Yesterday I finally made what was probably my toughest day trek ever to what is perhaps the most incredible site in all of Peru — Waqrapukara. I’d heard so much about the site and everyone in the group I hiked with agreed that it was far more than we’d imagined. The consensus among all of us was there simply are no words to describe what we saw.
I usually don’t take tours, but sometimes they are necessary — especially when traveling somewhere I’ve never been before. Going with a group of like-minded travelers who are willing to put forth a tremendous effort to visit a place that is far, far off the beaten path makes it even better.
Because Waqrapukara is so remote, we left very early (3:45 am) in the morning for the long 3½-hour ride to the south. We stopped and had a decent traditional breakfast along the way before continuing up into the mountains on a tiny, winding dirt road.
[Be sure to click on the individual photos to see each full size. I think this set really deserves to be seen large!]
Finally, we reached the starting point of the trek and took off really not knowing what lay in store for us in the coming hours. I’m usually pretty hard on guides, but Rolando, was excellent. Though he tended to explain more than I needed, he shared enough and kept the group informed when necessary as well as being a good leader for a very diverse group.
Eight people made up our little squad including one Peruvian from Lima, an couple from Italy, three Mexicans from Guadalajara, and myself. Cloudy skies and a cold wind didn’t portend a lovely day, but we were certainly in for a pleasant surprise as the day wore on.
It became quite clear that this was not a normal hike. We passed through some of the most remote country I have ever seen. The expansive views of the mountains and valleys surrounding us were absolutely gorgeous.
Sparse barely begins to convey the scenery as every direction was a mix of large stones which had rolled down from the mountains above and Andean grass and tiny white cacti which made up almost all of the vegetation at this altitude.
We had started hiking at an altitude of well over 14,000 feet (4200m) and for the next three hours went up and down the mountains through valley after valley with only an occasional small herd of cows or horses to accentuate the barren expanse.
Finally, after hiking for nearly two hours, we came around a bend in the trail and got our first glimpse of Waqrapukara. Even from several kilometers away, it still was imposing as it dominated the view of the Rio Apurimac canyon far off in the distance.
You can see from the photo above that we were still far from the ruins with a long downhill walk ahead. As we continued downhill, we saw even more scenery as the clouds began to break and blue skies appeared overhead.
I was especially fascinated with an abandoned ranch community that once was a lovely spot for a group of campesinos likely engaged in raising llamas and alpacas. The stone corrals and the adobe buildings were starting to fade, but it was easy to imagine what life must have been like in such a remote place.
The trail took us the valley until finally, after three hours of hiking challenging terrain, we reached the base of the ruins. I was the first to arrive followed by the rest of the group who trickled in little by little.
Above us lay one of — and maybe THE — most impressive ruins that I’ve ever visited. The sheer domination that Waqrapukara holds over the valleys surrounding it on three sides in such a awe-inspiring location left us all speechless.
It became the “joke” of our group that we just kept saying “wow!” over and over because we quickly ran out of words to describe what we saw. After awhile, we all agreed that no words could really describe Waqrapukara. It really was that indescribable.
Once you climb up into the ruins themselves, you discover that it is actually quite small. I didn’t take as many photos of the upper section as I probably should have.
I just wasn’t all that impressed with the upper ruins. It would have helped if I could find out a little more about the origins of Waqrapukara. Rolando said it was a pre-Inca site built by the Canchi peoples of the region and later occupied by the Incas as part of their expansion out from Cusco across the Americas.
I tend to discount almost everything I am told about pre-Columbian sites as there was no written language to preserve the historical record. I’m still looking for academic research on the site which is proving to be difficult to find.
Part of the reason was my eyes were constantly drawn to the breathtaking vistas that spread out before us. Waqrapukara was definitely built in place of immense beauty! It is possible to walk behind the main section, though caution is heavily recommended as the cliffs fall away for hundreds of feet and, in most places, there are no ropes to keep you away from the edge.
It doesn’t really matter as you don’t have to walk to the edge to look down into the deep canyon below — perhaps twice as deep as the canyon below Machu Picchu.
Finally it was time to start back. The while tie I had been looking back up the valley and thinking how difficult the climb up would be. Thank goodness I didn’t realize that what I could see in the high distance wasn’t even close to the top!
The first hour and a half of the hike back was easily the toughest I’ve ever done. Despite being in pretty good shape, I quickly fell far behind everyone except for one of the Mexican girls who was having a really hard time dealing with the distance and the altitude. I was barely keeping ahead of her as I saw the rest of the group disappear ahead of me.
The steep uphill sections were taking a tremendous toll on my legs and I found myself breathing so hard that I was seriously worried.
We literally climbed almost non-stop up the valley for an hour and a half before we reached a section where the trail leveled off a bit. Interestingly, all the way up I had been thinking of my days as a distance runner and was feeling a bit of embarrassment. The fact that I was twice the age of the others didn’t make any difference.
Something happened, though, we I reached that stretch of relatively easy climbing. I found something that can only be described as a “second wind” and my pace picked up considerably.
Little by little I closed the gap on the rest of the group until I finally caught up and then, when they stopped for a break, continued one. It was amazing how much better I felt and how I was able to keep up a brisk pace for the next couple of hours until I reached the starting point 10-15 minutes ahead of everyone else.
It honestly wasn’t my intention to race or get to the finish far ahead of the others. Part of my motivation was that the sun was starting to sink and it was cooling off quickly, but I’ll admit that there was a bit of satisfaction that this old man was able to out hike all the younger crowd.
Despite being as exhausted as I’ve been since the last time I ran a marathon (after not running for a year!), after a rest, I took off back down the trail to check on the girl who was having such a hard time. (I had to hike a long way before I met up with her and Rolando. She ended up finishing nearly two hours later.)
The drive back to Cusco seemed to take forever. We were all zombies with no energy left. It didn’t help that, instead of taking us back to our pick up locations, we were left at a central spot meaning I had another 15 minute uphill walk to get home!
While a tremendous challenge to reach, Waqrapukara was more than worth it. I won’t attempt to describe just how amazing a place that it is, but suffice to say that any visitor to Cusco should seriously consider making the effort. You’ll be glad you did!
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