Thursday, April 10, 2008

Choquequirao 1

Choquequirao is one of the Lost Cities of the Incas. It is similar to the ever popular Machu Picchu, but whereas Machu Picchu gets 2000 to 3000 tourists per day, Choquequirao gets only about 50 per week. The difference is partly due to Choquequirao not being as well known, and being prone to rainy conditions. It is also due to the fact that you can get to Machu Picchu by train, whereas Choquequirao is only reachable by a 32 km (20 mile) hike from the village of Cachora. The hike is gloriously beautiful -- but be warned folks, for it is a knee-shattering lung-busting KILLER. Be in good physical shape, or hire a mule.

We started bright and early from Cusco where we boarded a bus along with our two guides Guido and Eber. After some 3½ hours on the bus we transferred to a car, which took us on an hour long ride down a gravel path to Cachora. There we sat in a tiny home while the guides prepared lunch. It was cold and rainy and we were thoroughly sleep deprived. It didn´t quite feel like we were up for a 64 km hike.

Lunch came with some very nice soup and a dish containing finely chopped fried potatoes and vegetables with a neat little tower of rice. As we were eating it, the sun poked through the clouds. Suddenly we were all warm and cozy again. Let the trek begin!

Along the trail there are km-markers starting at Cachora. It starts innocent enough with a stroll through the corn fields below Cachora, down to a little stream, and then gently uphill, with beautiful vistas of the mountains all around. By km 8 the trees have disappeared, but the path is still wide and only slopes slightly. It gets a little rocky in places but nothing bad.

After about 11 km it reaches a pass at 2800 m elevation with a spectacular panorama. From there you catch your first glimpse of Choquequirao up ahead, if you squint real close. It sits on a "saddle" between a big mountain peak and a small round one.

Things start getting a bit more difficult heading down from the pass. The path zigzags its way down through a series of switchbacks, which means it´s steep. The knees start taking a beating. Here´s where it occurs to you that this is going to be hard hiking back up on the return trip. Little do you know that this is nothing compared to what´s up ahead.

Rockier and steeper it gets. More and more sections require carefully stepping down big rocks. Eventually it gets so steep that the switchbacks are merely 10 or 15 meters apart, consisting purely of big rocks and boulders.

We reached a camp site some 1100 mtr below the pass and spent the night. Our tents were already set up and dinner already prepared as our mule driver had gotten there ahead of us. The camp site even has a little tienda where they sell drinks and snacks.

The next day started with a further 300 vertical meter down to the river, along the same rocky bouldery ground. At the bottom the trail strolls through a forest of cacti to reach a site that happily boasts true showers and toilets (as opposed to garden hoses and holes in the ground). Also, importantly, it has a stable with mules. At this point many tourists have discovered that they can´t carry their backpacks, or even themselves, along this trail anymore.

At the river site there is a little "toll booth" where you sign in for entering the national park of which Choquequirao is a part. We crossed the hanging bridge over the river, which is at some 1350 m elevation, and started the hike up the mountain on the other side. I had been looking forward to this, because the zigzagging trail looked irresistible from across the river.

irresistible looking switchbacks (click to zoom in)

This hike is brutal. Brutal I say. For quite a while all I saw was the backsides of mules, as I hooked up with a caravan of cargo mules that I could barely keep up with. Eventually I did get ahead of them because the lead mule kept stopping periodically. Indeed, everybody kept stopping periodically except me, so I ended up hiking by myself ahead of everyone else.

The trail rises relentlessly, not once letting up. But eventually at about 11 I rounded a corner and was rewarded with not only a level section of trail, but a splendid view of Choquequirao ahead. There were a couple of huts with assorted barnyard animals milling about. I left the trail to go to the huts, as I was hoping to buy some water there. My water supply had dwindled to dangerously low levels at that point.

view of Choquequirao from the camp site

Turns out that this actually was the camp site that we were supposed to reach that day. I bought a supply of drinks and chocolate and lounged about in the sun, as I watched the mule caravan check in half an hour later. Other guides, mules, and trekkers trickled in over the course of the next two hours. Among them were two girls, Elizabeth from the US and Sophia from Peru, who were travelling together. Everyone set up camp and we had lunch, as we prepared for the visit to the Choquequirao site.

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