About Choquequirao: This Incan ruin site in the Vilcabamba range is only around 40% excavated currently and typically receives a meagre 20 visitors a day. The 15th-16th century Incan outpost is thought to have served as an administrative hub, designed in a symbolic manner to pay homage to the Inti sun god. The two-day trail to the ruins begins from Capuliyoc with a steep descent into the valley and a steep ascent up the other side, through the small and remote village of Marampata. It is rare-ish for organised tour groups to visit here, making it easier (administratively, not physically) and cheaper to take the trek independently. There are controversial plans to build a cable car here to help ease pressure on visits to Machu Pichu, turning the 4-day trek into a 15 minute sit-down affair, so it’s definitely a get-there-before-its-spoilt type expedition. Although if you asked me on day 2 what I thought, I’d have told you I’d pay for them to build the cable car myself. Masochists can extend this trek to a nine day affair, finishing in Machu Picchu.
When planning treks from Cusco we’d heard of this other lost city that was much quieter than Machu Picchu but to get there you must take on ‘one of the hardest treks in Peru’. Having read the limited resources out there all issuing warnings of how challenging it was, we as usual rather arrogantly thought “ah, maybe these people hadn’t done that much trekking before”. Around five minutes into the walk, when you can see the path up and out of the valley ahead of you, we realised the ratings of the walk were likely accurate. If anything the blogs understated just how exhausting this trek was. The perspiration isn’t for nothing, however, the ruins of Choquequirao proving to be one of the highlights of our time in Peru.
Day 1 – Cusco to the Valley floor, a journey of realisation
We travelled from Cusco (around 5 hours) by public bus. From Ramal de Cachora we hired a collective and then a taxi to the trailhead at Capuliyoc. The views from Cachora are incredible and you begin to realise the intense steepness of the range with the snow capped 6000m+ peaks appearing as if they were only a stone’s throw away. You can walk from here, but I’m not sure why you would do that to yourself. By the time we got to Capuliyoc and paid entrance to the park it was late in the day and the sun was blasting down. We made it to the bottom of the valley to camp at the Santa Rosalina campsite (5 soles/£1.50) by sunset. Ideally we would have made it further up to make the next day less painful (see Tips for our ideal itinerary in hindsight!). Camping by the river was warm, but this joy comes with a heap of mosquitos. We also saw our first tarantula here. Equipped with cold showers, water for cooking and a tiny shop the site was pretty good.
Day 2 – The valley floor to Choquequirao, a journey of questionable enjoyment
Waking up to realise the other 2 tents there with us had already headed up, leaving only us in the campsite, we hurriedly had breakfast and packed camp to start the ascent at 8:30. 1800 meters (5905 feet) and 6 hours of only uphill switchbacks and straights followed to reach the Choquequirao camp, with many stops to think “we have to be close now”, only to realise two hours later that we were not. This was a tough day. With a stop in Marampata for a mountain-grown lunch, we pushed on to the campsite within the Choquequirao complex and arrived before sunset. The site has toilets, cold showers and a water supply. We met people who stayed here for 4 days (you would need to bring supplies), and we understood why. Flat pitches with mountain views perched on terraces, surrounded by Incan ruins and very few other trekkers made for a serene experience.
Day 3 – Choquequirao to valley floor + some more, a journey of knee-annihilation
Had we the time, we would have stayed at the Choquequirao camp for two nights to allow a full day of exploring and trekking-respite, but, foolishly, we only allowed ourselves a morning. Entering the site for 7am we had it entirely to ourselves, with no restricted zones you can walk amongst the buildings freely. The pinnacle-top plaza was the only flat ground we enjoyed for the 4 days, and by-god did we enjoy it. Due to the low-resource there is no information available, but we downloaded the Wikipedia page to read offline and tried to work things out for ourselves. The site saddles a ridge, with the main building on top and incredible terraces down either side. We descended the impossible steep sides to see the famous Llama steps amongst the impossible steep terraces built for crops, grazing and housing. We walked amongst priests houses perfectly aligned with the neighbouring mountains, followed the canal that brought water from nearby mountains for practical and religious use, and saw the hooks in the stables where livestock would have rested from their travels.
Leaving the site by 11am we needed to descend back to the river and up a further hour to the Chiquisca campsite to give ourselves an easier ascent on the final day. This was a sweaty day, as the later and hotter it got, the lower and warmer the climate was.
Day 4 – Chiquisca to Capuliyoc, a journey of sweet, sweet relief
The final test. A crawl up thedespicably steep valley-side to our final destination. Starting at 5am, to reach the summit before the sun caught us, we struggled up the 15 switchbacks we’d sped down 3 days before. We watched as the sun greeted all the mountains around us and fell over the top of the ridge at around 10am, with a few tears from me (it was very hard). By some intense streak of luck a minibus group heading directly back to Cusco allowed us in their van, avoiding the 150 soles taxi we had resigned ourselves to getting to avoid public transport.
This is probably the hardest walk we have done in our South America travels, and probably still would be had we not been so tight and hired a donkey to help carry our camping gear. However, the sense of adventure is very real and the opportunity to feel like a lost kingdom explorer is irresistible.
- Ideal itinerary in hindsight would be:
- Day 1 – Travel from Cusco to Capuliyoc (Trailhead) and stay overnight in Choquequirao Wasi’s stunning huts
- Day 2 – Start early to descend and ascend to Santa Rosa/Santa Rosa Alto campsites
- Day 3 – Continue ascent to Choquequirao camp
- Day 4 – Relax and explore Choquequirao
- Day 5 – Descend back down the valley and up to Cocamasana or Chiquisca campsite
- Day 6 – Get outta there! Start early to get up to the trailhead in Capuliyoc and bus back to Cusco
- You can pull up the site Wikipedia information on the Maps.me location, which helps to understand the ruins
- The small shops at some campsites means you don’t need to take pasta and save some weight
- These Travel Outlandish and Stingy Nomads blogs are incredibly informative, we downloaded them to reference on the trail