Cradle Of Gold

3 December 2014

The ancient man-made wonders of the world have etched their grandeur into our collective memory over hundreds, even thousands of years. They inspire our curiosity and demand that we lend our respect to foreign cultures and immemorial peoples. For travellers, they’re must-see destinations.

But for all the wonder, when we plan to visit, we worry. We’ve heard tell of crass development, shonky guides and crowds of aimless tourists. Worst of all, we’ve heard of damage done by high volume tourism to the very sites we’re meant to be venerating.

Sound familiar?

It does to me. I’m on my way to Machu Picchu, and I fear being sucked onto a gringo conveyor belt with no exit except through a misty-terraced gift shop. But luckily I’ve had time to travel through South America with my ear to the ground. And that thing has happened, the one where you talk to seasoned wanderers who speak in drunken passages from The Road Less Travelled. I have been entrusted with the secret.

There is no ‘Inca Trail.’

Well, not one anyway. There are ancient trails all over the place that you can still walk on today. And there’s a bigger secret:

Machu Picchu isn’t the only ‘lost city of the Incas’.

 The day’s last rays catch the uppermost-excavated point of the Choquequirao ruin complex

Peru is loaded with myriad archaeological sites, and it wasn’t just the Incas who left marvels. The Chimú, Tiwanaku, Wari, Paracas, Nazca and Moche cultures all left great legacies here. Though right now I’m trekking into a vertiginous corner of the Apurímac region with the little known Incan ‘sister city to Machu Picchu’ in my sights.

Meaning ‘cradle of gold’ in the Quechua language, Choquequirao is another ruin complex located on an alternate eight-day ‘Inca Trail.’ Though just like the Inca trail, that follows the Urubamba Valley 50 kilometres away, this one also ends at Machu Picchu – but with an infinitesimal fraction of the crowds along the way.

Hiking with me are Katy, my Urubambina guide, Vicente, a local ‘arriero’ (muleskinner) who speaks mostly in Quechua, and his two pack mules who begrudge our tent, stove equipment and food.

 Our arriero, Vicente, is so fit, and knows the trails of Choquequirao so well, that each day he catches us before lunch despite always leaving camp at least an hour after us

It takes half a day’s sweat from the pink quinoa fields of Cachora village for the landscape to reveal an impossible montane-labyrinth. A canyon twice as deep as the Arizona Grand sinks into a shadow cast by the snow-dusted crest of 6,271-metre Mount Salcantay. Below, the river Apurímac rages - source to the Amazon. It’s daunting to see how far we have to descend to camp at a river beach called Rosalina. But it’s even more daunting to gauge how much we have to again ascend, and then descend each and every exhausting day of the trek.

Just to complicate things, I discover at our first dinner that the eight days of food for Katy and I that I’ve tightly prepared to avoid carrying any excess weight - has to also feed Vicente. So with virtually nill opportunities to resupply, we’re on rations!

In the morning we tackle a 1500-metre ascent to arrive at the sleepy, improvised park entry to Choquequirao by 3pm. The only other tourist we meet, half way up the calf-burner, is a Chilean bodybuilder nearing the point of collapse, who calls to his arriero for a spare mule to carry him. Somewhere there’s a message on the utility of gym physiques (I pity the mule). But we’re just amazed to arrive on a semi-cleared Incan terrace, on the sharp spine of a monumental peak, with the mystery of ancient stones above and not a soul to disturb the peace. The Chilean never shows up.

 A local arriero (muleskinner) drives his team of pack mules into the Apurímac Canyon, source of the Amazon

After a rest and a ration-saving-shared-muesli-bar between us, Katy and I spend the last hours of the day exploring the cradle’s vertigo-inducing staircases. It’s a beguiling experience. Unlike Machu Picchu, the ruins here have only been excavated an estimated 30% since ‘re-discovery’ in 1909, and less is known about the cultural significance of each site. The most prominent is Sunch'u Pata, a 30 by 50 metre clearing carved off the top of a peak like a landing pad for the sun god Inti.

With epic vertical drops on both sides, it’s clear why Manco Inca Yupanqui used Choquequirao as his last bastion of resistance against the Spanish conquest: its position is impregnable. But it’s more than a fortress. There are many large stone buildings here that Katy explains played home to royals, administrators and artisans, and there is a constant supply of water. I fill my bottle in one of several amazingly-still-functioning stone water channels and admire the designs of alpacas still clearly visible in the terrace walls.

 Ruins on a high terrace in the Choquequirao ruin complex

When we climb onto Sunch'u Pata for sunset, the view of circling condors over a snaking Apurímac canyon make it clear why many visitors find spiritual meaning in their visit. Nowhere else have I felt such a raw connection between the sky, the mountains, the greatest river on earth and one of the most dramatic chapters in colonial history.

It’s only the next day, after crossing the Rio Blanco that we can look back and get a sense that the original site covers a full 1800 hectares. I’m sure I can just faintly make out the shape of terraces hidden by the jungle canopy. What secrets are they yet to reveal?

It’s hard to imagine that in a few short years, a cable car development out to tender by the Peruvian government will fill this view, linking Choquequirao to the path well travelled.

 My guide, Katy, on our first of many knee buckling descents along the Apurímac Canyon

It takes us five more inspiring-yet-gruelling days - including a climb over a 4668-metre pass, and several knee buckling descents - before we meet at the end of that other Inca Trail in Aguas Calientes, at the base of Machu Picchu. There the downsides of development are on full display. But after losing all our body fat in a week, Katy and I barely notice the tacky restaurant façades and incorrectly adjusted bills. All eyes are on the food! We even allow our exhausted bodies the luxury of a bus ride to the citadel at first light.

As expected, there’s a crowd up there. Though fortunately for us, they don’t yet know about the secret way we came.

Cam Cope

Cam Cope is a photo journalist and the 2014 Australian Travel Photographer of the Year. He regularly contributes features to a range of publications, exhibits in galleries, presents on travel photography and runs overseas photo-workshops. He also maintains an art practice and has had work acquired for the permanent collection of the Melbourne Museum. When he's not sailing in Patagonia, riding horses with nomads in Mongolia, lurching on the back of a truck in the Bolivian Andes or out bush exploring Australian Aboriginal culture, he can be found at home base in Melbourne.