Imagine you’re hiking in the Andes, a towering mountain range that stretches across the entire South American Continent. The same mountain range where the famous City of Gold, El Dorado, supposedly lies hidden and where one of the 7 Wonders of the World, Machu Picchu, resides among the clouds.
You are surrounded by dense, lush vegetation that hasn’t been disturbed for hundreds of years. You are blazing your own path in search of adventure and history. Everything around you is covered in green ferns, trees and vines that accompany the impenetrable rain forest that surrounds you. It is just about dusk on your final day of exploration, you notice something out of place. You anxiously pause as your mind tries to make sense of what you are seeing, a set of right angles that most certainly didn’t form naturally. You strip away at vegetation to uncover immaculate stone work. You doggedly clear vegetation throughout the night to uncover a 20-foot section of a building covered in symbols and ancient design. You don’t know it yet, but you’ve just discovered a hidden colony deep within the Vilcabamba mountain range, one of the Inca’s largest settlements, a massive sprawling complex, and one of the final gathering places of the Incas before their destruction - you have found what you’ve been looking for…Choquequirao, the Golden Cradle.
Choquequirao is also known as “Peru’s Other Lost City” and it’s no surprise why. The city was technically discovered around the turn of the 20th century, close to the same time that Machu Picchu was uncovered. However, due the thickness of vegetation that was covering Choquequirao, explorers assumed that it wasn’t more than a small outpost - not bothering to excavate further.
It wasn’t until recently that archeologists and explorers revisited Choquequirao and made a serious effort to uncover more of its ruins. At present only 30-40% of the city has been uncovered and it’s estimated that the Golden Cradle is 3x the size of Machu Picchu! Excavation efforts are on-going, and because it is still relatively unknown and the route to its ruins are very difficult - the number of visitors to Choquequirao is incredibly sparse.
Choquequirao resides in the Sacred Valley, along with several other world famous ancient buildings and structures built by the Incas, including Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu is one of the Seven Wonders of the World for good reason. The ruins of the great city are absolutely stunning, especially when you consider the terrain that Machu Picchu is built on and the ancient technology that was used to build it. The Incas were masters of their craft, they had perfected stone work to create the famous terraced walls of their cities, and Machu Picchu is a true testament to their ingenuity and workmanship. It’s walls are 6 ft. thick and 20 ft. tall in some places, and are comprised of interlocking, hundred tonne stones that are placed without mortar; yet you aren’t able to fit a piece paper between their cracks.
Considering how majestic and awe-inspiring Machu Picchu is, it’s almost unbelievable that Choquequirao was built in the same manner, using the same materials and techniques and it is 3x the size. As more of its ruins are uncovered the sheer magnitude of Choquequirao is impressive enough to warrant a visit.
Now I don’t know about you, but when I’m traveling I enjoy meeting new people, but not TOO many new people. My latest trek to Machu Picchu was a bit of a mixed experience. For 4 days I got to hike on the Inca Trail, through the forests and jungles of the Andes, it was a wonderfully exhilarating and spiritual moment. I love experiencing the wildlife and the incredible scenery that accompanies a hike along the Inca Trail. We saw the sun rise over jagged mountain peaks each morning, and began each day hiking along the same path the Incas built over 500 years ago.
On the last day we woke up exhausted after 3 full days of strenuous hiking, but brimming with excitement...today was Machu Picchu. The views along the trail were spectacular, we hiked for about 2 hours before reaching an ancient staircase that led up to the Sungate - a stone arch that acts as an entrance to the city. This is where we would catch our first glimpse of the Lost City of the Incas. Up until this point our journey had been outstanding and felt exclusive. However, the Sungate is where the entire trip changed for me, here were about 200 other hikers. Not an insane amount of people, but enough that our group had to wait an hour to take our picture in front of Machu Picchu (I know, first world problems). We waited patiently, and when it was finally our turn another group walked behind us during our picture, blemishing that moment...not a big deal! We’d have plenty of more opportunities to take pictures and enjoy the majesty of Machu Picchu. I tried to refocus my attention on the incredible scenery, but was constantly distracted by having to navigate around the crowds.
We kept hiking for another hour down to the exterior of the city, once we reached the walls of Machu Picchu we were ushered out of the “park”, through the exit, and into a 2 hour long line, which led back into the actual city. We had to check our bags and present our tickets. This is where the crowds became almost unbearable because all of the people who had been hiking on the Inca Trail for 4 days were now merged and crammed together with tourists who had taken the train to the “Park Entrance”, there were no less than 2,000 people in line to see Machu Picchu. A quick Google search will tell you that during the busy season (May to August), Machu Picchu sees an average of 5,000 visitors A DAY…
I want to be careful here, seeing and touring Machu Picchu is still one of the most cherished moments of my life. It’s truly a World Wonder. However, the Classic 4 Day Trek was definitely made anticlimactic and a bit deflating due to the throngs of people that we stood elbow-to-elbow with as we walked around the grounds of the city.
It was made clear to me that navigating crowds of tourists could affect my experience, the journey to reach Choquequirao is very similar to the one to reach Machu Picchu. This trek is also in a beautiful section of the Andes, yet its culmination is not in the back of a security line, but rather a vast ancient city that you have hours to explore...on your own. It is a difficult hike to access Choquequirao’s ruins, slightly more challenging than the hike to Machu Picchu, but once you arrive, it’s just you and maybe 20 other people. You’re able to camp on the ruins of the city, there is no “Park Entrance”, there are no bag checks, or cafes outside selling over priced drinks. At Choquequirao, there is only you and the ruins.
People have taken notice of Choquequirao’s majesty and plans for construction have been developed to build an AirTrain that will take visitors right to the front of Choquequirao. This AirTrain will drastically increase the number of visitors to the site, which will result in the same types of Disney-like crowds that currently plague Machu Picchu to descend upon Choquequirao as well. The first tourists to arrive by AirTrain are scheduled to arrive in the summer of 2018.
When was the last time you had an opportunity like this - to be one of the first people to experience exploring an ancient civilization that has remained undisturbed for hundreds of years? The window of opportunity to be one of the first people to explore a newly excavated set of ancient ruins is closing. Everything that makes Machu Picchu one of the Wonders of World is shared by Choquequirao, and then some. It is truly a testament to the Incas and their ingenuity for using their resources to thrive in a difficult and unforgiving landscape. Being able to walk around this city, without crowds is truly a magnificent gift.
“All your life has been spent in pursuit of archeological relics. Inside the Ark are treasures beyond your wildest aspirations. You want to see it opened as well as I. Indiana, we are simply passing through history. This, this IS history."
–Belloq (Paul Freeman) from Raiders of the Lost Ark