Empire.
Machu Picchu since has conjured up wanderlust for dreamers and travelers the world over, attracting millions of people to walk among its polished stone walls. Half temple and half administrative center, the Inca citadel at Machu Picchu is part of a larger network of cities and roads that spanned much of western South America.
So, we begin here in Machu Picchu, where we will be taking a real-time, seven day journey through the Inca heartland to Cusco, the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu’s sister city at Choquequirao. We want to celebrate the majesty of Machu Picchu, without forgetting that there are other off-the-beaten path Inca citadels and trails tucked away in the high jungles of Southern Peru that beg to be explored.
The fertile and temperate Urubamba valley was the playground for the Inca royal class. After the Spanish conquest of Peru in 1532, the most illustrious and powerful conquistadors seized these same lands and palaces from the Inca kings, placing their symbols of Catholicism atop prized Inca shrines. It was only the remoteness of Machu Picchu, located 50 miles further along the Urubamba River in the high jungles, that concealed its existence from the Spanish.
The Sacred Valley is watched over by the stunning Vilcanota mountain range, reaching nearly 20,000 feet, topped with glaciers that still cling on in an era of climate change. The terraced salt mines of Maras sit tucked in a small canyon where a salty spring yields mineral-rich pink salt that has been a precious ingredient for both Inca kings and the top chefs in Peru’s modern day capital city of Lima.
And what better way to see it all than by mountain bike, taking in the wide vistas and Andean culture up close. It was a day that began in the small community of Cruzpata, before dropping 3,500 feet through Tiobamba, Maras and eventually the valley floor at the Pachar bridge.
Tomorrow, we leave two wheels behind and begin on foot, trekking to the Inca citadel at Choquequirao.
The village of Cachora across the Apurimac river serves as base camp of sorts, where the mules are gathered and equipment is prepared for trek to the Inca Citadel of Choquequirao. Choquequirao which means “cradle of gold” in the local language of Quechua, was never found nor sacked by the Spanish Conquistadors in the early 1500s. It wasn’t until the 1800s when explorers began looking for the last Inca capital of Vilcambamba, that interest in the site as a plausible candidate began to show in documents.
Hiram Bingham first came to Choquequirao in 1909, on his quest to find the last Inca Capital, which he erroneously named Machu Picchu after his discovery of that ruin a few years later. Our trek to the site today saw us descend 6,000 feet to the Apurimac River, before climbing another 5,000 to the village of Marapata at 9,500 feet.
The grueling eleven-mile hike through a steep Andean canyon took the entire day, but there were touches of comfort in between: a three-course lunch as well as dinner on the trail. Our mule drivers who double as cooks and camp assistants also made sure the coca tea was hot and that our tents were set up on arrival to camp. We’ve found ourselves immersed in an Andean world at Marapata, perched on Inca terraces and gazing out at glaciated mountains in the distance.
Choquequirao looks closer than ever on the next ridge over and we’re excited to enter the ruins tomorrow morning.
By mid-morning, massive Inca terraces appeared from out of the cloud forest. We had arrived to the Inca City of Choquequirao, a mountaintop citadel that overlooks the Apurimac river in southeastern Peru. It is said that Choquequirao is seven times larger than its sister city at Machu Picchu just across the Vilcabamba range, with only fifteen percent of the citadel recovered from the jungle so far.
We entered the main plaza of the ruin that sits on a mountain saddle with sprawling views of deep hot canyons that rise into glaciated peaks over 20,000 feet. Dropping down the from the plaza in a nearly vertical staircase, we reached a set of terraces with 24 figures of llamas and a shepherd, made by white stones within rock terraces. It’s a mind-boggling use of a cliffside perched 4,000 feet above a massive river.
Choquequirao’s popularity has increased in recent years, but it still sees a fraction of visitors that Machu Picchu does. Exploring Choquequirao takes you right into an Indiana Jones movie, where instead of using a leather whip to save yourself from the abyss, your use trekking poles as the last tool between you and impending doom.
Choquequirao occupies an entire mountaintop, built from the bottom up, with endless Inca terraces that still fend off landslides 600 years later. The Inca built their cities both as functional fortresses of warfare and trade, but they also found the time to interact in a seemingly playful manner with the natural surroundings. Their religion centered around the sun, moon and mountains which meant that everything they did had to respect and incorporate their deities’ presence. Whether it was a temple of the sun to mark the solstices or a carved stone to mimic a mountain skyline, nature was center to their belief system.
The temple of the waterfall at Choquequirao, among one of the most spectacular sets of Inca terraces anywhere, reminds you again that nature was the defining force in their architecture. In our morning visit, we were completely alone, left to consider how a society tucked away from the wider world until the arrival of Europeans in 1532, thrived with technology that was equivalent to the iron age.
Western society and religion is centered around the conquering of nature, whereas Andean societies – exemplified by the Inca empire at its peak – were about working within natural systems. Three hundred years after the beginning of the industrial revolution, western society is only now beginning to understand the limitations of its belief structure.
Visiting Choquequirao will bring you just a little closer to such an enlightened idea.
After descending out of the mountains, it took us an entire day to get back to the capital of the Inca empire at Cusco. We went via the village of Huanipaca, stopping at the Villa de Los Loros lodge which is a beautiful oasis in a rural valley across from Choquequirao. It’s the perfect way to turn the trek to the ruins into a circuit, instead of having to return to Cachora, the same way we came in.
At its height, Cusco was the capital to the most advanced society in South America, like Rome was to the western world. After the Spanish conquest of the Incas in the 16th century, the city lay largely forgotten for 400 years – until the 20th century when transportation and communication allowed the masses to visit and consider its importance to humanity. In the 21st century, it has become a beacon for any jet-setting traveler looking to visit the world’s most important places.
Cusco today still embodies the most impressive and monumental architecture of the Inca, and its contemporary citizens harbor the cultural legacy of the empire of their ancestors. Today, the foundations of Inca palaces serve as the cornerstones of Catholic churches, and travelers from all over the world now walk its cobblestone streets. Cusco is the hub through which you have to pass for any exploration into the Inca hinterland, and it will be waiting like it has for hundreds of years for those intrepid explorers to come and unlock its secrets.
Our expedition ends here…Until our next adventure to the wonders of South America!
Photo credits: Nicholas Gildemeister, Nick Stanziano and Kevin Floerke.