Choquequirao: The Alternative to Machu Picchu for Those After Adventure Not Just Selfies
Choquequirao is known as the ‘sacred sister’ of Machu Picchu, as it is similar to this site both in structure and architecture. With demand ever high to trek the now well-worn Inca trail to Machu Picchu, but places limited to 500 per day and prices high, Choquequirao is now being offered as the alternative trail to follow.
Many who had the dream of walking in the footsteps of the Incas to Machu Picchu have been disappointed due to the limited places available,and so have had to settle for getting the train to the iconic site and at least obtaining the “I was here” photo. For some that’s enough. For others – those who were relishing the grueling several day trek - there is now an alternative path open leading to an arguably more thrilling site. The only access to Choquequirao is by foot, meaning far less visitors and the expansive site is still being uncovered. For those who prefer to get off the standard ‘bucket list’ destinations or even entertain having a slightly more original selfie to post than a miriad of their gap-year peers, Choquequirao is a good bet. So what is the reward for bucking the trend and taking a path less trodden?
Experience the Uncovering of Choquequirao
Peru was once ruled by the mighty Inca Empire, a civilization that achieved many impressive architectural feats. The famous Machu Picchu, which was built by the Inca above a much older megalithic site, is one of the prime examples of their skill and ingenuity. Nevertheless, Machu Picchu is not the only monumental site built by the Incas, as there were other less-known, but equally impressive places that they built. One of these is Choquequirao (‘Cradle of Gold’), which still holds many hidden secrets as archaeologists have barely scratched the surface of what lays beneath the earth.
Choquequirao is located on the spurs of the Wilkapampa mountain range in the La Convención Province in the north western part of the Cusco region. Choquequirao first entered European knowledge when it was discovered by the Spanish explorer Juan Arias Diaz in 1710. Nevertheless, archaeological excavations were only conducted over 250 years later in the 1970s. By comparison, Machu Picchu was discovered in 1911, and was excavated in the following year. It has been estimated that only one third of Choquequirao has been excavated, whilst the rest of it remains hidden and is yet to be unearthed.
The spectacular site of Choquequirao (Wikimedia Commons)
It has been suggested that Choquequirao was built a generation or two prior to the arrival of the Spanish. One argument is that the city was built as a royal estate by Topa Inca Yupanqui, the tenth ruler of the Inca Empire who lived during the latter half of the 15th century. It is said that Topa Inca Yupanqui intended to build a city similar in location and design to Machu Picchu, which is said to have been built by his father and predecessor, Pachacuti. Another argument states that Choquequirao was built around the same time as Machu Picchu, and its construction was commissioned by Pachacuti, rather than by his successor.
Left: Main plaza at Choquequirao. Right: Remains of Inca houses at Choquequirao (Wikimedia Commons)
Like Machu Picchu, Choquequirao is also centred on a ridge top with a higher mountain at its back, and a lower distinctive promontory at its front. In addition, each city had a sacred river flowing below in view. During the heyday of the Inca Empire, it is likely that Choquequirao functioned as a provincial administrative center, and served as a vital link between the Amazon rainforest and Cusco. It has also been speculated that Choquequirao provided a seasonal pilgrimage destination for regional state-sponsored ceremonial events. On top of that, there is evidence to suggest that Choquequirao was also an important center for the cultivation and distribution of coca.
Distinctive Inca terraces at Choquequirao, which are reminiscent of sister site Machu Picchu (Wikimedia Commons)
The excavation of Choquequirao has revealed the skill of the Inca engineers, as everything was built with great precision and attention to detail. For instance, water fountains were made of large rocks so that they would not wear away quickly, whilst the residents of Choquequirao announced their wealth and power through houses with double doors. Furthermore, flat slabs under windows were said to store food for refrigeration, and irrigation channels supplied water to the city’s inhabitants. Down the stairway of the main plaza is one of the most interesting features of Choquequirao. On a set of terraces, the builders of the city decorated each terrace with white rocks in the shape of llamas / alpacas. One interpretation of this work of art is that it was created to show appreciation to this animal, as they were used to transport food and supplies.
Two white stone llamas Choquequirao (Wikimedia Commons)
According to Peru’s National Cultural Institute, 6800 tourists visited Choquequirao in 2006, which is more than double the number recorded in 2003. Still, this is less than one percent of the 1.2 million tourists that visit Machu Picchu in a year. One reason for this small number of visitors is that the trail to Choquequirao is often claimed to be twice as difficult as the trail used to access Machu Picchu. All this might change in the near future, however, as the Peruvian government has plans to build a cable car that would ferry tourists up to the site in a mere 15 minutes. This development may attract hordes of tourist to the site. Although this would bring in much needed money to the government, it would certainly have an impact on the tranquillity and preservation of the site.
It’s a tough climb to reach the top of Choquequirao, but all this may change with plans to install a cable car (Wikimedia Commons)
Top image: The ruins of Choquequirao. (Wikimedia Commons)
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