Posted by: davesnewadventure | June 1, 2007

The Expedition to the City of Gold, Choque’Qirao – Part 1: Dreams of Quartz Llamas

Dave’s New Adventure: Adventures from the South American
Continent: 04-2007
The Expedition to the City of Gold: Choque’Qirao
Part 1: Dreams of Quartz Llamas

Map of the Location of Choque'Qirao.

“Are you ready?” grinned Marco with an enthusiasm that at this hour, wasn’t infectious.
“Ugh” I groaned, as I put my sixty pound backpack on. It was 3 AM, dark, and raining outside in the courtyard of the hostal we stayed at in Cachora. I double checked my straps, and cinched the web belt tight. On a backpack, the most important element was the web belt, which put the weight on the legs and hips. As a cyclist, my legs were the strongest part of my body. Marco put on his headlamp, and switched on the LEDs, while I turned on my halogen flashlight, and watched it cut a path into the night. I watched him put on his 80 pound pack. The man was a camel, and most of his pack’s weight came from a large 6 liter water bag that he sipped from. Given the conditions we were about to tackle, each of us carried, at a minimum, 5 liters of water. Marco had 8 in total, but he didn’t notice the weight of his pack, and he didn’t use a web belt. We walked outside our room, and greeted the rest of our expedition team: Manuel, who shouldered most of the food, Michael, who carried the rope, and Dante. Everyone was ready, and we were about to tackle one of the hardest one day treks in the world: the trek to Choque’Qirao. Choque’Qirao is a recently and partially excavated pre-incan city high in the remote Andes. Our mission was to see and verify the rumors of llamas made out of quartz, and to hack a path through an overgrown incan highway that Marco discovered years before, on a previous expedition.

Choque’Qirao is a quechua amalgram, and it can mean two different things. It’s either the “Cradle of Gold”, which all tour agencies refer to, or the “Cradle of Copper”. Beyond the ruin on another mountain is a ruin called “Wayna’China”, which means “the place where gold appears.” The names and references to the precious metal originate in the mountain’s rocks containing enormous quantities of iron pyrite, as well as copper. The city is located in the middle of the magnificent Vilcabamba valley, which is formed by a deep gorge carved out by the Apurimac river. The city stands at an elevation of 3055 meters above sea level, while the Apurimac stands at 1530 meters above sea level. Around the valley are mountain peaks of the nearby Cordillera Vilcabamba, and the peak of Salcontay, which stands at 6271 meters above sea level, rises like an icy giant out a white blanket of clouds.

The Misty Vilcabamba Valley.

The gorge encompasses several climate zones. At the top, and west side of the gorge, the zone is drier. The environment here is a mix of “Queshua”, or middle mountain zone, where eucalyptus trees, imported hundreds of years ago from Australia, grow alongside bamboo, sugar cane, potatoes, and corn. Yet above 2900 meters on the east side, due to a mix of geography and unique land forms carved eons ago by the Apurimac, the zone is lush, high mountain, cloud forest. This unique high mountain jungle is home to endemic species of plants, mosses, insects, birds, and animals that can’t be found anywhere else, even within the same mountain range. The Apurimac runs northwest to southeast, and there are 2 additional environmental zones below. The west side of the river is wetter with bamboo and sugar cane gardens, and the east side up until the base camp of Santa Rosita is filled with cactus, and small leaf, dry desert plants.

Like the geography, the 300 year known history of Choque’Qirao is special. It was introduced to the West in the writings of Cosmo Bueno, in 1768, and later faded into obscurity. In 1834, Eugene de Santiago reintroduced the city, and by 1837, a frenchman, Lance Agrand mapped a tiny section of the ruins. It again faded into obscurity until the american, Hiram Bingham, the rediscoverer of Macchu Picchu, visited the site during an expedition in search of Vilcabamba Vieja, which was reputed to be the last refuge of the Incas. Clean up efforts didn’t begin until the late 1970’s by the Instituto Nacional de la Cultura, or INC, and based on Marco’s own previous explorations in early 2003-2004, the INC didn’t establish an official presence until 2004-2005. With the new visitor restrictions placed on Macchu Picchu, tour agencies are marketing Choque’Qirao as the new “Macchu Picchu”.

Given the difficulty of the trek to Choque’Qirao, I doubt that it could ever be filled with thousands of visitors like Macchu Picchu. The Inca trail to Macchu Picchu is a walk in the park compared to the trek to Choque’Qirao. To get to the city requires a 30 kilometer hike from the town of Cachora, which lies at 2900 meters above sea level. There’s a 15 kilometer hike up 100 meters to El Mirador, then a steep and severe drop of 1470 meters to the Apurimac river, then a much steeper climb back up to 3055 meters above sea level, and finally a short, but technical trek before reaching the base camp of the INC, which is still several kilometers away from the city. The trail itself is carved into the sides of the canyon, where the walls are inclined up at a steep angle of about 80 degrees. To climb up the sides, the trail is carved in a series of switch backs, which appear as numerous zig zags along the walls of the canyon. The inclination of the trail, is an average of 45 to 60 degrees, resulting in many steep climbs and descents. Finally, depending on the season, most of the trail is rocky and packed dirt when dry, and when wet, it’s a red, muddy, and dangerously slippery track. Regarding the slippery factor, it’s important to remember the steepness of the canyon gorge. One bad fall will send a hapless victim right to the raging river, 1400 meters below.

Switchbacks cut through the gorge side.

Another factor is the weather. First, the elevation and mountain sides create unusual climactic zones. At the top, on clear days, it’s cold, but on cloudy ones, it can be foggy, raining, snowing, hailing, or full of sleet. On the drop down to the Apurimac, the zone becomes hot, dry, and sweltering. Here, one usually sheds the layers, but on the ascent, perspiration combined with cold conditions creates a risk for hypothermia.

Because of these two factors, terrain and climate, everyone does the trek in a total of four to five days, with mules and pack animals carrying all their gear, food, and water. Well, that’s everyone but us. Our plan was to do the trek fully loaded, with just our backpacks, and to do it in one day. Our collective nature as a team was that we were a bunch of tough, hyperactive, and macho guys.

The Exploration Team.

The Exploration team, from left to right: Marco, the Author, Manuel, Dante, and Michael

Marco was our guide. He was an expert on the incas, pre-incas, construction, culture, and history. He was also an airport tower controller, and during his off hours, he channeled his hyperactive energy into expeditions into the unknown. Given that Peru is about 75% uncharted, he had plenty of territory to play with. I met Marco 6 years ago in Cuzco, during my first bicycle expedition. We did many expeditions together near Cuzco, into places that were off the maps and books, and we saved our lives during a dangerous ascent up a high mountain. Always positive, Marco stood at 5’11”, strong and built, age 28, and he was always open minded to new ideas. When he heard some of mine regarding the ancient sites, they resonated with his personal experiences. Since then we’ve teamed up for adventure and exploration.

Quite the opposite of Marco was Dante. Dante was a 40ish father of two, and a senior airport tower controller. Reserved and calm, Dante had a wry sense of humor. He was also a direct descendant of the people of the sierra, and with a large, Abe Lincoln beard, barrel chested physique, serious demeanour and a wrinkle that cut across his forehead, he looked imposing until you heard him joke.

Manuel was an airport tower controller in his late 30’s. Manuel was an amateur athlete, and the official team cook. He was well versed in the local history of the incans, and in many ancient civilizations in Peru. He was also he least experienced of the team regarding trekking and camping, but he made up for this with his cooking.

Michael, at age 27, was the youngest, a junior airport tower contoller, extremely focused, but he was also forgetful. This would later prove decisive in our expedition.

And then there’s me, which rounded out a group of five people, four of whom work in a profession famous for being populated by hyperactive people, and one who’s putting out his hyperactivity by biking across an entire continent. For us, mules and donkeys were for the weak. We were going to race our way up to Choque’Qirao, and for several months before the expedition, we prepared for it.

Since I bicycled a huge chunk of Peru, my daily routine put me in decent shape. The rest of the team trained in a gym, and did a vigorous routine on the stair masters, weights, and tread mills. Physically speaking, we were in decent shape. Equipment wise, when I returned to Lima after the Huaraz trip, Marco, Dante, and I picked up new backpacks from a local manufacturer, while they purchased new boots. We stocked up on gas cannisters, food, and water purification equipment. Marco and I were both experienced in trekking and camping, and our survival skills complimented each other. We also reviewed the terrain on google earth, and with photos from Marco’s last expedition, we planned our destination points, times, and resupply areas for water. With our route was mapped out, bodies in shape, and equipment ready, it seemed that we were prepared. But we weren’t ready. There was one other area to address.

For me, life is composed of 3 facets: the physical, the mental, and the spiritual. What we had left to do was prepare ourselves spiritually. Marco and I have a very good reason to do this. Back in 2001, we summitted a 5000 meter mountain during an expedition to a sacred site. Back then, I was a stubborn, hard headed, rationalizing, foreigner – until I disrespected the mountain and the Pacha’Mama. During the climb, I found a periwinkle shell, fresh from the ocean near the peak. The sea shell was part of a ritual the locals performed to pay their respects to the mountain and to the Pacha’Mama. I, the stupid, ignorant, skeptical foreigner, crushed the shell. Before I crushed the shell, during our summit, the skies were clear, blue, and tranquil. Ten minutes after I crushed it, we were attacked by a blizzard to the west, a heavy hail, thunder, and lightning storm to the east, and powerful cross convection air currents north and south.

We almost died that day because of my sacriledge. When I told Marco what I’d done afterwards, he was livid. For weeks after I crushed the shell, the mountain was covered in dark, angry clouds, and it was impossible to attempt another climb. Finally, I caved in, and Marco consulted a shaman. The shaman was also livid at my blatant disregard for the mountain, and advised me to perform a ritual of respect, I performed the ritual on the 2nd attempt, while angry storms whipped us about like bothersome flies.

The rite consisted of replacing the sea shell, placing coca leaves in a sacred location, and a rite of purity with sacred water. Then I asked for both forgiveness, and paid my respects to the mountain and the Pacha’Mama. After the rite, the storms stopped. At the top of the mountain, as I meditated near the site we investigated, the storms cleared away, and a beam of sunlight penetrated the clouds. It lit up my face and head.

Consequently, spiritual preparation is an important part of my routine before an expedition. Climbers summiting Mt. Everest never climb the mountain without visiting the local buddhist temple and spinning the prayer wheels. Even the most skeptical will pay some respect to the spiritual when his or her life is on the line. Thus, before the trip, I meditated and fasted. As for Marco, he visited a shaman, and performed several rites to purify himself. The shaman also gave Marco a warning about something that I wouldn’t learn until much later.

Taking the taxi to Saywita.

I arrived in Cusco two days before the team, on the bus from Ayacucho. I had to ride the bus because I’d arrived in Ayacucho, which lay 350 kilometers from Cusco. The expedition date was March 31st. That gave me just 4 days to cover 350 kilometers of dirt track. There was no way I’d make it on time on the bicycle. In addition, I came down with the cold that I contracted from the kids a few days before. So, I took the grueling 24 hour ride, and swore off buses for good after that. Thankfully, after the expedition, I didn’t have any more set dates or appointments.

I put the bicycle and bags in a safety deposit at the hostal I stayed in, and repacked my internal frame backpack. We met the same day they got off the plane at a local supermarket, La Cañasta, and picked up supplies before taking a taxi to the town of Saywita, which was 3600 meters above sea level. Saywita is a small, high mountain village which sat next to an ancient, pre-incan site of aqueducts, staircases, and platforms.

The team next to the 3D Pre-Incan or Incan Map.

The 3D Pre-Incan or Incan Map.

Marco explains the ruins in Saywita.

The unusual feature about Saywita is a 3D, incan or pre-incan “map” carved out of a 40 ton boulder. So far, it’s the only one of its kind ever found. The map had miniature mountains, symmetrical geometrical shapes, monkeys, snakes, and temples carved into it. To this date, there is no adequate explanation, meaning, or even oral history regarding the “map”. After examining the map, stairways, and temple complex, we drove down the mountain, and dropped one kilometer to the small town of Cachora.

We unloaded our things into a hostal near the plaza, and double checked our water supply. While we did an equipment check, we ran into the first mishap of many to occur.

Unloading our things into a hostal in Chachora.

Crap. Muttered Manuel
¿What happened?. Asked Marco.
The pots we bought at the market. They’re not here.
¿What?. Asked Dante.
The pots… when we put them down, and ran for the taxi, we must’ve forgotten them.Replied Manuel.
The town’s shops haven’t closed yet. ¿Would any of them have pots?. I asked.
Good idea. Let’s hurry.Said Manuel as he and Michael walked out the door. They returned 10 minutes later with a small, aluminum pot.

Later that evening, in a local restaurant, we discussed the goals of our expedition. Because of Marco’s connections with the INC, he’d heard about rumors of llamas made out of quartz amongst the personnel. Up until now, not a single incan or pre-incan site ever had either constructions, figurines, or statues of llamas made out of quarts. That piqued our curiousity. Typically, most incan objects were made out of clay, stone, gold and silver. Quartz, on the other hand, is an extremely hard, and difficult stone to work with. The moment Marco heard about it, he relayed the information to me. Those rumors and the thirst for a real adventure, with the possibility to go into the unknown, were the driving force of the expedition.

The peak of Salcontay rises above the Vilcabamba Valley, in the Central Plaza of Cachora.

¿When you say quartz llamas, what do you mean by that? ¿Are they figurines? ¿Statues? I asked Marco at the table.
I don’t know. All I know is that there are rumors about them. No one ever confirmed them for sure. He replied.
¿Quartz llamas, eh? We will be among the first to see them, as people outside of the INC. said Dante.
You will be the first foreigner to see them. Manuel said to me as he ate his potatoes.

We finished our dinner and watched a spanish translation of a WWF women’s wrestling match on TV. After we paid the waittress, we picked up more supplies: bread, high mountain cheese, jam, and water. Then we went to sleep at 9AM, since we had to be up by 3. Before sleeping, we checked our packs one more time. Marco grinned in anticipation of the trek, as sorted through his pack.

“It’s good to be back in expedition mode, isn’t it?” I said in english.
“Hell yeah.” He replied. I knew how he felt. For two and a half years I chafed through cubicle life, and I itched to get back to doing what I did best, which was high adventure, and exploring the unknown. This was our environment, our backyard, and our field of play.
“We’re going to have a hell of a time.” I said, before we went to sleep.

Little did I know how prophetic those words were.

No, this is not an anime character. He's for real. What he does and goes through, is real.
The Author hard at work descending into the Vilcabamba Valley.

And here’s the first of three videos about the expedition

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