Machu Picchu is undeniably beautiful, but many don’t realize that it is not the only significant Inca ruins found in the region.
On our recent visit to Cusco, we decided to take a path less traveled and embark on a hike that would take us to Choquequirao, a lesser know, but an equally impressive set of ancient Inca ruins hidden deep in the Apurimac Valley.
We were drawn to Choquequirao after learning about the ruins in Mark Adam’s book “Turn Right at Machu Picchu” that retraced the steps of the Hiram Bingham III 1911 search for the last city of the Incas. Adam’s description of the trail to Choquequirao, the ruins, and the spectacular beauty of the Apurimac canyon made us want to experience this area for ourselves!
The Choquequirao Ruins are often labeled the little sister of Machu Picchu, but in reality, Choquequirao is said to be much bigger and much more impressive than Machu Picchu. The only difference is that over 70% of Choquequirao has not yet been excavated.
The trek to the ancient ruins of Choquequirao is not for everyone. The ruins lie at an elevation of 3,050 m above sea level and can only be reached via a strenuous 5-day return hike. The trail to and from Choquequirao spans over 60 kms and requires you to be fit enough to manage 6-8 hours of hiking per day with daily altitude changes of up to 1,000-1,500 m.
The trail lies below the snow-capped peaks of Padrayoc and Wayna Cachora, zig-zagging up and down the steep hills of the Apurimac valley. It takes 2 days to reach the ruins and another 2 days to return back to the start of the trail, following the same route.
Due to the technical difficulty of the trek and lack of infrastructure along the way, few people trek this route independently. Speaking from experience, having a guide and a team of cooks and porters definitely make this trek as enjoyable as it was. The route is still considered to be off the beaten track and thus only a couple of agencies in Cusco offer it on an ongoing basis.
We choose to trek to Choquequirao with Apus Peru, one of the highest rated and recommended tour operators in the region, known for their commitment to sustainable travel and responsible practices. Apus Peru offers a number of different trek options that allow travelers to explore the Choquequirao ruins, ranging from our 5-day Choquequirao trek to the 10-day Choquequirao to Machu Picchu alternative.
Day by Day Recap of the 5-Day Choquequirao Trek
Day 1: From Cusco to Playa Rosalina
Distance: 10.3 km
Elevation: 2915 metres to 1475 metres
Total hiking time: 6 hours
We were picked up from our hotel in Cusco at 5:30am and after making a few more stops to pick up other trekkers, we were on our way to the start of Choquequirao trek.
It was a long 5-hour drive to reach the start of the trail, just outside of San Pedro de Cachora. We made a quick stop for breakfast in a town of Curahuasi, located about 3 hours away from Cusco and another 2 hours from San Pedro.
The views along the way were pretty spectacular making for a very enjoyable ride. The car swirled around the sharp corners in an attempt to avoid herds of cows, pigs, and sheep that crowded the narrow mountain road. We gawked at the massive cliff drop offs and the scenery that opened up in front of us after every turn.
Our group of 12 consisted of hikers with varying fitness levels and ranged in age from 22-67 year old. All of us were North Americans, which helped create a nice dynamic in the group over the course of our time together. Our 2 guides, William and John were supported by a team of porters and cooks.
We arrived at San Pedro de Cachora just before noon and after taking 10-15 mins to gear up for the hike ahead we hit the trail. About 10 mins into the hike, we entered into the Apurimac Valley with its breathtaking views of the snow-capped mountains and green hill.
“Look across The Valley”, said our guide, William. “at the end of that zig zag road is Choquequirao”.
We stared into the distance in disbelief.
“Today we’ll go all the way down until we reach the river where we will camp for the night,” explained William, “and tomorrow, we’ll follow that zig zag road up the mountain to the ruins of Choquequirao”.
The main attraction of our trek was so close, yet so far away.
As William promised, the hike was all downhill. By the end of the day, we would have descended 1,500m and walked just over 10km. Slowly and carefully we followed William and John deeper and deeper into the canyon. Every 30-45 mins we’d stop to regroup, using the stop as an excuse to admire the scenery, snap some photos and give our knees a much-needed break.
By the time lunch time rolled around, we were all starving, happy to find ourselves in a food tent. Our meal was the definition of deluxe and really took us by surprise. Locally sourced ingredients were freshly cooked right on the spot. Our meal consisted of trout, rice, salads and even a small desert!
After a little rest, we continued along the path towards our camp site, Playa Rosalina, near the river. We arrived just before sunset, pleasantly surprises to find our tents set up and ready for our arrival.
We had just enough time to wash up and change into our night time clothes before the dinner call lured us into the dining tent. It was another delicious meal accompanied by cheerful chatter as we continued to get to know our fellow trekkers and share the highlights of today’s hike.
Exhausted but satisfied, we crashed in our sleeping bags shortly after dinner, giving ourselves lots of time to catch some zzz’s before tomorrow’s 4am wake up call.
Day 2: From Playa Rosalina to Choquequirao Campsite
Elevation: 1,475m to 2,817m
Total hiking time: 6 hours
We woke up well before sunrise, packed up our stuff, ate breakfast in pitch dark, and commenced today’s 1,400m ascend just as the valley filled with the first rays of light.
We huffed and puffed our way up the hill for 4 hours, stopping every 45 mins for a 5-10 min break to allow slower hikers to catch up with the rest of the group.
We reached our lunch spot, the small village of Marampata just before 11am, grateful for delicious food and the rest that followed. We were still 2 hours away from tonight’s campsite but the worst of it was now behind us. We finished our meals and relaxed enjoying the sun’s warm rays.
We began our afternoon hike shortly after 1pm. The grade all the way to the campsite was variable, making it much easier to tackle than the morning ascend.
By the time we made it to camp, our tents were once again set up and waiting for our arrival. There was plenty of time until dinner, so we relaxed. Some took the opportunity to shower, others to catch a siesta or read a book.
Tea time, our favourite time, was close to 5pm and dinner followed shortly after sunset.
Day 3: Choquequirao Ruins
Elevation: 1,475m to 2,820m
Total hiking time: 9 hours with breaks
We woke up well rested and excited for the day ahead. Today, we would finally visit the Choquequirao Ruins.
An hour long variable hike from our campsite, took us straight to the ruins. We started exploring the site from an incredible vantage point at the ceremonial platform that offered panoramic views of the ruins and the jungle that engulfed them.
After completing a traditional ritual up on the platform, we sat at the top of the hill, looking over the ruins while listening to William’s rendition of Inca history.
Fascinated by the importance of Choquequirao in the Inca history, we descended to the main level getting close and personal to what may have been the Last City of the Incas. We had about an hour to roam around the ruins and take our time admiring the intricate stonework throughout the site.
Unlike Machu Picchu, Choquequirao doesn’t see very many visitors, so aside from our group of 12 and a few stray independent hikers, there was not another soul at the ruins. We had the place all to ourselves which definitely added to the appeal.
After a long lunch break under the shade of the trees, we hiked down to the Llama Terraces, that were once used for agriculture. From there, we hiked back up to the very top level of Choquequirao, an area that offered amazing views of the ruins below and thought to represent the noble living quarters.
We stayed at the ruins until the sun set behind the mountains, taking in everything we had learned about this amazing place.
Day 4: Choquequirao Campsite to Chiquisqa
Elevation: 2,820m to 1,865m
Total hiking time: 7 hours
Day 4 was another long day. After spending another night at the Choquequirao campsite, we started our descent back to the Apurimac River. In the morning, we traveled 7.5 kms, descending almost 800m until we reached our lunch stop at Santa Rosa. For the first time in our 4 days on the trail, the weather turned for the worse. Luckily, by the time the rain got heavy, we were already on our break, enjoying yet another delicious meal, prepared fresh by our Apus Peru cooks.
We extended our break allowing the worst of the rain to pass and at around 3pm continued our descend. We hiked back down to the river (another 400m) and past Playa Rosalina, where we stayed on the first night of the trek. From there, we started another 2 hour ascend (400m) towards the settlement of Chiquisqa. This was our resting spot for our last night on the trek.
Our campsite in Chiquisqa was arguably the most picturesque of them all, offering incredible views of the valley. And even though the facilities here were sub par, It was a great place to spend our last night on the trek.
Day 5: Chiquisqa to Cachora to Cusco
Elevation: 1,865m to 2,915 m
Total hiking time: 3 hrs
On our last day on the trek, we climbed back up to the start of the trail, where 5 days ago we began our journey to Choquequirao. We had the morning to make our way up 1,000m along the zigzag trail back to Cachora where a van was waiting to take us back to Cusco.
We were exhausted and making our way up was a lot harder than we anticipated. Luckily, the views were just as spectacular as we remembered them from day one. Clouds hung low and the purple flowers carpeted the hill on either side of the trail. Between the views and the steep ascend, we were left breathless.
We reached the top before 10am, and after inhaling our boxed lunch, we settled in for a scenic ride back to Cusco.
Choosing a Responsible Operator for Your Trek
We had a fantastic time on our Choquequirao trek and while the traill and the scenery had a lot to do with our overall satisfaction, we think that a lot of our enjoyment can be attributed to the wonderful Apus Peru crew that stood by us every step of the way.
We can’t stress enough how great it was to have our Apus Peru guides, who helped us gain a deep understanding of the history and local traditions of the region, the cooks, who whipped up the most amazing meals to keep us fueled throughout the hike, and the porters, who not only carried the bulk of our belongings but also took care of setting up and taking down our tents on a daily basis. We couldn’t have done it without them!
Choosing an operator for this trek was tough. There are dozens of agencies that advertise Choquequirao tours online and many more that resell them on the streets of Cusco. It’s important to choose an operator that doesn’t just promise a great experience to the trekkers but also works to make a positive impact on the environment and community of the Choquequirao region.
We researched a number of companies and asked numerous questions, before choosing to trek with Apus Peru for the following reasons.
Off the Beaten Path Treks: Apus Peru offers a great number of off the beaten path treks, including this 5-day Choquequirao trek, that many other companies do not, which means that they help to bring positive economic impact to the lesser visited areas of the Cusco region. They hire porters from more remote areas and bring business to many families that live along the trek routes.
Education: Apus Peru takes the time to educate not only their guides and porters about the appropriate environmental and cultural practices in the region but also their clients.
Fair treatment of staff: You’ll probably find Apus Peru hikes to be priced at a bit of a premium to some other providers, which is exactly what allows them to pay fair wages to all staff, from office personnel to guides, cooks, and porters. They also provide on the job training and allow for growth within the company.
Local Food: The food on the trek was one of the highlights of our experience. There was always lots of it and every dish was cooked fresh using local recipes and locally grown ingredients.
Support of Social Causes: Apus Peru donates $20 from each client to their partner a Peruvian NGO, Threads of Peru, a not-for-profit social enterprise that connects the world to handmade treasures of the Andes.
You can read more about Apus Peru’s Responsible Travel commitment HERE or ask to learn more about their Apus Peru Difference!
Want to get the feel for our experience on the trek? Check out our highlights vlog below!
Disclaimer: We experienced the Choquequirao trek courtesy of Apus Peru, but our opinion of the tour or of the company itself are always our own.