For the eighth night in a row, the great llama in the sky appears high above the Central Andes. Every day we walk further into the mountains, and every evening, splayed across the Milky Way, comes the llama.
The ancient Incas shaped their astronomical creatures not from the stars themselves but from the vast dark patterns between constellations. In the thin, clear air of high altitude, the effect is dramatic. On nights like this, with a million beads of light overhead, you see the outline of the llama plainly, its mighty neck raised, its legs straddling galaxies.
In this part of Peru, everything is on a grand scale: the night skies, the cloudless peaks, the distances, the challenges. I’m part of a group of seven on a nine-day trek through the highlands of the Willkapampa Range. Each morning, we drop into humid canyons, crossing frothing rivers and hauling ourselves stride by stride up to exposed mountain passes.
I say a group of seven, but that’s not the half of it. Altitude trekking, being what it is, means we’re with two guides, two cooks and 15 mules, whose sure-footed patience makes them far more efficient in the heat of the day than those of us on two feet. Being part of such a large party initially feels odd, indulgent even, but it’s the way things work here. It’s a long, hot walk, full of sweaty climbs and steep downhills. It’s also deeply exhilarating.
My five-year-old son thinks I’ve come to deepest darkest Peru to meet Paddington, a bear who doubtless has more sense than to carry his marmalade sandwiches up paths at over 15,000ft above sea level. When, at the start of the trip, we drive out to the trailhead from the former Inca capital of Cusco — these days, a spirited city of rainbow flags, alpaca knits and sturdy pre-conquest masonry — one of our guides, Chema, imparts a galvanising thought. “You need to be un poco loco to do this hike,” he says, smiling. “A little crazy.”
Our walk, known as the Choquequirao-Machu Picchu Trek, is one of the longest of the area’s many ‘alternative Inca Trails’ — variants on the classic three-night hike from the small settlement of Piskakucho to the ruins of Machu Picchu. This is a beautiful, historic trek, although its popularity is now such that the authorities have restricted its use to a still-sizeable 500 people a day, with advance booking all but essential.
The Inca Empire, however, left hundreds of trails. In its pomp, during the 15th and early 16th centuries, it represented the largest realm in pre-Columbian America, with messengers, traders and warriors regularly walking its length. Almost the entire region is still threaded with old mountain paths, many extraordinarily scenic. It means that for travellers looking to escape the crowds, hike centuries-old trails and still see Machu Picchu, there are some phenomenal alternatives to be explored.
Among these is the nine-day Choquequirao-Machu Picchu route. Choquequirao is the name of the remote Inca mountain citadel part way along the path, a hard-to-reach site long talked about as the next big thing in Peruvian tourism. The hugely picturesque trek is sparse with walkers (think 20 a day rather than 500) and far lengthier than the classic Inca Trail.
The sacred crop
Before the trek, I know to expect the mountains. I know to expect rows of sharp Andean pinnacles powering out to every horizon, and they don’t disappoint. They’re rampant, with the largest rearing up to over 20,340ft. For nine consecutive days, from sunrise to sunset, these summits envelop everything we see and do. As if to add an extra layer of grandeur, the gods even saw fit to crown them with glaciers.
The close-up details, however, come as a surprise. By the second day of the hike, we’ve crossed from treeless grassland to humid forest, passing tiny purple irises and thick clumps of bamboo. White-collared swifts zigzag through the air to snaffle mosquitoes as flocks of green parakeets screech dementedly into the sky. Bright hummingbirds loop silently from tree to tree. Chema plucks a dusty cochineal insect from a cactus and squashes it on his palm, revealing the vivid crimson dye that became a key colonial export once the Spanish arrived.
But best of all is the fruit. The trees hold bananas, custard apples, passion fruit and avocados. We sample them all, and the soft, sweet custard apples, known locally as chirimoya, become a group favourite. They’re a long way from being the region’s most famous produce, though.
“You want more coca?” asks our guide Kantu the next morning, holding open a plastic bag of green leaves. As one of the ingredients of Coca-Cola and, more famously, cocaine, the innocuous-looking coca leaf has become a global commodity, and a controversial one at that. Here, as in neighbouring Andean communities, however, its role is far broader. The leaf not only combats tiredness and hunger, but has medicinal properties and spiritual significance, having long been used as a sacrament for offerings to the gods. Its legal cultivation remains a fundamental part of high-altitude culture, and many local cheeks still bulge, hamster-like, with leaf wads.
Sticking 50 to 100 bitter-tasting leaves into your mouth takes a little getting used to, but when you leave them next to your gums for long enough — particularly if combined with llipta (ash from the quinoa plant) — they’re a real help on long ascents. When you’re heading up the Apurimac Canyon to Choquequirao, with fierce winter sun overhead and the river a thundering grey torrent below, you take all the help offered.
Choquequirao translates as ‘cradle of gold’ and its location, two days’ walk from the nearest town, adds to the deserted citadel’s appeal. There’s talk of a cable-car being built to allow tourists quick access to the site, but for the next few years at least it will remain a place where you can wander around 500-year-old temples and terraces and barely meet a soul.
When we arrive, we all ask the same question. Why here? Why would the Incas build a city on an isolated mountain ridge? “It’s not isolated,” explains Chema, pointing out at the valley. “Look. It’s surrounded. The ancient Peruvians needed a connection with nature. They performed rituals to the sun, to the moon and to water. Look at all these hills around us. They saw them as sacred.”
It’s true the view, stretching for 40 miles and wisped by low puffs of cloud, is monumental. So too are the ruins. Estimates suggest only a third of the city has been excavated from the undergrowth, but what can be seen is impressive. Ceremonial spaces and aqueduct-fed water shrines stand alongside mansions and warehouses, while numberless agricultural terraces — once used for growing coca; some inlaid with ornamental stone llamas — plunge down the hillside.
Comparisons with Machu Picchu are inevitable. The two were built over roughly the same 15th-century period in similarly mountainous settings. Many of the constructions in both cities are aligned with the rising of the sun. Choquequirao is around 1,970ft higher, and while its remains are by no means as numerous as those of its more iconic counterpart, historians believe Manco II, the Inca king who was so badly mistreated by the Spanish conquistadores, chose to take refuge here after failing to reclaim Cusco in 1535. Hiram Bingham even visited prior to his ‘rediscovery’ of Machu Picchu a century ago.
We spend two nights camping below the city. In the evenings, fat fireflies appear under the cedar trees and the mountains turn to mauve as the stars emerge. We hear stories of how Choquequirao would have looked in its heyday; its buildings red, white, black and yellow under thatched roofs. It’s a very special place to be, partly because over the two days we spend exploring the site, we see a total of eight other international visitors.
By this stage of the trip our sleeping patterns are already aligned to the pace of the trek. We’re retiring to bed before 8pm, exhausted and well fed, then waking at 5am for coca tea and sweet porridge. On the morning we move on from Choquequirao — mules, cooks and all — we climb up to the rim of the Rio Blanco Valley, then begin a snaking, relentless descent towards the river itself, a glacial tributary of the Amazon. Heading down, the air becomes thicker and hotter until eventually we reach the valley floor, toss clothes onto rocks and soak ourselves neck-deep in the bracing cold of the water. It’s the best wash I have all week.
Arrival at Sun Gate
“Condors!” goes up the shout. It’s just gone midday, and we’re picking our way up open grassland to the highest point of the trek, the 15,288ft Abra Mariano Llamoja Pass. The grass is covered in huge dandelions, and off to each side of us are full bushes of wild purple lupin. Away in the distance, the epic white summit of Salcantay — at 20,574ft, almost five times as tall as Ben Nevis — stands sentry against a clear blue sky.
But eyes are now elsewhere. Way above us, two condors are wheeling slow circles in the air, gargantuan wings outstretched. The Incas used to refer to these birds as the messengers of the gods, and they remain an emblem of the Andes. “They’re looking for carrion — maybe deer,” says Kantu. “They’re big birds. They need big meals.”
By now, I can vouch for the importance of getting enough sustenance. For days we’ve been marching on our stomachs, thanks to the presence of chief cook Juan, a man who retires to his pop-up kitchen tent three times a day to rustle up soups, omelettes, salads, meats, coffees and desserts with the baffling ease of a conjuror picking rabbits from a hat. It’s said that the Incas, for all their power and wisdom, lacked three basic components of civilisation at the time of the conquest — the wheel, the arch and the written word. Trust me when I say that after a full day of hiking the folds and clefts of the Willkapampa range, you’d take a large plate of Juan’s quinoa stew over any of them.
The latter stages of the trek ease us gently into civilisation, leading us through far-flung hillside villages where cockerels crow, children wallop footballs at each other and guinea pigs, shortly for the pot, scuttle past open doorways. Coffee plantations become a familiar sight — their shiny, dark leaves casting welcome shade on the trail. Waterfalls tumble from high summits. For several miles we follow a dirt road, on which the hourly trucks seem as shocked to see us as we are them.
On the final morning’s walk, we know what’s coming. Despite not joining the Inca Trail proper, our path has now converged with that of hundreds of other hikers. Machu Picchu, when it comes, appears not as the famous postcard view but as a set of distant terraces seen from the west. South America’s biggest drawcard sits on a saddle of land slung between two woolly peaks, which in turn form part of a forest of other hills, the highest of them still in snow. For all the hype, the whole scene is a genuine thrill.
What can you say about arriving at Machu Picchu that hasn’t already been said? Despite the parasol-toting tour groups, the selfie-snapping hordes and the pizza-and-poncho whirl of the tourist town at its base, there’s a stillness to the city that transfixes you. We’re up here for sunrise the next day, with swallows diving among the roofless granite buildings and the day’s first light striking the altar in the Sun Temple.
The lack of written documentation means that much about the Incas remains an enigma. What’s known is that Machu Picchu was somewhere that attracted the cream of society — priestesses, astronomers, nobles, royal leaders. It’s thought that around 1,000 people lived permanently on the site, with this number swelling during important solstice festivals. The conquistadores, by contrast, never set foot here.
I make the half-hour climb up to Intipinku (Sun Gate), the spot from which walkers on the classic Inca Trail get their first glimpse of the city. It’s a fantastic spot to sit and stare. I think about the fact I’ll have to tell my son I didn’t meet Paddington. I’ll tell him instead that every night I was away I saw a llama as big as a solar system, and that I spent nine days walking between cities as high as the clouds. Maybe that’ll impress him.
There are no direct flights between the UK and Cusco; it’s usually necessary to change at least twice — usually in Madrid and Lima. Airlines that serve Peru include Iberia, LAN Airlines, TAM Airlines, KLM and British Airways.
Average flight time: 19h.
Reaching the trailhead of the Choquequirao-Machu Picchu trek requires travelling to the village of Cachora, several hours’ drive from Cusco. Some tour operators, including KE Adventure, provide the transfer as part of a package. There’s also a bus from Cusco to Abancay, which goes past Cachora.
When to go
The best time to hike is May-September, when temperatures are a pleasant 20C. Any earlier and there’s a good chance of encountering the rainy season. June, July and August are the busiest months.
Need to know
Currency: Peruvian Sol (PEN). £1 = PEN 4.75.
Health: Check with your GP, prior to departure, about vaccinations. There’s no malaria risk in highland areas.
International dial code: +51.
Time: GMT -5.
How to do it
KE Adventure offers 13 days in Peru with four nights in hotels and lodges and eight nights camping, with nine days on the Choquequirao-Machu Picchu trek, including guides, tents, transfers and most meals, from £1,295 per person (from £2,175 with flights included).
Published in the October 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)