An account of my November 2021 trek to the top of Huayna Picchu which follows a substantial portion of the same path Mark Adams takes in his New York Times Best Seller Book, "Turn Right at Machu Picchu"
Inching closer to the terrace ledge, I peered over trying to get a glimpse of the Rio Chunchumayo. Slicing through the mountains like a cheese cutter, all I could see were the vertical canyon cliffs descending into darkness. The platform I stood upon is at the edge of the Incan empire, a city that made a final hideout against the Spanish in the 16th century, and for good reason, was never found.
Perched at 10,000 feet where the Andes meets the Amazon, Choquequirao, much like Machu Picchu, hides in cover of cloud forest and is blocked from view by snow-capped peaks. With their similarities it’s astounding that Choquequirao is left nearly deserted in comparison.
I stood at Section XI of the complex, House of the Waterfall, but Section I for me as I descended the path on arrival to the complex. It’s an endless mountainside of agricultural andenes that appear as if they are the retaining walls of the mountain. There wasn’t another soul in sight, a feeling that mirrored walking through a graveyard. Symmetrical and eerily silent, you walk slow as to not disturb the peace, and all around are signs of ancients who once ruled the past.
Could a two-day trek really create such emptiness to an archaeological site that rivals in comparison to Machu Picchu which hosts 2,500 visitors a day?
Considering it took hundreds of years for this site to be rediscovered, multiple times actually, it’s no surprise this site lays undiscovered to most of Peru’s visitors.
Hiram Bingham III visited in 1909 on his search for Vilcabamba, the lost city and last refuge of the Incas but concluded this was merely a checkpoint fortress. He returned to the area in 1911 and uncovered many Incan sites, laying down the route for quite possibly the greatest trek to Machu Picchu, which of course was Hiram Bingham’s final and grandest discovery of his 1911 expedition.
Today this grand Machu Picchu trek starts with a 4-hour bus ride outside of Cusco to the small village of Cachora. A village where traffic is frequently halted by herds of lamb and the only stores are a few dusty minimarkets packed with Inka Kola, the neon color catching your eye as you drive by. Another 45-minutes down a pothole filled track and you’ll arrive at Capuliyoc, a place that looks like an entrance to the Andes.
Also at 10,000 feet, Capuliyoc stands in tune with its surroundings, yet requires a strain of the neck to see anything above or below. Towering glaciers of Kiswar are separated by the Rio Apurimac, which getting to will prove to be the first challenge on the way to Choquequirao.
It was months back that I routed what I naively considered to be a grand trek to Machu Picchu. The route came naturally looking at the destinations of Choquequirao and Machu Picchu on the map and the research led to starting from Capuliyoc. Hiram Bingham III meant nothing more to me and this trek than the person who discovered Machu Picchu but that all changed with my first step out of Capuliyoc and the first words of Mark Adams’s Turn Right at Machu Picchu playing out of my headphones.
Turn Right at Machu Picchu is written about Mark’s experience recreating the route that Hiram used to reach Machu Picchu 100 years after his discovery in 1911. I knew this and yet it hadn’t occurred how similar a route I mapped myself with no knowledge of this would come to be.
Walking out of Capuliyoc is 6 miles and 5,000 feet of straight descent, enough to have your legs begging for an uphill. The trail bottoms out at a modern-day Indiana Jones bridge, wood replaced with concrete and twine with cables, the only thing not replaced is the harrowing swing in the wind.
There’s that saying what goes up must come down, well what goes down must come up. Saved by the sun going down, I would only be doing a fraction of the climb that afternoon, saving the rest for tomorrow.
I walked into Santa Rosa Baja camp soles in hand that evening for a Gatorade and Sprite. Camp was quiet with only one other tent and I was soon falling asleep listening to Mark Adams tear up his feet from the same torturous decline to the Rio Apuirmac.
The morning was a continuation of yesterday evening, zipper switchbacks for miles, eventually leveling out at Marampata, a farming village sitting back up at 9,600 feet. Mist rolled up in massive plumes obstructing views in all direction but evidently drifted further up the peaks.
I was entering the outer Choquequirao gate now and watched the trail ahead cut around the sides of the mountain leading towards a neatly mowed looking section of jungle pressed against the cliffs. Upon closer inspection these were the terraces that managed to have been excavated, and were the same ones I would find myself standing upon in solitude an hour later.
I could’ve stayed on those terraces looking over the edge of the world all day but anticipation of seeing plaza principal and anxiety of keeping this trek on schedule carried me onwards.
Choquequirao is free to be explored as you wish and without any crowds your mind is transported to the time of the Incas. With area names like House of the Priest and Lama Terraces it’s hard to stay in present day reality walking through the complex.
Plaza principal is overlooked by the flattened mountain top of Usnu, a sacred place of rituals, and from there you can take in the entirety of Choquequirao. The 30-40 percent estimated to be excavated entirety of course. The rest lays buried beneath thick cloud forest that can consume a cleared area making it look like virgin jungle in three years’ time.
I exited the grounds through the upper sector and turned left at a section of trail referenced on the map as Inca Trail which would lead me for the next 20 miles to the town of Yanama. This Inca Trail is not to be confused by The Inca Trail, the popular guided route to Machu Picchu but rather trail that was built by the Incan Empire and used in their network of trails between cities and still exists in its original form today.
As the Inca Trail wrapped around the mountain side, I managed to get a last glance overlooking Choquequirao. From here it looked like a mini golf course, a fun one for that matter that I hope to play on again.
That happy thought faded as I turned the bend and clearly saw what’s next instore. It was yesterday all over again, miles of vertical decline to a canyon crossing, followed by miles of vertical incline. How could one be so sure though? You can see the switchbacks cut through brush the entire way up the mountain, good grief.
I made it halfway up the climb as darkness hit, arriving to camp Senor Valentin I was quick to be welcomed by the families German Shephard ready to make a meal out of me. Fortunately, Senor Valentin was much more welcoming and had me set up with an XL red Gatorade and a double helping of stew before I could even pitch my tarp.
I’d been listening to Mark Adam’s a lot today and him and Australian expat John Lievers had now reached Choquequirao. My night was filled with history lessons and vivid thoughts of my own Choquequirao experience. I pulled the plug of my headphones to get some rest right as I heard John tell Mark, “We’ve got quite a bit of a walk today”, knowing exactly what comes after turning left at Choquequirao.
Camping on a farm has plenty of pros and cons, waking up to baby chicks under your tarp at 5am - definitely a pro. This family of chirpers had me up and packed out before my first alarm hit, it was a twenty plus miler of day and this early start would hopefully get me in before dark.
The section of trail closing in on Abra San Juan and down to Yanama was easily a favorite, a narrow cliffhanging trail dug into the mountain and everywhere there were signs of the Inca, my favorite being the old mines that you could still enter.
Yanama was less hospital as sought from the map, a place where tourism seemed to be anticipated and then never came. Signs for camps laid on the ground faded and I presume Covid had no help on revitalizing the hospitality industry. A newly built road also proved to be less than helpful to bring in visitors so, without any greetings, I continued eastwards towards Collpapampa which would be where I met up with the Salkantay trekking route.
On this hybrid section of trail and road I listened to Mark’s expedition team set off on the same track I hiked yesterday “to their campsite at the farm of a man named Valentin”. “Holy smokes! That’s where I stayed last night!” I exclaimed along the desolate road leaving Yanama. Not exactly a massive coincidence, there’s actually only one other farm to stay at in the area but still a neat overlap in adventure.
10 years had passed since Mark made this trek and inevitably things were due to change. For one, there was no killer man-eating goat guarding the gate to Senor Valentin’s farm anymore. For another, Yanama was no longer as isolated from the world as it had once been. As the words “the town of Yanama had never seen a motorized vehicle” were read to me I couldn’t help but chuckle as the first vehicle I encountered sped past.
It was here at Yanama that mine and Mark’s paths diverged. I was heading eastwards while his team continued north along more of that pristine Inca Trail.
Hiram was in search of the lost city on this expedition trek which he incorrectly spent his post expedition years trying to prove was Machu Picchu. He discovered Vilcabamba, the last capital of the Incas on this next stretch but dismissed it for not being grand enough.
The trail that Mark’s team continued on would follow Hiram’s track to the towns of Puquiura, Huancacalle, and Vilcabamba (present day town name not the archaeological lost city site which is located at Espiritu Pampa). There they continued to retrace Hiram’s steps exploring the significant ruins of Vitcos, a ceremonial and ruling Incan class residence area, before heading up trail along the Rio Pampaconas towards Espiritu Pampa.
Espiritu Pampa was built in a rush at the end of the Incan Empire to serve as a refuge from the Spanish for Manco Inca – the final ruler of the Incan Empire, and his royal family. This safe haven lasted for 30 years until the Spanish conquered in 1572 closing the book on the last chapter of the Incas.
The forgottenness of this place is remembered through the artifacts uncovered, many quite more magnificent that anything unearthed at Machu Picchu and Hiram may have come to different conclusions about this site if he had enough resources to stay longer to excavate.
My trek converged with Mark’s as I made my way north on the Salkantay trekking route along the Rio Santa Theresa. His expedition coming out of Espiritu Pampa used a northern trail through the Cordillera Vilcabamba which arrived in Santa Theresa and our convergence would be a few miles south of the town.
This would be the last stretch before dropping down to the railroad tracks at Hidroelectrica and I was savoring every step of it. The trail penetrates through plantations while still enclosed by the jungles canopy. I passed banana stalks to my right, coffee bushes to my left, and ducked out of the way from oranges dangling in the way of the path. Turkeys and quail squandered through the brush to avoid me; it was a place operating in perfect harmony.
Coming over the last summit a barrage of signs like an Alice in Wonderland junction popped up and I was sold on the Mesa Pata Observatory for a break. No used car salesman tricks were present here, “magnificent view, worth stopping for, and view of Machu Picchu” all hit the mark spot on.
I continued on to a site called Llactapata, also discovered by Bingham but on his follow up 1912 expedition to Peru. It sits along the Inca Trail and is thought to serve importance as a rest stop, administrative, and ceremonial site as well as have an astronomical function sitting aligned with Machu Picchu. The complex is only a dozen stone buildings with many left as they were when uncovered by jungle leaving an ancient feel of abandonment.
Heading back into the jungle, the trail is lined with vine covered stone walls left behind by the Incas and untouched by an excavation. Arriving at Llactapata Camping one is greeted with a most extraordinary view of Machu Picchu and I happily pitched camp as close to the grassy edge of the property as I could to sleep with a view of the ruins.
The next morning, I woke socked in with thick clouds and breezed down the path to Hidroelectrica. After a mostly sleepless night filled with late night audiobook binging, Mark and John are now ahead of me in Hidroelectrica, exploring an Incan sundial referred to as an intihuatana situated in between two sets of railroad tracks.
I decided to follow in their footsteps, rummaging through a brush side trail as John mentions and to my lack of surprise, nobody comes here and probably nobody even knows about this place whose visiting Machu Picchu. It’s a massive granite boulder that’s carved, flattened and was once a polished sundial for worship.
It was only 5 miles to Aguas Caliente now, a town that sprouted up from tourism to Machu Picchu and my food cravings reached an all-time high. The path to town is along railroad tracks that twist and turn with each bend of the Rio Urubamba and before I knew it, I was plucked from the streets by the first waiter shoving their menu at me.
After a real meal and a celebratory soak in the hot springs (couldn’t pass on that with a town whose name literally means hot water) I met up with a few fellow trekkers from the Salkantay portion of my hike and we shared stories of our routes and Peru travels. The all day 2 for 1 happy hour brought us well into the night and fortunately for our hangover’s sake, the 4 for 1 deal that Mark observed in 2011 was no longer to be found. It was time to retire when the Pisco Sours began tasting like water, 430am was just around the corner.
I hit the snooze once but it was only on my phone, the excitement of the final days climb had me packed up at the crack of dawn and out of the public campground moments later. I grabbed my signature red Gatorade from a stand at the base of the Hiram Bingham Highway welcoming those brave enough to make the hike up to Machu Picchu.
The trail, as well as the highway named after Hiram follow the same path he was led up to the ruins by Melchor Arteaga back in 1911. After coming in from the direction of Hidroelectrica on a mule path which is now the train tracks, he turned right and ascended 1,000 feet to the ruins.
This last climb felt like approaching a thru-hike terminus, mind over body exhilaration every step.
Entering the complex at 6am is a ghost town, I’m headed up to Huayna Picchu, the precipice mountain at the northern end of the site. It’s a rugged climb up vertical rock with cables and nothing but white clouds against my back. Approaching the top, the trail gives way to steep rock steps along terraces and temples that appear to be floating in the sky.
Incredible! To those with an untrained eye like mine you’d never know that Huayna Picchu’s summit is covered in stone structures.
Sitting on a wall with feet dangling over I was met by an American couple from Colorado. We laughed about how the Rockies and San Juans will never look the same while waiting for the clouds to dissolve. As stories of other similar summits were being passed around in fear that our luck might not change, I remained optimistic from Mark and John’s experience of the same waiting game atop Huayna.
As sure as the saying, “fog before seven, clears by eleven”, heads began turning to eye down the first openings below at 10am. That next hour was magical as we felt like birds swooping in the gusts seeing Machu Picchu from above, but only in pieces as the clouds rolled through different areas.
Then all at once, the mist turned to shadows cast by the new atmospheric clouds and the entire site was in view. Same as a group of kids too high to speak, we remained there in silence dangling our feet and our jaws wide open in amazement.
Turn anyway to reach Machu Picchu and you can get this feeling for a moment as you watch the morning mist rise but turn left at Choquequirao if you want that feeling to stay with you forever.
Thank you for reading and hope you found some enjoyment of this account of my trip and comparison to Mark Adams. I'll be sharing a detailed guide on this trip soon but in the mean time you can take a look at the routes I took and what I could infer to be Mark Adams route based upon his descriptions, town names, and archaeological sites from the book.
Grab yourself a copy of "Turn Right at Machu Picchu" here before your trip to Peru.
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