Every Rock in Peru

Ruins at Choquequirao

Over the past few thousand years, I can imagine that every rock in Peru has been carved, dug, carried, shaped, and carefully set upon the rocks that came before. Terraces gone to desert in Cotahuasi canyon. Spiraling aqueducts in the Nazca desert. Stunning Inca palaces. Plain rock walls that line the fields of maize and potatoes, rushing by through the windows of the bus.

Katmai ascends a spiral aqueduct in Nazca.

Cusco is the capital of rocks.

Every road leads to Cusco. When the Sapa Inka presided over 2 million square kilometers of the world from a gold-lined temple, the roads were rocks. Relays of runners carried messages 240 kilometers in a day over cobbles and grass bridges. Llamas carried everything from fruit to cotton and silver. When people from the remote corners of the empire walked the endless series of steps and switchbacks to reach the capital at Cusco, they must have been overwhelmed by the impossible grandeur of it all.

Ruins at Ollantaytambo

Just like today.

Dawn glittered on droplets of bus window condensation. Wiping it off, I saw that the harsh gray-gold of Nazca’s desert had been replaced by lush green mountains, sweeping back and forth across my vision as the bus rose above the city of Abancay, on a seemingly endless series of switchbacks. I immediately threw up the breakfast that the high-class Cruz del Sur bus had provided for us. A few hours later, we stumbled out of the bus terminal into a rush of drab streets and racing cars, and collapsed into our Cusco AirBnb.

We started by photographing the streets. The fitted stones surrounding the entrance to a cell phone store. The lowest two feet of a hotel. A city block built of impossibly fitted stones, graceful curves meshing perfectly in their unmortared seams. We took a picture of our kids in front of the wall. Some locals took a picture of our kids in front of the wall.

A selfie with our kids in calle Inka Roka in Cusco.

The kids were decked out in a rainbow of traditional clothes we’d bought at the market, like a couple of very pale Cusqueños on their way to a dance performance. Whatever bit of anonymity we’d gained from coming to a city with other tourists was immediately lost by the kids’ flamboyant appearance. The selfies — Peruanos snapping pictures of themselves with our little gringo kids — continued to accumulate.

Lituya at the temple of the monos.

I nodded my thanks to the chorus of “Que lindos bebés!” as we wove our way to another week Spanish school, where the kids learned to speak in the past, and I struggled through the complexities of the subjunctive mood… Es sorprendente que los Peruanos quieran fotos con mis hijos. Me alegre que mis hijos esten aprendiendo español. Es increíble que los Incas movieran las rocas tan grandes…

Such big rocks…

Katmai at Sacsayhuamán ruins.

We bused and hiked and marveled our way around the palaces and ruins that surround Cusco. Sacsayhuamán. Qenqo. Pisac. Ollantaytambo… Slabs decorated with mysterious lumps. Trapezoidal doors. Niches and notches carved out of wild bedrock in a seemingly random pattern, surrounded by neat stonework. As we rested our hands on ten foot wide slabs of perfectly pecked stones, the kids chatted away in their imaginary fairy land. Sometimes I wondered whether they noticed anything at all. Most of the time I wondered what every other tourist does. How on earth did the Incas do it? How did they move such massive slabs without machines? How far did they move them? How did they smooth and cut them without metal tools? How did they fit them so perfectly without 3D computer design?

A tunnel at Qenqo temple

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” — Arthur C Clarke

Our cell phones. The Incas’ stones. Both inconceivable without the cultural knowledge that the surrounds them. Hig took endless pictures of well-fit walls, turning them into 3D renderings on his computer. We pondered all the small bits of stonework in our own lives back home. Tiny walls around strawberry patches. A wilderness trail that could really use some carved rock steps. Could we use even a little bit of what we see here?

Carvings in the sun temple at Ollantaytambo

In Mist and Struggle

These days, you can reach most of the ruins by bus. Even in the low season, we watched tour groups pour out, racing through the most accessible bits in an hour or two before the buses swallowed them up again, leaving the old temples nearly empty. But even the most tourist-friendly government can be stymied by topography. The day after Christmas, with my mother who’d arrived a few days before, we set out for Choquequirao.

Misty slopes over the Apurimac river.

The narrow gravel road hugged the cliff above the town of Cachora, and our taxi driver took it at a semi-terrifying speed, honking loudly at all the blind corners, and reaching out to readjust the rug on his dashboard with every jolt.

The road ends at a muddy turnaround with a couple of small tiendas, a park ranger with a radio, and an epic descent into the gorge of the Rio Apurimac. The trail traced the slope like a slithering snake, back and forth and back and forth as we dropped through the mist.

Trail turns to jungle as it drops to the river.

Bromeliads shot ridiculously from the ground in long asparagus-like stalks. We descended through bright red poppies, and tree-branch tunnels hung with bromeliads and lichens. Signs warned us not to wear headphones in areas prone to rock falls. Signs warned us not to lean. Mules passed by, carrying other people’s packs. We passed a farm. A pair of people lugging mattresses up the hill. A work crew orange helmets that must have recently cemented bits of the trail.

With headphones on, you can’t hear the rocks about to fall on your head.

Warm muggy rain that drizzled and splattered then disappeared again. Frogs croaked outside our tent at the banks of the river. Kittens prowled the campsite, looking for scraps from passing hikers. There were cats at every official campsites. Outside the official camps, there wasn’t a speck of flat ground.

Campsite cats

The trail drops almost a mile (1600 meters) down to the river. Then climbs just as far on the other side, past a tiny village reformed into a meal stop for weary hikers, to a campground on an ancient terrace, at the base of the Choquequirao ruins.

Aqueduct in Choquequirao ruins

Clouds danced with the mountains, hugging the overgrown slopes close, then releasing them again, leaving us with patches of brilliance appearing and disappearing in the valleys below. Ruins popped in and out of the fog. Squint a little, and you can imagine stumbling across a bit of old stone beneath the vines, rediscovering the ancient world for yourself.

Looking off the edge of the llama terraces at the Rio Apurimac

There are still more ruins under the jungle to be discovered. What has been cleared of Choquequirao sprawls out across a notch in the ridge, forcing us to climb nearly as far to explore it as we had to get there.

Some of the lower Choquequiaro ruins we didn’t quite have the energy to hike down to.

We scrambled down impossibly steep terraces decorated with stone images of llamas, wondering if even llamas could handle the stairs. Temples sat on the high points, and stuctures for the less important folks spilled out down the jungle slopes on either side. Anyone who lived there must have covered hundreds of meters of elevation every day, just to move around.

Llama terraces

We sewed up the spot in our bug netting where a kitten had torn it open during the day. Then we retraced our steps. A mile down. A mile up again. Just over 20 km of distance, our slightly stronger legs powering us up to the mirador at Cachora, past a dozen types of butterflies that landed on our knees, and on the rocks in the past. Millipedes crawled past on the trail. A local girl scampered by with cell phone music blaring and a parrot on her shoulder. Faster hikers passed us. Mules passed us. The guides that led them asked the ages of our kids, marveling every time to hear that Lituya was only 6.

Butterflies and flowers on the trail

She’s 7 now. New Years in Cusco spilled onto the streets with stands selling yellow underwear, yellow flowers, yellow confetti, and wheelbarrows full of grapes. Fireworks burst into the sky over our apartment, marking Lituya’s birthday, and nearly 3 months we’ve been in Peru. More family will arrive tomorrow. Next, we descend to the jungle.

Choquequirao trek accomplished!