The Inca Trail Less Travelled

Approximately five hundred years ago, Machu Picchu was a living city, inhabited by Incas who sustained themselves by farming the vertiginous terraces they had carved out of the mountainside, and by worshipping the gods of mountain and sun.

After the American archaeologist Hiram Bingham stumbled upon the “Lost City” in 1911, one of the many routes the Inca used to connect themselves with other Inca sites gradually became one of the world’s great hikes for the hardy and intrepid. It follows the steep contours of the Andes, passes by multiple Inca forts and ruins, and offers spectacular views of snow-capped mountains and fertile valleys, culminating in one of the world’s most dramatic heritage sites.

Today, however, the hardy and intrepid will likely find their satisfaction upon arrival at the site somewhat diminished, when they are greeted by thousands of tourists who have arrived nonchalantly by bus and train from Cusco for the day. The trekker then, lean and tan from the exertion, finds herself exploring the quasi-mythical ruins alongside hordes of smart-phone-wielding visitors taking selfies with the llamas.

Or possibly worse. In 2014, while Machu Picchu topped Travel Advisor’s list of world destinations, the Peruvian government was angrily clamping down on naked tourists posing for Facebook photos. One couple was videotaped streaking across the main square, between Intihuatana and the Sacred Rock.

While Machu Picchu is approaching, or has achieved, over-exploitation, so is the Inca Trail that leads there. So much so that the Peruvian government requires trekkers to hire a guide and purchase a permit, which are limited to 500 a day (this does not seem very limited, indicating how crowded the trail can be). Guides are costly, many operators charging north of $1000 per person, and if you go with the lowest bidder you will find the quality of equipment and food is reflected.

Hiram Bingham might well be satisfied that his discovery is now appreciated by so many people. There is even a luxury train, the “Hiram Bingham” from Cusco, which serves gourmet meals, provides entertainment and costs some $800 round trip. The city has turned Cusco, a provincial capital, into a major regional center and tourist mecca bringing thousands of people each year from around the world.

Yet Bingham might also sigh wistfully at the loss of mystique which accompanies such popularity, and more practically, he might also frown at the idea of so many of those tourist dollars going into the pockets of the Peruvian elite and foreign corporations like Hyatt and Sheraton, and not the local and indigenous people who need them more urgently, and whose ancestors, in the generation leading up to their near extirpation by the Spanish, built the very place those foreigners and elites are benefitting from.

The Inca Trail, in other words, is compromised. No longer does it afford the magic it once offered. Notwithstanding the influx of wealth to the region, World Bank data reports that some 25% of Peruvians meet the national poverty level, the country having an average annual income of around $6,000. Inca Trail porters fall within that 25% and are among the world’s super-poor, working for peanuts. Some trekking outfits are no doubt better than others, but the Trail gets a bad rap for the very fact that it allows human porters (mules, asses and horses not being permitted for ecological reasons as they are on other long-distance trails in Peru).

All of this should make trekkers squirm a little as they strap on a fanny pack with chapstick, and head into the mountains, anticipating the three course meal which will greet them, and which is being carried by impoverished men — and boys — in sandals who will beat them to the camp site, set up the tents and cook it before they arrive.

But while Machu Picchu remains a must-see destination if you are in Peru, it does not have to be combined with the Inca Trail. We opted for a flying visit (by train and bus) on a day-long outing from Cusco, and saved our hiking for one of the “alternative” Inca Trails, to the “lost city” of Choquequirao. This, of course, meant that we had to participate in the disappointment of Inca Trail trekkers, but thanks to Peru Rail there are quicker ways to cross that particular site off one’s list.

The Inca city of Choquequirao, or “Cradle of Gold” in Quechua, is indeed neatly cradled in a saddle of the mountains at about 2900 meters. On one side the mountains fall away precipitously to the gorge of the Apurimac river. A promontory extends over the river allowing impressive views out of the mountains, in the direction of the Amazon jungle, towards which the Apurimac flows, while behind to the east lie the snow-capped Andean peaks, including Salkantay, another favorite Machu Picchu alternative.

And just as it was something of an outlier of Machu Picchu half a millennia ago, allowing the Incas a base before crossing the river and sending trade and raid sorties into the jungle, Choque, as locals refer to it, is not easy to reach today. A long five-hour drive by hair-raising switchback roads from Cusco takes you west, over the mountains. Descending several thousand feet into a valley that seems to be lost in time, we drove past tiny fields of maize, amaranth and quinoa, its purple heads swaying in the breeze. Small flocks of sheep and goats wandered around the roads, tended by small children and old women; the rural poverty seemed weirdly alleviated by the majestic setting; poor people living in a rich natural environment. A small building on the outskirts of the village of Cachora acts as the trail head, and is as far as any wheeled vehicles are aloud — or able — to go.

You are not required to have a guide on the Choquequirao trail, just as you are not for most trails in Peru. We opted for one (I like to say that this was for the ease of my two kids) and he mustered three horses, a cook and two horsemen. The horsemen were local to the region, while the cook, a twenty-one-year-old named Xaime, was from Cusco, and we picked him up before we left town. This made five men shepherding three foreigners up the mountain. We did pass several individuals and couples who were making the trek alone, backpacking up and down. Our guide, Lorenzo, a pioneer of the Cusco-region treks, grumbled about these solo westerners. I tried to explain that not all people who came to Peru could afford a guide and horses. Many were traveling for months and existing on a shoestring budget, but Lorenzo did not seem to buy it.

Ultimately, as long as you arrange your trek locally, your dollars go to the local people, and this is the heart of the issue for most trekkers. Assuming that the horsemen want the work, they should be properly remunerated, and this is best done by purchasing services as directly as possible from the guides and participants of the trek and not from a business owner who then shorts his staff. Some outfits book from London or New York, and use foreign guides. If you book locally, or with the right outfit — which are usually reachable from abroad over email — you can be assured that the money you’re spending goes to a local guide, horsemen and associated assets. And if you are worried that the trekking company does not pay their staff well enough, you can verify this and make up for it by healthy (though not excessive) tipping.

The trail to Choquequirao itself began by descending for several hot, dusty hours, via switchbacks, into the valley of the Apurimac. Lorenzo scanned the skies constantly for eagles and Condors. “They bring me luck,” he said. “If we see one then we have a good trek.” On the way, Lorenzo found a black micro-fiber shirt. He picked it up and sniffed it. “Tourists,” he announced, and hid it carefully behind a rock. “One of the horsemen will like that!”

Half an hour after leaving we saw our first Condor. It was below us, riding the thermal currents in the canyon. Its wing-span must have been nearly ten feet. Lorenzo closed his eyes and muttered some imprecations to the Apu, or sacred mountain. Things were looking up.

We spent the first night at low altitude on the banks of the river, which, although it was the dry season, was still flowing vigorously. About us on either side the mountains rose to above 3000 meters, and as the sun descended below the mountains the wind rose, and moaned its way through the canyon, blowing up dust eddies as it went.

Xaime, who had learned his trade as a teenage porter on the Inca Trail, used a rough stone building that was the center-piece of the camp site, to set up his one-burner stove. After laying out a table of cookies, hot chocolate, cocoa leaves and little deep-fried crispy wontons filled with queso blanco, he began cooking dinner. This was a three-course affair, kicked off by vegetable soup with a rich chicken broth, followed by the flagship Peruvian dish, Lomo Saltado, a kind of stir-fried beef with steamed rice. Finally, as my kids’ eyes were glazing over, he produced little steel bowls filled with chocolate pudding — which caught their attention. Xaime enlisted the help of the two monosyllabic horsemen, Benito and Samuel, to act as awkward waiters.

The next day was long. We crossed the river two at a time in a metal crate suspended thirty feet in the air, powered by a pulley system. We abandoned the horses. Lorenzo had hired someone to walk three horses an extra two days down river to a crossing, then ascend 2000 meters and come back down again to meet us on the other side. Once we were all across the river we began a seven-hour hike up to 2900 meters and the site of Choquequirao.

When we reached about 2700 meters we could look across a deep gulley to the ridge where the city was perched. Several hundred meters below the site itself was a system of terraces covering about 20 acres. If you looked carefully, Lorenzo pointed out, you could see that the terraces were designed to resemble a fox, in a typically ancient South American tradition, perhaps started by the people of Nazca, who seemed to be able to figure out how things would look from a thousand feet up. These terraces teetered on the edge of the mountain where they caught the morning sun and the fresh breezes as they blew across the canyon.

Fox terraces at Choquequirao

Twenty-five years ago Lorenzo had bushwacked a trail up to this Inca site before anyone else had investigated it. Although it had been discovered in 1911 (the same year as Machu Picchu) only an estimated 30 % of the site has been excavated. And archaeologists are discovering new terrace systems constantly. “One summer,” said Lorenzo, “I spent weeks exploring the mountain-side with an American archaeologist. We came across lots of structures. I know the whole hillside is covered in them,” he gestured towards the enormous bulk of the mountain on which Choque sat, covered in thick foliage. “Temples, ritual buildings, terraces, its all here. Bigger than Machu.”

We passed a couple of simple farmsteads, which clung to the side of the mountain. Maize was laid out on the ground to dry in the sun. After a small government checkpoint, we navigated our way up to the site, for another hour or so. Finally the trail opened up into a wide avenue with brush on one side and a ten-foot restored stone wall on the other. Heavy paving stones formed the roadway, which continued for some hundred meters. Then we climbed up a rough stone path and entered the main plaza, a large grassy area ringed by stone dwellings.

Unlike Machu Picchu, which was more densely packed, Choque’s structures were fairly dispersed. The plaza sat in a low spot on the mountain, below it were some large terraces and the entrance avenue, above it on one side was a large, possibly ritual, space about the size of a baseball field. On the other side of the plaza was a climb up to another ritual site with a temple, and a series of large walled gardens.

It was evening by the time we reached the city, and we were tired. Lorenzo embarked on a full-scale explication of the site, bounding up to the high points of the city and pointing out the details of architecture that enabled us to visualize how the residents of this place might have lived. But it was impossible to truly imagine what it must have been like to have made this place a home — perched above the condors, with terrifying drop offs on all sides, heart-thumping climbs in every direction, peaks towering above you and the world at your feet. As with all such imaginings we were left grasping to comprehend what like might have been like for people here six hundred years ago. But most notable was the silence. Unlike Machu Picchu, where we were surrounded by several thousand visitors, here we were alone.

At a small temple located next to where the city’s irrigation system emerged from the mountainside, carrying water from a mountain-top lake several miles away, Lorenzo decided to conduct a cocoa leaf ceremony.

By this time my nineteen-year-old daughter had absorbed all the architecture and history she could for the day. Lorenzo summoned us to mount the final few stones, as she put an imaginary gun to her head and pulled the trigger. My eleven-year-old son bounced the final few steps toward the guide. We stood inside a small ceremonial space directly below where the town’s aqueduct entered the city. There was a nook in the wall where votive offerings were placed.

“I believe in the mountain gods, the Apus,” Lorenzo said. “And father Sun.” He grinned, pulling out a small pouch of cocoa leaves. He selected several choice specimens and gave us each three, which he told us to hold between thumb and forefinger. “When I perform rituals I always feel good about myself, about the trek, about my friends. The mountains and the sun are the Inca gods. I always make offerings to them and give thanks.”

“Does that make it difficult to follow the Catholic Church?” I asked, just for kicks. He hesitated and then grinned and said “Sometimes.” So much for the Conquest, I thought to myself. It is easy to get the impression that the Conquistadors ended the Inca way of life when they captured Cusco, lopping off the head of the empire. But sometimes decapitation does not kill the body.

Main plaza at Choquequirao

Lorenzo closed his eyes as we stood in a circle around him. Without his Patagonia shirt and with a bit more alpaca he would have been a dead ringer for Atahualpa.

He began muttering Quechua phrases, a string of mountain names: “Apu Machu Picchu, Apu Salkantay, Apu Choquequirao.” I listened attentively and opened my eyes. My son was grinning under his baseball cap, uncomfortable, and frankly bored, in this ceremonial setting. My daughter was hovering between exhaustion and annoyance. But then Lorenzo said, “Apu Sexy Woman.” A beat went by, and I made the mistake of looking at my daughter with a “what the fuck?” expression. She snorted loudly, then bent over to cover her mouth. My son let out a squeak, and I shot them both appropriately stern looks. Lorenzo continued unmoved, going through the list of Apus. Then, just as we were recovering, he said “Apu Inti Wanker.” Both children doubled over in a superhuman attempt to keep their mirth under control. Was Lorenzo messing with us? Or did some mountains just have really inappropriate names?

Llama Terraces at Choquequirao

He finally concluded the ceremony by having us blow on the cocoa leaves and place them in the small votive nook where Incas had placed them half a millennia ago, probably without the presence of disrespectful foreigners. Afterwards we sat on the grass in the plaza, completely alone, looking out over the Incas’ domain. Why did they build up here, I asked Lorenzo, feeling the supreme isolation. “They wanted to be closer to their gods,” he said simply.

Finally we descended twenty minutes down the far side of the mountain, to where, only a few years ago, a large system of terraces had been uncovered. This one was decorated with llamas on the facing walls, outlined in white stone. More agricultural terraces to feed what was obviously a substantial population, these ones faced the direction of the Amazon. The message was clear: We are the People of the Llama. This is our domain. To me it seemed a little like the Hollywood sign. But given the lack of our modern communication devices, this was architecture-as- message, conveying meaning, political, social and cultural, in stone.

Recently the Peruvian government approved plans to build a cable car to Choque. It is not clear how long this will take, but the consequences are predictable. Most notably, for the locals it will mean an end — or certainly a diminution — of business for guides, horsemen and cooks, as people fly into the region, and are conveyed up the mountain by equipment owned by large companies from Lima or beyond. The planned cable cars will have a capacity of 400 people per car, allowing several thousand visitors per day. And when they arrive, they will find, just as at Machu Picchu, many, many others there with them, snapping selfies and dropping candy wrappers, and possibly streaking across the plaza.

Back in Cusco we found the answer to a question that had been bothering us. Looking through Lonely Planet for a few more things to do before we flew home, we noticed that the large site of a major Spanish-Inca battle, Sacasay hwooman was, in fact Lorenzo’s sexy woman. As the guide said, its pronunciation usually causes inappropriate giggles from easily-titillated tourists. In the Plaza de Armas, preparations were underway for the Inti Raymi festival of the sun. School children were practicing Inca dances and ceremonies. Large viewing stands were being erected. Thousands of people showed up every evening, most in Inca costumes. Its is very possible that this apparent vibrancy of Inca culture is, in fact, a revival spurred by the tourist boom over the last few decades. But it also seems that Lorenzo, his cocoa leaf ceremonies, and his worship of the apus represented cultural springs with deep roots, roots which the Conquistadors had failed to entirely dig up. It remains to be seen whether the tourists, with their smart phones and micro-fibre shirts, can.

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