Lost Cities, Found Anew

Join the crowds and take the easy way up Machu Picchu. Or follow the trail of early explorers and see a handful of rarely seen Incan masterpieces.

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  1. As we neared the end of a very long climb up a very steep ridge, my guide, John Leivers, shouted at me over his shoulder. "It's said that the Spaniards never found Machu Picchu, but I disagree," he said. I caught up to him—for what seemed like the 20th time that day—and he pointed his bamboo trekking pole at the strangely familiar-looking set of ruins ahead. "It's this place they never found."

    He was pointing to Choquequirao, an Incan citadel high in the Peruvian Andes that so closely resembles Machu Picchu that it's often touted as the sister site of South America's most famous ruins. Both are believed to have been built in the 15th century and consist of imposing stone buildings arranged around a central plaza, situated among steep mountain ridges that overlook twisting whitewater rivers, with views of skyscraping peaks—known as apus, or mountain deities, to both the Incas and their Quechua-speaking Andean descendants—in several directions. Both are almost indescribably beautiful.

    But there's no question about which sibling is more popular. An estimated 3,000 people make their way through Machu Picchu's corridors on a typical day. Between breakfast and lunch at Choquequirao, I counted 14 people, including myself, John and a few scattered archaeologists.

    The first known American to see Choquequirao was the young Yale history lecturer Hiram Bingham III, in 1909. He was researching a biography of the South American liberator Simón Bolívar when a local prefect he met near Cu...