Driving on two-lane highways in the Brazilian countryside is statistically far more dangerous than backpacking a few days in Peru. Since I do the former almost every weekend, I used this argument on a couple of occasions to allay the concerns of friends and family members about my upcoming adventure. Such rational comparisons are generally effective in quelling my own fears, at any rate.
In the hectic work-filled conference week that preceded my hike, I’d had some strange dreams involving coffins winding through the narrow, cobbled Cusco streets. I interpreted them as the result of jokes shared with my Brazilian colleagues—over a few bottles of wine—about the wisdom of organizing an international conference with many senior government officials at 3,200 meters above sea level.
24th OLACEFS General Assembly in Cusco. I’m in the front row, middle table.
There were other dreams about exiting my body, which I understood as the expression of a subconscious expectation of leaving behind weighty psychological baggage as I engaged in meditation and contemplation during my walk.
In the early morning hours of Saturday, November 29, 2014, as I rode, half asleep, from Cusco to the town of Cachora—where my trek would begin—I once again mentally dismissed any premonitory power of my coffin-laden dreams. Meanwhile, the radio in the rickety car was tuned to a news station. I snapped out of my light slumber as I heard the newscasters discussing the recent death of a Peruvian singer-songwriter.
With Alfredo’s father, also a mule driver, at whose house we had breakfast the first day
“He foresaw his own death before it happened,” one of them concluded after analyzing the lyrics to his last song. I laughed to myself, though slightly shaken. Would I meet my end in this seatbelt-less vehicle or while trekking across the Andean altitudes? My mental joke was tinged with apprehension.
In the late afternoon of the third day of my hike, these thoughts came back to me repeatedly. I was rationing my one-and-a-half liters of water according to careful calculations. During the four-hour uphill trudge, there was not a single spring. My guide Fredy carried no water at all. Whether by Quechua genes or training, he needed no drink during hours on the trail. Sweating profusely, I knew that I did not share his physiology, and that if my water ran out prematurely, I would have no recourse.
While hydration was a drawn-out concern, slippery narrow ledges were an immediate, adrenaline-inducing challenge. The steep mountainsides are subject to constant erosion. Being the tail end of backpacking season and the beginning of the heavy rains, the trails were in dire need of maintenance. On occasion, they were so narrow that just one foot at a time would fit on the pebbly, muddy ledge, flanked on one side by a rocky wall and on the other by a vertical drop of over a hundred meters.
In addition to dehydration and precipices, the other major mortal dangers on this trek are landslides and the associated falling rocks. Fredy told me of an unfortunate guide who liked using headphones to listen to music as he trekked. As a result of this habit, one fateful day, he didn’t hear the rumbling up above, and his death was mercifully swift as a rock landed on his head.
Statistically, I was probably right about Peruvian treks and Brazilian highways. As long as you are healthy, plan appropriately, and take certain precautions (avoid headphones), backpacking to Choquequirao and beyond is probably not a particularly risky undertaking. Getting in a car and riding at 100km per hour is, just about anywhere.
What enhances the risk of this particular hike is the isolation—the same factor that makes it so amazing. There is no cell phone signal at Choquequirao, no landlines within kilometers, no medical personnel, and in December, scarcely anybody around at all. You are a two-day hike from either of the closest towns: Cachora is far behind, and the village of Yanama is still far ahead, with its single telephone. In a medical emergency, your best chance would probably be to ask your guide or hiking companion to run a couple of hours back to the tiny village of Marampata in the hopes of finding someone with a shortwave radio to call in help from Cusco.
Risks notwithstanding, for me, long hikes are an end in and of themselves—marvelously enjoyable adventures that refresh body and mind. Yet I prefer actually going somewhere rather than walking in a loop in familiar surroundings. In this regard, trekking to the breathtaking Incan ruins at Choquequirao, which rival Machu Picchu and are otherwise utterly inaccessible, was an unparalleled thrill. That sense of adventure and inaccessibility by any other means perfectly defines and justifies this hike, in my mind.
“What trek did you like better, this one or the Inca trail to Machu Picchu?” Fredy asked me on the fifth day. My reply was that it really depends on your goals. Both treks boast spectacular scenery and challenging climbs and descents at an altitude of over four thousand meters. However, for the architecture and history, Machu Picchu still holds an advantage in my mind, particularly due to the mind-boggling masonry. Large stones were somehow cut to perfection, fitting into one another so perfectly that no mortar was needed and centuries of mudslides and seismic activity could not topple the constructions.
Note the astonishing masonry at Machu Picchu
On the other hand, for sheer adventure and the privilege of visiting an anthropological wonder that only hardy hikers have a chance to glimpse, Choquequirao is matchless. If you want that experience, you may want to plan a trip soon; if you don’t want to rough it, just wait a couple of years. The government has approved the construction of a cable car that will take 400 visitors per hour to the site, as opposed to the handful of hikers that currently reach Choquequirao each day.
I had Choquequirao all to myself—a rare privilege
When I began my trek, I was hardly aware of the rarity of the privilege I was about to experience—or of the difficulty. I had had no time to research my destinations. All I knew is that I was supposed to hike and camp for eight days through the mountains, reaching Choquequirao at the end of the second day; a peak of 4,800 meters on the sixth day; and Hidroelétrica—the closest we would be allowed to get to Machu Picchu—on the eighth day. From Hidroelétrica, I would take a train to Aguas Calientes, and on the ninth day, tour Machu Picchu and climb Huayna Picchu.
Fredy and I left Cachora, along with Alfredo and his mule Vaya, at about 9:30 Saturday morning.
Echoes of the news radio chatter and of my odd dreams vanished with the morning mist. Vaya carried my tent, sleeping bag, and mattress, along with most of Alfredo and Fredy’s belongings. I carried my own food, clothing, water, and other personal items, weighing in at 11.5 kilos.
Normally, the trek would have included an extra mule to carry the rest of the weight, a cook, a horse for emergencies, and certain other safeguards and comforts. However, since I had no flexibility in my travel dates and thus could not join a group, such luxuries would have led the hike to cost well over three thousand dollars. I bargained with the Apus Peru agency—which I would highly recommend—to cut costs and reduce the price of my trip by nearly 70%.
Fredy and Alfredo with his mule Vaya. The town of Cachora is down below.
My cargo felt relatively light as we happily ascended to the Capuliyoc overpass at 2,900 meters. We were rewarded by an awe-inspiring view on all sides as we snacked on nuts and dried fruit and then began our descent to the Apurimac River, at about 1,800 meters. Halfway down, we met our first fellow hikers, coming in the opposite direction.
“How are you?” I asked the two young ladies. The blonde one, flushed, responded tersely, “I need a medic.” Marie, from France, and Barbara, from Argentina, were on their way back from Choquequirao. They had not been purifying their water and Marie had gotten diarrhea. They were evidently struggling and Marie was in clear danger of dehydration. I gave them six of my Micropur sterilizing tablets and asked Fredy and Alfredo—unfazed by this apparently common situation—to watch my things as I carried the heavier of their backpacks back up the mountain. After an hour climb with frequent rests, I left them safely at a small camp near the overpass and ran back to my guide and mule driver.
When we reached the campsite near the bridge that traverses the Apurimac River, I was suddenly confronted by two unexpected and highly unpleasant features of the relatively lower altitudes: heat and bloodsucking flies. As I desperately sprayed on my insect repellant, I understood gratefully why Fredy, in our pre-trip briefing, had insisted that repellant was an essential item. My legs were already red with bites and blood, but still a far cry from the pasty bite-smothered legs of the Polish trekker at the adjoining site, which looked like an image straight from a medical reference book. I fled to my tent, but the smothering heat soon expelled me. The four-season Chilean Doite tent I had purchased in Cusco might resist snow, sleet, and thunderstorms, but it certainly was not breathable, I reflected.
Nightfall brought relief from the heat and my first meal of cooked quinoa, which I had chosen as the staple for our trek. Our versatile mule driver doubled as our cook, and with Fredy’s help he had gathered firewood and skillfully improvised a rustic stove. As would be the case for the rest of our trip, we retired early to bed and woke up at 4:30 or 5:00 a.m.
My companions waited patiently as I would take over an hour to sort through my things, pack my bag, and have breakfast. “These tourists are so complicated,” I would joke with Fredy.
Actually, fifteen minutes each morning and evening were taken up by a blister-popping and taping routine. Blisters had been my number one concern for the hike, based on prior experience, and the first day seemed to confirm my fear. Both feet were painful and covered by large white eruptions.
“You need to pop them and drain all the liquid,” Fredy explained. Skeptical, I nonetheless heeded his advice. Dr. Fredy, as I called him at such times, personally assisted me, and from the second day on the condition of my feet gradually improved.
“I much prefer uphill climbs than descents,” I told Fredy and Alfredo repeatedly at the outset of our journey. Later, I joked that the second day of our hike had permanently cured me of this unusual preference. The four-hour climb up Choquequirao Mountain under the sweltering sun was the most grueling I had ever experienced. Fredy told me that many hikers give up during the ascent and never get to see the ruins.
After conquering Choquequirao Mountain, my hardest uphill hike ever. Just past my right forearm, in the background, is the Capuliyoc Pass we traversed on the first day.
A couple of additional hours hiking on more level ground and cooler temperatures took us past Marampata and offered the first, distant view of the ancient Incan citadel. We pitched camp about an hour before reaching the ruins, and I was grateful for several hours to rest, shower, and wash my clothes.
On the third day, the original plan was to explore Choquequirao and descend just a few hours to Rio Blanco, where we would spend the night. However, I had decided I wanted nothing to do with lower altitude campsites and would do whatever it took to avoid the heat and bloodthirsty flies. Though Alfredo and Fredy were somewhat skeptical after seeing me struggle up Choquequirao Mountain, I announced my intention to make it all the way to the Maizal camp, thus getting a day ahead in our itinerary.
Fredy and I spent a few hours touring Choquequirao thoroughly, including the steep descent—often avoided by weary hikers, such as the Poles I mentioned earlier, or purposefully ignored by lazy guides, as Fredy explained—to see the intriguing stone llama figures decorating successive terraces.
After the unforgettable tour, we descended the other side of the mountain for two hours to Rio Blanco, where we met Alfredo, who had our quinoa-based lunch boiling and ready. Before digging in, I smothered myself with repellant and pulled out my LifeStraw to drink directly from the river.
Once again I marveled gratefully at the opportune gift that my brother Zeke had given me a few months earlier when he visited me at the farm in Brazil. At the time, I had not even begun planning for my Peruvian hike and I shelved the LifeStraw for some later, unforeseen occasion. Little did I know that it would in fact be a lifesaver in the Andes. The MicroPur tablets take two hours to render water safe, but the LifeStraw provides immediate hydration.
After lunch and a refreshing dip in the frigid river waters, we packed up our things and began the four-hour ascent to Maizal, which I mentioned earlier as devoid of any water source and rife with slippery narrow trails along dangerous precipices.
Glad to have made it up the waterless and precipice-laden ascent
I was greatly relieved to reach Maizal in one piece and charmed by this rustic campsite maintained by a local Quechua family. Unlike other equally rustic campsites, Maizal, at 3,200 meters, is adorned with small flower gardens and is also a functioning farm. Goats, pigs, and chickens meander around various thatched-roof adobe structures. The view of river valleys and snow-capped mountains from the campsite was enthralling, and I reflected that I could happily spend several days at the site.
Though tempted to stay, we decided instead to continue our trek early the next morning, the fourth day. We hiked six hours through bromeliad and orchid-laced forests and past silver and lead mines on Mount Victoria to the village of Yanama, which marked an initial return to civilization, so to speak, since a dirt and gravel road starting in Santa Teresa ended at the village. The hillside was dotted with horses and mules and the view across the Yanama River, far below, was gorgeous. But the highlight of this campsite was getting a glimpse of the local culture. We enjoyed a late lunch and later dinner inside the family’s adobe kitchen.
“Noki kani Brasil manta,” I said, using about half of my entire Quechua vocabulary to tell my hosts where I was from, causing initially puzzled looks followed by uproarious laughter at hearing this white foreigner speak in the local language. (Two weeks earlier, when I first arrived in Cusco for my conference, I had not yet checked in to the hotel, and was informed that having breakfast there would cost 25 US dollars. So I walked across the street to the sidewalk where a Quechua lady was selling breakfast to locals for just two soles, or about 80 US cents. As I enjoyed quinoa in apple juice and avocado slices on homemade bread, a fellow customer gave me a free Quechua lesson, including the abovementioned phrase, which I used to inform and entertain campsite hosts multiple times during my trek.)
Interacting in that Yanama kitchen with the local family, Fredy, and Alfredo was pleasant and seemed quite commonplace. A couple of dogs came in and out from time to time, searching for food, as did the occasional chicken. It almost could have been a peasant family’s home in rural Goias, my home state in Brazil, except for one detail. That detail constitutes one of the most unusual experiences of my trip. As we ate and talked, dozens of guinea pigs scurried back and forth across the floor, seeking morsels of food, gnawing on firewood, or engaging in collective chirping frenzies. Guinea pigs are rodents, unrelated to swine, and they are not from Guinea, but rather from the Andes. They have been raised as a food source for seven millennia in these mountains and are still considered a delicacy. Like the meandering chickens, these cute little guinea pigs’ ultimate destination was the frying pan.
On the next day—the fifth—an eleven-hour hike to Ccolpapampa awaited us. I looked forward to reaching the 4,800-meter high overpass halfway through the day. It was foggy with intermittent rain. I was grateful for an extended respite from the sunshine. Ironically, this was the only day I got a sunburn, since I didn’t see the sun and thus forgot to apply sunblock. It was slow moving at first up the mountainside, switching from the dirt road to the hiking trail. Gradually I got warmed up and Fredy and I began chewing on our first wads of coca leaves of the day. We then made quick time to the overpass, which we noted with slight disappointment was 140 meters lower than it used to be, as a result of a transforming landscape shaped by mining, landslides, and road construction.
At 4,660 meters or 15,300 feet. Note the glacier in the background.
The gradual descent was easy, and we finally had a late lunch prepared for us by the local family at a campsite near Totora. There we enjoyed the company of 3-year-old Ruth and 7-year-old Ana.
Three-year-old Ruth washed her dolls as Fredy and I had lunch.
At Ccolpapampa, we bid good-bye to Alfredo, who had already left Vaya behind at Yanama and instead hitched a car ride to take our camping equipment. From that point on, we would have to carry our entire load on our backs.
The next morning, I gave all our remaining food to the campsite family and loaded nearly 15 kilos on my back. We left a couple of minutes after a large group of hikers coming from Salkantay, where they had begun their two-day hike to Hidroelétrica. Fredy and I passed them as they stopped with their guide for an explanation, and made haste so that we could continue our journey alone, without others hikers, as we had the previous five days.
That morning took us through a lush botanical paradise. We made great time even as I marveled at the multihued butterflies and flowers, cascading falls, and large cedars, and stopped frequently to eat ripe wild strawberries.
We were supposed to camp that night at the riverside La Playa. The prospect of swarms of tourists and bloodsucking flies made me cringe. We decided that we would instead continue a little further and higher to Lucma Bamba, where there would be fewer flies and even fewer backpackers. If we felt great, we might even venture all the way to Hidroelétrica, arriving around nightfall and ending our eight-day hike in just six days.
When we got to Lucma Bamba, I did not feel great at all. My feet were hurting badly again, I was exhausted, and my old lumbar injury was flaring up. The 15 kilos were taking their toll. However, all the stores and homes where we might have procured snacks and a dinner were closed. Having planned our whole trek around having Alfredo’s help in setting up camp and preparing dinner, we were ill prepared to unload our carefully packed supplies and make do ourselves. I decided it would actually be easier to face the pain and keep on trekking.
We enjoyed the Llactapata Incan ruins and distant views of Machu Picchu around 5 p.m., but as we left the site, I suddenly realized we were in trouble. Two hours of a muddy descent in the rain on a narrow forest trail lay before us, but we had only one more hour of daylight. I braced myself, attempting to forget my painful back, legs, and feet, and ran down the trail, following Fredy, who was also suffering from painful shoulders, unaccustomed to carrying a heavy load, since he always had porters, a mule, or at least a cook to carry the dishware.
The downward sprint was did the job—we made it! When we crossed the simple suspension bridge across the Urubamba River, the sun had just set, but it was not yet dark. We had just one more hour of walking on the open road to the town of Hidroelétrica, our final destination.
It was too late to catch a train to Aguas Calientes, so instead we got a cab to Santa Teresa. Having finished our trek two days early, we were able to relax, enjoy the amazing thermal baths near Santa Teresa, and then spend an easy day in Aguas Calientes, where I wrote most of this account. The next day I felt lucky as I marveled, for the second time in two years, at the splendors of Machu Picchu.
I love this part of the world and I hope to come back again before long. Yet, as I wait to board the plane at the Cusco airport, I’ll admit I’m slightly relieved to be leaving in one piece, still in my body, and with incredible memories and stories to share with my family back home.
The last little hike of my trip, up Huayna Picchu, afforded me this awesome view
 11,200 feet.
 25 pounds
 33 pounds