Nearly four and a half centuries ago, Spanish conquistadors, who had sailed to the Americas in hopes of finding riches and fame, arrived on the shores of a strange and foreign place. As they began to explore the diverse terrain of modern day Peru, the Spanish quickly realized that they were not alone. Waiting for them was an empire of massive proportions. Spanning over 2,500 miles, populated by 10 million people, and possessing gold and silver in amounts that the Spanish could never have dreamed of, the Inca Empire was in sole control of the South American continent.
Fast forward to today, and things have changed. Gone are the gold and silver, long ago melted down to form Spanish money. Gone are the magnificent cities sitting atop massive mountains and boasting some of the most advanced engineering seen by humans, now reduced to ruins. Gone are the once proud Inca people, who, with their bare hands, built one of the most prosperous civilizations on the planet.
Though mostly destroyed by the Spanish, some vestiges of the Incas survive today. One example is the city of Choqquequirau. Located in the Vilcabamba region, Choqquequirau is a magnificent city high in the Andes mountains. Once a sacred place inhabited by religious leaders, today the city is a tourist attraction. Unlike the nearby Machu Picchu, however, Choqquequirau is one of the remotest cities tourists can visit. There are no roads anywhere near the city. The only way to experience the majesty of Choqquequirau is to hike for 4 days, traversing some of the roughest trails imaginable, starting from the nearest city of Cachora.
Located 4 hours from the Inca capital of Cusco, Cachora is a simple small town . Comprised of a main square, a school, a few restaurants, and many homes, Cachora is where my journey into the mountains began. After leaving Cusco at 6 in the morning, a long bus ride, and an incredibly bumpy and uncomfortable taxi ride into the city, we found ourselves in the simple Peruvian town. After a delicious lunch our guide, Vincente, a native of Cusco, led us out of the city and towards the ancient Inca city.
Traveling with us was our guide Vincente, a cook, a porter, and two mules. The cook, porter, and mules departed several hours after we did. They are used to the terrain, and know many shortcuts, so they were able to leave after us, arrive before us, and were able to have our meals cooking by the time we caught up with them.
The first day of our journey was a relatively easy one. Though we walked for about 18 km that day, it was mostly flat terrain. We started high atop a mountain, the city of Cachora, and spent most of the day walking on the flat terrain towards the Apurimac River. All around us were some of the most gorgeous vistas imaginable. Looming high above is the peak of Salkantay, a massive mountain towering over everything at over 20,000 feet high, its snowcapped peaks providing a stark contrast against the green vegetation covering the lower mountains.
After several hours of walking, we began to descend the mountain. Using gravity to aid our advance, we flew down the mountain. In sight now was the raging Apurimac River. Resting at the bottom of an enormous canyon, the canyon that we would have to eventually cross, the river roared against rocks, echoing the unmistakable sound of running water. Overhead, a condor glided through the canyon, searching for prey. Incredibly rare, and holy to the Incas, the condor represents our connection to the heavenly world. Watching the graceful flight of the endangered bird, I wondered whether or not the Spanish were aware that the birds flying over their heads was more than just birds, as they followed the trail that I now followed towards the sacred city.
We descended partly down the mountain, towards the river below us, but stopped halfway down to make camp. After an early dinner, which was incredibly delicious, we went to our tents dead tired, hoping to get enough rest before our early rise the next morning.
The morning of day 2 was, physically, one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do. First, we descended the mountain, finally coming to the bottom of the valley. The roar of the Apurimac River was deafening as we crossed the bridge to the other side of the valley. So began our uphill climb. At an impossible grade, and with an inconceivable amount of switchbacks, the trail up the mountain was designed by masochists. The ascent was slow, and filled with many breaks. About halfway up the mountain my legs turned to jelly and refused to work. Sweating profusely, my pace up the mountain slowed with each burning step. All conversation ended in an attempt to save energy. With my head filled with thoughts of throwing myself off the mountain to end the pain, I realized that I was getting closer to the summit. After what seemed like an eternity of ascension, I reached the top of the mountain where I found our camp and lunch. I couldn’t have been happier.
After a quick nap and another delicious meal, we began the second phase of our day. Only miles from Choqquequirau, we started our walk to the sacred city. High in the mountains again, surrounded by thick vegetation, we walked towards the city with renewed vigor and enthusiasm. We had come so far and were now so close. After a few hours of walking, we turned a corner and caught our first glimpse of the ruins, far in the distance. Like the soaring condor from the day before, the city looked magnificent against the backdrop of sheer cliffs and massive, snow-capped mountain peaks.
Excited, and ready to experience a place little changed from the days of the Incas, Vincente and I talked about all things Inca. He told me of Macno Inca, one of the last Inca emperors. He told me how Manco Inca, with the odds stacked firmly against him, facing a far superior adversary, decided that he would rather die fighting with his people than give in to the will of the Spaniards. He told me about his rebel stronghold of Vilcabamba, a short trek from Choqquiquirau, and how he led his armies against the Spanish in a last ditch effort to preserve the Inca way of life. He told me about Tupac Amaru, the last Inca emperor and the son of Manco Inca, and how he fought until his last days attempting to rid the Spanish from his lands. I was ready to stand in a place where these great men once stood and maybe catch a glimpse of what they saw four hundred years ago.
As we made our way into the city of Choqquiquirau, it was obvious that we were entering a holy place. Its remote location keeping the tourists at bay, we nearly had the ruins to ourselves. We explored the cities buildings, Vincente telling us all about the rituals performed by the Incas. We ascended to the upper portion of the city where we saw the advanced aqueduct system, as well as the rooms where mummified remains of Inca royalty were kept. The cities high elevation provided gorgeous vistas of the surrounding valleys for miles in all directions.
We then made our way to the holiest part of the city, a circular plain that overlooked the ruins of Choqquequirau. It was here that sacrifices to the sun God Inti were made. We took a seat at the center of the circle where a collection of stacked rocks provided us a place to give alms to the Inca Gods. We made an offering of coca leaves to the mountains, ensuring us a safe passage. We chewed on coca leaves while we talked about a civilization that was perhaps too pure to have existed long. We ate sugar cane that is indigenous to the area and gives the local people a means of producing chicha, a sacred beer drink that has been made the same way for the last 400 years. The journey having taken its toll on our bodies, and the intense Andean sun pounding on us from above, we all fell asleep on that patch of grass, in the same place where many years before countless rituals had taken place, thanking the Gods for allowing the Inca people to live in peace and harmony.
Our minds cleared, and our bodies rested, we then made our way back to camp. Perhaps the rest was what was needed, or perhaps the coca leaves had taken effect, but I was reenergized and quickly made it back to camp, where dinner awaited us.
That night we all took our sleeping bags outside. As we laid under the beautiful southern sky, the stars shining vibrantly in the absence of electricty for miles and miles, we talked about the history of Peru with out eyes fixed on the night sky. As several shooting stars passed overhead, and the Cruz del Sur shining brilliantly against the black backdrop of space, it was clear that the Incas had chosen a special place to build a sacred city.
The next day was spent walking down the mountain that had been so difficult to climb the day before. Again aided by gravity, the descent towards the river flew by. I developed blisters on the bottom of my heels from trying to stop myself from tumbling down the mountain. It was that steep. We passed several parties who were climbing up the mountain. Each person we passed was covered in sweat and had a fearful look in their eyes. We were greeted each time by a “hello” followed by a “how long until the top?” I didn’t have the heart to tell them that they were miles from the summit and that this would inevitably be one of the hardest things they would ever have to do. “Just a little bit more.”
That night we camped on the side of a mountain which offered gorgeous views of the valleys below. We laughed and joked throughout the night, all of us a little bit high on the unique experience we had just shared. Despite the fatigue, despite the blisters, and despite the frigid cold, we were all happy that night.
Day four, the last day of our trek, began at 4 a.m. After a quick breakfast, we headed out on the final leg of our journey. We had to begin early so that we could beat the sun, because as soon as it crested the vast mountains surrounding us it would be incredibly difficult to walk in such a pounding heat. We were so high in elevation that the oppressive sun really takes its toll on the body. We walked for miles in pitch blackness, our flashlights only hinting at the dangerous rocks and potholes in the trail.
As we got closer to Cachora, the city that marked the beginning and end of our trek, the sun began to show us just how immense the terrain was. We were high above the clouds, looking down on the milky white blanket that drifted across the mountains below us. As the sun reared its head, we could see its rays cast light on the green vegetation surrounding us. We passed a herd of emaciated cows, their bones protruding from their skin and blood pouring from their backs as a result of vampire bat attacks during the night.
Finally, after 4 long days and 64 kilometers of intense hiking, we again arrived to the city of Cachora. Exhausted from our trek, and nursing our blisters, we took a nice, long, relaxing lunch before heading back home to Cusco.
Four centuries ago the Spanish came to Peru in search of gold and silver. They subjugated the Inca people, raped their women, stole their resources, and destroyed their cities. Driven by greed and the desire for power, the Spaniards may have missed out on the most valuable thing that the Incas had to offer. Perhaps, if you make your way to that part of the world one day, you can attempt to locate the Inca’s hidden treasure for yourself.