What High-altitude trek in the Andes Where Vilcabamba, Peru How long 12 days
How do you get a mule up a mountain? Try shouting, 'Mula, carajo, mula!' No English expression quite captures the fricative force of 'carajo', but 'damn you, mule' is about right.
This became just about all I heard as I climbed and descended the steep slopes of the 75-mile Inca road from the village of Cachora to Aguas Calientes in the Andean mountains of the Vilcabamba region. The purpose of my pains: to visit the Inca ruins of Choquequirao, a site rivalling Machu Picchu for size and significance, and far more remote and tourist-free.
The jungle's eyebrows
I was joining a recce for a tour company so it felt more like an expedition. We all met up in Cachora, a hamlet a couple of hours outside Cuzco. There were 24 mules, three horses, five guides, four cooks, 12 tents and an oxygen tank – and me.
The first two days were spent setting a pattern for the rest of the walk: a descent of more than 1,000 metres to a narrow valley – in the first instance, the canyon riven by the fast-flowing Apurimac, one of the great rivers in the Americas – and then an even greater distance up a mountain slope, trudging, scrambling and sometimes hacking through thick woods, before coming into the relative calm of open grasslands and, near the summit, entering the dense, humid ceja de selva (literally, 'the jungle's eyebrows').
Throughout the Vilcabamba there are settlements of Quechua Indians who farm terraces of maize, papaya, coca and potatoes – many of these high up and crazily inclined – as well as arable land for pigs and lambs. But this is primarily the habitat of condors and spectacled bears (indigenous, rather than short-sighted) – which we weren't lucky enough to see – as well as eagles, hawks, parrots and butterflies galore (which we did see). I also saw, and slept with, long-legged biting insects called zancudos and was physically assaulted by a mosquito known in Quechua as pumahuacachi ('the one that makes the puma cry').
By the afternoon of day two, we were within sight of Choquequirao. High on the adrenaline of seeing the ashlar terraces and the vague outline of house roofs at some distance, I drank a llama's worth of water and went up alone to catch the sun go down on the Inca ruin.
The main building sits, as at Machu Picchu, in a saddle at a natural high pass between two peaks. There are well-preserved irrigation channels, small ceremonial chambers and long halls that seem to have been used for hanging adornments, as well as storage rooms for the produce that the Inca emperor's minions would have heaved up from the farming areas. Paths advance up both extremes of the saddle to vantage points, the lower of the two appearing to be some kind of altar or sanctuary.
Inside the rooms and covering the terraces is a carpet of neat lawn, giving the ruin a dignified air, rather like a cemetery. When the fortress was 'discovered' in 1834 by a French count, Eugène de Sartige (who called the approach trail 'détestable'), and when it was visited by the American explorer Hiram Bingham in 1909, the site was completely overgrown.
Digs over the past 15 years have uncovered terraces all over the mountain and no one is yet sure just how vast the complex is.
From the main site, nothing clutters the panoramic views of the neighbouring higher mountains, many of which are laden with snow and glaciers – in The White Rock, Hugh Thomson's book about the dozens of unexplored ruins dotted round the Vilcabamba, the site is described as 'romantically isolated'.
Cradle of gold
As I was alone, there was also a slightly eerie quality as the wind came in gusts over the walls and the dying light danced through the clouds on to the stonework. Choquequirao means 'cradle of gold': this could well refer to the light – I revisited the site with the rest of the group in the morning and this time the eastern walls were shrouded in orange, before a mist obscured any view of the site.
Many theories have been ventured as to the purpose of high-altitude Incaic sites, from sacrificing virgins (as repeated by scores of Machu Picchu guides every day), to the new-millennial notions of hunting follies and summer retreats suggested in Thomson's book. All no doubt contain some truth, but for the walker, the lofty citadels appeal as airy gestures of contempt for the hot, sweaty jungle below.
Relief while on the slopes was provided by the sudden appearance of Inca paths in good condition, and even of unnamed sites and ancient mortars and pestles left lying around in grassy meadows. Orchids were good reasons to stop and catch our breath, as were the perfumed scents of peppermint and muña, a wild oregano that is supposed to keep flies away, stop vomiting and ease menstruation pains.
River crossings were fun, especially when the currents were whitewater standard by virtue of the melting glaciers, or when bridges were dilapidated and unstable; only a couple of campsites had access to rudimentary showers and in the Río Blanco we all bathed and half-swam in the ice-cold water. Also diverting – and equally refreshing – were the pauses to eat foodstuffs that we found growing wild in the valleys: we picked peaches, Cape gooseberries, prickly pears and blackcurrants.
The cooks made us Neo (or even Nouvelle) Andean cuisine: lamb in wine sauce, sweet and sour chicken, fig tart, arepas (maize muffins) and sopa criolla (the national noodle soup). Local ingredients such as quinoa, yucca, lupins, maize in all its forms, alpaca meat and hot chilli pickles were everyday delicacies.
Up the Inca stair
Sometimes, though, I couldn't eat at all. Above 3,350 metres, I hyperventilated and could only chew coca leaves. The Yamana Valley began as a pastoral idyll of green fields, plump cows and hummingbirds, but then rose to its namesake pass, which, at nearly 4,900 metres, almost killed me. I have a photograph of myself at the cairns on the summit: a dense grey mist obscures a view I know to be wonderful from a picture book, but the onset of soroche (altitude sickness) obscures my own sense of satisfaction and turns my attempted smile into a grimace. My pulse and head thumping, I just wanted to get off the hill.
Up and down, up and down, the Choquequirao-Machu Picchu trail is a natty combination of Inca staircases that attack the slopes frontally, and less aggressive, but more tedious zig-zags designed for mules, goats and such. Occasionally, valley dwellers passed by and I would ask, 'Cuánto falta para...?' ('How far to...?'). The only rule I could deduce was: whatever a local says, double it and then some.
But passers-by were few and far between. As the group spread out over the trail, I felt as if I were alone in one of Peru's most inaccessible corners – little wonder that the Incas retreated up these valleys in the 1560s when Spain had taken Cuzco.
Anyone for guinea pig?
We spent the last night in a small village called La Playa, camping on a football pitch. Wilbur hooked up with one of his cousins, whose name was Bill Clinton. No joke: Peruvians often give their children celebrity forenames, a recent TV survey unearthing hundreds of global personalities living in far-flung hamlets, including a 'Garfield', a 'Michael Jackson' and a 'Hulk'.
I was presented with a barbecued guinea pig: it was sweet, peppery, somewhat bony. I preferred the other regional speciality, alpaca, which is surprisingly tender and subtle-tasting for a relative of the camel.
From La Playa it was a one-day dash to Machu Picchu, by way of an ascent of Llactapata, a small mountain made to seem very big by its exuberant undergrowth – that is why the rainy season is only for recces. A previous walker had macheted the head off a red-and-black adder we found beside the main trail, and we could have done with the same weapon to beat aside the bamboo and knots of creepers, especially on the descent. I literally fell down the last few stretches and it was a joy to see people again, and cars, and soft-drink advertisements on the metalled road to Machu Picchu's hydroelectric power station.
Mists of Machu Piccu
The finale is, of course, the famed ruin itself. With its steep, jungle-clad mountains, swirling mists and huge, partially hewn boulders, Machu Picchu remains an awesome experience and is still very much the must-see ending to any trek in the Vilcabamba. For all that, its 2,000-plus daily visitors make for a lot of human traffic; and constant chatter and the increasingly musical clicks of digital camera shutters do detract from the splendour of the temples and residences.
For these reasons, and because of new restrictions for entry to the established Inca Trail, both British and Peruvian tour operators would like to see Choquequirao begin to compete with Machu Picchu, at least for intrepid walkers.
But until an easier trail is built, the site will stay off the beaten track. But if you have good legs and lungs (or are at least, like me, as obstinate as a mula) and want to walk like a warrior to two of the greatest sites on the planet, the Choquequirao trail is waiting, quietly, for your visit.
When to go
The weather in Vilcabamba is mild. Days are warm and sunny with an average high of 22ºC; nights are cooler with an average low of 5ºC. The rainy season runs from November to March and the dry season April to October.
Fly to Lima and then take a bus or plane to Cuzco, 350 miles to the south-east.
Organising your trip
This trek should only be attempted as part of a group. There are long stretches through unpopulated areas and carrying a heavy pack for the duration would be a military feat. Explore (www.explore.co.uk) organises an 18-day tour, which includes four days of acclimatising in Cuzco.
Around £1,300-£1,500 (without international flights) for guides, mules, cooks/food and local transfers.
Am I up to it?
This is harder and longer than the classic Inca Trail so you should be a reasonably fit hiker who enjoys camping.
More like this
Peru’s Huayhuash (featured in the film Touching the Void) and the Cordillera Blanca ranges are becoming popular alternatives to Machu Picchu-bound walks.
Hugh Thomson’s 'The White Rock: An Exploration of the Inca Heartland'.
Time Out guidebooks
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