INCAN CITADEL Maccu Picchu, which lies more than 7,000 feet above sea level in the Andes Mountains of Peru.
A chance meeting with Aoife Mannion on the slopes of Croagh Patrick, earlier this spring, first sparked our interest.
Aoife told us she was off to Peru in late September to do some serious high-Andean trekking, from Choquequirao to the Incan citadel of Machu Picchu. We thought no more about it until the end of June, when, returning from our weekly stint on the Reek, Noel Brady and I decided to sign up for it too. To add to our surprise, Mary Murphy, another of our fellow-volunteers on the mountain’s path-restoration project, told us that she was going to Peru as well.
The original ‘lost city’
Everyone equates the 15th-century Machu Picchu with ‘the lost city of the Incas’, but in many ways Choquequirao was the original lost city. Its name translates as ‘Cradle of Gold’. The trek to reach it is tougher than the Inca Trail, because it comprises a series of very stiff descents and gruelling climbs at altitude.
Our itinerary took us first to Choquechirao, making for a longer, more arduous trek that then continued to Machu Picchu. In this way, we were well acclimatised and fit for eight consecutive days of walking and camping in the wild.
American explorer Hiram Bingham made his way to Choquequirao in 1909 and was inspired to seek out the great sites of Machu Picchu and Espíritu Pampa in 1911. Indeed, before his discovery, Choquequirao was the only known major Inca ruin in the region, and parts of it are still being revealed and uncovered every year. One of the most recent discoveries that we were shown, revealed in 2005, is a series of enormous agricultural terraces, each decorated with built-in llama motifs made from white rocks.
The Inca capital of Cusco is a delightful city with loads of Incan walls and fortifications still to be seen throughout the city and its environs. At just under 3,400 metres above sea level, walking around Cusco can leave you breathless. Once we had acclimatised there over a couple of days, it was time to head to the village of Cachora by minibus to commence our hiking.
Rainforests and mountains
The first day was a gentle start, with only a few metres of ascent to the Capuyloc Pass (2,915m) followed by a long descent to the valley floor at Playa Rosalinas via a series of zig-zags or switchbacks. It was here, in this area notorious for its mosquitoes, that we camped for the first night. Fortunately, in recent years, a new steel bridge (Puente Rosalinas) across the Apurimac River, made the river crossing at the start of Day 2 easier, and we left the campsite early to avoid as much of the morning heat as possible.
Passing through the tiny farms of Santa Rosa Lower and Upper, we reached Marampata (2,850m) at lunchtime and enjoyed a well-earned rest in very pleasant surroundings. Then it was onwards and upwards to our second campsite, on a terrace below Choquechirao, where we spent the night. The afternoon walk, leading into the ‘greater’ Choquechirao reserve and ‘Camp 2’, was not without incident. A recent landslide had sloughed away a short section of the trail, making for a precarious and heart-stopping traverse to the safety of the other side, aided by a rope that one of the local rangers had just put in place.
Having arrived safely in Camp 2, we enjoyed one of the fabulous four-course dinners our chef, William, and his team of Alfredo, Elias and Armando, provided for us each day while on the trail. Our three wonderful guides, Edgar, William and Juvenal, were excellent throughout. They guided us safely through the difficult terrain and their knowledge of Incan culture and history was extensive. For the duration of the hike, our team of 19 horses, managed by four good-humoured arrieros, made our lives very easy by taking on all the stress of pitching and breaking camp and carrying our surplus equipment.
On Day 3, after a hearty breakfast, we commenced the final short ascent to the Choquechirao site. The views of the surrounding mountains and river valleys were spectacular and impossible to capture in photographs. It was almost like we arrived in from the sky as our first glimpses of the ruins of the city were from a flat, plateau-like area above the ruins – believed to have been a sacrificial site.
While at Choquechirao, we enjoyed two guided site tours, one en route in the morning in the priests’ sanctuary and another over a picnic lunch in the grounds of the ‘city.’ Then came a steep-pathed descent to the white llama motif-decorated terraces, and finally, the ascent to Choquechirao again. Then we climbed up and over Choquechirao Pass (3,300m) in order to reach our next campsite.
Campsite 3, at Pinchiunuyocc, was probably my favourite, as it was located on Inca terraces beside unrestored ruins. It was in a spectacular location, overlooking both the rainforest and cloud-forest and a whole expanse of mountains behind mountains stretching as far as the eye could see. We witnessed a flaming orange sunset and the cacophony of natural sounds emanating from the forests below lulled us into a deep sleep.
Peruvian fulacht fia
The next day was another long trek. Having crossed the Rio Blanco, it was a long, arduous ascent to a farming community at Maizal (3,000m). A cold shower never felt so good upon arrival and we soon warmed up again in the late afternoon sunshine.
Day 5 was our only cloudy one, almost a welcome relief from the intense heat of the previous days. A five-hour ascent took us to Abra San Juan Pass (4,150m) and we witnessed much evidence of silver and lead mining.
Our cooks had a lovely lunch ready for us at the pass and after a short rest we commenced our descent to the traditional Andean village of Yanama. The track leading down to the valley floor was cut out of the side of the mountain, with vertigo-inducing drops to the other side. Then we were taken over Abra Mariano Llamocca pass (4,643 m) and down into the village of Collpapampa in Santa Teresa for the night.
The following morning we had a beautiful walk above the rapidly-flowing Urubamba River, enjoying fresh fruit juices, avocado rolls and some locally-made chocolate en route. That afternoon our visit to the coffee farm in Lucmabamba included a full guided tour of coffee-bean harvesting and processing to finished coffee.
We also enjoyed the best lunch of the whole trip with everything cooked by our team in a pit over hot stones – very traditional and a lot of hard work. It was reminiscent of ancient Irish fulacht fia cooking. That evening we went to the local thermal springs for some well-earned, muscle-soothing bathing and relaxation.
Wonder of the world
On the morning of Day 7 we were off hiking again from Santa Teresa along the back of Machu Picchu Mountain, on the railway track to Aquas Calientes (Machu Picchu Town), where we slept in a bed again.
At this point we intersected the route of the traditional Inca Trail to Machu Picchu itself, arriving in mid-afternoon of what was now the eighth and final day of our hiking expedition.
No photograph or YouTube video can compare with seeing this wonder of the world, and we treasured the moment of passing through the Sun Gate and beholding the ancient city laid out below us.
We were back up in Machu Picchu again the next morning, this time by bus, for a full two-hour guided tour from Edgar and William. That afternoon, in Aquas Calientes, we enjoyed a leisurely lunch and a ramble around the town.
The wonderful Peruvian Rail train, with skylight windows showing off the towering snow-capped peaks, took us as far as Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley and from there, a minibus brought us back again to Cusco for a celebratory dinner that evening and lovely accommodation in the Cusco Plaza (Nazarenas) hotel.
Most of our group took the one-day optional trip to Rainbow Mountain (Vinicunca) – the highest point reached on the whole expedition, at 5,036m. The journey to and from took three hours each way, and the slow, physically-demanding return climb took around three or four hours.
Vinicunca is a unique natural formation with the rainbow-coloured mineral striations forming a splendid backdrop to the viewing point. Ausangate (6,384 m), the highest mountain in southern Peru, is clearly visible in the near distance. This is a remarkable site, so new that it adorns the cover of the latest edition of the Lonely Planet guide to Peru. A very fitting finalé to a truly memorable adventure.
Aoife, Mary, Noel and John travelled with Irish travel company, Earth’s Edge. Dr John O’Callaghan is a mountain walk leader who has organised and led expeditions both at home and abroad. He has served on the board of Mountaineering Ireland and is currently on the Irish Uplands Forum board. In 2012, he wrote the winning article that secured Westport’s accolade as the Irish Times’ ‘Best Place to Live in Ireland’.