Choquequirao to Machu Picchu Trek
(part 1)

Getting There

There are many roads to Machu Picchu. The most frequently used is the Inca Trail, probably one of the best known treks in the world. Everyday 500 people set out on this 4-day walk along an old inca road to the famous archaeological site and to do it you need to book months in advance. I cannot possibly imagine 500 people on a track at the same time, so we looked for a quieter way to walk to the iconic incan citadel of Machu Picchu, a favourite for inclusion in the list of the seven new wonders of the world. The Choquequirao to Machu Picchu Trek fitted the bill exactly; longer, higher, more diverse and with an extra incan archaelogical site or two to boot.

Thus we found ourselves in the Plazoleta San Blas in Cuzco with Felix, our guide, Javier, the cook, and 2 porters, Ephraim and Valerio, loading our gear and supplies for a 9-day trek into and onto a Toyota Camry Station Wagon taxi. Together with this and the driver, the 6 of us crammed in and headed north for a 3-hour drive to Cachora, the starting point of our trek. Normally, porters do not work on this trek, as it has some serious climbing and mules are preferred. However, Valerio and Ephraim had time off from the Inca Trail and wanted to see what this trek was like in comparison. Already the trip promised to be an interesting one.

Leaving Cuzco, we followed the highway to Lima across a fertile green valley, full of different crops, with impressive views of the glacier-covered pyramid of Salkantay hovering over it. The valley drained into the deep Apurimac Canyon and, after crossing the Apurimac River, we climbed back out the other side, past crops of maize and aniseed. Finally leaving the highway, we headed west for a few kilometres along a dirt road before eventually descending to the village of Cachora. We had arrived at our start point and, after a late lunch at a small local restaurant, our first serious trek in Peru would soon be underway.

The 6200m glacier-covered peak of Salkantay

The road north - fertile valleys and high mountains

The Apurimac River in its gorge


Day 1 - Cachora to Chiquissca (16km - 250m ascent - 1200m descent)

Having eaten our lunch and acquired a mule and young arriero to join the team, we set off at 1pm, wandering down the streets of Cachora, with its superb backdrop of snow-capped 5500m Cerro Padreoc. Leaving the village,Felix led us down through pastures, joined by 5-year old Tali for the first three kilometres on her daily walk home from school . She chattered away despite our limited understanding, fascinated by my hairy arms (a rare sight in rural Peru), before leaving us to turn off for her home. During this time, we crossed several small streams, before joining the dirt vehicular track that led away from Cachora.


Felix, Tali and Nello on the track out of Cachora

Starting off down the main street of Cachora

Heading across the fields toward the snow-capped ranges

Many flowers were in bloom at this time and the road was lined with orange coneflowers, low pink- and yellow-flowering herbs, multicoloured lantana (where it should be) and erect eucalypts (where they shouldn't be).

Soon the road started to climb gently, while the valley to our right fell away sharply as it joined the magnificent Apurimac Canyon. Before long, we were walking along its steep upper slope and, on odd occasions, could see right down to the river, 1300m below.

Landscape west of Cachora

Looking back over a path from Cachora

Fluted walls of 5500m Cerro Padreoc

A glimpse of the Apurimac River 1300m below

This long traverse took us to a viewpoint, with impressive vistas both up and down the canyon. To the west, we could see the track starting its long descent into the canyon and we headed off into the late afternoon sun, descending a series of long switchbacks that traversed back and forward across the green, grassy upper slopes. The late afternoon light was superb, with the canyon sides and ridges backlit by the sun, and the fluted white walls of Cerro Padreoc shining high above.

View of the Apurimac Canyon in the late afternoon sunlight

A sharp ridge protruding into the Apurimac Canyon

Traverse around the canyon wall

The route west into the canyon

The traverse then dropped sharply, entering a drier vegetation zone of semi-deciduous trees and shrubs, with the odd cactus. We continued on, along another long traverse across this level in the failing light, passing curiously flowering shrubs and vines, the odd cream and yellow orchid, trees covered in airplants, white tubular flowers of leche-leche bush, an occasional wild cotton plant and the tall flower spikes of agave.

Our first orchid for the trip ...

... closely followed by our second

Air plant perched in a tree ....

.... and its flower spike

Start of the zigzags down the grassy slopes

Beautiful but deadly - invasive Colombian grass

The canyon slowly becomes more arid

Dusk descends on the Apurimac River

One last steep and winding descent led us to the rustic campsite at Chiquissca, 200m above the canyon floor. It was just on dark as we arrived and the porters and mule had just caught us up, so we all pitched in and set up camp in the dusk. The night was pleasantly mild and, contented after our first camp meal, we retired to our tent to watch the distant lightning and listen to the light droplets of rain on its canopy. It had been a long first day with the drive plus the walk and we soon fell asleep, reliving the highlights and feeling satisfied at our first day's effort.

Day 2 - Chiquissca to Choquequirao (13km - 300m descent - 1600m ascent)

It was interesting to see the campsite in the morning, with our tent pitched amongst the papaya and banana trees and passionfruit vines, beneath snow-capped peaks. Overnight the clouds had cleared and and the day was sunny and promising. We set off early, descending the last few hundred metres to the bottom of the Apurimac Canyon, the soft roar of the river gradually getting louder as we approached it.


Campsite amonst the papaya trees

Breakfast at Chiquissca

The landscape became even more arid and desert-like; bromeliads and agave giving way to cacti of several persuasions; candelabra, pear and creeping jointed species becoming common in the dry depths of the canyon.

The Apurimac River in early morning shade

Bromeliad clinging to the rock wall

Felix explaining the canyon microclimates

Suspension bridge over the Apurimac

The camera-shy deer

After signing in at the track checkpoint, we crossed the suspension bridge over the fast-flowing Apurimac River. The early morning sun couldn't yet reach into the depths of the canyon and we started our 1400m ascent of its northern wall in welcome cool shade. We climbed steadily upwards as a pair of small camera-shy deer watched us pass.

Gradually the vegetation began to go through the reverse transition, as low shrubs and bare-looking trees colonised by airplants began to appear. Just then, high above us, one of the porters yelled out "orso!!". We looked up in time to see the black shape of an Andean spectacled bear crossing the rocky slopes 100m above us. This was a rare sighting - even the locals were excited at seeing the bear.

Way above, an Andean spectacled bear crossing the slopes

Pushing on into ever greener vegetation, we finally emerged from the shadows into the sun at about 500m into the climb. We stopped at a small trackside house and stall, where the locals sold gatorade and fresh fermenting sugarcane juice. After a rest, we pushed on following our young arriero and his mule up through a long set of zig-zags; the rest of the team stayed longer at the house (perhaps to sample the 3-day and well-fermented sugarcane vintage).

Agave stem amongst the dense shrub cover

The vegetation was now denser, with lantana and other broad-leafed bushes intertwining, while butterflies of several colours fluttered across the path between them. It was warm, humid and still, but the dense shrubbery provided some shade, during the zigs if not the zags.

Passing the 1000m mark, we were beginning to feel the effort as the path steepened and the pace slowed. Across the canyon, we could see the faint trace of yesterday's track disappearing into depths below and were duly impressed with our effort. The whole aspect of the canyon was changing as the rising sun lit up the green-covered higher walls.

One last push and we crested the canyon lip at Marampata, where an open grassy area provided the perfect spot for lunch; we had climbed 1400m in 3½ hours and the hot bowl of asparagus soup and pasta prepared by Javier was just what we needed. Felix was quite impressed that a pair of old farts had made it to the top before he caught up!

A small part of the track down

Looking across to our path down the canyon

View across the slopes of Apurimac Canyon

One of many flowering bushes on the ascent

Lunch at Marampata

First glimpse of the Coquequirao archaeological site

From our lunch spot, we had our first glimpse of Choquequirao, its angular forms perched high on a ridge to the north, standing out from the green of the forest. After lunch, we set off towards it, meandering and undulating across the steep jungle-clad canyon wall, twice dropping down to recover our elevation with short sharp climbs. The vegetation was taking on a distinct tropical air.

Rounding a bend, we were greeted with the spectacle beneath us of the agricolas andenes, the terraced gardens of the incan people, perched on the edge of a precipice of a side gorge leading off the Apurimac Canyon. We were duly impressed at the skills of the people who built these steeply angled terraces almost 500 years ago.

Andenes agricolas (the incan garden terraces)

Casita on the edge of the canyon


We crossed a stream in front of a long waterfall, source of irrigation water for the terraces, for one last climb and short descent to the campsite at Casa de Caida de Agua, where the views from our tent of the sun lighting up the far walls of the canyon across the verdant green slopes of semi-tropical forest was the perfect way to end the day.

As the sun set, a tiny metallic green hummingbird hovered and skittered between tubular flowers a few metres from us and later that night we could watch the brilliantly clear stars in a cold southern sky.

The source of the inca irrigation system

Looking 1400m down into the Apurimac canyon

At this campsite, we met some of the 11 members of a World Expeditions party doing the same trek, with whom we would cross paths several times in coming days - a far side better than sharing the Inca Trail with 500 people! Some other people were also camped here who were doing the 4-day trek to Choquequirao and back. They would have to descend into and climb back out of the Apurimac Canyon once more. We felt sorry for them, but we didn't know then what lay in store ahead!

Day 3 - Choquequirao to Rio Blanco (10km - 450m ascent - 1450m descent)

We awoke to a cool morning with low cloud hugging the peaks. Felix assured us that the cloud would burn off by 8.30am so, after an early breakfast, we were off at 7am, climbing up a single file footpath through the dense cloud forest vegetation towards the ancient Incan ruins. Several orchid species and many other flowering plants spattered the dense green vegetation with colour, as we passed rocky remnants of Incan walls still covered with vines and thickets, before emerging at a small clearing with the first stone buildings.


Stone walls in the administrative sector of

Some of the cloud forest orchids

Looking down on the ruins of Choquequirao
from the ceremonial hilltop

We were at the old administrative sector of Choquequirao. After a short exploration, we pushed upward around the canyon wall to emerge on the top of a flattened hill, lined with a low stone wall; the Incan ceremonial site. From here we could look down on the amazing spectacle of the buildings and terraces of this abandoned city as Felix explained the history of the site, its rediscovery and restoration. With imagination we could picture this as a living citadel almost 500 years ago.

Residential buildings on the lower level

Ceremonial hill and religious buildings

Terrace gardens on the lower level

The stonework of Choquequirao

In the garden areas above the ruins

Looking 1500m down into the Apurimac Canyon

Courtyard in front of the residential area

View from the east of the Choquequirao site

As he predicted, the sun broke through at about 8.30am and we explored the buildings and gardens of the lower and upper levels of Choquequirao, with Felix explaining the purpose and function of different constructions. Looking down the canyons on both sides of this densely vegetated ridge, you could see why it was chosen as a place to live.

The smallest orchid

Felix heading up through the cloud forest
Eventually we had to move on. Felix led us on a short-cut from the upper part of Choquequirao that climbed steeply up through the dense cloud forest, passing the overgrown remnants of Inca walls and water canals; the extent of this site is even greater than what has already been cleared. It was very humid and still as we climbed up to 3300m in a verdant forest of lichen-covered tree trunks, rich with epiphytes, bromeliads, orchids and a myriad of flowering plants.

Incan wall covered by jungle vegetation
(how Choquequirao once looked)

One last glimpse of Choquequirao

We traversed the ridge, looking down 1800m to the Apurimac River, deep in its canyon. It was amazing how the dense vegetation clung to such steep slopes.

After one last glimpse of Choquequirao, now far below us, we rounded a spur to reach the drier northern slope of the mountain and the start of a steep descent; first drier forest, then shrublands, then grasslands with patchy bushes, but always plenty of wildflowers in every colour and shape. We dropped 700m in just over and hour.


The dense vegetation of the upper slopes

Steep grasslands of the mid slopes

After a short break in a green grassy clearing, we continued the descent, entering lower shrublands with lantana and bamboo, to reach the site of Pinthinunuyoc, a much smaller Incan ruin, only discovered in 1998 and not yet cleared or restored. The stone wall and gate were overgrown with vegetation and we were surprised to be greeted by the sight of the World Expeditions group set up for lunch on one of the terraces (I guess one man's archaelogical site is another man's toilet tent).

Shrublands of the lower slopes

Inca gateway - Pinthinunuyoc

View down into the canyon

Tree colonized by air plants

Tree draped with air plant veils

Time for a spa bath in the Rio Blanco

On and on went the descent, drier and drier became the landscape, agaves appearing with their tall flower spikes, along with air plants colonising almost leafless trees and cacti of several types. Hotter and hotter became the temperature as the sun baked the lower parts of this north-facing slope. Finally, we entered the steep inner gorge of the Rio Blanco; it was amazing how the small crack in the landscape that we had seen from high above was suddenly a deep cleft with sheer 200m high walls.

The heat pulsed off the rocks, touching 38ºC as we worked our way down the loose gravel path, past trees draped with soft grey veils of air plants, to reach the canyon floor. From here we picked our way along the stony bed of the Rio Blanco, crossed the rushing stream on a plank and found our lunch spot in the shade of the northern wall, 1450m below the heights above Choquequirao.

Felix asked us whether we wanted to stay and spend the afternoon relaxing here or climb another 600m to the next campsite. It was not a hard decision to stay at this pleasant spot and take advantage of the cold rushing waters of the Rio Blanco to wash away three days of trekking grime.

Rio Blanco landscape

Our trekking team - Javier, Ephraim, Felix and Valerio

However, as the shade lengthened to engulf the canyon, the sandflies emerged to drive us to our tents. These tiny biting insects make those in New Zealand seem like harmless giants and we would all be itching for the next few days!

We had passed from lush humid cloud forest to the arid floor of the canyon in bit over four hours and, unfortunately, from the floor of a canyon the only way is up. After dinner around a roaring campfire, kept well stoked by Valerio the pyromaniac, we went to sleep highly refreshed to the sound of the rushing water and the chirping of crickets, trying not to think of the long climb that awaited us in the morning.

go to part 2 .....