Posted by: davesnewadventure | June 1, 2007

The Expedition to the City of Gold, Choque’Qirao – Part 2: A Trail of Mud and Glitter

Dave’s New Adventure: Adventures from the South American Continent: 04-2007
The Expedition to the City of Gold: Choque’Qirao
Part 2: A Trail of Mud and Glitter

Map of the Location of Choque'Qirao.

Our lights cut our path in the dark, our hearts were resolute, our minds were focused, and our spirits were purified and clean.

“Ouch, motherf—-!!” I growled. Well, the same can’t be said about my Philadelphia vocabulary. It was 4 AM, and the rain showered on me, as I struggled to get back up. My legs, sides, and hands were covered in red mud. A dog barked in the distance, and a thick mist swirled and floated around us in the shadows of an adobe brick farm house.

“Are you alright?” asked Dante, as I got up.

“Yeah. What’s wrong with my boots?” I asked as I inspected the bottoms of my soles. They were packed in mud, but worse, the bottoms were completely worn. Three months of hard adventuring took a toll on my Timberlands.

“You need new soles” said Marco.

“Damn, these boots were basically new. I’ll need some walking sticks too.” I said.

“We weel be back into the treeline on the descent of 5 kilometers,” said Marco, “and then we can cut some sticks.”

It was an hour into the trek, and I already slipped and fell twice. I washed the mud off in a creek. We hiked up a narrow, mud strewn cow path for much of the night and early morning. Patches of grass glistened in our lamps; they were islands of refuge from the deep, thick mud. Steadily, the incline increased as we trekked up the path. Clicks in our ears indicated elevation changes. We ascended for almost three hours, before we saw the inky black night change into a dark blue sky. Another hour passed, and the sky glimmered; the morning light illuminated a wall of fog that parted as we walked the path. We trekked for 55 minutes, rested for 5, and then treked another 55. With Marco setting a rapid pace, we felt our pack’s weight, and during a rest break, my pack’s belt-buckle broke.

It's a rough and tough trek up the mountain...

After that, unable to keep the pace, I fell back and kept Dante and Manuel company. Later, Dante and I hacked two walking sticks from eucalyptus trees along the road. At 6 AM, we reached our first destination point, El Mirador, 3000 meters above sea level. Manuel and I arrived last. I took my time crossing several one meter wide, rough cut, rocky ledges. A crudely built banister separated us from the edge and a drop of 900 meters. The trail became trickier, because it transformed from mud into rough cut stone and gravel. We rested under a crude gazebo, made lunch, and rehydrated. I looked out across the gorge, and it was filled with clouds, which obscured everything.

Usually you can see where Choque’Qirao is, but not today. Said Marco.

It’s a good thing nobody is paying you to be a guide, because if we’re lost, I want my money back. Joked Dante, as he searched for the city in the horizon.

This will be better, because then if we get to the city today, it will be like a mystery in the mist. Replied a wide eyed, grinning Marco.

The only mystery I want to see right now is breakfast. I am hungry. Shall we, gentlemen? said Manuel as he took off his backpack.

Oh yea, it’s time to eat. I grinned as I pulled out my stove.

We ate jam and cheese sandwiches, and drank hot cups of Kwicha, a highly nutritious grain ground into a powder tasting a lot like cacao mix.

So, are we there yet? I joked.

No, now we begin the hard part. Said Marco

That last three hours wasn’t hard? Asked Manuel

Oh, you’re going to wish you had an extra pair of legs. We crossed, I think 15 kilometers. We have 15 kilometers left to go. First we descend to the river. We won’t break until we get to the river. And then you’re going to see what we have to climb. Smiled Marco.

Manuel looked daunted.

We’re men. I grinned.

No, we’re masochists. Said Manuel.

That too. I replied.

I fixed my buckle with a piece of rope to hold it together, before starting the descent. When Marco and I reviewed the terrain on Google Earth, and analyzed the photos of his previous expedition, he tried his best to explain to me the difficulty of the trail. Obviously, pictures and 3D maps are clever tools, but they’ll never take the place of experiencing the trip. We reviewed the elevation, and trail grades many times, and he kept saying how important it was to be in shape.

The Vilcabamba Valley.

After the first kilometer down, my knees began to hurt, and then I realized that biking across the continent or country didn’t prepare my body adequately for this kind of trek. Each step became an exercise in pain management. I stepped with one foot, and used the stick to aid the other. After 5 steps, I felt the pain in my knee in one leg, and switched the stick to the other side to support it. As the descent progressed, both Manuel and I slowed down further, until the both of us stopped maintaining the pace. We stopped at one particularly steep descent, and I looked up at the trail we recently crossed. The trail was formed out of 25 switchbacks, or zig zags hewn into the side of the canyon. We were on zag number 10, as we liked to call it when we went through one of the switchbacks. The climate changed, from a cold, wet mist into a warm, drier zone. We removed our cold weather gear, and resumed the descent. About 2/3rds of the way down, my knees hurt like hell.

You think if we used mules, we could enjoy the trek more, said Manuel.

You’ve got a point, I replied, as I observed our cloud covered surroundings, and added, but there isn’t much to look at right now.

The clouds rose up the canyon side, and we were in the middle of it. The descent, with each switchback, got steeper, until Manuel, Dante, and I rested after each turn. Marco and Michael were completely out of sight, but the roar of the Apurimac river echoed up the gorge, and its sound grew louder with each pass. At 12 PM, after hopping down some slippery gravel, we arrived at destination point two, a campsite filled with eucalyptus trees, bamboo, and sugar cane. Several cane huts marked the rest area, and under a shelter, sat Marco, Michael, and Dante.

How long did you wait here? I asked

40 minutes. Replied Marco.

Trekking machine. I retorted, as I unloaded my backpack. My shoulders ached, and I washed my hands and face in the bathroom sink.
So are we having lunch here? Asked Dante.

Eh, no, we will have lunch on the other side. Replied Marco.

The other side? Asked Manuel

Yes, across the river, and half way up the canyon, in Santa Rosa.

How far is that? I asked.

Not far, it’s about an hour and a half from here.

That doesn’t sound too bad. I replied.

The bridge across the Apurimac River.

The ascent is really steep all the way up to Santa Rosa.

Marco’s knack for accuracy in estimation, I later learned, was considerably off the mark. We didn’t arrive in Santa Rosa until 4PM. It took a half hour to descend down to the bridge, and then start our ascent up the gorge wall to Santa Rosa. Along the way, Dante and I cut dual walking sticks out of bamboo. Being lighter, and stiffer than the eucalyptus saplings, the two bamboo poles helped tremendously; I had no idea how difficult the hike up to Santa Rosa was.

The ascent to Santa Rosa is equivalent to carrying a 60 pound backpack up the stairwell of the Empire State building, from floor 0 to the top, 2 and a half times. The scorching sun, dry air, lack of oxygen, slippery dirt, gravel, and rock, made this trek into a substantial challenge.

The author doing what he does best...Flirt!!!

The entrance to Santa Rosa.

Well, I wasn’t too preoccupied with its difficulty. I spent some time flirting with the Instituto de Tourismo’s female students, who were on the descent after a class at Choque’Qirao. Obviously, they didn’t carry any backpacks, and herds of mules followed them down the descent. At one point, I felt offended that they were hiking, unloaded, while we were burdened with our packs. Still, our egos felt better when we zoomed past several young, French hikers who took a tour agency, and used mules to carry their gear. They watched us in disbelief as we marched up the mountain. During the ascent, Manuel ran out of water, so I shared mine with him, before abandoning him to finish the climb. Marco and Michael arrived first, Dante arrived 40 minutes later, I arrived at 4PM, and Manuel came in at 4:30.

As we rested under a thatch shelter, I breathed in the air. We were about 2200 meters back up the gorge side, and the west side was composed of grassy areas and a few trees. But on the east side, the site was lush jungle. Banana trees grew next to mountain brooks, sugar cane grew in a terraced area below our site, and the air was moist. A cholita cooked us a lunch of rice, potatoes, and fava beans. While we ate and rested, I noticed Marco with a pensive look on his face.

“So we’re not far from the city, right?” I asked. He looked at me seriously, and said, “No, we’re very far away. We will not make it today.”


“We are only half way up the mountain. From here to the ridge, is the same distance from the Apurimac to here. It is too late now to keep going.”

“We aren’t even close.”


I looked up the mountain side. He was right. The main trail to the city lay along the ridge at the top. At 5 PM, it was late, and we were too tired to go any further. An hour and a half later, the French arrived at the site. They hiked for two days on the same trail, and they started from Cachora as well.

We ate lunch, and set up camp. I took a refreshing, invigorating cold shower underneath a waterfall, amongst banana and palm trees, while listening to the chirping of parrots. The cold water soothed and massaged my sore, throbbing muscles. Manuel cooked our dinner, ramen noodles and instant cream soup. As we ate, we discussed the hike up, and about what lay ahead.

I prefer ascending to descending, said Manuel, the drop to the river hurts my knees.

Me too. Added Dante.

Tomorrow, up to the ridge, it is all ascent. Said Marco.

And on the way to the city?

Oh, easy. It’s not like this at all. He replied.

How are we on water? Asked Michael.

We’re all out, we replied.

Marco, you and I have to make water after dinner. I said. He nodded in reply. In the group, I was the only one with a water filter.

Anything else we should know about, Marco? Hinted Dante.

No, just expect the same tomorrow as what we did from the river today. He replied.

Marco charges up the mountain.

It started to rain, so Marco and I worked my filter and refilled our water. Then we went to bed early, and I quickly fell asleep with the rhythmic throbbing of my knees. The next morning, we slowly rolled our of our tents into a drizzle. After a breakfast of Kwicha and cheese sandwiches, we packed up and started the ascent. Michael was the first one out, with Dante following close behind. My legs felt fresh; the deep sleep permitted a substantial recovery, so I was on my way. Marco stayed back to help Manuel pack and carry his things, but he quickly caught up and passed by me.

I felt much stronger during the ascent than the day before. Part of it was due to not hiking since 3 AM, but another part was the energy of anticipation. For hour after hour, with a walking stick in each hand, I paced myself up each switch back, and eyed each corner turn as an immediate goal. Soon, I caught up with Dante, and we both paced ourselves up the slope. As we trekked, we watched the sun light up the entire gorge. The clouds drifted away and a clear blue sky greeted us, as we quickened our pace. We knew the sun would soon scorch us. We climbed for 55 minutes, and rested for 10, and then climbed another 55. Finally, after three hours of trekking, we reached the final ascent, and entered the first INC gateway. 30 minutes later, we were on the ridge, and we later met up with Marco and Michael at Marampata, a bungalow on the side of the mountain. At 3055 meters, the air was cool, and it energized us to finish the hike.

Dante calls out to Marco and Michael

Two sticks are so much more useful than one.


Choque'Qirao's Peak

Michael points to the location of the city.

“We’re almost there,” said Marco as he and Michael greeted us in the middle of the trail. He pointed to a mountain peak in front of us, whose top was denuded of vegetation.

“That’s it over there.” He said.

“What do we have to pass through?” I asked.

“Jungle, eh, and more mud.” He replied as he pointed down the trail to an area covered in trees and bushes.

We're in Cloud Forest now.

The trail glitters with iron pyrite.

During the hike, we encountered jungle only in Santa Rosa. The mountain we were about to enter was covered in dense jungle. The air, although cool, was moist and invigorating. It had a feel of early spring before the dew evaporated. We walked up to a boulder, where Marco took a rock from the ground, and hammered it on the boulder. Flecks of sparkle glittered as they fell into the mud.

This is where the name Choque’Quirao comes from, he said as he hammered the boulder.
This mountain is full of iron pyrite and copper, which is why choque, which means cradle, and qui’rao can mean either gold or copper.

I looked at the muddy trail in front of us. A million points of light flashed in the sunlight. The whole trail is full of glitter and light! I exclaimed.

Yes, that is why this place is considered a holy place. Replied Marco.

An Angel in the Sky.

An An ancient aqueduct and pool still flows, after thousands of years.

A holy place… I looked up at the sky, and saw a positive sign in the clouds. “What ever it was the shaman warned Marco about, it won’t happen in the city,” I thought. We continued hiking, up and down the muddy, glittering trail. In the shadows of the cloud forest, the pyrite sparkled as the breeze moved the branches. Strange bird sounds, like parrots or parakeets echoed in the air. Mosses and unusual plants which sucked in moisture from the air layered the branches, and the trees, ferns, and plants imbued a deep, rich green along the sides of the trail. Ancient aqueducts and pools, thousands of years old, still flowed with water from waterfalls and cascades. They too, sparkled with the running water, since they were made from stones full of pyrite. We continued the trek, until we came to a clearing full of mud and grass. We were in the INC base camp, and we set up camp in the only dry spot we could find. We made it, and we were within city limits. It was 1 PM. I setup a wind break between our tents for the stove. As I put my gear into my tent, I lent Michael some of my pepto bismo. He had a stomach problem, and along the route, he gathered Muña de Gato, a powerful Andean herb to treat it. He boiled it into a tea, and after drinking the tea and the pepto, he took off to explore the ruins, alone.

Manuel arrived last at the site, and he started making our lunch of instant noodles. We clapped when he entered, after all, we were hungry.

The INC camp.

Manuel finally arrives.

Manuel, you’re a lot faster today than yesterday, said Dante.

My pack is lighter today, he replied, smiling at Marco.

Marco grimaced, I carried his stuff up with me. Michael has the rest of the food.

Speaking of Michael, isn’t he going to wait for us to see the ruins? I asked.

Eh, no, he has to get back to Cusco. Said Marco

Huh? So soon? We’ve only been at this for two days.

I know, it’s kind of strange, but he was complaining about his stomach, and he said he has a meeting.

That’s weird, all this effort to get out here, and then he’s going back, after seeing the city for what, an hour? I replied.

Yes, this trek is much more difficult than the Inca trail, said Manuel, compared to this, the Inca trail is child’s play.

And he’s going to get back to Cachora tonight? I asked, incredulous.

No, he’s going to camp in Santa Rosa tonight, and leave for Cachora tomorrow morning.



That’s nuts. I replied.

I had a discomforting feeling about it. We had enough problems making it through the hike, but I shrugged it off. After lunch, we put on our knives and canteens, and got ready for the hike into the city.

The Cradle of Gold... or Copper.


The author hard at work... flirting.

The Author hard at work… Flirting.


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