Choquequirao, Peru’s remote Inca ruins
Choquequirao, Peru’s remote Inca ruins
Halfway down the track, Nixon stops. He thwacks his machete into a stump to free his hands and reaches over a stone wall, groping for something in the vegetation beneath. A moment later he pulls up a clear plastic bag and hands it to me. It is full of human bones. “Incas.”
Since the Spanish never found this place, Nixon, the custodian, is surely right about the bones. They belong to the people who built Choquequirao, one of the most remote Inca settlements in the Andes, and were stashed here by the archaeologists who, over the past 20 years, have been slowly freeing the ruins from the cloud forest. The site that has emerged looks like a film director’s fantasy of a lost city. On the day I arrive a time lapse of cloud is drifting across the ridge, above a geometry of Inca stairways and terraces cut into a steep, jungly spur above the Apurímac river, 100 miles west of Cusco in southern Peru.
Inevitably, it’s been called the “sister” of Machu Picchu. But while Peru’s poster girl is surrounded by the paparazzi crush of up to 2,500 visitors a day, Choquequirao (the Quechua name means “cradle of gold”) is almost entirely deserted. It’s not hard to see why: at least two days of mules, sweat, and wild camping separate these ruins from the nearest road or hot shower. The reward for those adventurous enough to make the trek is an Inca sanctuary that still feels, in Rudyard Kipling’s phrase, like “something lost behind the ranges”.
But it won’t stay that way for long. In what may be the most ambitious tourism project in the world, the regional government is investing $50m in a mile-high cable car that will glide up to Choquequirao in 15 minutes. The contract to build and operate it is already open to tender. Whichever company wins the deal will begin work in the hamlet of Kiuñalla, from where a 5km span of high-tensile steel cable will cross the Apurímac. When it’s up and running (the most optimistic estimates say 2016), as many as 3,000 people a day will be shuttled up to the ruins, breaking Choquequirao’s 500-year silence and releasing a flood of investment into one of Peru’s poorest provinces. The region’s politicians are talking about a new airport, asphalt roads, international hotels. Trabajo. Cambio. Progreso. (“Work. Change. Progress.”).
A week earlier, driving to the trailhead town of Cachora, I had seen these same slogans painted all along the highway. It was election time in Peru, and extravagant promises were being made.
Cachora turned out to be little more than a grid of mud-brick houses and unpaved streets that petered out into fields. I wandered round at dawn the next day, looking forward to seeing the Inca ruins – before they are riddled with information boards and safety rails. At the top of the main street I saw an old lady shucking maize into a bucket, wearing the long braids and bowler hat typical of Andean women. She looked up as I passed, and her gaze silenced any romantic idea I might have had that Choquequirao would be better without too much progreso. She had been blinded by cataracts.
An hour later, I joined a group led by Tammy Leland, of US non-profit travel company Crooked Trails, walking a dirt track past the colonial church and out into open country. For more than 20 years Tammy has been leading trips like this, bringing people out into the kind of villages – rural, indigenous, thin on votes – that politicians didn’t visit, helping Quechua families earn a living from the hiking paths and food and stories that only they knew. Ahead were the four young American women – fresh from college, bright with lip gloss and Lycra – who made up the core of Tammy’s group and left a faint, effervescent trace of optimism and laughter on the mountain air. Behind came a straggling caravan of mules and porters, including a couple of teenage boys who watched the college girls with sullen fascination.
Juan Carlos and his mum, Luisa. Photograph: /Daniel Silas Adamson
Stitching these two contingents together was our guide, Juan Carlos. Although he was a graduate and spoke flawless English, the muleteers knew that Juan Carlos was one of their own. He had been raised in a remote campesino homestead on the far side of the valley, and the trail we were on – a round trip of 40 miles, including a total ascent of 10,000ft – had been his weekly walk to primary school. There was no turn in the track, no stream or tree, that Juan Carlos didn’t know.
We camped that night on hard ground by the river, and crossed at first light in a metal cage strung from a cable above the rapids. On the far side the ascent began: a vertical mile of switchbacks that killed the morning’s chatter and left us strung out along the trail. Around midday we arrived at the hamlet of Marampata, for lunch at Juan Carlos’s childhood home.
It was an unbelievably remote place to have grown up. Juan Carlos’s mum, Luisa, came out with a soup of corn and quinoa that we ate in the sun outside her house. She had raised nine children here, feeding them from her gardens and somehow finding the money to send them all off on the long walk to school. Juan Carlos had gone even further, all the way to university in Cusco, and you could see Luisa’s pride in a son who had become a professional, lost his peasant shyness, learned to flirt with American girls in their own language. She was worried that the cable car might cut the thin stream of hikers who brought in her only cash income. “We are poor. We have children, grandchildren. If the cable car comes, there’ll be no more chance for us.”
I looked back across the valley. Cloud shadows were moving across the grassland and the sun was picking out fields the colour of bracken. Most of them were abandoned now, the terraces softening into the mountain, scrub reclaiming ground from people who had gone to the cities long ago. Luisa made a few dollars from hikers, but for plenty of Apurímac families Choquequirao had brought nothing at all. In the 1980s thousands of young men had been recruited from fields like these into the ranks of Shining Path, the Maoist insurgency that promised revolution but led them, more often than not, to an early grave. Subsistence farming, coca plantations, illegal mining – there was no way of working this land that brought prosperity to more than a handful of people. Perhaps tourism, on the scale made possible by the cable car, had a chance of bringing clinics and cataract operations to this stretch of the valley.
Two more hours’ hiking brought us to the terraces below Choquequirao, where we pitched our tents in the fading light. The Milky Way appeared, sharpening until you could see the patterns of darkness that the Inca imagination had stretched into constellations. The llama. The snake. The condor. In the night I woke to the snap of canvas in the wind, followed at dawn by a sharp scatter of rain.
On the Apurimac valley trail, Photograph: Alamy
We reached the ruins on a track kept open more by machete than footfall. All around were walls and terraces grown over with jungle. When the whole site is cut free, it may be even bigger than Machu Picchu.
Like its famous sister, Choquequirao seems to have been a kind of royal estate for Inca nobility, built a generation or two before the Spanish arrived. Seeing the sophistication of these ruins – the trapezoid doorway that opened on to the plaza, the gabled kallanka halls for ceremony and meeting, the stairways and irrigation channels – I was struck by the question that has long haunted Peruvian history: how did a band of thugs and chancers from the illiterate plains of Estremadura, stranded thousands of miles beyond their supply lines and lost in a mountain terrain unlike anything they’d ever seen, bring down an empire of such reach and confidence? There was another question, too, prompted not so much by the ruins as by the spectacular isolation of the setting: was this one of the strongholds to which the Incas retreated during their 30-year rising against the Spanish? Juan Carlos thought so. But if any archaeological evidence exists for Choquequirao as a “last refuge of the Incas”, it’s lost beneath the jungle.
Towards midday I wandered off alone, letting the conviviality of the group recede into silence. Below me, clouds were drifting through the immense vertical spaces of the Andes. The river was a distant curl of light. The name Apurímac means “the God who speaks” in Quechua, and in the quiet I could hear its voice, millions of years old and patient beyond measure.
When I looked up, the group had gone and it was Nixon, the custodian, who showed me the path. He knows these ruins as well as anyone, so I asked him about the changes that were coming across the valley. After a while he said he’d seen a condor that morning, circling over the terraces. “For us, the condor is an apu, a spirit of the heavens. If they build the cable car, it will not come.”