Derek Cheng treks to an isolated kingdom with a violent past.
Exhausted and breathing heavily in the 3000m-high mountain air, we climbed the last zigzag and rounded a corner to a panoramic view of snowy mountaintops and steep valley folds. Three kilometres ahead lay the Inca city of Choquequirao, an ancient city perched in stunning isolation on a knife-edge ridgeline, its stone terraces and buildings a stark contrast to the green hillsides below.
Five hundred years ago, the city would have been bustling with life; workers tending to the terraces, priests greeting the morning sun from the ceremonial grounds, llamas grazing, royalty enjoying the view from the main plaza.
It was an apt reward for an approach that left us feeling like we had been run over by a parade of tractors. Unlike its more famous sister site of Machu Picchu, there is no road where buses can ferry tourists up to the site. There is no train to a touristy town close by.
The only way to get to Choquequirao is on foot, 1500m down a series of endlessly steep zigzags to the Apurimac River, then an equally punishing 1500m climb up the other side of the Cachora Valley, in the south of Peru.
Before taking two days to conquer this, I had endured a four-hour bus ride from Cusco - just enough time to sneak in two quality Steven Seagal movies - and then a taxi to the small town of Cachora at the head of the valley.
I had shared a taxi with a local who was visiting his parents in the valley and he invited me to share chicken and maize soup with his parents in their mud-adobe house, surrounded by anorexic chickens.
The track is a 35km hike through the mountains, past the snow-covered Salkantay Ridge. I descended to the river, past a number of locals in colourful mantas (blankets) who depend as much on their meagre farms as they do on the money from the slow trickle of tourists who hike through.
I launched up the slope on the other side as if I were indestructible. I wasn't.
As I arrived at a small campsite a third of the way up the slope, my legs were cramping in four different places, and it had taken me the best part of an hour to inch my way up the final kilometre.
Next morning, as I gazed in awe for the first time on Choquequirao, my battered body was soon forgotten.
This site was special in an empire that stretched from modern-day Ecuador through Peru and Bolivia to central Chile and Argentina.
The similarities between Choquequirao and Machu Picchu are many: the isolated setting, the relatively small size, the fact that the Spanish invaders never discovered either site. But there is one distinct difference.
While Machu Picchu was abandoned and left to the mercy of the jungle, Choquequirao was razed after a battle. When excavation began in 1993, archaeologists found lower walls discoloured by burning and unburied skeletons with axes in their skulls. Perci Paz was one of the workers at the time. "This is so unusual that we must assume the site was completely abandoned and burned after being taken in an attack," he said.
Paz called the site a leisure centre for the Inca nobles, but noted that its function changed as the Incas ran from Spanish intent on genocide. Several doorways were filled in so the ground above could be turned into agricultural terraces.
"It does look from our investigations as if the site was still being occupied in the last days of the rump Inca Empire as well as when they were on the run from the Spanish. This would explain why they were trying so hard to extend the terraces," says Paz.
"What had once been luxury gardens for a court on holiday, used perhaps for a few months each year, now had to become subsistence terraces for a court permanently in exile."
As we walked into the site, the appeal over Machu Picchu was obvious. Besides myself, a French traveller I'd met the night before and a team of archaeologists, the ruins were empty.
We set down our packs and followed a steep track down to the terraces. In between the terraces were canals which would have channelled precious water to crops, and, where stone basins allowed the water to collect, to the workers. At the edge of the section were stone buildings where managers could oversee the agricultural work and also keep a lookout for danger, a hostile army or a forest fire. Across the valley was a waterfall set among volcanic rock, the source of building materials.
It was peaceful. Profoundly so. No sign of fractured skulls or other battle scars. From here it was easy to appreciate the Incan reverence for mountains and nature.
As evening approached, we took the path to the ridge. Lounging on top was a large circular clearing bordered by a stone wall, a likely place for religious rituals when priests would have greeted the rising sun.
At a flat spot below was the main plaza, next to a pair of kallankas - A-frame double-storey meeting houses - with residential buildings climbing up behind them. On the other side of the plaza was the city's central temple, a rectangular maze of stone with depressions for altars. The evening light made the stones radiate, a nod to the meaning of its name: Choquequirao means "cradle of gold" in the Inca's Quechua language.
Sitting at the top, it was impossible not to consider the sweat and blood that went into building the site. Of course, when it comes to realising majestic designs in a majestic setting, every empire needs its slave labour.
The Incas filled their labour force with the people they conquered. Not only did this mean a steady supply of workers, it greatly reduced any potential for rebellions as conquered tribes were split up before forces could re-gather.
Near Choquequirao is a site where the stones are joined in the herring-bone style of the Chachapoyas, a people conquered by the Incas after fierce encounters during the rule of Topa Inca in the late 15th century.
In his book The White Rock, explorer Hugh Thomson writes that Choquequirao could have been to Topa Inca what Machu Picchu was to his predecessor, Pachacuti.
"The Incas had an unusual habit of inheritance which largely accounted for the aggressive territorial expansion of each new emperor. On death ... his land and buildings would be kept intact and entailed to a group of relatives and retainers to look after in perpetuity," writes Thomson.
"So on Pachacuti's death, Machu Picchu would not necessarily have been Topa Inca's to use ... it would have become part of Pachacuti's estate."
Thomson also adopts a theory about Choquequirao's demise: as Inca power waned and the Spanish closed in, the Chachapoyas may have revolted.
"In the rioting that followed, the priests would have been killed, left unburied (a final desecration) and the site torched before the Chachapoyas presumably returned to their homelands. It would have been a final reprisal for the enforced labour they had endured for generations."
The site was shrouded in mist the following morning as I embarked on another 1500m descent to the river, followed by another punishing climb out of the valley.
I turned back for a final glimpse of Choquequirao's ancient world of masters and slaves, sun-reverence and mountain-worship, conquest and blood-spillage.
Getting there: Lan Chile flies from Auckland to Lima. Choquequirao, in the south of Peru, is reached by a two-day hike from outside Cusco.