The Shitty Schlep

We were out of water and we still had at least four hours to go in the boiling sun. We had collapsed in the shade of a tree to rest for a few minutes after an exhausting three hours down a steep mountainside, followed by another painfully steep, uphill climb after crossing the river at the bottom of the valley. There was a hut near us, which was an optimistic sign of civilization. We asked the occupants hopefully if there was anywhere we could buy water. The woman pointed to a bucket in the yard and motioned for us to fill our bottles. A murky, brown liquid- complete with dirt and leaves- was what we came away with. Smiling and thanking her profusely, we continued on our way, silently panicking.

It was the last day of a three-day trek that had already been the hardest of my life. What we didn’t know at the time was that it would be much longer than even our worst-case estimate before we were back safe and sound in Cusco.

We had heard of the Choquequirao ruins described as the next Machu Picchu- bigger, more beautiful, and with a fraction of the number of tourists. Obviously, we had to see it.

Choquequirao Trek
The main plaza of Choquequirao

Currently, the only way to get to the ruins is to take a three-hour bus to the village of Cachora from Cusco, from which you trek two difficult days to get to the site. Most people do the trek in four days- two days there and then two days back the same way- but we had read on an Israeli travelers website that it was possible to do it in three by returning a different way. The guy who had written the post had extremely detailed instructions. We were on a bit of a tight schedule, so we decided to do it the unconventional three-day route.

We had also read that we could hire mules in Cachora for a small fee. We arrived at the village around 10:00am on the first day and were directed to a woman in a small shop. Ten minutes later we realized just how fucked we were.

Turns out that the locals wised up and decided to raise their prices significantly. The woman told us that it would cost us three times more than what we had anticipated to hire mules, and that there was also an entrance fee to the archeological site as well as smaller fees for the campsites. We did a quick inventory and realized that we wouldn’t have enough money to get back if we took the mules. Of course, the closest ATM was all the way back in Cusco.

After spending some time debating, we made the rash call to do the trek anyways, carrying all of our stuff- sleeping bags, sleeping mats, tent, food, cooking gear, everything. Most of the credit here goes to Roi, who ended up hiking the entire route with a huge pack on his back and a smaller backpack on his front. I had my backpack to which I attached my sleeping bag.

The entire trek, even if we hadn’t had to carry all of our shit, was exceptionally challenging. There were no flat parts, only steep switchbacks that alternated between down into the valley and up the mountainsides. The only flatter bits were what we called “Inca flat”- less steep ground that nevertheless had many ups and downs. The first day we hiked for over 7 hours and didn’t reach the campsite until past nightfall. The second day, which fell on my 25th birthday, was a bit better- only 5.5 hours, but we spent another two hours hiking around the ruins.

Choquequirao Trek
Approaching Choquequirao on the second day
Choquequirao Trek
Spot the campsite

The ruins themselves were the most impressive I’ve seen so far. Sprawling across two mountain peaks and down the cliffsides, the Incas had built extensive terraces and stone structures. There were about seven or eight different parts to the ancient estate, and wandering around the place around sunset, almost completely alone among the ruins, had an almost mystical feel. I figured that not many people could describe a similar experience on their birthday, so I deemed it a successful one despite the excruciating pain in my feet and shoulders.

Choquequirao Trek
White stone llamas inlaid in the terraces at Choquequirao
Choquequirao Trek
Part of the Choquequirao ruins

The next day was when everything went to hell. We woke up at 4:30am at started hiking just before 6:00 o’clock. We did the three hours down sharp zig-zags, crossed the bridge over the river, rested at an abandoned campsite, and climbed up a mountain for another hour in the scorching heat of the sun. That was where we realized we were low on water and received the brown muck from the local woman.

Choquequirao Trek
See the path?

Nervously, we continued down the path. We walked past some overgrown Spanish ruins and soon came upon a small waterfall, where we poured out the dirty water and refilled our bottles. It was still murky, but at least it wasn’t brown. Anyway, we had no choice- we couldn’t continue with no water.

To say the next part was grueling would be an understatement. We trudged slowly along the path that curved all the way around the mountain. It was sweltering and we were drenched in sweat, sipping on our dirty water and cursing the Incas, ourselves, and everyone else in the world with every step. I had developed an odd bump on the back on my ankle that was throbbing unbearably and my shoulder muscles felt as rigid as rocks. Roi looked wearier than ever.

Choquequirao Trek
The Apurímac Valley

Four hours later we had walked over 15 taxing kilometers. We were supposed to be close to a place called Villa Los Lorros, where we had read that we could call a cab to the Pan-American highway and catch a bus back to Cusco. We were hopeful that we were almost there because in the last few kilometers the path had widened enough for a car to be able to pass through. Just as we came to an intersection in the road and were unsure of which way to continue, a truck came rolling up behind us. We waved it down desperately and were ecstatic went it pulled over for us and the driver let us hop in the back.

Riding atop a pile of large pumpkins, we were confident that we were done trekking for the day and would soon be sitting comfortably in a taxi. If I’d known then how wrong we were, I would’ve broken down in tears.

Choquequirao Trek
Hitchhiking in the back of a truck atop some pumpkins

The truck dropped us off right in front of Villa Los Lorros, which wasn’t a village as I’d pictured but actually just a villa in the middle of nowhere. It was around 3:00pm.

Relieved, we rang the doorbell. A man cracked open the large wooden door and peered out at us. Confidently, we asked him to please order us a cab to the Pan-American highway. He blinked, still not opening the door all the way, and said something in Spanish. After asking him to repeat himself, we understood a few words that sent all of our relief crashing down like pillaged Inca ruins.

He didn’t have service, or he didn’t have a phone, or both. He firmly told us over and over again that he couldn’t call a taxi. We begged him to tell us where we could get a car to drive us, and he told us to walk to another house 10 minutes down the road before firmly shutting the door in our faces.

10 minutes, alright, that’s not so bad, I told myself.

I’m not sure when the last time was that that man left his villa, but 10 minutes later we were standing outside a thoroughly abandoned shell of a house. That was when I really started to panic. The path was completely empty, there was nothing in sight except fields and mountains. Not having any better alternatives, we continued to schlep down the deserted road.

It started to rain. I started crying. I’d never been in so much pain in my life. I began to steel myself for the fact that we were going to have to set up our tent on the side of the road and figure something out the next day.

After walking another seemingly endless kilometer, we reached an ancient-looking farmhouse. Dogs came running out to bark at us, giving us hope that the place was inhabited. We walked through the gate into a field and saw an old woman sitting on a doorstep. Desperately, we asked her if she knew where we could get a car to the highway. She talked quite a bit and we couldn’t understand most of it, but we got the gist- keep walking. For how long, we had no idea.

Another kilometer. At this point, it was past 4:00pm and we had covered around 18 km that day. As we came around a bend in the road, my heart nearly jumped out of my chest. There was an old, grey station wagon parked outside a crumbling house. That run-down car had to be our salvation.

An older, Peruvian couple were sitting at the side of the road next to it. Excitedly, we came running up and asked if it was their car. They said no, but that they were waiting for the owners because they also needed a ride. The man and I walked around the house knocking on the wooden doors, but there was no answer. He then motioned for me to follow him through a makeshift fence of thorny branches. Delicately, I crawled through, so desperate to find the owner of the vehicle that I didn’t care about the scratches.

We walked through a field and up a small hill until we heard the barking of dogs. Emerging from some bushes, we saw a hut. Dogs, pigs, and a rooster milled about, and three children came running out, followed by a man and a woman. We asked them if they could drive us to the highway, and in one of the happiest moments of my life the man seemed to agree.

My new-found friend and I walked back to the road to await our driver (and my personal savior). After about 15 minutes, the man emerged and began to pile things into the trunk of the small car- our backpacks, some sacks filled with who-knows-what- he even had to tie one to the roof. We then filed in- Roi and I, the Peruvian couple that had been waiting when we arrived, the driver, his wife, another woman, and the three children. In the 5-person station wagon, we fit 10 people. The ancient vehicle looked like it was in danger of collapsing. When it began to tentatively crawl forward, I was shocked that it could move.

What I had thought would be a half-hour ride was actually a two-hour drive winding up another mountain. I was cramped, holding a sleeping bag on my lap, and my legs were aching terribly. By the time we were delivered to the wonderfully smooth pavement of the Pan-American highway, it was fully dark outside.

They dropped us off on the side of the road with all of our gear, and we stood shivering, attempting to flag down every passing car. No one stopped. Trucks and cars whizzed by in a stream of lights, and we still stood there in the dark- invisible, exhausted and broken.

Finally, after the longest 20 minutes of our lives, a van pulled over. Eagerly, we asked the driver if he was going to Cusco. Of course, he said no. He told us that he was headed for a town a little ways away, but that he knew someone there who might be able to take us to Cusco. That was good enough for us. We hopped in.

To our immense relief, the driver made a few phone calls and half an hour later ended up pulling over on the roadside where another van was parked with passengers headed to Cusco.

After the longest day of our lives, we found ourselves miraculously back in our hostel. It was 10:30pm. Never have I been more elated to see a bunked dorm room without toilet paper in the bathroom.

Now we’re just waiting for the parasites from the grimy water to kick in. But who gives a fuck, we made it back in one piece, didn’t we?

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