Trek deep into the heart of Peru to find a for­got­ten In­can refuge.

Backpacker - - Contents - By Maren Hor­jus

Hike into the past on this trek to the In­cas’ last refuge.

I’VE BEEN HIK­ING for 10 min­utes along a wide, dusty track when I turn a cor­ner and the world ends. The red dirt gives way to 5,000 ver­ti­cal feet of air be­tween me and the teal rib­bon of the Río Apurí­mac, wedged be­tween slopes of bro­ken lime­stone on one side and jun­gle across the way. The moun­tains form a per­fect V where the river splits them, like a gun­sight straight to the glacier­man­tled high peaks of the An­des.

I can feel my heart re­spond, thump­ing in my eardrums, and I have to re­mind my­self that I shouldn’t be sur­prised. Peru sits at the epi­cen­ter of con­trast­ing to­pogra­phies— where the Pa­cific coast rushes up to meet the western cordillera of the An­des. It re­sults in a ta­pes­try of deserts, plains, rivers, ar­royos, jun­gles, and moun­tains, 25 of which stand more than 20,000 feet tall, all within an area half as big as Alaska.

On this 40-mile loop, I’ll cross a high desert and dive into a trop­i­cal cloud for­est at 10,000 feet in the “foothills” of the An­des, steer­ing clear of the big peaks, but al­ways stand­ing in their shad­ows. And in that seam, hid­den in the green­ery and tucked be­hind the ridges and ravines that splin­ter out from the range, sits an an­cient ci­tadel con­structed 500 years ago. That’s where I’m headed: per­haps the last refuge of the In­cas, just what you’d ex­pect at the end of the world.

THE CITY, CHO­QUE­QUIRAO, is of­ten her­alded as Machu Pic­chu’s “lit­tle sis­ter.” Of­fi­cially dis­cov­ered in 1909, lost to time, and re­dis­cov­ered in the 1960s, it’s as wrapped in mys­tery and lore as it is tan­gles of the un­tamed pep­per trees that try to de­vour it. Most researchers agree that it was com­mis­sioned by Pacha­cuti—the same In­can em­peror re­spon­si­ble for Machu Pic­chu—for re­li­gious pur­poses, their logic ba­si­cally, Why else would it be so far away from any­thing else? They have a point: Cho­que­quirao (lit­er­ally “Cra­dle of Gold” in the na­tive Quechua lan­guage) is a 15-mile walk from Ca­chora, a teeny vil­lage on the out­skirts of Cusco, and re­mains as hard to get to to­day as it was 500 years ago.

I hike on the same trail the In­cas used to reach the ci­tadel in the early- to mid-1500s. It’s also the same path that Amer­i­can ar­chae­ol­o­gist Hi­ram Bing­ham III fol­lowed when he found the an­cient city in 1909. Cho­que­quirao had been aban­doned for more than 300 years at the time, so it prob­a­bly didn’t look like a rit­ual wor­ship place or an op­u­lent king­dom, its stone walls and ter­races wrapped by the jun­gle like a squid pulling down a ship. Bing­ham marked the place on his map, then con­tin­ued on the an­cient Inca Trail un­til he found some­thing that made him for­get all about Cho­que­quirao: Machu Pic­chu, perched high on a trun­cated moun­tain­top and framed by im­pos­si­bly slen­der peaks. Ex­ca­va­tions be­gan the next year.

The world was in­stantly smit­ten. To­day, Machu Pic­chu sees as many as 5,000 peo­ple per day, though the site it­self is es­ti­mated to have housed just 1,000 souls at its most pop­u­lated. The re­sult? Machu Pic­chu is lit­er­ally sink­ing un­der the weight of all those foot­falls, while pol­lu­tion is harm­ing the 350 va­ri­eties of or­chids that paint the sur­round­ing peaks and is ex­pected to af­fect the al­ready en­dan­gered spec­ta­cled bear. De­spite quo­tas and price hikes, the world can’t seem to get enough of Machu Pic­chu.

Mean­while, Cho­que­quirao fell back off the map un­til 1968, when Peru­vian au­thor­i­ties in­cluded it in the Of­fi­cial Regis­ter of Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Mon­u­ments for the first time. Ex­ca­va­tions started in the ’70s, and even to­day, it’s only an es­ti­mated 30-per­cent re­stored. Any hiker can reach it, but in­for­ma­tion is lack­ing, and the dearth of beta means your best bet is to hire a lo­cal guide to show you the way. The guides know a ton about the lo­cal cul­ture, flora and fauna, and econ­omy, but, like schol­ars, his­to­ri­ans, and ev­ery­one else, even they can only spec­u­late about Cho­que­quirao’s ori­gins and ul­ti­mate fall. That means that, with­out the as­sist from in­for­ma­tional plac­ards, rov­ing tour guides, or in­ter­pre­tive trails, peo­ple who visit the place aren’t spoon­fed its his­tory or sig­nif­i­cance. In Cho­que­quirao, you get to use your imag­i­na­tion.

THE EDGE OF THE WORLD is not as fi­nal as it first ap­peared. From my aerie over­look­ing the An­des, the trail crashes 50 sto­ries down to the Río Apurí­mac on an el­e­va­tor shaft-steep path. At the bot­tom, we pass Playa Ros­alina, where a few lo­cals raise crops and mules and of­fer me and my small hik­ing group tea. It’s 10 miles from Cho­que­quirao and the last re­li­able wa­ter on the way; I can imag­ine pil­grims stop­ping here on their way to ap­point­ments with the di­vine. My mo­ti­va­tion is dif­fer­ent, of course, but there’s some­thing pow­er­ful in tak­ing the same path to the same place at such dif­fer­ent times. I feel my an­tic­i­pa­tion for what­ever lies be­yond this canyon grow with ev­ery step.

Af­ter Playa Ros­alina, we cross the roil­ing white­wa­ter of the Río Apurí­mac on a newly in­stalled sus­pen­sion bridge. On the other side, we have plans to splash in the shal­lows and spend the night on the river­bank nearby, but the hu­mid, 80°F weather and the prospect of a camp higher—and closer to Cho­que­quirao—pro­pel us on­ward. So we con­tinue up the other side of the canyon, mules haul­ing our night’s wa­ter and much of our overnight gear.

But mules or not, all pil­grims suf­fer. Switch­backs dec­o­rate the lush north wall, danc­ing up the moun­tain­side un­til they dis­ap­pear into the sky. It feels good to climb out of the op­pres­sive heat, but it’s a grind: There are no camp­sites be­tween the river­ine one we passed and the one we’re gun­ning for below the ru­ins, an­other 5 miles and 5,000 ver­ti­cal feet ahead. The for­est grows thick around the trail, and be­fore long I feel tun­nel vi­sion set in. But each time I come across a break in the veg­e­ta­tion—where a mule

has chomped away the ferns or scratched its back in the shrubs—I can see the Río Apurí­mac shrink­ing.

At the top, the trail fol­lows a ridge that even­tu­ally runs past Machu Pic­chu all the way into the An­des, top­ping out on 20,574-foot Salka­n­tay. We won’t go that far—we link air-starved mead­ows pop­ping with red can­tuta flow­ers a few more miles to Maram­pata, an itty-bitty vil­lage built for trekkers on a sheer canyon wall high above the con­flu­ence of the Ríos Apurí­mac and Chunchu­mayo. There, lo­cals have carved camp­sites into the grassy slope, like por­taledges hang­ing above the sleepy ham­let. It’s about as civ­i­lized as the hike to Cho­que­quirao gets, but as with many in­ter­na­tional treks, “vil­lage camp­ing” is as much a part of the ex­pe­ri­ence as the land­scape it­self.

And yet for some­thing that seems so in­her­ently part of the trip to Cho­que­quirao, this piece of the jour­ney—and ev­ery­thing that comes be­fore—would be elim­i­nated, or at least ir­rel­e­vant, if long-term goals to in­stall a tram ever move for­ward. In 2013, the Peru­vian govern­ment ap­proved plans for an aerial tramway that would whisk vis­i­tors 3 miles from San Ig­na­cio to the main Cho­que­quirao com­plex, by­pass­ing the trail com­pletely. For­tu­nately, the project stalled two years later when it got hung up on the rocks of lo­cal bu­reau­cracy: The cable car would start and end in dif­fer­ent states, and nei­ther side could agree on how to share prof­its. Though it’s pos­si­ble they could still break ground on the tramway, my guide, a lo­cal, thinks it’s ex­tremely un­likely—or maybe that’s just her wish­ful think­ing.

As with all hikes, much of the power of Cho­que­quirao is in the jour­ney. The prospect of the tram makes me sad, and that night, as I watch the last rays of sun­light on Coisopacana’s snowy sum­mit from my tent, I think about the fall of the city. Like its ori­gin, ev­ery­thing about Cho­que­quirao’s demise is up for spec­u­la­tion, but if the ci­tadel was in­deed aban­doned in 1573, as many researchers be­lieve, that means it very well could have stood longer than ev­ery other ma­jor bas­tion of the In­can re­bel­lion, in­clud­ing Machu Pic­chu. The Sons of the Sun must have fled the Sa­cred Val­ley dur­ing the Span­ish con­quest, head­ing even deeper into the moun­tains and jun­gles to a strong­hold where no one could find them, where their way of life would be safe. As the stars pour tiny light onto the ter­races and fa­cades around me, I can feel the an­cients still here.

THE NEXT MORN­ING, we con­tinue 3.5 miles along the trail, cross­ing into the des­ig­nated ar­chae­o­log­i­cal com­plex, a 7-square-mile par­cel of jun­gle so dense that I won­der how the In­cas were able to coax live­stock back here, let alone haul stones and build­ing ma­te­ri­als. The path tun­nels through the rain­for­est, all muddy chutes, slick roots, and grabby ferns that leave me bat­tered when I emerge into the main square.

At 10,000 feet, the jun­gle gives way to a man­i­cured lawn so abruptly that I feel whiplash from the sud­den change of scenery. The meadow, per­fect as a putting green and rimmed with stone walls and fig trees, bal­ances on a skinny ridge a ver­ti­cal mile above the Río Apurí­mac, like it was dropped here by an­gels. On one side of the plaza, stone rooms and build­ings fleck the forested moun­tain­side in the

shadow of glaciated sum­mits. On the other, ter­races climb a trun­cated peak, where the ru­ins of the main tem­ple kiss the heav­ens. There, an­other man­i­cured gar­den framed by bro­ken and crumbly stone walls tow­ers above the one on which I stand. In any other con­text, I’d think it was a he­li­pad. For now, at least, it’s not.

For now, we have the place to our­selves, save for a party of two. They’re the only other peo­ple here be­yond the few lo­cals who are work­ing to free the re­main­ing ru­ins from the cloud for­est. So af­ter ex­plor­ing an­nexes and build­ings off the cen­tral plaza, we em­brace our soli­tude and ven­ture down an­cient canals to see the Lla­mas del Sol, where white gran­ite pieces em­bed­ded into the gray lime­stone ter­races cre­ate the shapes of lla­mas. They could be a trib­ute to a sa­cred crea­ture, a badge of an army hid­ing in a fortress, or an os­ten­ta­tious dec­o­ra­tion re­quired by a king. This is a place where some things will never be known.

That night, we de­cide to re­turn to Cho­que­quirao by head­lamp. When we aban­don day­time perks, like easy foot­ing, long views, and warm sun­shine, we see the an­cient city in a new light. I no­tice the orig­i­nal stone blocks, rough and mossy, as well as the first at­tempts at restor­ing them, where ce­ment and re­bar in­di­cate door­ways re­vamped in the 1970s. When the walls glow in the starlight, they seem taller. If this was the last refuge of the In­cas, I feel it.

In the cen­tral plaza, I throw my sleep­ing bag down in the grass and watch the night sky go through its paces. From here, the Milky Way looks like a llama; I can see the pur­ple smear form a long neck and pointy ears. At night, ev­ery­thing seems plau­si­ble in this king­dom of kings. The only mys­tery is how long it will stay this empty.

Only hik­ers can reach Cho­que­quirao, a 16th­cen­tury ci­tadel perched high in a cloud for­est.

The Apurí­mac canyon lies be­tween hik­ers and Cho­que­quirao.Top right: The 500-year-old ru­ins nes­tle below 19,000foot peaks.

White gran­ite lla­mas adorn 8- to 10-foot-tall stone ter­races, called the Lla­mas del Sol.Right: Ru­ins from the Cho­que­quirao main square bathe in starlight.

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