For the eighth night in a row, the great llama in the sky appears high above the Central Andes. Every day we walk further into the mountains, and every evening, splayed across the Milky Way, comes the llama. The ancient Incas shaped their astronomical creatures not from the stars themselves but from the vast dark patterns between constellations. In the thin, clear air of high altitude, the effect is dramatic. On nights like this, with a million beads of light overhead, you see the outline of the llama plainly, its mighty black neck raised, its legs straddling galaxies.
In this part of Peru, everything seems to exist on a grand scale: the night skies, the peaks, the distances, the challenges. I’m part of a group of seven on a nine-day trek through the highlands of the Willkapampa Range. Morning after morning, we’re descending into deep canyons, crossing loud, frothing rivers and hauling ourselves up to exposed mountain passes.
I say a group of seven, but that’s not the half of it. Altitude trekking being what it is, we’re with two guides, two cooks, eight tents and fifteen mules, whose sure-footed patience makes them far more efficient in the heat of the day than those of us on two feet. Being part of such a large party initially feels odd, indulgent even, but it’s the way things work here. It’s a long, hot walk, full of sweaty climbs and steep downhills.
My five-year-old son thinks I’ve come to darkest Peru to meet Paddington, a bear who doubtless has more sense than to carry his marmalade sandwiches up to 4,600 metres above sea level. When, at the start of the trip, we drive out to the trailhead from the former Inca capital of Cusco, one of our guides, Chema, imparts a galvanising thought. “You need to be un poco loco to do this hike,” he says, smiling. “A little crazy.”
Our walk, which commonly gets referred to as the Choquequirao-Machu Picchu Trek, is one of the longest of the area’s many “alternative Inca Trails”. When people mention the Inca Trail, they generally mean the classic three-night hike from Piskakucho to the ruins of Machu Picchu. This is by all accounts a beautiful and historic trek, although its popularity is now so great that its use is restricted to a still sizeable 500 people per day.
The Inca Empire, however, left hundreds of trails. In its pomp, during the 15th and early 16th centuries, it represented the largest realm in pre-Columbian America, with messengers and traders regularly walking its length. Almost the entire region is still threaded with old mountain paths. It means that for travellers looking to escape the crowds, hike well on centuries-old trails and still see Machu Picchu, there are some phenomenal alternatives.
Among these, the nine-day Choquequirao-Machu Picchu route holds appeal for those with a taste for uncramped adventure. Choquequirao is the name of the remote Inca mountain citadel encountered partway along the path. The walk as a whole is sparse with walkers (think 20 a day rather than 500) and represents a far lengthier prospect than the classic trail.
Before the trek, I know to expect the mountains. I know to expect rows of sharp Andean pinnacles powering out to every horizon, and they don’t disappoint. They’re rampant, with the largest of them rearing up to more than 6,200 metres. For nine days, from sunrise to sunset, these summits envelop everything we see and do.
The close-up details, however, come as a surprise. By the second day of the hike, it’s already hard to keep track of the birds and bees. We cross from grassland to forest, passing tiny blue irises and thick clumps of bamboo. White-collared swifts zigzag through the air to snaffle mosquitoes as flocks of green parakeets screech dementedly into the sky. Hummingbirds loop silently from tree to tree. Chema plucks a dust-coated cochineal insect from a cactus and squashes it on his palm, revealing the vivid crimson dye that became a key export once the Spanish arrived.
But best of all is the fruit. The trees hold bananas, custard apples, passion-fruits and avocados. At different times we sample them all, and the soft, sweet custard apples, known locally as chirimoya, become a favourite. They’re a long way from being the region’s most famous produce, though.
“You want more coca?” smiles our guide Kantu the next morning, using both her hands to hold open a plastic bag of green leaves. As one of the original extract ingredients of Coca Cola and, more famously, as the raw material for the manufacturing of cocaine, the innocuous-looking coca leaf has become a global commodity, and a controversial one at that.
As in neighbouring Andean communities, however, its role here is far broader. Unprocessed, the leaf combats tiredness and hunger, but it also has deep spiritual significance, having long been used as a sacrament for offerings to the gods. Its legal cultivation remains a fundamental part of high-altitude culture, and many local cheeks still bulge hamster-like with leaf wads.
I find that sticking 50 to 100 bitter-tasting leaves into my mouth takes some getting used to, but when I leave them next to my gums for long enough they give a genuine boost on the longer ascents. When you’re treading your way up the Apurimac Canyon to reach Choquequirao, with fierce winter sunshine overhead, you take the help that’s offered.
Choquequirao translates as “cradle of gold”, and its location two days’ walk from the nearest town makes the deserted citadel all the more precious. It’s somewhere you can wander 500-year-old temples and terraces and meet barely a soul. When we arrive, we all ask the same question. Why here? Why build a city on an isolated mountain ridge? “It’s not isolated,” explains Chema, pointing out at the valley. “The Incas needed a connection with nature. Look at all these hills around us. They saw them as sacred. We’re surrounded.”
It’s true that the view, stretching for some 40 miles, is monumental. So too are the ruins. Estimates suggest that only around 30% of the city has been excavated from the undergrowth, but what can be seen is impressive. Ceremonial spaces and aqueduct-fed water shrines stand alongside mansions and warehouses, while numberless agricultural terraces – formerly used for growing coca – plunge down the hillside.
Comparisons with Machu Picchu are inevitable. The two were built over roughly the same 15th-century period in similarly mountainous settings. Choquequirao is some 600 metres higher, and while its remains are less numerous, historians believe that Manco II, the Inca king who was so badly mistreated by the Spanish conquistadores, chose to take refuge here after failing to reclaim Cusco in 1535. Hiram Bingham even visited prior to his “rediscovery” of Machu Picchu a century ago.
We spend two nights camping below the city. In the evenings, fireflies appear under the cedar trees and the mountains turn to mauve as the stars emerge. We hear stories of how Choquequirao would have looked in its heyday, its buildings red, white and yellow under thatched roofs. It’s a very special place to be. Over the two days we spend exploring the site, we see a total of eight other visitors.
By this stage of the trip our sleeping patterns are already aligned to the trek. We’re retiring to bed before 8pm, exhausted and well fed, then waking at 5am for coca tea and sweet porridge. On the morning we move on from Choquequirao we climb to the rim of the Rio Blanco valley then begin a snaking, relentless descent towards the river itself, a glacial tributary of the Amazon. Heading down, the air becomes thicker and hotter until eventually we reach the valley floor, toss clothes onto rocks and soak neck-deep in the bracing cold of the water. It’s the best wash I have all week.
Two days later, we’re picking our way up open meadowland to the highest point of the trek, the 4,600-metre Abra Mariano Pass. It’s just gone midday. “Condors!” goes up the shout. The grass is covered in huge dandelions, and off to each side are full bushes of wild purple lupin. Away in the distance, the epic white summit of Salcantay Mountain – almost five times as tall as Ben Nevis – stands against a clear blue sky.
But eyes are now elsewhere. Way above, two condors are wheeling slow circles in the air, broad wings outstretched. The Incas used to refer to these birds as the messengers of the gods, and they remain an emblem of the Andes. “They’re looking for carrion – maybe deer,” says Kantu. “They’re big birds. They need big meals.”
By now, I can vouch for the importance of getting enough sustenance. For days we’ve been marching on our stomachs, thanks to the presence of chief cook Juan, a man who retires daily to his pop-up kitchen tent to rustle up soups and mountain stews with the baffling ease of a conjuror picking rabbits from a hat. It’s said that the Incas, for all their wisdom, lacked three basic components of civilisation at the time of the conquest – the wheel, the arch and the written word. After a full day of hiking the Willkapampa range, you’d take a large bowl of Juan’s spicy potato soup over any of them.
The latter stages of the trek ease us gently into civilisation, leading through far-flung hillside villages where cockerels crow, children wallop footballs at each other and guinea-pigs, shortly for the pot, scuttle past open doorways. Coffee plantations become a familiar sight, their dark leaves casting shade on the trail.
On the final morning’s walk, we know what’s coming. Despite not joining the Inca Trail proper, our path has now converged with that of hundreds of other hikers. Machu Picchu, when it comes, appears not as the famous postcard view but as a set of distant terraces seen from the west. South America’s biggest drawcard sits on a saddle of land slung between two woolly peaks, which in turn form part of a forest of other hills, the highest of them still in snow. For all the hype, the whole scene is a genuine thrill.
What can you say about arriving at Machu Picchu that hasn’t already been said? Despite the crowds, there’s a stillness to the city that transfixes you. We’re up there for sunrise the next day, with swallows diving among the roofless granite buildings and the day’s first light striking the altar in the Sun Temple.
Much about the Incas remains an enigma. What’s known is that Machu Picchu was somewhere that attracted the cream of society – the priestesses, the astronomers, the nobles. It’s thought that around 1,000 people lived here permanently, with this number swelling during important solstice festivals. The conquistadores, by contrast, never set foot here.
I make the half-hour climb up to the Sun Gate, the spot from which walkers on the classic Inca Trail get their first glimpse of the city. It’s a fantastic spot to sit and stare. I think about the fact that I’ll have to tell my son I didn’t meet Paddington. I’ll tell him instead that every night I was away I saw a llama as big as a solar system, and that I spent nine days walking between cities above the clouds. Maybe that will impress him.