Why Peru’s Choquequirao trek is a great alternative to the Inca Trail

Oct 20, 2021

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While Machu Picchu and the classic Inca Trail trek attract most of the tourists when it comes to Peru, the lesser-known Choquequirao trek is equally worth the visit for outdoor adventurers, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. The trek is situated in the Cusco region of Peru, about 684 miles southwest of the capital city, Lima.

Related: Peru’s Inca Trail permits go on sale for the first time since March 2020, with limited capacity

The term “Choquequirao” means “cradle of gold” in the Quechua language. The Choquequirao Incan site, which is the highlight of the trek, is located in the Vilcabamba mountain range at an altitude of about 10,000 feet. The Incans built it sometime between the 15th and 16th centuries, during the time of their resistance against the Spanish colonization of Tahuantinsuyo (the Incan Empire), which included part of modern-day Peru. The region is home to a variety of wildlife, including condors, spectacled bears, pumas, foxes and hummingbirds.

The journey to the Choquequirao ruins is an adventure in and of itself.

As an avid hiker and a founder of a mountain trekking company, Equity Global Treks, based in the Sacred Valley of Cusco, I decided to do a four-day, 28.5-mile round-trip trek to the ruins of Choquequirao beginning at Capuliyoc village. I joined a tour group through a local agency, Descubre Cusco, which specializes in tourism destinations that educate travelers about the history and culture in the region of Cusco. Here’s what happened.

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A strenuous hike

Our tour began with a drive from the Sacred Valley to the start of the trek, which took almost five hours. A drive from the city of Cusco will take four hours. The drive itself had its own highlights, as we enjoyed the scenic landscapes, with the snow-capped peaks of the Vilcabamba mountain range in view for hours.

A cabana in Capuliyoc, Peru. (Photo by Marinel De Jesus/The Points Guy.)

We arrived at Capuliyoc, where we spent the night in simple cabanas. Until recently, there were no accommodations or hospedajes for tourists along the Choquequirao trail. Hikers were required to carry everything, including tents, sleeping bags, mats and food for the entire trek or they had to hire an outfitter to provide the necessary supplies and services of a guide, cook and horseman. With basic lodges now available for sleep and food, hikers can reduce the amount of weight that they need to carry on the trek. We stayed at the lodges, with one night in Capuliyoc and two nights in Marampata, the last village before entering the Choquequirao ruins.

The Choquequirao trek requires at least four days to complete. It is rated as a strenuous hike due to the significant amount of descents and ascents involved. At the start of the trek, you must hike down a total of about 5,000 feet to the bottom of the Apurimac canyon. From there, you climb 5,000 feet to Marampata. On the last day, you hike in reverse with a similar amount of elevation gain and loss. For an easier trekking experience, travelers can choose to do a five-day itinerary.

The start of the Choquequirao trek is a 5,000-foot hike to the bottom of the Apurimac canyon. (Photo by Marinel De Jesus/The Points Guy.)

We started our second day at 5:30 a.m. with a downhill hike to the 10-person village of Chiquisca before hiking another hour to the lowest point of our trek, in La Playa. Along the way, we had a bird’s eye view of the Apurimac River and the snow-capped peak of Padreyoc. From there, the grueling 5,000 feet climb all the way to Marampata begins. En route, we stopped at the village of Santa Rosa for lunch and a much-needed break before finishing the last three hours of the climb to Marampata. Chiquisca has lodges and camping available, but Santa Rosa only offers camping.

Once we reached the village of Marampata, I quickly realized our hard work had paid off. We stayed at one of the lodges that was situated on the edge of the mountain with the best sunset view over the Vilcabamba mountain range. For food options at the lodges, the menu usually includes local dishes such as lomo saltado (a cured beef sirloin), pollo saltado (a chicken stir-fry) or pollo a la plancha (chicken cooked on a flat top grill or griddle), plus huge servings of papas fritas (French fries) and arroz (rice). The lodges offer cold and hot showers, as well as a Wi-Fi connection for $2.50 per hour. Drinks and snacks are available for purchase, but are priced three times or more than what they usually cost in the city.

The village of Marampata, Peru. (Photo by Marinel De Jesus/The Points Guy)

Without the crowds, Choquequirao gives travelers a more intimate encounter with the Incan Empire’s history.

On the third day of our trek we made the gentle one to two hour hike to the ruins, where we found ourselves alone in many parts of the complex. A local horseman, Angelo, from Chiquisca said that prior to the pandemic, they received 30 to 50 tourists a day. This number is significantly less now due to the pandemic – and without income from visitors, many of the local people living in the villages along the trail have been relying mainly on agriculture and livestock.

Differences between Inca and Choquequirao trails

The ruins at the Plaza Principal of Choquequirao. (Photo by Marinel de Jesus/The Points Guy.)

The famous Inca Trail allowed for a maximum of 500 hikers per day before the pandemic, which is currently reduced to 250 as a precautionary measure against COVID-19, making it more difficult to obtain permits. Crowds are nonexistent on the Choquequirao trail, and no permit is required. You only have to pay a $15 entry fee to visit the ruins.

Related: This lucky traveler was the only tourist allowed in Machu Picchu since March

Once you enter the Incan site, you’ll quickly notice what sets it apart from its famous sister site, Machu Picchu. Only 30 to 40 percent of the area has been excavated, so most of the ruins have yet to be uncovered. Choquequirao’s ruins also aren’t as compact as the ruins of Machu Picchu. The different sectors of the complex are spread apart, requiring a short hike between each one.

The first sector you’ll encounter when you enter the site is Plaza Principal, which serves as the centerpiece of the Choquequirao complex. From there, you can visit other sectors, such as the Sector de Llama, or the ceremonial platform, Usnu, on top of a hill overlooking Plaza Principal. The ruins are mostly comprised of Incan ceremonial temples, housing for high-ranking political and religious leaders, grain storages and terraces. Spending all day exploring is easy to do, especially when you have a guide who can share the history behind the ruins and the relevance of each part of the archaeological site.

After a mesmerizing and relaxing day at Choquequirao, we eventually hiked back to Marampata for the night before making our way back to Capuliyoc the next day.

Choquequirao Trek tips

The uniqueness of Choquequirao, combined with the lack of crowds and rawness of the place, certainly add value to the trekking experience. However, be warned that although Choquequirao isn’t necessarily considered a high altitude trek, it’s nonetheless a strenuous hike and requires physical preparation. The significant elevation gains and losses become more challenging when hiking under the sun and in the heat during the day.

For $25 a day, you can climb the ruins on a horse with the help of a horseman. (Photo by Marinel De Jesus/The Points Guy)

As you are hiking in a canyon, the sun and heat can set in as early as 7 a.m. and last until mid-afternoon. Hiking early or late in the day is preferable. If you can’t avoid hiking in the middle of the day, you can do the climb on horseback with the help of a horseman for around $25 per day. For a cooler climate, consider doing the Choquequirao trek just after the rainy season in April or May.

In addition to the weather, you’ll have to contend with mosquitos, so make sure to bring a strong mosquito repellent with you. Long-sleeved shirts and long pants also will help shield you from the strong sun and mosquito bites.

When doing this trek during the pandemic, you have to follow certain safety protocols against COVID-19. Group tours, previously not size restricted, now have a maximum of eight participants. Travelers must wear masks in the car or in the common areas of the lodges.

Your guide must check the body temperature of every traveler daily. You can choose to have a private room, as opposed to a shared one, as a safety measure.

However, social distancing on the trail and at the ruins is easy because of the lack of crowds. This would be more difficult to do on the Inca Trail or in Machu Picchu.

Bottom line

Hiking the Choquequirao trek is a great way to avoid the crowded Inca Trail and explore a more off-the-beaten-path, but equally fascinating, part of Peru’s Incan history.

While it’s possible to do the Choquequirao trek independently, I would highly recommend that you book your trek with a local operator, because the entry requirements and safety protocols against COVID-19 can change anytime in Peru without advance notice.

With a local operator, you are paying for an extra layer of security to avoid any issues during your trip. For example, some of the campsites along the route remain closed due to the pandemic, which is the type of information that’s not easily accessible to travelers from outside Peru.

Related: When will international travel return? A country-by-country guide to coronavirus recovery

If you can, learn some Quechua words and phrases before your journey to forge trust quickly with the Quechua-speaking locals, who always appreciate outsiders who make the effort to speak their native language. Not only does direct communication with Quechua speakers make the experience more enjoyable and meaningful, but it’s also the best way for travelers to show respect towards the community and its culture.

Finally, hiking the Choquequirao trek is a great way to help local people by paying for tourism services, as many who work in the industry have suffered financially as a result of the pandemic and have yet to recover.

Featured photo of a section of the Choquequirao trek by Marinel de Jesus/The Points Guy.

 

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