CHOQUEQUIRAO, PERU -- I'm seated cross-legged on a narrow terrace thousands of feet above the raging Apurimac River, the jagged silhouettes of the Peruvian Andes before me, the glowing stones of a 15th-century Incan wall warming my back.
And all I can think about is how insanely lucky I am to have this place all to myself.
Thirty miles away as the crow flies, thousands of sweaty, camera-toting tourists are jockeying for position in various lines at Machu Picchu: one to purchase a few squares of toilet paper; one to climb the sacred Huayna Picchu Mountain; another to board one of the smoke-belching people-movers that deliver roughly 3,000 pilgrims daily to the world-famous archeological site.
Little do they know, another formidable lost city called Choquequirao -- aka "Machu Picchu's sacred sister" -- slowly is being liberated from the jungle by archeologists who, in many ways, find it just as compelling as its better-known sibling. Perched high atop a 10,000-foot ridge, a joint-crushing two-day hike from the nearest town, it draws less than 1 percent of the 1 million people who visit Machu Picchu annually.
Lisa Marshall is a freelance journalist and former Daily Camera editor who spent three weeks in Peru this summer.
Sunday, she wrote about Louisville-based Centura Global Health Initiatives' medical work in the Peruvian jungles. Read that installment at dailycamera.com .
Monday, she writes about her journey to Choquequirao -- aka "Machu Picchu's sacred sister" -- and its connection to a pair of Colorado archeologists, as well as a Boulder company that organizes Inca trail runs in the region.
"So far, Choquequirao's saving factor has been the fact that it is so difficult to get to," says Colorado Springs archeologist and explorer Gary Zeigler, who first hacked his way into the long-forgotten site via machete in 1992 and has since been working with Peruvian colleagues on its study and restoration.
It was 1909 when a young Yale historian and explorer named Hiram Bingham first stumbled upon Choquequirao while searching for the last bastion of the lost Inca civilization. He stayed a few days and moved on, seemingly unimpressed by its architecture. On July 24, 1911, he discovered Machu Picchu.
While the building materials between the two differ significantly (Machu Picchu's buildings are made with impressive granite boulders pieced together like giant puzzle pieces, while Choquequirao's are constructed more crudely with brittle metamorphic rock and mortar), the two sites have turned out to be intriguingly similar.
Both are believed to have been built by Inca rulers in the late 15th century (Pachacuti built Machu Picchu; his son Topa Inca likely built Choquequirao, according to Zeigler). Both feature breathtaking ceremonial gathering places, royal estates and lush green agricultural terraces. Both are purposefully positioned on narrow ridges, surrounded by steep cliffs giving way to sacred rivers, and circled by towering peaks worshipped as deities known as "Apus" by the native Quechua people.
At both places, something magical happens on the solstice, when certain strategically placed buildings light up as the first rays of sunlight appear from behind the mountaintops.
"The geocosmic setting is what makes it so special," says Zeigler, whom I interviewed upon my return. "Only Choquequirao and Machu Picchu seem to have this. There is nothing built by circumstance or chance there. Every building lines up with some grand ceremonial design."
An inauspicious start
This blend of solitude, natural beauty, and mystery tantalized me. So I convinced my closest girlfriend to tag along, hired a guide from a Peruvian outfit called Apus Peru, and made arrangements to hike the two days to Choquequirao and then another six to Machu Picchu.
Days after we booked our flight, we got bad news. The large suspension bridge, built by the Peruvian government in 1994 to carry tourists across the treacherous Apurimac, had been washed out by a landslide. Most tour companies canceled their trips to Choquequirao. Ours sent us a note asking how we would feel about crossing in a make-shift three-person cable-car called an Oroya.
"We make no statement or claim about the safety of crossing a fast flowing river on a recently built Oroya," the note warned.
I swallowed my fear of heights and e-mailed back. We were still in.
On the eve of our departure, four others decided to join us -- a fit thirtysomething Atlanta couple who had been traveling the globe for eight months and a twentysomething couple from the Swedish military.
We left Cusco at dawn, and after a nauseating three-hour drive on the winding roads to Cachora, we loaded our duffel bags onto our mule, slung our day packs on, and set out on foot, the ice-capped Vilcabamba Range ahead making the Colorado Rockies look like foothills.
Over the course of the next eight days, we would hoof it more than 75 miles, up and down thousands of feet via rocky, slippery switchbacks, and across one frigid 16,000-foot pass. We would visit not one but three long-forgotten Inca ruins along the way, including the hilltop citadel of Llactapata, which Bingham also discovered and Zeigler rediscovered in 2003. We would also make one stop at an emergency room in the remote Andean town of Santa Teresa (when my friend Kim succumbed to a severe case of digestive distress).
Several tour outfitters based in Cusco, Peru, and in Colorado now offer four-day treks to and from Choquequirao, or eight-to-nine day treks which link to Machu Picchu:
Apus Peru: Reasonably-priced Cusco-based outfitter run by Australian and Peruvian women. Excellent food. Attentive, well-informed guides. $1,180 per person for party of two- for eight-day trek. The more trekkers, the lower the cost. For more information, visit apus-peru.com .
Inca Runners: Boulder-based company leads trail runners on eight-day excursions to Choquequirao and on to Machu Picchu. For more information, visit incarunners.com .
Adventure Specialists: Westcliffe, Colo.-based tour company offers trips guided by archeologist-explorer Gary Ziegler. For more information, visit adventurespecialists.org .
But before we got started on this grand adventure, we had to stop for a drink.
On the outskirts of Cachora, our Quechua guide, Domingo Atao, motioned us into an adobe hut marked by a red flag which, he joked, meant "liquor store." Here, a warm, round-faced woman offered us each a cup of chicha -- a corn liquor omnipresent in the ceremonies of Quechuas (modern-day descendants of the Incas). Atao took a sip and poured the rest on the dirt floor -- an offering to Pachamama, or Mother Earth. Now we could go, he explained.
Magic at Choquequirao
Two days later, with the 20-mile trek and the terrifying Oroya river crossing behind us, our weary band of travelers stands dumbstruck, overlooking the 6-square-kilometer Choquequirao complex from a high lookout a mile from our campground.
Days from any road or hotel, it looks much like it must have looked to the ancient Incas who came here to work, worship and perhaps escape the Spanish conquest that pillaged Cusco and other Inca outposts in the early 1500s. It appears they never found this place.
"To this day, we cannot find any historical reference to it," says Zeigler, noting that many other sites were written about in chronicles by Spanish historians. "That's what makes it such an enigma."
After settling into our three red tents in the spectacular, empty campground, we wash up, have our afternoon snack of popcorn and coca tea and go exploring. We walk in silence along vast terraces where crops once grew, through double-jam doorways signifying the entrance to something sacred, into towering triangle -- shaped residences where emperors slept and temples where high priests prayed.
We are the only ones here.
"In five years, it will be very crowded here," predicts Atao, noting that there is talk of constructing a high cable car across the massive Apurimac valley, cutting out a full day of hiking for curious tourists.
"Am I witnessing the end of an era?" I think to myself, feeling guilty knowing that I will write about this when I get home.
As the sun falls lower in the sky, we come across an employee from the Peruvian Ministry of Culture, clipping away the jungle vines that each day strive to reclaim the ruins.
We scramble down a treacherous hill, arriving at a long wall adorned with white rocks in the shape of llamas -- also revered in the animistic Inca faith. Then we make our way to a massive staircase, believed to be situated to light up the moment the sun peaks over the mountains on the December solstice, according to CU Professor Emeritus Kim Malville, an archeo-astronomer who is writing a book with Zeigler about the site.
"When you're there, you can really imagine people gathering there, chanting and greeting the sun as it rises," he would comment to me later upon my return to Boulder. I couldn't have said it better.
As I wander the complex, long shadows forming around the ancient stone buildings, I can easily picture many of the things that went on here centuries ago, because there are no crowds around to distract me.
I let my group head back to camp ahead of me, take a seat on a grassy terrace, and lean up against a sun-drenched rock wall built 520 years before my birth.
Yes, six days later I'd be joining the masses at Machu Picchu. But I would always have this moment.
Lisa Marshall is a freelance journalist and former Daily Camera editor. She spent three weeks traveling in Peru this summer.