How to get to Choquequirao

Machu Picchu's best alternative

How to get to Choquequirao
By Mike Gasparovic

Machu Picchu 2.0: so rave visitors to this mountaintop citadel in Peru’s rugged Vilcabamba region. And indeed, if any Inca ruin can give the more celebrated site a run for its money, it’s this one.

Choquequirao was erected in the latter part of the 15th century, most likely under the reign of Tupac Inca Yupanqui (1471-1493). Like Machu Picchu, it was probably designed as a pleasure retreat and administrative centre for the Sapa Inca, but after the empire’s collapse in the late 1500s, it too lay abandoned and unknown for centuries. As with its more famous sister, its obscurity owed a great deal to geography: the site lies on the far, unpopulated side of a peak overlooking the Apurímac River, at a height of some 10,000 feet.

What do the ruins look like?

Choquequirao is situated on a leveled hill saddle some 60 miles as the crow — or condor — flies from Cusco. Its location reflects the Inca notion of sacred geography: both the Apurímac River below and the glaciated 18,000-foot peak above were considered holy. The site occupies seven square miles, three times the size of Machu Picchu, of which only 30% has been cleared of vegetation.

Upon arrival, the first thing you’ll see are massive walled terraces rising to the right. Like most of Choquequirao’s stonework, these are very well preserved. From there, you haul yourself up a short rise to the main or lower plaza, with its manicured green lawn and crisp grey dwellings. But the full revelation comes when you look up at the surrounding peaks: the views are awe-inspiring.

Choquequirao-2

The site

The key reference points at Choquequirao are the lower and upper plazas, two grassy plains roughly 650 feet apart.

The former is the starting point for all tourists. It’s surrounded by a variety of buildings, including three two-story houses for elite residents, a small sun temple, and a six-door kallanka (assembly hall). It’s connected to the citadel’s upper precincts by water channels and stone stairways. Behind it, but still on the same level to the north, is a series of cruder buildings designed for the Inca’s attendants. These likely included kitchens, storehouses and workshops.

The upper plaza has a more distinctively religious cast. There, you’ll find temples and priestly quarters, a ceremonial bath, and colcas (storage units) that possibly served as refrigerators for foodstuffs. Also present are a series of stone water channels, which served important aesthetic as well as religious functions for the Inca.

The history of Choquequirao

As with Machu Picchu, there’s still a good deal of debate about Choquequirao’s function. The most plausible hypothesis is that it was a sort of hermitage for Tupac Inca Yupanqui, who sought to rival the architectural achievements of his father, the great Pachacutec. The latter had built royal estates at Pisac, Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu, and it’s likely his son felt the need to erect a monument to his own royalness in the same Sacred Valley.

The dating of Choquequirao is facilitated by the Chachapoya elements in its construction. We know the Inca conquered the Chachapoyas, the great warrior tribe from the north, sometime in the 1470s, and peculiarities in the complex’s rock inlays make it clear they imported Chachapoya workmen to assist with its detailing not long after. This makes Choquequirao a true one-off among Inca monuments.

Inca culture

The Inca were the greatest empire that has ever existed in the Americas, with territories stretching from modern-day Colombia and Ecuador all the way to Chile and Argentina. At its peak, the empire covered some 800,000 square miles and exacted tribute from some 10 million subjects. Yet for all its grandeur, it was surprisingly short-lived: just 100 years in its peak phase, from the start of Pachacutec’s reign in 1438 to the Spanish Conquest in 1533.

Aside from their monumental architecture, built without horses, the wheel, or iron tools, the Inca are known for their 25,000-mile road system, the Capac Ñan, which unified their far-flung empire into a cohesive whole. They also had a genius for administration: out of a chaos of warring tribes, they built a unified state based on discipline and a firm ethical code. Finally, through their sophisticated cultivation of crops on hillside terraces, they created a society where hunger effectively ceased to exist.

How to get to Choquequirao

At least one full day is necessary to see Choquequirao properly. However, since visitors inevitably come equipped with camping gear, they can extend their time as long as they like. Two, three, even four-day stays are common to explore the many satellite precincts. The only limit is one’s eagerness to get back to civilisation.

Choquequirao has no on-site guides or museums. It’s possible, however, to hire expert guides back in Cusco who can provide thorough explanations of the ruins.

Choquequirao is not easily accessible to tourists. This is its chief drawback — or virtue, depending on your outlook. Its remoteness means that only 20 or so people visit each day, so if you’d like to experience what Machu Picchu was like before the tourist hordes invaded, this is your chance. Remember, the site does require a strenuous two-day trek from the drop-off point at Cachora pueblo, with lots of rugged climbs and rudimentary camping facilities. If you’re not up for a taxing five- or six-day round trip, it might be best to wait for the cable-car system that Peru’s government apparently has in the works.

Choquequirao

Key features

Key features to look out for include the following:

Giant stairway: Descending from the upper plaza is a massive stairway that stops abruptly mid-hillside. It apparently served as a solar marker: the sun shines directly on it on the summer solstice.

Ceremonial platform: To the south of the main plaza is one of the complex’s most striking features: an usnu (raised circular platform) that provides sweeping views of the whole landscape. The Inca would have used it for astronomical and mountain worship.

Llama terraces: The Inca’s Chachapoya workmen built what is Choquequirao’s most colourful adornment: a series of high terraces inlaid with quartzite llama figures. They’re located down a steep slope to the east of the usnu.

Satellite huacas: For those interested in exploring the site more fully, there are two sacred temples or huacas located several hours’ hike from the main complex. Their stonework is worth seeing, but each represents a full day-trip in itself.

How to get to Choquequirao

By Mike Gasparovic

Mike is an independent travel writer based in Lima, Peru. He has written for Fodor’s, Peru This Week and has created two book-length guides to his new hometown. His chief interests are the history and culture of the Spanish speaking world.

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