PAZU: “Laputa” is an island floating in the sky.
SHEETA: An island that floats in the sky?
PAZU: Yes. And although it’s said to be a legend… My father saw it!

Flashback of his father flying a dirigible through a storm; he catches a glance of a city high in the clouds and takes a photo

PAZU: It’s the photograph he took then. …Now, there’s no one living in the palace any more. But a lot of treasure is sleeping there. But nobody believed it. …But, my father’s not a liar.

PAZU: Now I’ll make it real — I will go and discover Laputa…

If you love anime, you’ll love Miyazaki. And if you love Miyazaki, you’ll love “Castle in the Sky“.

And if you love that, you’ll love Choquequirao, a real-life lost and ancient Castle in the Sky.

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↑ A real Castle in the Sky

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↑ Pazu and Sheeta explored the ancient city

Unlike Sheeta, Yonnie didn’t fall magically from a dirigible to meet me. And there weren’t evil sky-pirates out to capture us. But in many other ways, our trek to the high, lonely, lost Incan city of Choquequirao reminded me of Laputa, with its dignified ruins and green lawns hidden in the soaring peaks of the Andes. It was a very special place.

What was Choquequirao, “The Cradle of Gold”?

Choquequirao was actually the last ancient Incan city we visited (on our trip in 2010), but I’m writing about it first because we should have visited it first. We’d been following in the footsteps of Hiram Bingham, in his bold search for the true Last City of the Incas. It was here, at Choquequirao, that he first had his taste for the chase.

Click to enlarge

↑ Click to enlarge

All through the 19th century, Choquequirao – Quechua for “Cradle of Gold” – was believed to be the hidden site of the Inca’s Last Stand. Legend told that Manco Inca, the last emperor, had retreated into the jungle, built a fine city, and tried to prolong the Incan way of life as long as possible, free of the Spanish invaders. Bingham was persuaded to visit this supposed Last City in 1909 by the prospect of being the first foreigner to do so. Researching his article afterwards at Yale, he discovered not only that he wasn’t the first, but also that it was unlikely Choquequirao really was the Last City of the Incas. Its location didn’t match the description in the old Spanish reports, which described the lost city as “two days from Puquira”. Bingham realised you could possibly reach Choquequirao in two really long, really difficult days from Puquira, but that there must be somewhere closer, somewhere more logically in tune with the ancient accounts. It would consume Bingham for the next five years. We would search for it too.

Getting there is half the fun

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But first, Choquequirao. It’s a long way and the only way to reach it is on foot.  On this trek, we had hired a small support team – a guide, an arrero or muleteer, who doubled as a cook, and several donkeys to carry our stuff. This was mainly as a result of our experience on another trek, which I will write about soon. While we could have actually made it without this little expedition, the route is extremely steep and quite challenging. The donkeys were a welcome addition.

Walking to Choquequirao is simple, in theory, if you start at Cachora rather than Puquira. From Cachora, four hours’ drive from Cusco, you walk about 18 kilometres along one side of the valley above the Apurimac River.

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↑ Camp One…

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↑ …and its view at nightfall

You reach the river after a steep descent on the second morning.

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↑ The last descent to the Apurimac, seen from the far side. The switchbacks can be seen on the open brown slope above Yon’s head. The climb down is on Day 2, and back up on Day 4.

As recently as the 1970s, when famed explorer John Hemming visited, you had to dangle precariously on two wires strung across the raging river. When Bingham visited, he used a bridge made by an old “Chinaman”, Don Mariano, who accompanied the party and whose engineering wasn’t trusted by its indigenous porters:

The surprising thing was that the Indians were very much afraid of the frail little bridge which Chinese courage and ingenuity had built, and crept gingerly across it on their hands and knees…They had been accustomed for centuries to using frail suspension bridges much less strong in reality than this little structure. But they are not accustomed to wire, and it seemed the height of frivolity to them that we should be willing to trust our lives to such a small “rope”.¹

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↑ The Chinese-made bridge across the Apurimac, 1909 (photo: Hiram Bingham)

These days, a slightly more modern bridge makes the crossing quick, safe and easy (and the crossing is at a different place).

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Once you cross the river, you’re about half-way there. But the second half is daunting, its cliffs looming over the valley and looking generally unscaleable. Slow and steady wins this race – we saw several groups run out of steam and quit on the way up.

 

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↑ The route up the far side of the valley follows switchbacks along the yellow arrows. Choquequirao is over the ridge behind the last arrow. To get back, simply retrace your steps. With an early start you can climb or descend this route in one day. Altitude change is about 1,500 metres.

Most of this walk is steep and difficult. But there are some incredible views along the way. The peaks here up are in the high 5,000 metre range.

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↑ View from the pass on day one

Into the Ancient City

At the end of the second day, we were tired and had really sore feet. Slogging the last few kilometers around the final valley beneath the Choqeuquirao ridge, we had our first close view of the remarkable architecture. A huge array of agricultural terraces seemed glued to the steep hillside, vast and lonely.

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There was an hour of light left so despite our tiredness, we trekked down to this terraced area to explore.

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Here we had our first inkling of how dramatic Choquequirao was. The full expanse of this city is larger than the much-more-famous Machu Picchu, yet no more than half the site has been uncovered. Its geographical location is almost as superlative as the better known city, snuggled in the saddle of a ridge far above the Apurimac, protected on three sides by the river and insanely steep ridges, and on the fourth by soaring, icy peaks. Little wonder only four or five western expeditions reached it in the whole of the 19th century.

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The terraces included a ceremonial structure thought to be dedicated to water. A stream flowed through the valley above and tumbled past in a waterfall. It was the same stream that seemed to provide water to the main city, hundreds of meters above.

They were finely constructed. Only in one area had they collapsed, and a pile of rubble sat at the bottom in a little amphitheatre. Below, we could see the terraces continuing downhill into the jungle. If only we had the time, skill and permission to clear them – what discoveries we might make!

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↑ Hiram Bingham’s 1911 map shows the city’s outstanding natural defences

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↑ In 2010…

 

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↑ …and 99 years earlier

The Main City

It was raining when Hiram Bingham first entered Choquequirao in 1909:

The humidity was one hundred or nearly so during the four days which we spent on the mountain. Consequently we passed the majority of the time in thick mist or rain.²

So too for us. We woke to a puddle in our tent and clouds outside. But nothing was going to stop us enjoying the place after two days of hard hiking, and by six in the morning we were heading up through the misty forest to the main city complex.

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↑ The ceremonial terrace just below the central complex

Suddenly we reached the top of the path and broke out into the main square. Embraced by swirling cloud, rocks shining wet in the mist, with the black peaks behind the fog off to the right, the ruins stopped us in our tracks.

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Behind us was a flat hill top, cleared and squared off by the Incas. Erich von Daniken, the “ancient astronauts” theorist, would have claimed that this was clearly a landing pad for the aliens who helped the Incas design their cities.

Bingham had a more plausible suggestion:

It is probable that on this flattened hilltop, which commands a magnificent view up and down the valley, signal fires could be built to telegraph to the heights overlooking Cusco, intelligence of the approach of an enemy from the Amazonian wilds

The scene was staggering, up there amongst the swirling air. It was not hard to imagine that this truly was an island in the sky, and we both thought of the Miyazaki anime film.

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↑ The city seemed to float on clouds, far above the world below

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↑ These two weren’t thinking of Miyazaxi or Hiram Bingham when they arrived – they just passed out

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New Discoveries

In the last few years, fantastic new discoveries have been made as the site is excavated further. We climbed down over the back of the ridge to explore the llama terrace, famous to those in the know, but not even unearthed, or un-jungled, three years ago.

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Scores of these llamas are built into the terraces, in what I once overheard was a “Chachapoyas technique”, referring to the civilization conquered by the Incas in the north-east of present-day Peru. Wherever the style came from, they are impressive.

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↑ The recently discovered lama terraces

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Fine architecture and amazing outlook

Apart from the new excavation, Choquequirao hasn’t changed much since it was abandoned by the Incas and left to the vagaries of nature.

↑ Ruin in the main complex, 1909 (photo: Hiram Bingham)

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↑ The same ruin in the main complex, 2010 (click to enlarge)

We roamed its lawns, climbed its stairs, and marveled at the views.

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↑ One of the buildings in the main plaza

↑ Hiram Bingham’s map of the main plaza

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↑ Imagine Incan nobles strolling the elegant lawns at sunset

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↑ Photo: Yon

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↑ These terraces are believed to be decorative and ceremonial, not for agriculture

↑ Looking back southeast from the lower terraces

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↑ The view south, from above the main complex, with the flattened hilltop at the right. The route in and out is down the valley at left

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More adventures on the journey back

It was with heavy hearts that we left Choquequirao. Not only was this our last real adventure in Peru, but we had a two day walk back the way we’d come.

Our friendly guide, Martin, kept us entertained. On the home stretch he really relaxed and let rip with a seemingly non-stop stream of consciousness that lasted nearly two days.

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“Do you like Jackie Chan?”, he asked Yon. “Can you karate?”  Yon explained that yes, she could, a little, and that actually karate was Japanese, and Jackie Chan was an expert in Chinese kung fu. This thrilled Martin. “I love Jackie Chan! Have you seen his movies? I liked Karate Kid. When I was a boy I also have learned this”. Really, we asked. Why? “Oh, my father! He is crazy. At school I was the smallest boy. My father sent me to learn karate. ‘Learn to fight’, he told me. ‘Then you can survive at school'”.

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↑ On the way back to Cachora

We learned all about his upbringing and early efforts to break into tourism. “You know these people, in Cusco, they show you the menu on the street?” Yes, we did. They were always very polite when we said we weren’t hungry. “I was once this person. Oh! A very hard job. Some days I would make not even one sol, I only made one sol for every person who went to eat because of me. I would go home and cry at night! Such a hard job”. Now, as a certified guide, he made considerably better money, and with his good English he had a sound future. We tried to persuade him to study Chinese, in anticipation of the inevitable swamping of the world with Chinese tourists. He liked the idea.

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↑ The inaugural Choquequirao yoga festival I

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↑ The inaugural Choquequirao yoga festival II

Climbing the hill we fell into stride with a class of local teenage girls. They were trekking without any equipment, and had suffered a very wet night back at Choquequirao. That morning we discovered them, three to a bunk, hunkered in our cook’s little hut, when we came in from our own flooded tent for breakfast. Ever cheerful, they shuffled over so we had somewhere to sit. Now, in the glorious sun, they were full of giggles and questions in rapid fire Spanish. They came from a tiny village in a nearby valley, and Australia and China seemed to them like the Moon and Mars.

At the campsite, Yon did a few yoga poses to stretch the day’s pain away. Within seconds, she was surrounded by the girls, all desperately keen to learn yoga.

It was lots of fun, even after they dragged us into their circle and insisted we dance to their clapped-and-sung schoolgirl chants. We indulged them three times, the tall gringo and his chinita kung fu yoga expert wife. They woke us at 3 am with their squealing, giggling departure, and so we packed our stuff and followed suit.

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↑ The blindfold prevented the pony from running away

That last day we hiked the final 15 kilometers in drizzly fog. Choquequirao was nowhere to be seen, just a mysterious memory deep in the foggy valley beyond. At the end of the Miyazaki film, Laputa fell from the sky, its power lost forever.

But our city in the clouds simply faded back into them, its power remaining in our minds for years to come.

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Notes:

1. Hiram Bingham, “Across South America: an account of a journey from Buenos Aires to Lima by way of Potosí, with notes on Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, and Peru” 1911, pp 301-2

2. ibid p 306.

3. ibid pp 308-09