Peru. Say the name and your imagination will no doubt conjure up the country's geographical wonders, perhaps its recent history of political turbulence and its lost cities. It has long attracted travellers, explorers and treasure hunters, united in their search to uncover the secrets and wealth of ancient civilisations. Indeed, only last year the German explorer Stefan Ziemendorff discovered the third tallest free-falling waterfall in the world in the Amazonas region of Peru; the Gocta Waterfall measured a dizzying 771m high.
What seems remarkable is that in this age of satellite imagery such a vast waterfall had lain undiscovered. But then this is what has attracted thrill-seekers to deepest Peru since the Spanish Conquistadores first set foot here. It was a spell under which I fell 15 years ago.
The early 1990s were not a good time for Peru. The country was plagued by guerrilla warfare waged by the Sendero Luminoso. The aim of this Maoist group, whose name translates as Shining Path, was to replace the Peruvian bourgeoisie with a revolutionary peasant regime. The Sendero Luminoso also engaged in armed conflict with Peru's other major guerrilla group, Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA). Peru was a war zone: for a wide-eyed gap-year student with an unhealthy interest in Kate Adie and Don McCullin and a thirst for excitement and adventure, it was the perfect place to explore.
For four memorable weeks, I travelled with friends the length and breadth of the country, from the high Andes to the low Amazon. Fresh from six months in tourist-friendly Ecuador we felt like pioneers exploring a new land.
Selfishly, against all Foreign Office advice, and contrary to our parents' wishes, we made the pilgrimage to Machu Picchu. For four glorious days we had the 33km Inca trail to ourselves. We hiked and hacked our way along spectacular passes and ravines until we finally reached the Lost City of the Incas. For hours we walked among the deserted city shrouded in grandeur and mystery. Llamas roamed the ruins, there wasn't a Coca-Cola sign in sight. It was a mystical and magical experience.
How times have changed. Just a few months after that early visit Abimael Guzman, the leader of the Shining Path, was captured and the group splintered. Peru re-opened for business. Tourism flourished, but with it came the inevitable environmental impact on the Unesco World Heritage Site. Visitor numbers have soared to nearly 4,000 per day, catered for by the construction of a chairlift and even a luxury hotel at the site. The recent construction of a 78m bridge across the Vilcanota River will cut the journey time from Cusco by an incredible 12 hours, opening the sight to buses for the first time. With numbers swelling, the Unesco World Heritage Committee will visit Machu Picchu next month. Persistent rumours abound that the site will soon be "closed", only to be viewed from elevated walkways and platforms.
However, there is an alternative: Choquequirao, often referred to as Machu Picchu's sister site. It is arguably as spectacular as Machu Picchu, and officials hope it can save its sibling by alleviating some of the pressure.
Choquequirao is one of the best-preserved Inca cities in South America; only 30 per cent of the site has been excavated so far. It was here that the Inca royalty fled following the Spanish Conquest. The shrines and highways throughout the region were maintained until 1572 when the Conquistadores finally reached this remote refuge and put an end to this dynasty. Hiram Bingham, who rediscovered Machu Picchu in 1911 with the help of some locals, described the route to Choquequirao as "impassable" and "not to be attempted". Excavations on the site began in the 1970s, but the trail has now been opened and is "passable" in a strenuous two-day trek from the village of Cachora, though best attempted over seven days of trekking and camping - as our group would.
The Inca trail to Choquequirao is more demanding than the popular Machu Picchu trek, but the rewards are well worth the effort to reach the ancient site known as the "Cradle of Gold" in Quechua.
Our journey began at the heart of the once mighty Inca Empire, Cusco. The colonial architecture is built on the solid foundations of the Incas. Cobbled streets, Incan walls and steep stairways bustle with the Quechua-speaking descendants of the Incas. Cusco has changed significantly over the years, its economy now reliant on tourism. It has, though, managed to retain much of its former charm.
Pepe, our guide for the week-long trek, was a dead-ringer for Jack Nicholson, from whose films he had learnt English. Pepe was also a Peruvian celebrity, having won a Latino version of Big Brother in which contestants had to live like Incas for several months.
The Andes provide an ever-changing canvas of colours. The landscape varies as much as the weather. We began our journey, as we would conclude it, in the rain. But this wasn't dour, damp, dreary UK rain; this was enjoyable, evocative, ethereal Andean rain. The precipitation only enhanced the dramatic landscape. The low cloud cover swathed the snowy peaks of this vast mountain range, enveloping us in its grey cloak. Newly-formed streams cascaded off the Incan steps as we trudged on, eyes to the ground. At this height the air is already thin and you have to learn to breathe again.
With the highest path reaching over 4,500m, we had some four-legged friends, mules, as well as a team of porters and cooks to help make the journey more comfortable. The thin air reduced us to a tortoise pace while the porters hared past with their oversized packs, mouths stuffed with coca leaves. Each afternoon, we would shuffle into camp to find our temporary canvas village already erected. A small dining tent illuminated by paraffin lamp welcomed us with bowls of steaming soup and cups of mate de coca to alleviate the debilitating effects of altitude sickness that fogged our minds.
Much of the trail is along slabs of stone, hand-carved and laid by the Incas. By astonishing acts of engineering they built thousands of kilometres of paths all across the Andes, like mountain motorways. The trail passes many * * small villages, as yet unblemished by the spoils of tourism. The people of Yanama village even surprised us with a feast of cuy cuy, guinea pig, while allowing us to camp on the school's football field.
The 7,000 metre-high mountains remained invisible for much of the time as we made our way along narrow passes and through deep gorges. Intermittently they would drop their mask and a snowy peak would appear through a window of cloud like a skylight to heaven.
Charcoal colours eventually turned to brushes of green and blue, as at last the chilled, cloud-smothered, oxygen-starved mountains gave way to hot tropical flora as we descended to the Apurimac River. For the first time in days I felt the sun's kiss. Sweet floral scents filled the air as we zigzagged our way down the steep mountain pass. Walking sticks were replaced by machetes as we descended towards the river's thunderous roar.
Once again the great Andean theatre had changed its set. Drops of rain were replaced by beads of sweat as I hacked my way through this new environment tantalised by the promise of fresh water and a chance to bathe. However, the heavy rains had turned the river into a cauldron, destroying the bridge over which we had hoped to cross. After a quick wash in the chilly waters, the resourceful porters began to make a temporary bridge where the river was at its widest and therefore most passive over which we and our mule train tentatively passed.
Before long, we bade farewell to the tropical river basin as we once again ascended the valley back up into the menacing mop of cloud. Day six, and the gods stopped us in our tracks with a theatrical extravaganza. I lay in my tent as bolts of lightning illuminated the valley. Deafening thunder-claps accompanied each mesmeric flash as the heavens were split by a flood of biblical proportions. Newly formed rivers cascaded past my tent and off the mountaintop. I understood why the Incas worshipped the elements. Finally the rain abated and we continued along the muddy trail. Just one mountain pass lay between us and the Cradle of Gold. The cloud had lifted slightly and finally it seemed as though we would make it. Onwards we trekked for several hours until we rounded a corner and caught our first glimpse of Choquequirao. It was bathed in sunlight, straddling a vast mountain. Cradle of Gold, indeed.
With a spring in our step we descended the steep path until we reached a flat plateau. Here, we followed an impossibly long Incan wall, above which dozens of terraces were interspersed by stairways that soared to the top of the mountain.
The beauty of Choquequirao, as with Machu Picchu, is as much the surroundings as the site itself. It is saddled atop a mountain, like a giant nest, overlooked by the enormous snowy peaks of the Andes.
The exhilaration and euphoria of having reached this magnificent city washed away six days of rain and weariness. The sun beat down as I climbed the final steps to the terrace overlooking the citadel and steep valleys beyond. As I stood there, mesmerised by the beauty and astonished by the sheer scale of the place, a condor soared into the valley below, floating on a thermal, it spiralled up and up silhouetted against the dank cloud. It was imperial, majestic and deeply moving. Choquequirao has many secrets still to be uncovered. The real joy is its as-yet unexploited solitude. We were the only visitors to the site; I felt I was privy to a great secret as I explored the dozens of buildings scattered around the citadel. The setting sun cast a golden glow across the site. I felt on top of the world, a pioneering 18th-century explorer. I'd found the lost city I'd been looking for.
Ben Fogle will be in conversation with Sandi Toksvig at the Royal Geographical Society, 1 Kensington Gore, London SW7 2AR on Tuesday 27 February at 7pm; tickets £10 from 020-7591 3100 or firstname.lastname@example.org
No flights currently operate direct between the UK and Peru. The main routes to the Peruvian capital, Lima, are on Iberia (0870 609 0500; www.iberia.com) via Madrid and American Airlines (08457 789 789; www.aa.com) via Miami.
To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Climate Care (01865 207 000; www.climatecare.org). The cost of a return flight from London to Lima, in economy class, is £19.20. The money is used to fund sustainable energy and reforestation projects.
The writer trekked to Choquequirao with Manu Expeditions (00 51 84 226 671; www.manuexpeditions.com), based in Cusco. Treks are also organised by UK tour operators such as Exodus (0870 950 0039; www.exodus.co.uk), Andean Trails (0131 467 7086; www.andeantrails.co.uk) and Journey Latin America (020-8747 8315; www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk).
A 13-night group itinerary with the latter starts at £1,359, excluding flights to and from Lima, but including internal flights, transfers, accommodation, treks and some meals.
Peru Tourism: contact the office in Lima by phone on 00 51 1 574 8000; or visit www.peru.info.
Latin American Travel Association: 020-8715 2913; www.lata.org.Reuse content