Cho­que­quario, lost city in the clouds

Cho­que­quirao is truly the lost city of the In­cas and lit­tle sis­ter to the more well known Machu Picchu. Whilst this site is new to the tourist map, Gary Ziegler has been ex­plor­ing the area for over twenty years

Timeless Travels Magazine - - CONTENTS -

The first rays of morn­ing sun­light il­lu­mi­nate the great stone al­tar, stream­ing through a square open­ing over my head. “Inti ca­mac su­mac” chants the priest. Soaked in sweat, I fight the bind­ings hold­ing me to the stone as the grin­ning, loom­ing, scar­let-cloaked fig­ure slowly brings down a gleam­ing, blood­stained bronze knife to­ward my heav­ing chest. “Jefe, buenos dias - cafe” ? Star­tled sud­denly awake, I thank­fully greet a smil­ing Pan­cho, our camp cook hand­ing a cup of wake up cof­fee through the tent door. Whew - I make a silent oath to my­self to avoid the sec­ond round of Pis­cos that we had passed around the camp­fire last night.

We are on our way back to the mys­te­ri­ous and mag­nif­i­cent, moun­tain Inca city that has been the fo­cus of my re­search and ex­plo­rations in the re­mote cloud-forested An­des of Peru for many years and nu­mer­ous ex­pe­di­tions. I am trav­el­ling with an in­ter­est­ing group of ethno-botanists. Our ob­jec­tive is to iden­tify plants and trees that may have been in­tro­duced by the Inca res­i­dents and may still live on in the tan­gled veg­e­ta­tion sur­round­ing the re­cently cleared stone walls and build­ings.

There is al­ways some­thing more to learn at the Inca’s sec­ond Machu Picchu.

The Inca royal es­tate and cer­e­mo­nial com­plex, Cho­que­quirao is perched ma­jes­ti­cally at 9,800 feet of el­e­va­tion on a cloud-forested ridge of a glaciated 17,700 foot peak.

The tra­di­tion­ally sa­cred, Apuri­mac River, re­port­edly the long­est headwater source of the Ama­zon, roars through a deep canyon some 5000 feet be­low. The site lies 61 miles west of Cusco in the rugged, re­mote Vil­cabamba range of the Peru­vian An­des, far dis­tant from roads, trains and the tourist hordes that mob Cho­que­quirao’s fa­mous sis­ter es­tate, Machu Picchu.

Lost city

Cho­que­quirao re­mains one of the great, re­ward­ing travel des­ti­na­tions of the Amer­i­cas which still re­tains some of the ex­cite­ment and dis­cov­ery ex­pe­ri­ence of the past.

It is a truly ‘lost city’ aban­doned some­time around 1572 when the hold­out last Inca ruler, Tu­pac Amaru was cap­tured in the dis­tant jun­gles, dragged back to Cusco and ex­e­cuted by Span­ish colo­nial author­i­ties. The an­cient houses, tem­ples, canals and walls were soon re­claimed by the silent, green, primeval for­est only to be re­dis­cov­ered and re­vealed in re­cent times. Lo­cated on the far, un­pop­u­lated and ge­o­graph­i­cally hos­tile side of the im­mense Apuri­mac Canyon, the re­gion re­mained dis­con­nected from the farms, vil­lages and roads of de­vel­op­ing Peru.

It is lit­tle known that Yale pro­fes­sor Hi­ram Bing­ham, the now fa­mous sci­en­tific dis­cov­erer of Machu Picchu in 1911, was inspired to launch his re­turn to Peru and ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ex­plo­rations af­ter a visit to Cho­que­quirao in 1909. Bing­ham vis­ited Cho­que­quirao twice, the sec­ond time with a crew of sur­vey­ors, car­tog­ra­phers and spe­cial­ists to pro­duce the first map and sci­en­tific de­scrip­tion.

Dur­ing the early 1990s, the Peru­vian gov­ern­ment took an in­ter­est, be­gin­ning

a care­ful ar­chae­o­log­i­cal and restora­tion pro­ject that con­tin­ues to­day. In 1995, a new trail and foot bridge cross­ing the Apuri­mac was com­pleted giv­ing more ac­cess to ad­ven­tur­ous trav­ellers and pack horse sup­ported, small tour groups con­tribut­ing to the in­come and em­ploy­ment of en­ter­pris­ing lo­cal fam­i­lies.

The pre­vi­ous year I had ar­rived for the first time with a film­ing ex­pe­di­tion, re­open­ing the long, multi-day trail across the rugged high­lands from Machu Picchu with picks, shov­els and ma­chetes. Now twenty years later, I am re­turn­ing yet again to con­tem­plate Cho­que­quirao’s mys­ter­ies and match­less beauty, trekking in by the shorter, two day route from the road head near the com­mu­nity of Ca­chora.

Univer­sity of Colorado archeoas­tronomer, Kim Malville and I re­cently pub­lished my life’s work in the An­des and our stud­ies to­gether of Cho­que­quirao in a new book en­ti­tled Machu Picchu’s Sa­cred Sis­ter’s, Cho­que­quirao and Llac­ta­p­ata. The book fo­cuses on sim­i­lar­i­ties with Machu Picchu con­clud­ing that Cho­que­quirao was mod­elled and geo-cos­mi­cally lo­cated af­ter its older cer­e­mo­nial sis­ter.

We de­scribe our col­lec­tive find­ings and con­tri­bu­tions of col­leagues in de­tail with a few ad­ven­tures thrown in from jour­neys as well. The chap­ters cover main and out­ly­ing groups, ar­chi­tec­tural fea­tures, con­struc­tion tech­niques, prob­a­ble us­age, func­tion and how the Inca de­sign in­cor­po­rates An­dean as­tron­omy and the sa­cred land­scape.

In brief, we sug­gest that Cho­que­quirao was de­signed and con­structed dur­ing the reign of the Inca, Topa Yu­panki, some­time in the late 15th cen­tury, mod­elled af­ter his fa­ther, Pachachuti’s es­tate, Machu Picchu.

Topa Inca’s own Machu Picchu

Topa Inca had Cho­que­quirao built as his own Machu Picchu. Ex­pe­ri­ence from field in­ves­ti­ga­tions in­di­cates Inca mon­u­men­tal sites were care­fully planned and de­signed ac­cord­ing to as­tro­nom­i­cal align­ments, pre­cisely placed in re­la­tion­ship to sa­cred rivers, moun­tains, and ce­les­tial phe­nom­ena. Cho­que­quirao fits this view. It was uniquely lo­cated at a con­ver­gence of sa­cred ter­rain fea­tures with ce­les­tial events most im­por­tant to the Inca state re­li­gion and An­dean tra­di­tion, in par­tic­u­lar, the June and De­cem­ber sol­stices.

Like Machu Picchu, im­por­tant, high-sta­tus con­struc­tion is cen­tred on a ridge top with a higher moun­tain be­hind and a lower dis­tinc­tive promon­tory in front with a sa­cred river flow­ing be­low in view. Each hosts a se­ries of foun­tains or baths pass­ing through ridge top groups.

Dur­ing the height of the Inca em­pire, 1450-1526, both Cho­que­quirao and Machu Picchu would likely have served as a pro­vin­cial ad­min­is­tra­tive cen­tre. There is rea­son­able ev­i­dence

Only a few hun­dred visit dur­ing the dry sea­son as com­pared to more than two thou­sand daily at Machu Picchu

that Machu Picchu and Cho­que­quirao may have also pro­vided a sea­sonal pil­grim­age des­ti­na­tion for re­gional state-spon­sored cer­e­mo­nial events.

It is easy to en­vi­sion a great pro­ces­sion of corn beer, chica drink­ing pil­grims singing and chant­ing, conchs blow­ing, melodic flutes for­lornly play­ing, drums re­ver­ber­at­ing from the canyon walls as the outer gate is ap­proached. Pots and cups are rit­u­ally bro­ken and of­fer­ings, borne in for the moun­tain spir­its, apus, are piled about as the cer­e­mony starts, care­fully chore­ographed by richly dressed at­ten­dant priests.

Ev­i­dence that coca was widely grown, coca store houses, llama pens and a unique llama train mu­ral, sup­port Cho­que­quirao as an im­por­tant coca grow­ing and dis­tri­bu­tion cen­tre. In­ten­sive cul­ti­va­tion, on­go­ing con­struc­tion and main­te­nance would have re­quired a large res­i­dent pop­u­la­tion.

Re­mains of a large set­tle­ment of sim­ple, round, wood dwellings con­tained by low stone walls is si­t­u­ated on a sev­eral square mile area above an out­ly­ing tem­ple wa­ter shrine, Pin­chaunuyoc. These would have housed the needed work­ers well away from priv­i­leged res­i­dent Inca ad­min­is­tra­tors, at­ten­dants, and main group tem­ples.

Vis­it­ing Cho­que­quirao

One of the re­wards of vis­it­ing Cho­que­quirao is that it has re­mained well off the beaten path. Only a few hun­dred visit dur­ing the dry sea­son as com­pared to more than two thou­sand daily at Machu Picchu. Ar­riv­ing by the short­est route re­quires two days of stren­u­ous hik­ing.

De­scend­ing into the deep Apuri­mac then back up some 4,500 feet to reach the site is like cross­ing Ari­zona's Grand Canyon.

One ei­ther car­ries a heavy back­pack or hires lo­cal pack­ers to bring the needed sup­plies with horses or mules. The best so­lu­tion is to sign on with one of the Cusco based trekking agen­cies that regularly take small groups of 2-6 there dur­ing the dry sea­son months of April into De­cem­ber.

It is pos­si­ble to ride a horse most of the way but good horses are hard to come by. Most of the lo­cal packer stock is not up to stan­dards of safety and de­pend­abil­ity nor well cared for. Some

trekking agen­cies are mar­ginal. A good test is the cost. If it seems re­ally cheap there is a rea­son. Care­fully re­search­ing and check­ing ref­er­ences be­fore sign­ing on is rec­om­mended.

Trav­el­ling from Cusco, al­low the bet­ter part of a day to ar­rive at Ca­chora. As of this writ­ing, it takes five to six hours. The high­way ac­cess regularly slides away with slow, re­pair-cre­ated de­tours and hosts in­creas­ing heavy truck traf­fic. Some of the route has re­turned to pot holes and ex­treme dust. No so­lu­tion has ap­peared to solve these de­lays. Highways can't be built to hold on steep, un­sta­ble, An­dean moun­tain slopes. Of course the Inca knew this and care­fully placed their foot and pack llama-trav­elled roads up, down and around where mod­ern roads won't work.

The Ca­chora road turns off the mostly-paved Cen­tral high­way just past the Inca mon­u­ment, Sai­huite to wind down sev­eral thou­sand feet to the com­mu­nity. There are a few small, rus­tic places to stay with ba­sic An­dean food; chicken, soups and beer.

The small com­mu­nity of Ca­chora is set in a lush, broad val­ley lead­ing down to an im­mensely steep drop to the Apuri­mac River. Agri­cul­ture and travel in the val­ley goes back to pre-Inca times. The present colo­nial-pe­riod com­mu­nity was es­tab­lished as a part of Her­nando Pizarro's hold­ings or en­comienda in the mid 1500s. Life here was pretty much un­changed un­til the Maoist ter­ror­ist group, Sen­dero Lu­mi­noso took vi­o­lent con­trol in the 1980s. Many vil­lagers with train­ing or ed­u­ca­tion were rounded up and ex­e­cuted as a pre­lim­i­nary to es­tab­lish­ing ab­so­lute con­trol.

I heard these hor­ror sto­ries when vis­it­ing there just af­ter gov­ern­ment troops and na­tional po­lice evicted the Sen­deros fol­low­ing the cap­ture of Sen­dero leader Abi­mael Guz­man in 1992. Work at Cho­que­quirao and grow­ing tourism has put the com­mu­nity back on track.

Two day trek

Although se­ri­ous trekkers can reach the camp at Cho­que­quirao in one hor­ren­dous, long day, two days is the rea­son­able norm. A min­i­mum of six days should be al­lowed for a visit and round trip from Ca­chora. The usu­ally well-main­tained trail fol­lows along the rim of the Apuri­mac canyon with con­sid­er­able up and down be­fore fi­nally drop­ping steeply to the river and bridge.

There are two suit­able places to camp. The first is high up be­fore the drop to the river. Some­one has built a cou­ple of shel­ters there, cold showers and piped in wa­ter. There are am­ple, flat places for tents.

Usu­ally some­one is there to sell beer or Inca Kola. The sec­ond camp is at the river. The gov­ern­ment agency, COPESCO built a struc­ture for hous­ing work­ers while build­ing the bridge. As of this writ­ing it has been ren­o­vated and is ser­vice­able. There are plenty of tent sites and one can cool off in the river. It is hot at an al­ti­tude of around 5000 feet.

The veg­e­ta­tion looks like Sono­ran Desert, cac­tus and thorny aca­cia trees. Small bit­ing gnats lurk in am­bush so bring re­pel­lant, long sleeves and a clos­able tent. The trail switch­backs steeply up af­ter the bridge, climb­ing steadily un­til ar­riv­ing at Cho­que­quirao. Sev­eral small farms, chacras, are passed along the way and higher up are small clus­ters of houses, fields and cor­rals. A camp­site with wa­ter and a la­trine has been built about an hour or so from the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal com­plex where one can camp for a small fee.

Just be­fore reach­ing the edge of the des­ig­nated zone, the gov­ern­ment INC, now re­named the Min­istry of Cul­ture, (MC), has placed a small toll booth where a fee is col­lected. As of our last visit, it was forty Soles which is prob­a­bly jus­ti­fied by the new camp­ing site with flush toi­lets and a cold wa­ter shower house. From the camp, It is easy to fol­low the path­ways around the main groups which are marked by signs.

Upon ar­rival at Cho­que­quirao, one should al­low sev­eral days to ex­plore the site and visit the two most im­por­tant out­ly­ing groups. Our guide book, Machu Picchu’s Sa­cred Sis­ters, will help to iden­tify the struc­tures and align­ments of the var­i­ous build­ings, walls and fea­tures. Lla­mayoc, the Ilama mu­ral, can be seen in an hour or two as it is close down from the Lower Plaza.

Vis­it­ing the dis­tant groups of Ca­pul­lyoc, Hur­in­can­cha or the Casa de Cas­cada may re­quire a guide. Pin­chaunuyoc, sev­eral miles away, re­quires sev­eral thou­sand feet of climb­ing down and back up for a round trip. The wa­ter­fall group, Casa de Cas­cada uses up the bet­ter part of a day to visit and re­turn. Both are well worth the time.

Head­ing for Cusco

The flora study com­pleted we are home­ward bound. The day breaks bright and clear, de­spe­jado as we say in the equa­to­rial An­des. Af­ter a bril­liant An­dean sunrise, our sunrise pho­tog­ra­phers re­turn and camp is packed. All mount the rested, en­er­gised horses to trot cheer­fully along good, near-level, trail travers­ing high above the roar­ing Apuri­mac River be­low. Later to­day, we must de­scend to the river and cross on a sway­ing ca­ble-sus­pended box. Some seem to greet this ex­pec­ta­tion with lim­ited en­thu­si­asm.

To­day’s jour­ney is com­pa­ra­ble to a cross­ing of the Grand Canyon but by now all are fit and com­fort­able with long des­cents and slow, steady climbs. We ride what we can but like me, some walked much of the way, par­tic­u­larly on steep dif­fi­cult trail. Any­way, it is good to have a trusty, calm mount to hop on when the need moves you. More, we carry no bur­den­some day packs or gear which is stashed in the sad­dle bags trav­el­ling nearby when needed.

I travel light, wear­ing run­ning shoes with legs pro­tected for rid­ing by leather gaiters called in the rid­ing trade, half chaps. These serve well for hik­ing through brush and snake coun­try as well. Sev­eral hours travel down­hill places us at the trail’s end, bridge abut­ments with for­lornly sag­ging ca­bles and alas, no floor­ing. The bridge is gone.

An im­mense rock slide had dammed up the Apuri­mac just down­river, cre­at­ing a dam which backed up wa­ter to the bridge, de­stroy­ing plank­ing and lower sup­ports. Cho­que­quirao was ef­fec­tively closed ex­cept for hardy trav­ellers com­ing and go­ing by the long ar­du­ous route in and out via Yanama or by the swing­ing ca­ble car. This re­flects mil­len­nia of hard life in the An­des. It has never been easy and the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment is cruel to the care­less or un­for­tu­nate. Civil­i­sa­tions have come and gone here, even for the priv­i­leged.

We are happy to just cross the river on what­ever means avail­able. That means is an oroya, a long ca­ble and a small box-like con­trap­tion at­tached on pul­leys with a pull rope to haul one across above the rag­ing rapids. Our trusted horses and pack stock are nec­es­sar­ily left be­hind. New mounts, sturdy mules and sad­dle horses await us on

Cho­que­quirao re­mains one of the great, re­ward­ing travel des­ti­na­tions... which still re­tains some of the ex­cite­ment and dis­cov­ery ex­pe­ri­ence of the past

the far bank if we suc­cess­fully sur­vive the ca­ble cross­ing which I can hap­pily re­port we do.

We face bond­ing with a new wran­gler crew and un­known new equines but, this is the stuff of ad­ven­ture. All rise ad­mirably to the oc­ca­sion.

We are soon shar­ing tales in a com­fort­able camp some dis­tance up from the boggy river bot­tom on an an­cient, pre-Inca, breezy plateau with run­ning wa­ter and bot­tled beer, re­cently de­vel­oped as a tourist en­camp­ment. They even have a flush toi­let marginally in op­er­a­tion although sev­eral of us opt for the nearby woods. In any case, the lo­cal mosquitos rel­ish the op­por­tu­nity for ex­posed bot­toms.

Enough time in the wilds - “the bright lights of Cusco are shin­ing like di­a­monds, like ten thou­sand jewels in the sky”.

The next morn­ing, we mount up or strike out walk­ing. It is a mere four thou­sand feet up hill and ten miles to our await­ing trans­port near the vil­lage of Ca­chora. We get it done with­out mishap. Evening finds us en­joy­ing a late meal in Cusco’s favourite pub, noted Bri­tish or­nithol­o­gist Barry Walker’s Cross Keys. It was a great, suc­cess­ful ad­ven­ture…

Maybe I will have that sec­ond Pisco?

Main group of houses at Sac­er­dotes

View of fab­u­lous Llama ter­race

Hurin tem­ple with gate­way lead­ing to the Usnu hill

Map show­ing Vil­cabamba area and sites (Ziegler)_

View of Cho­que­quirao from xxxx Elite res­i­dences at Cho­que­quirao

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