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Choquequiroa: Peru’s alternative Inca trail


The streets of the former Inca Capital, Cusco, are usually filled with tourists from around the world.  They come in herds in all forms from the backpackers, who dress in their South American Backpacker’s uniform consisting of flip-flops and Che Guevara beards, to the more traditional tourists who dangle their expensive cameras vicariously around their necks.  They are all looking to complete their pilgrimage to the Inca Mecca of Machu Picchu.  However, when the Peruvian national government recently announced that Machu Picchu would be closed at least until April a good majority of these people headed out of town, or cancelled their trips.  It is in this situation where tourists are separated from travelers.  Tourists see a missed opportunity, as the picture they’d seen in magazines, and been so hoping to take with their own cameras, fades away.  Whereas travelers see an opening, a chance to perhaps experience something they wouldn’t normally have considered.  As a local guide once put it, “there are hundreds of Machu Picchu’s located in the highlands of South America it’s up to you to discover them.”

The “Inca Trail” as advertized by the hoards of agencies promoting trekking to Machu Picchu is, essentially, just a small section of a greater network of Inca Trails that web their way through the lushly covered mountains all the way from Colombia to Northern Chile.  And Machu Picchu itself, although the crown jewel, is only one of hundreds, and possibly thousands of ruins left behind by the Inca people.  The trail to the site of Choquequirao is one the many less explored treks in Cusco’s Sacred Valley, and with the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu closed, many travelers are taking the opportunity to follow this trail less traveled.

A round trip trek to Choquequirao can be done in either 4 or 5 days, really depending on the fitness of the climber.  There is also an option for hikers to continue 4 days more from the site to reach Machu Picchu, albeit if it is open.  The trek isn’t without excitement.  Just a few years ago a couple local men would hide high above hikers and launch rocks down on them in an attempt to part them from their belongings.  Local leaders, however, are said to have taken care of the problem leaving the trail safe from theft.  Nowadays, hikers are more likely to be hassled by local children from the local villages dressed in traditional clothing trying to sell them Gatorade, Coke, and Snickers bars.  However, the threat of rocks being thrown down from above is still a real threat.  Especially during the rainy season rock and mud slides are a very common occurrence as hikers are often left scurrying for shelter at the creaking sound of rocks breaking free from their respective landmass.

The trail is by no means easy; in fact, most of the local guides claim that it is twice as difficult as the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.  Unlike the Inca Trail this path is not a near highway paved in large flat rocks but a dirt trail which, in the rainy season, can often be reduced to a thick runway of calf high mud.  Although altitude isn’t all too much of an issue along the trail, hikers are challenged by constant inclines and declines.  Day two of the hike pushes climbers nearly 1500m straight up, nearly three times the height of the CN tower.  This section can easily reduce the manliest lumberjack to tears.

The painful state that the relentless climb has reduced hikers to, however, is rewarded by entry into the site of Choquequiroa.  Much like Machu Picchu, Choquequiroa is far from the oldest Inca site.  It is estimated that the site was constructed only about 400 to 500 years ago.  Like the more famous site, over the past couple of centuries the jungle had overtaken much of the site.  However unlike Machu Picchu, this site has yet to be fully recovered and restored.  It is estimated that only about 20-40 percent of the site has been uncovered.

However, what has been uncovered and left open to view are thick walls of Inca stone, and well managed terraced land.  It does take a nostalgic eye and imagination to try and understand what Choquequirao must have looked like as its days as a check point for entrance into the Vilcabamba Valley.  The wide triangular walls must have at one point been covered by strategically laid thatched roofs to provide occupants refuge from the pounding tropical rains; and the smartly constructed terraces must have one time been covered with crops of corn and a variety of fruits.

Maybe the most impressive feature found within this Inca archaeological site is a set of terraces that have been enlaced with figures of llamas or alpacas.  Regardless of the painfully hard work required to erect these large scale terraces, someone took the time to mould in white rocks amongst the grey to form shapes of this animal, obviously displaying the large importance this animal held to these people at this period of time.

Although few places on earth can really compare to the mystique revealed to hikers as they cross under the sun gate and into the site of Machu Picchu, Choquequirao provides an intriguing destination that few people give themselves the opportunity to see.  The difficult hike is as rewarding as any in the region, and in the future many more people may choose this as an alternative route in reaching Machu Picchu.

The most intriguing aspect of Choquequirao is its absolute rawness.  Perhaps because a lack of interest, or maybe because of concentration on government funds into the more famous sites, Choquequirao remains largely uncovered.  Unlike Machu Picchu, which by 9 in the morning is packed shoulder-to-shoulder with people from all over the world, Choquequirao is nearly empty and free for visitors to enjoy in peace.  The lack of train and simple fact that a difficult hike is required to reach the site should keep it this way.  So as hikers retrace their steps down the knee shattering 1500m decent they can be satisfied in the knowledge that they have taken in an experience that few others will have the opportunity to experience.  For the world’s true travelers, when one door shuts, or trail in this case, others open.

How to get there:

Nearly all the trekking agencies in Cusco offer some sort of guided hike to Choquequirao.  However, to be sure, you should book at least a couple of weeks in advance.  One of the most reputable trekking agencies in Cusco is SAS travel (http://www.sastravelperu.com/).  They have well treated porters and great guides who will look after your every need, including setting up portable toilets along the way.  They include all your meals, which are top notch, and provide snacks and water each day of the hike.  Also included is 6kg of personal items which will be packed for you from site to site.

Brendan Van Son now produces photobooks and calendars that he sells on his own website.

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