Escaping the hundreds of climbers on their way to Machu Picchu, Alex Robinson discovers the "other Inca Trail" in Peru – an equally impressive but near-empty climb. 

I woke with a start in the night. The dogs were barking in the camp. I heard the clatter of tin cans, the crash of plates and then frightened shouts from one of the guides.

"Es un oso!" Did I hear that right? A bear? My heart thumped. I thought of the millimetres of canvas between me and the forest, and the chocolate bar under my pillow, its sugary sweetness seeping into the mossy odours of the night. There was a muffled, deep guttural growl. Then more frenetic barks and human yells and something heavy lumbered swiftly past my tent. I heard a tearing of branches. The dogs quietened down. Silence.

Campsite, on route to Choquequirao, Peru, South AmericaImage by Alex Robinson

Had it gone? I lay awake, wide-eyed. Or was it waiting? Five minutes. Ten minutes of silence. Nothing. Fear turned to wonder. I knew our camp was remote, but a spectacled bear, native to the Andes, was so rare it was almost mythical – as hard to find as a snow leopard. Somehow it had found our tourist camp – on an Inca trail, leading to a ruined city high in the tropical Andes.

Our trail didn’t go to Machu Picchu. The only wildlife you’ll see en route to that Inca city are high soaring raptors and the occasional viscacha (a rodent) by the wayside – looking like a stoned rabbit and squeaking alarmingly before rushing off into the bushes. There are just too many hikers on their way to Machu Picchu. But we were going to the Inca city of Choquequirao, and in the six nights we’d been on the trail we’d seen just two other walkers, panting as they descended out of the swirling mist from one of the numerous high passes.

Mountains near Choquequirao, Peru, South AmericaImage by Alex Robinson

The scenery was magnificent, a trail running along a river had taken us past a string of minor Inca sites and high into the hills. We’d clambered up stone steps that wound into mountains and descended into thick cloud forest dripping with lichens and mosses and so silent you could hear the buzz of humming bird wings. We’d played football in a tiny Quechua village on a pitch cut flat from a steep Andean spur. We were a novelty there, not "gringo" tourists. And we’d dropped and climbed through deep valleys watched over by towering peaks that hid behind wispy clouds before revealing themselves in blazing reflected sunlight.

And though I may not have witnessed more than the broken plates and wrecked food containers that were left in its wake, I’d now experienced a spectacled bear. It was the last morning before we’d reach Choquequirao and over breakfast all of us were buzzing with excitement about the bear, and anticipation of our arrival. The internet is flooded with images of Machu Picchu, but a Google search of Choquequirao brings far fewer pictures. But those I did find had been dreamily spectacular when I first saw them, and now the city was just over the next ridge.

Ruins of Choquequirao, Peru, South AmericaImage by Alex Robinson

It took us the whole morning to climb it, and much of the early afternoon to wind down the path on the other side. Choquequirao wouldn’t reveal itself. A dense fairytale-esque forest of gnarled, lichen-covered trees blocked out every view. The boulder-strewn path twisted and turned for kilometres. Finally, off to the right I caught a tantalising glimpse of buildings, rounded another corner and the forest opened onto a view of stone houses, and a sweep of terraces. We dropped further and cut past an unmistakably Inca wall – a jig-saw of organic lines formed by the slotting together of huge rocks.

The guide wouldn’t let us enter the city. Instead he ushered us past and onwards up another steep path to a high viewpoint. And then we saw Choquequirao in her slendour. At our feet was a grassy green plaza cut out of the face of a vast mountain spur swathed in forest. Off to the right scores of terraced fields dropped into a steep valley cut deep by the rushing blue-water Apurimac – a tributary of a tributary of a tributary of the Amazon. It was so far below that my eyes were dizzy with vertigo. But I could hear its roar echo up the mountain walls. Behind Choquequirao was a distant, serrated edge of snow-covered mountains. They momentarily revealed their faces through drifting cloud which cleared and paused, then swirled, covering the mountains once again from view.

Ruins of Choquequirao, Peru, South AmericaImage by Alex Robinson

We stood in silence for more than an hour, spellbound as we watched the light shift and change as the sun sank into the valley at our backs, honeying the city stone warm yellow. The sky faded into glorious pink and purple and finally turquoise blue as the sun set, casting its dying rays onto the distant snowfields.

For two days we explored Choquequirao, losing ourselves in its silent ruins, in its meditative views and on paths cutting into the surrounding hills, and for those two days we had the city to ourselves, before leaving it behind us and taking the dusty path up through the valley to a town a bus and finally Cusco.

We’d been ten days away by the time we reached that city and its crowds of travellers – most of them on their way to Machu Picchu. Few had even heard of Choquequirao. But they will soon. Peru plans to build a fast road link from Cusco and a cable car across the Apurimac valley. Come before they do and walk the trail. The other Inca trail.

Journey Latin America  offer trips to Cusco including treks to Choquequirao. Explore more of Peru with the Rough Guide to Peru. Book hostels for your trip, and don't forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.