Llamas seem to graze everywhere in Peru’s mountains, but none of them are quite as memorable as the herd at Choquequirao, a sprawling pre-Columbian archaeological complex in the southern Andes. Here, white rocks embedded in the walls of gray schist stone terraces depict two dozen llamas, impressing tourists and archaeologists alike.
“There is nothing else like this in the Andes. It was an artistic innovation that occurred prior to the 16th century and was never repeated,” says Gori-Tumi Echevarría, who specializes in prehistoric rock art and has worked at the site since the llamas were unearthed in 2005.
Choquequirao, or Choque to locals, is a cousin to the more visited Machu Picchu. Built by the Inca, it includes ceremonial halls, chambers that once held mummies, intricate farming terraces, and hundreds of buildings where ancient peoples worked and lived. The llamas—in a perpetual procession toward the ruin’s central plaza where their real-life relatives would have been sacrificed—are the star attraction.
(Choquequirao is one of 25 best places to visit in 2023. See the full list here.)
The route to the 10,000-foot-high Choquequirao is not for the faint-hearted. It takes most hikers two or three days to trek there and back, along a 39-mile trail that often hugs the cliffside as the Apurímac River rages below. The route is strewn with rocks and lined with thorny branches.
But every stubbed toe and scratched arm is worth the views of the snow-dusted Andes, breathtaking pastures, and enigmatic structures along the way.
Choquequirao is accessible only by foot (human or mule). That could change if Peruvian authorities agree on a 2011 proposal to create a cable car to ferry visitors to the base of the ruins. Proponents claim the cable car would increase tourism–and bring in revenues–without halting trekkers in the process. Opponents argue that the cable car would not only spoil Choquequirao, but that it could also make the entire complex collapse.
For now, the site’s remoteness and the difficulty reaching its ruins help it retain a magical, mythical quality. But will progress change all that?
A mythical ‘cradle of gold’
Choquequirao, translated as “cradle of gold” in Peru’s Indigenous Quechua language, sits along a route used by pre-Columbian people to move between Andean peaks and jungle lowlands. Both it and Machu Picchu (27 miles northeast) were mapped in the 1910s by American explorer Hiram Bingham, who led four expeditions to the area sponsored by Yale University and the National Geographic Society.
The two sites have evolved quite differently since Bingham’s mapping efforts. By the 1920s, Machu Picchu was heralded (incorrectly) as a “lost city” causing a spike in tourism. The terraced complex became Peru’s postcard to the world, a mountaintop citadel accessible by trail or by a train-bus combination. In 1983, it was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list, and the number of travelers increased further. In the first six months of 2022, the site attracted nearly 413,000 visitors, according to Peru’s Trade and Tourism Ministry.
(How to explore the Inca Trail beyond Machu Picchu.)
Choquequirao, in contrast, only received 2,353 trekkers in the first half of this year. That’s not the only difference. While most visitors to Machu Picchu transit through the small town of Aguas Calientes (also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo), with its plentiful food and lodging, the route to Choquequirao lacks many creature comforts. Getting there is, as many prefer, an adventure.
Treasures yet to be discovered
As with Machu Picchu, Choquequirao shows the progression of Inca construction techniques, beginning with simple stone structures and evolving to finely hewn massive blocks that interlock like puzzle pieces. The heart of Choquequirao, with its mummy niches and ceremonial sacrifice platform, is smaller than what tourists see at Machu Picchu, but the complex itself is much larger.
Choquequirao’s size and remoteness mean that much of the site has never been excavated. Nelson Sierra, who operates a high-mountain trekking company, Ritisuyo, points to vine-covered elevations rising beyond the central clearing. They are not small hills, but collapsed structures reclaimed by dense vegetation. “So much work is still needed here, but restoring it all would be a massive job,” he says.
As trekkers approach the ruins, the first thing they see are terraces, step-like platforms that turn hillsides into arable land, still used by farmers in highland Peru. Choquequirao has miles and miles of them, most still buried. The terraces stretch from the top of the ruins nearly a mile down toward the Apurímac River.
(Check out other adventure trips on our 2023 Best of the World list.)
Mabel Covarrubias, whose family has lived in the nearby community of Marampata for more than a century, says her ancestors used the terraces for planting and pasturing livestock until the 1980s.
Work on the terraces led archaeologists to the stone llamas. Their white stone bodies stand in stark contrast with the gray walls, suggesting depth and dimension. They reflect the sunlight when the rays first hit them each morning. Echevarría says the llama terraces may have been built as a symbolic offering to the sun god even when no actual live animals were available for sacrifice.
That conjecture is one of a long list of suppositions about the site. “Many myths exist around Choquequirao,” says Echevarría. Indeed, Bingham and a number of explorers and researchers have floated theories about Choquequirao’s origins, its relationship to other ruins, and the role it played during the Inca Empire.
First, there’s a foundation myth holding that Manco Inca, the 15th-century Inca resistance leader, holed up in the citadel here for part of the 40 years he waged a guerrilla war against the Spanish.
“It is a nice story, but it has nothing to do with reality,” says Echevarría. “I have no doubt that Manco Inca was in Choquequirao, like he was at Machu Picchu, but it was not built for the resistance.”
(These side trips from Machu Picchu include wild rafting and monkey-spotting.)
Samuel Quispe, who has worked as a guard, guide, and restorer at Choquequirao since the 1990s, posits that the complex was built by the Chanca, rivals to the Inca in the neighboring Apurímac region in the 14th and 15th centuries. Echevarría disputes that theory, believing the majority of the structures went up during the expansion of the Inca Empire in the 15th century.
The cable car conundrum
Uncovering the llamas focused new attention on the ruins and created the most recent myth, one that continues to gain traction because of Peru’s messy politics.
Former first lady of Peru Eliane Karp was instrumental in securing financial assistance to ramp up the restoration of Choquequirao in 2002. Now, she and her husband, former President Alejandro Toledo, are under suspicion for alleged corruption. While none of the allegations relates to Choquequirao, the controversy has thrown everything the couple did while in power into question. Rumors abound that Karp helicoptered into Choquequirao to fly out crates of golden artifacts.
Karp did not cart off gold, but she did push for a cable car to access Choquequirao. In theory, the tramway could be good for Peruvian tourism and local economies. But it continues to divide communities, archaeologists, and politicians who must approve its funding.
A potent argument, and one that has raged around Machu Picchu, is the impact of tourists on the ruins. In 2016, UNESCO threatened to put Machu Picchu on a “danger” list because of the number of visitors. A cable car system would not only bring more visitors to Choquequirao, but also the sort of infrastructure that might damage the fragile site.
Some complain that mass access to the sacred site could spoil its remote, undiscovered appeal—and the grassroots tourism outfits that now bring people here. Melchora Puga, who offers lodging and a restaurant in Chiquisca on the Apurímac side of the trail, worries the cable car would force her and others to abandon their way of life.
“We depend on tourism. The cable car would be like killing the roots of a tree and thinking the tree could live. We would not survive,” says Puga.
Quispe, now a semi-retired mule driver, says the cable car would eliminate the livelihoods of a range of service providers whose businesses would be bypassed by a quick cable car ride. One of his seven children, José Luis, is a mule driver, while another works for the government project restoring more of Choquequirao’s terraces. The family runs a small store and campground in Cocamasana along the trail.
The cable car remains in limbo. But this doesn’t bother most hardcore trekkers.
“The enticing thing about Choquequirao is that it takes time, so there is a commitment to do it,” says Madison McDonald, 26, from Houston, Texas, who visited Choquequirao in May.
Ritisuyo Travel’s Sierra says the government should focus on improving the existing infrastructure instead of arguing over a cable car. “Maintenance of the trail and better services would permit a greater flow of tourists and ensure local livelihoods. It would not be like Machu Picchu, but the people visiting Choquequirao are not interested in another Machu Picchu. Choquequirao is the perfect companion site.”
IF YOU GO
What to expect: The trek to Choquequirao is rigorous, and while it can be done in two days, a minimum of three is recommended to spend quality time at the ruins. The altitude begins at 10,000 feet at the trailhead and goes up and down (as low as 3,000 feet). This can be a factor for many trekkers, particularly those who haven’t adjusted yet. The first day you’ll trek from Cachora straight down to Chiquisca (6,020 feet), close to the Apurímac River. Lodging, food, and drink are available. You can overnight in Chiquisca or continue to the campground at Santa Rosa (6,200 feet), or to Marampata (9,400 feet), which also offers rooms and food. Choquequirao is about a two-hour hike from Marampata.
After visiting the ruins, either stay in Marampata or head back to Chiquisca. Be aware of time and know that the sun sets around 6:30 p.m. most of the year, as the site is about 13 degrees south of the equator. (Climbing over rocks in the dark is risky.) Hiking boots and poles are a must, as are a flashlight, sunblock, and insect repellant.
Tours: Tours, including porters and mule teams, are widely available to escort you from Cusco to Choquequirao and back. Seasoned trekkers utilize the four sites along the trail offering food, beverage, bathrooms, and lodgings. A three-day tour with a porter runs around $700 per person. If you go solo, there is a $15 entrance fee.
Victor Zea is a photographer in Peru. Follow him on Instagram.