What follows is an adaptation of a story originally appearing in the March 2009 issue of Condé Nast Traveler.
Don Nazario Turpo died a stupid death. The driver of the bus in which he was traveling from Saylla to Cuzco didn't realize that the locals were making one of their low-tech protests — placing stones across the road without warning. Fourteen others besides Nazario died in the crash, and fifty were wounded.
I had met Nazario, a shaman, a couple of years before at Machu Picchu. After the other tourists had gone, he sat in the quiet of the ruins and told my daughter's fortune. "I'm coming back to Peru," Rebecca had whispered to me as we walked past llamas in the dusk.
"But not to Machu Picchu," Nazario had said. The fortress of the Incas had fallen to mass tourism. Every day, hundreds were arriving on buses, charging down the Inca Trail and through the Sun Gate. They came here on the five-hundred-dollar-a-head Orient-Express Hiram Bingham day-trip from Cuzco — a journey to what is fast becoming one of the world's most endangered gorgeous sites.
Nazario had mentioned another Incan citadel. No one went to this place. But it wasn't until Roger Valencia of the tour operator Auqui e-mailed me with news of Nazario's death that I wrote back to ask if he knew about this sister to Machu Picchu.
"Choquequirao," Roger answered. "Even more beautiful than Machu Picchu. When do you want to go?"
Choquequirao. Choqeqirau. Chokekiraw. I Googled as many variations as I could imagine and came up with little. I pulled my copy of “Lost City of the Incas” off the shelf and searched the index. “Lost City” was written by Hiram Bingham forty years after he had become the first Northerner, in 1911, to "discover" Machu Picchu. The book was full of Choquequirao.
Choquequirao, in fact, was Bingham's destination on his virgin trip to Peru in 1909, the city he believed to be the last holdout of the Incas during the 1530s, when Spanish conquistadors destroyed their empire. City of Gold was how the Peruvians translated the name to Bingham. The last holdout would hold the last treasure.
Once Bingham decided that Machu Picchu was the City of Gold, Choquequirao faded like a discarded high school girlfriend. But recent archaeologists have cast doubt on Bingham's theories. Choquequirao, the original City of Gold, may be getting ready for its red carpet walk.
There’s a reason Choquequirao is unknown: It is a five-day hike to reach it. I knew some people who had flown in by helicopter, but the winds in the mountains can be unpredictable. They had nearly crashed. Three times.
At noon on an early May day, Rebecca and I found ourselves at the trailhead, squatting beside a camp stove with our guide, Ana, and our cook, Felicitas, finishing up a lunch of chicken and cauliflower. The fifth member of our party, Carlos, ran after one of our three mules, which had just disappeared off the side of the road.
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For the first hour, we skipped three abreast on a wide trail. Rebecca and I looked at the panorama of Salcantay Mountain and the nearer glacial peak of Padreyoc across the river, and then at each other. This was lovely. Less than twenty miles to Choquequirao. Piece of cake.
Then we turned the corner at the town of Capuliyoc. We could make out a handful of man-made structures in the distant trees. "And that," she pointed down, "is the Apurímac." We took her word that the white thread one mile below was a river. This was the canyon of the Apurímac, twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. "And that is our path." A steep snaky thing. And then, across the river, another steep snaky thing. Down one, up the other.
Slideshow: Lovely Lima Our mules had navigated the seven miles to the site, Chiquisca, in half the time it took us. Twenty-year-old Uriel connected a pipe to the spring, and we bathed in fresh glacial water using a plastic bottle for a showerhead. We drank tea and ate popped corn of the giant Peruvian variety in the last heat of the afternoon, as a pair of condors circled three thousand feet above us.
The next morning, we let gravity drag us down the hill to the banks of the Apurímac. One mile lower than the village of Cachora, we were in the heart of a tropical climate. Cactus lined the path parallel to the river. Before the bridge, fruit trees signaled a spring.
We began the uphill. The sun had started to shine, and although the switchbacks afforded the occasional shade, our conversation consisted of panting and pointing. Six hours after leaving the camp of Chiquisca, we arrived at Marampata Hill. Once again, we had a campsite to ourselves. From our plateau, the valley opened up farther to the west and turned north, toward the jungle. We lunched on cheese and guacamole and gazed hypnotized by fatigue and the view.
Carlos brought mate de coca and hot water to our tent at six the next morning. It had rained during the night. But here, at ten thousand feet above sea level, we had a clear light for the day at Choquequirao. We left Felicitas, Carlos, and the mules to rest. The path was level. And around the next bend was Choquequirao.
We were still two hours away, but we had a sense of what we had hiked to see. Across the ravine, a series of terraces had been excavated. Farther up the hill was another set of terraces, partially cleared but still with large clumps of trees.
Far above the terraces was the perfect helipad of the ushnu, "the sacred meeting place of Choquequirao," Ana said. And above that, joined by a neatly mown plaza on the ridge, was more of the site. Choquequirao was a giant Sudoku with only a handful of numbers penciled in. In comparison, Machu Picchu is a fully filled color-by-numbers.
"People have known about Choquequirao for centuries," Ana told me. "There was a French explorer in the 1800s. Before him there were Spaniards." Some say the city was built during in the mid-1400s and became the last refuge of the Incas a hundred years later. Others say that pottery found at Choquequirao show that it was inhabited hundreds of years earlier. Each visit by anthropologists and archaeologists brings a new theory. And yet Choquequirao gave off a whiff of inscrutability as we came around the bend.
There was something ethereal about Choquequirao as we walked out of the trees and onto the terrace leading to the ruin. There are a couple of town squares and a handful of stone buildings like the ones at Machu Picchu, with tapered doorways and niches and hooks for hanging lamps or securing roof thatching.
During the eight hours we wandered through the ruins, we saw two groups of six people in addition to the guardian of the site, perched with a paperback on the heights of the sacred ushnu with a view of anyone entering. That was all.
At five o'clock, the sun set at the far end of the valley, and we began the two-hour hike back to Marampata. As darkness fell, Rebecca and Ana strapped miner's lamps to their foreheads. I followed their beams and voices as closely as I could, feeling stupid not to have brought a lamp — as stupid, perhaps, as that bus driver the moment before he hit the rock that sent him and Nazario to their death.
Suddenly the path opened up in front of us, bright as dusk. I found Rebecca and Ana standing in wonder, their lamps extinguished. The earth had breathed a thousand fireflies to light our way home. Choquequirao had brought me gold.
The country code for Peru is 51. Prices quoted are for March 2009.
The best way to explore Choquequirao is to fly into Cuzco and then drive to the town of Urubamba. In Cuzco, tour operators can arrange trips to Choquequirao. Roger Valencia of Auqui Tours runs trips to all the famous sites in the Sacred Valley—Machu Picchu, Ausangate—as well as to other parts of Peru. A five-day hike to Choquequirao includes tents, cots, three-course dinners with wine, and transportation to and from Cuzco or Urubamba (84-261517; auqui.com; five-day hike, $800 per person with a four-person minimum).
The 30-room Hotel Sol y Luna, in Urubamba, is the luxury choice, with everything from massages to horseback rides to special feasts (84-201-620; bungalows, $200). The Sonesta Posadas del Inca, in Yucay, has 84 rooms, a colonial chapel, and even a ghost (84-20-1107; doubles, $160). Part of the Libertador chain and with a private train to Machu Picchu, the Tambo del Inka Luxury Collection Hotel is scheduled to open later this year in Urubamba.
© 2013 Condé Nast Traveler