Excerpts from a 1990s expedition journal follow, capturing the excitement and adventure that has kept us coming back to the remote Vilcabamba and the mysteries of the last Inca.
With ten days worth of supplies, tents, fresh food, a ration of libations carefully loaded on 28 mules and horses, we march out in the morning like Pizarro's army. Although, it is adventure and the quest for Manco Inca's secrets that fuels are enthusiasm, not Inca gold!
Hugh, David* and I separate from the mule train to climb a high pointed peak overlooking the junction of the valleys. We suspect that this prominent overlook may have attracted the attention of early inhabitants. (Hugh Thomson and David Espejo).
To our delight, we find the remains of foundations, ruined walls and a number of burial chambers dotting the flattened summit. A secret of finding ruins is knowing where to look. To mountain worshiping Andean cultures, a tradition that preceded the Inca by several millennium, these high summits were both natural shrines and ritual astronomical observatories. ( platforms on summits are called Usnus ).
Hugh Thomson and I pulled ourselves up the final 10 feet to mount a narrow ledge that led straight to the top of the ridge. The view of the ice peaks and surrounding valleys was magnificent.
We were making our way along the top of the ridge, still intending to scout the potential platform site on the next mountain, when we realized that the crest of the ridge was lined with tombs. So...with climbing rope, sharpened machetes and great enthusiasm we embarked to scale the mountain.
With some difficulty we reached the described ridge. When someone said narrow he was not kidding! Half way along the knife edge ridge we came upon a 1/2 meter wide field-stone wall capping the ridge which dropped vertically some 50 meters on both sides. Dicey going indeed....we crab-walked across to reach the widening approach to the summit.
I could see the remnants of what was a very airy walkway leading across the ridge to the conical top above us. As a climber of some experience, I am not easily intimidated by heights but this must have been challenging for anyone carrying bodies or offerings up here, something I would not consider attempting.
At this point Hollywood would have had Harrison Ford dangling from the end of a rope held by the heroine as a deadly bushmaster slithers onto her ledge!
Arriving on top we are not surprised that the view is exceptional in all directions. Several jug-shaped holes dot the crest along with the remains of round foundations or platforms. Several more slightly raised mounts indicate that perhaps all had not been looted. We poke around a bit with machetes but find nothing to indicate who the builders may have been
Almost any such mountain top is likely to contain ruins. The remoteness and difficulty of traveling in this most rugged part of the Andes, climbing and descending several thousand meters on primitive trails daily, from high glaciers to tropical cloud forest, has restricted exploration to a hand full of eccentric mountaineers.
The trail down from the pass narrows through exposed cliffs that seem to almost overhang the tiny ribbon of river some 2000 meters below then plunges into thick cloud vegetation. Reminiscent of some Walt Disney enchanted forest, gnarled, moss-covered, trees host long creepers and twisted vines. Steamy vapors raise from decaying leaves and trunks laying beneath a tangle of bamboo.
A small gray snake with a pointed head slides quickly across the path in front of me.
We pass the occasional moss coated wall indicating that someone else was here in the distant past. Somewhere a tree frog croaks out a warning. We hurry on, not relishing the idea of being benighted here. Camp is comfortably awaiting us on the far end of the great walls that guard the approach to Choquequirao. We arrive just at dark.
Several days later
We followed a recently cleared trail to the point where the broad sloping bowl below Choquequirao drops away in cliffs. Suddenly, we are on a steeply descending stone stairway.
we arrive at three very unusual buildings, two on top of the other but offset, overlooking a deep gorge and waterfall plunging from the heights of the mountain side above.
A few old cow trails made by Choquequirao's only resident, Lucas Cobarubias lead here and there from a few clearings. We follow one that heads in the direction of the the ridge, a mere kilometer away. Finally, too far to reasonably turn back, all options end in bamboo tangle.
Determined, we plunge on swinging machetes. Scratched and exhausted, sweat stained, shirts torn, we reach the ridge hours later. As fate would have it, we find a group of six Inca houses and a bath hidden along the way. With little time for study, we take a brief look and push on. Fortunately, I have my GPS to mark the location as no one could find their way here again unaided.
( we came back the next year to clear and survey the site ).
Each journey to Choquequirao creates more questions than answers. As the site grows in size and importance, my mind races with the possibilities. Now another Colorado winter to plan the next return.
Leaving Choquequirao by the shortest route requires descending 2000 meters down into the narrow Apurimac gorge, crossing a swinging foot bridge then climbing 2000 meters back out of the canyon on a two day journey along precipitous trails. Since Hiram Bingham's 1910 visit, fewer than two hundred visitors had reached the site before our first expedition in 1994.
Our route across the wildest part of the Andes takes seven days. This is the stuff of genuine adventure! In a romantic sense, what we are doing is like stepping back into the 19th century.
Where but Peru, the cradle of civilization of the new world, do `lost cities' await discovery by machete and mule?