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Choquequirao: Lost City in the Clouds

Choquequirao is truly the lost city of the Incas and little sister to the more well known Machu Picchu. Whilst this site is new to the tourist map, Gary Ziegler has been exploring the area for over twenty years

Image of the main site of Choquequirao in Peru

The first rays of morning sunlight illuminate the great stone altar, streaming through a square opening over my head. “Inti camac sumac” chants the priest. Soaked in sweat, I fight the bindings holding me to the stone as the grinning, looming, scarlet-cloaked figure slowly brings down a gleaming, bloodstained bronze knife toward my heaving chest.

Jefe, buenos dias - cafe” ?

Startled suddenly awake, I thankfully greet a smiling Pancho, our camp cook handing a cup of wake up coffee through the tent door. Whew! - I make a silent oath to myself to avoid the second round of Piscos that we had passed around the campfire last night.

We are on our way back to the mysterious and magnificent mountain Inca city that has been the focus of my research and explorations in the remote cloud-forested Andes of Peru for many years and numerous expeditions, Choquequirao.

I am travelling with an interesting group of ethno-botanists. Our objective is to identify plants and trees that may have been introduced by the Inca residents and may still live on in the tangled vegetation surrounding the recently cleared stone walls and buildings.

There is always something more to learn at the Inca’s second Machu Picchu.

The Inca royal estate and ceremonial complex, Choquequirao is perched majestically at 9,800 feet of elevation on a cloud-forested ridge of a glaciated 17,700 foot peak. The traditionally sacred, Apurimac River, reportedly the longest headwater source of the Amazon, roars through a deep canyon some 5000 feet below. The site lies 61 miles west of Cusco in the rugged, remote Vilcabamba range of the Peruvian Andes, far distant from roads, trains and the tourist hordes that mob Choquequirao’s famous sister estate, Machu Picchu.

Lost city

Image showing the site of Choquequirao in the mountains of Peru

Choquequirao remains one of the great, rewarding travel destinations of the Americas which still retains some of the excitement and discovery experience of the past.

It is a truly ‘lost city’ abandoned sometime around 1572 when the holdout last Inca ruler, Tupac Amaru was captured in the distant jungles, dragged back to Cusco and executed by Spanish colonial authorities. The ancient houses, temples, canals and walls were soon reclaimed by the silent, green, primeval forest only to be rediscovered and revealed in recent times. Located on the far, unpopulated and geographically hostile side of the immense Apurimac Canyon, the region remained disconnected from the farms, villages and roads of developing Peru.

It is little known that Yale professor Hiram Bingham, the now famous scientific discoverer of Machu Picchu in 1911, was inspired to launch his return to Peru and archaeological explorations after a visit to Choquequirao in 1909. Bingham visited Choquequirao twice, the second time with a crew of surveyors, cartographers and specialists to produce the first map and scientific description.

During the early 1990s, the Peruvian government took an interest, beginning a careful archaeological and restoration project that continues today. In 1995, a new trail and foot bridge crossing the Apurimac was completed giving more access to adventurous travellers and pack horse supported, small tour groups contributing to the income and employment of enterprising local families.

The previous year I had arrived for the first time with a filming expedition, reopening the long, multi-day trail across the rugged highlands from Machu Picchu with picks, shovels and machetes. Now twenty years later, I am returning yet again to contemplate Choquequirao’s mysteries and matchless beauty, trekking in by the shorter, two day route from the road head near the community of Cachora.

"Choquequirao remains one of the great, rewarding travel destinations of the Americas which still retains some of the excitement and discovery experience of the past."

University of Colorado archeoastronomer, Kim Malville and I recently published my life’s work in the Andes and our studies together of Choquequirao in a new book entitled Machu Picchu’s Sacred Sister’s, Choquequirao and Llactapata. The book focuses on similarities with Machu Picchu concluding that Choquequirao was modelled and geo-cosmically located after its older ceremonial sister.

Visiting Choquequirao

People on horseback on the way to Choquequirao

One of the rewards of visiting Choquequirao is that it has remained well off the beaten path. Only a few hundred visit during the dry season as compared to more than two thousand daily at Machu Picchu. Arriving by the shortest route requires two days of strenuous hiking.

Descending into the deep Apurimac then back up some 4,500 feet to reach the site is like crossing Arizona's Grand Canyon. One either carries a heavy backpack or hires local packers to bring the needed supplies with horses or mules. The best solution is to sign on with one of the Cusco based trekking agencies that regularly take small groups of 2-6 there during the dry season months of April into December.

It is possible to ride a horse most of the way but good horses are hard to come by. Most of the local packer stock is not up to standards of safety and dependability nor well cared for. Some trekking agencies are marginal. A good test is the cost. If it seems really cheap there is a reason. Carefully researching and checking references before signing on is recommended.

Travelling from Cusco, allow the better part of a day to arrive at Cachora. As of this writing, it takes five to six hours. The highway access regularly slides away with slow, repair-created detours and hosts increasing heavy truck traffic. Some of the route has returned to pot holes and extreme dust. No solution has appeared to solve these delays. Highways can't be built to hold on steep, unstable, Andean mountain slopes. Of course the Inca knew this and carefully placed their foot and pack llama-travelled roads up, down and around where modern roads won't work.


About the Author: Gary Ziegler (above)  is a field archaeologist with a geology background. He is a mountaineer and explorer who has spent a lifetime finding and studying remote Inca sites in the Vilcabamba range of Peru’s Southern Andes. Gary is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and of the Explorers Club. He has featured in documentary films for the BBC, Discovery Channel, Science and History Channels. In 2013, he was awarded the title 'Distinguished Lecturer' at NASA’s Marshal Space Center. He has taught at Colorado College and Peru’s national university, San Marcos. His home base is 4000 acre Bear Basin Ranch in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of Southern Colorado’s Custer County where he is a  former County Sheriff and a founder of the search and rescue unit.

Gary is also the founder of travel company Adventure Specialists which specialises in small, educational, adventure groups and trips focusing on Andean archaeology, discovery expeditions and adventures by foot and horseback.

Further reading:

by Gary Ziegler & J. McKim Malville

2nd edition, 2017

This book shows how Inca monumental sites were carefully planned and designed in accordance with astronomical alignments, and were precisely placed in relationship to sacred rivers, mountains, and celestial phenomena. It includes stories and notes from expedition journals, which are interspersed with soundly researched and referenced facts, data, and qualified interpretation. The result is a book that conveys the excitement and adventure of extreme archaeology in the cloud-forested Andes. It also includes trekking routes, field notes, and a guide to exploring Choquequirao.

Reviews of Gary's book,

This book is about more than these two fascinating sites. It gives a lively look at a rugged, spectacular, and highly important but little-known part of the Inca empire.

John Hemming, Former Director of the Royal Geographical Society

This book is one of the best studies to come out about the Machu Picchu region in years. Congratulations on doing such a meticulous study, and for the photos and plans that are a tremendous help to the reader, besides being of academic importance.

John Reinhard, Explorer in Residence at National Geographic and author of Machu Picchu: Exploring an Ancient Sacred Center


Download the 14 page article and read all about Gary's visit to the magnificent site of Choquequirao filled with his stunning photographs, for just 0.99p

This article was first published in the Winter 2014 issue of Timeless Travels Magazine. For more information about this edition, please CLICK HERE

Buy the digital version of the Winter 2014 issue for just £3.95 and download it immediately.


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