The Road to Ruins
10.09.2006 30 °C
Thursday 07 - Monday 11 September
An epic, non-Machu Picchu (see last entry) hike whilst in Peru seemed like a great idea at the time. Trawling the local tour operators, a four-day fully-catered hike to Choquequirao - an impressive, intact, but relatively tourist-free Inca settlement situated high on a mountain - sounded perfect.
Friday 08 September
Arriving at the small sleepy village of Cachora on the outskirts of Cuzco, we were introduced to our 'catering' team for the next four days; a chef, his assistant, a horse-handler, and our trusty guide, Ronal.
The Choquequirao Four
As we ate breakfast, our packs, food, tents, and equipment were loaded onto horses which were then briskly lead away by the handler and the chef.
Well fed and raring to go, we headed down Cachora's dusty main street, across a patch of farmland and eventually onto the track to Choquequirao itself. Despite the early start the day was already hot, but the long opening stretch began on level ground before ultimately descending steeply into the river valley where we would camp for the night. We kept a fair walking pace and high spirits. We'd that this trek would be hard, but -hey!- we'd yomped up Ben Lomond in New Zealand with no problems and by comparison, today seemed a doddle... Oh how we'd look back later and laugh (cry) at such naivety.
Anyway, the scenery was breathtaking and the walking was good.
Around midday we caught up with the chef and horses and a surprisingly good impromptu lunch was rustled up using nothing more than veg, rice and a camp-stove.
The afternoon's walk lasted only three or so hours before we arrived at camp, where our tent had already been pitched and our packs were waiting - what service! Within half an hour, afternoon tea(!) was served and then we were free to relax until dinner, when the chef again produced an impressive three-course meal using maximum skill and minimum equipment.
After around seven hours' walking, sleep came easily in the cosy black silence of our tent.
Saturday 09 September
06.45 - breakfast time. If nothing else, we were incredibly well fed on this trek. Breakfast consisted of fresh fruit, bread, coffee and pancakes, plus all the Coca leaves (to combat altitude sickness) we could eat.
Today's walk would be long, but at least began downhill to a river crossing deep in the valley, on the other side of which we would begin the steep climb towards Choquequirao itself.
A straightforward 40-minute walk brought us to the river. Once over the bridge though, it was time to ascend the first mountain. Still early morning, we had lower temperatures on our side and it didn't take us long to realise that we needed all the help we could get.
The path consisted of a steeply ascending zig-zag; the photos don't do justice to the length of each section of path, and as our legs grew steadily more tired those zigs and zags seemed to become progressively steeper...
A mid-morning refreshment stop couldn't have been more welcome, and partially restored by sugary Fanta and Inca Kola we began to climb again. With the baking sun now climbing high, the real slog began...
"But I've only got little legs..."
Distant Choquequirao beckoned, but as the warm afternoon gently passed the apparently endless ascending paths conspired to sap every last drop of our stamina. Stops for water became more frequent, and our pace became more gradual. And then, somehow, miraculously, the climbing ended and the path levelled into a wide sweeping arc between our mountain and the next, where the vast terraces of ancient Choquequirao rose on the slopes far below and to our left.
Progress was easier now, but even with the spritely Ronal urging us on we were both knackered. The crunch came when we eventually reached a fork in the path; a left turn sloped gently down to this evening's camp and a respite for hideously aching legs. A right turn offered a further long, steady climb up to and around Choquequirao
itself. Sharon sensibly opted for the camp, but having come this far I had to go on...
...but this final push was well worth the effort. For my money, Choquequirao is at least as good as Machu Picchu but doesn't yet suffer from hordes of tourists crawling over every inch of it. This then, was the scene as the sun began to sink on day two of the trek:-
Sunday 10 September
Whilst yesterday's triumphant arrival at Choquequirao gave me a wonderful feeling of fulfilment, I was so glad to arrive back at camp, eat another of cheffy's excellent meals and collapse into my sleeping bag alongside an already-snoring Sharon.
Awakening this morning it seemed as though someone had encased our legs in plastercasts overnight! Today, thankfully, was to be the reverse of yesterday's arduous climb. Not to be underestimated, of course; we still had a huge distance to cover, and this time with stiff, aching muscles, but at least it was 90% downhill.
We were shocked at breakfast to see that one of the packhorses had bled profusely from the neck; according to the handler the horse had been prey to a vampire bat during the night. Ugh.
Inevitably, travelling downhill was quicker than climbing although we were still overtaken shamefully quickly by the chef and the horses despite leaving camp a good hour or more ahead of them. The day seemed cooler and as we hit our stride even the tension in our leg muscles seemed to ease. Not being as time-pressured as yesterday we were able to fully appreciate the majesty of our surroundings once more.
In what seemed a surprisingly short time, we were following the path along the river valley to the bridge that would take us over and up to the camp at the end of day three. But as we made that brief climb to camp, warning bells began to sound - and fresh agonies sprang from our tortured leg muscles. This was a one-hour climb; tomorrow we would be climbing solidly for a good five hours...
Monday 11 September
Ronal had been very patient with us; he sensed that we might not be quite as fit as we thought, and so today he cannily ensured that we quickly left camp after a very early breakfast.
What can I tell you about that last day's walk? It was hot, it was strenuous, it was exhausting and it was long. Those steep zig-zags that we had merrily cantered down just days ago now sapped us remorselessly. On the upside, though, frequent rest stops gave more opportunity to admire our surroundings and on one memorable occasion we were fortunate enough to see a magnificent Peruvian Condor in flight.
Slowly and surely we ticked off the kilometers and -after an age- the last climb levelled out. Choquequirao was now far behind us, invisible behind a mountain, and we were back on the long winding trail to Cachora. Sensing the proximity of the home straight rewarded us with a sudden burst of speed, which we maintained right up until reaching the farmland outlying the village; here, Sharon's legs finally admitted defeat. With much cajoling and encouragement from Ronal, we crawled the last few hundred yards into town and stopped. As our ever-conscientious chef produced one final excellent lunch for us, a wave of ecstasy and fulfillment at what we had achieved washed over us - it had been hard, but the trek to Choquequirao formed perhaps the defining moment of our year; we wouldn't have missed it for the world.
Sunset from Choququirao