There are three main trekking routes that have been developed by Cusco-based adventure tour operators in response to the desperate over-demand for the Inca Trail. The most popular of these is Choquequirao, and like the Inca Trail, this trek ends at a fabulous ancient citadel. Treks around the sacred glaciated mountain of Salcantay are also well-developed and, to some extent, overlap with and link to the Inca Trail itself. Much less walked, but equally breathtaking, is Ausangate, another sacred snow-covered peak (with a convenient looping trail) that on a clear day can be seen from Cusco dominating the southern horizon. Another popular trek is the route from Ollantaytambo to Lares. As for cost, these treks are similar in price to the Inca Trail, ranging from about $60 to $100 a day.
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An increasingly popular alternative to the Inca Trail, the hike to Choquequirao can be made with a trekking tour of three to four days; these leave Cusco on demand and pretty much daily during tourist season. Not quite as spectacular as Machu Picchu, this is still an impressive Inca citadel whose name in Quechua means “Cradle of Gold”. Sitting among fine terraces under a glaciated peak of the Salcantay range, less than half the original remains have been uncovered from centuries of vegetation, making a visit here similar to what Hiram Bingham may have experienced at Machu Picchu when he discovered the site back in 1911.
Located 1750m above the Apurimac River and 3104m above sea level in the district of Vilcabamba, Choquequirao is thought to have been a rural retreat for the Inca emperor as well as a ceremonial centre. It was built in the late fifteenth century and almost certainly had an important political, military and economic role, controlling people and produce between the rainforest communities of the Ashaninka, who still live further down the Apurimac River, and the Andean towns and villages of the Incas. It’s easy to imagine coca, macaw feathers, manioc, salt and other Ashaninka products making their way to Cusco via Choquequirao.
Hiram Bingham came to Choquequirao in 1910 on his search for lost Inca cities. Regardless of the exquisite stonework of the ceremonial complex and the megalithic agricultural terracing, Bingham – as have many archeologists since – failed to see just how important a citadel Choquequirao actually was. Evidence from digs here suggest that a large population continuously inhabited Choquequirao and nearby settlements, even after the Spanish Conquest.
The trek to Choquequirao
The most direct route up is along the Abancay road from Cusco – about four hours – to Cachora in Apurímac, over 100km from Cusco and some 93km north of Abancay; from here it’s a further 30km (15–20 hours) of heavy but stunningly beautiful trekking to the remains of the Choquequirao citadel. A longer and even more scenic route involves taking a twelve-day hike from Huancacalle and Pukyura and then over the Pumasillo range, through Yanama, Minas Victoria, Choquequirao and across the Apurímac ending in Cachora.
Taking the direct route, the first two hours are spent hiking to Capuliyo, where, at 2915m, there are fantastic panoramas over the Apurímac Valley. The trail descends almost 1500m from here to Playa Rosalina on the banks of the Río Apurímac, where it’s possible to camp the first night. The second day has the most gruelling uphill walking – about five hours as far as Raqaypata and a further two or three to Choquequirao itself.
Consisting of nine main sectors, the site was a political and religious centre, well served by a complex system of aqueducts, canals and springs. Most of the buildings are set around the main ceremonial courtyard or plaza and are surrounded by well-preserved and stylish Inca agricultural terracing.
The return journey
You can go in and come out the same way in three to four days, or as an alternative, leave Choquequirao via a different, more or less circular, route following the path straight down from the ruins to the river bridge at San Ignacio. From here it’s a two-hour hike up the valley to the Villa Los Loros Lodge. The small town of Huanipaca, with colectivos for Abancay, is a further two to three hours’ steep uphill walk from here (or you can call a taxi from the lodge’s phone). Alternatively, Choquequirao can be approached this way (it’s a faster route than via Cachora) and, in a reverse circular route, you can then exit via Cachora.
SalcantayThe SALCANTAY mountain (6271m) is one of the Cusco region’s main apus, or gods. Its splendid snowcapped peak dominates the landscape to the northwest of Cusco and it makes for relatively peaceful trekking territory. The main route joins the Machu Picchu railway line and the Urubamba Valley with the lesser-visited village of Mollepata in the Río Apurímac watershed. The trek usually takes from five to seven days and offers greater contact with local people, a wider range of ecological niches to pass through and higher paths than the Inca Trail: a good option for more adventurous trekkers who have already acclimatized.
Most people start on the Urubamba side of Machu Picchu at Km 82, where the Inca Trail also starts. From here you can follow the Inca Trail path up the Cusichaca Valley, continuing straight uphill from the hamlet of Huayllabamba (mules and muleteers can be hired here, when available, from around S/30 and S/40 a day, respectively), ignoring the main Inca Trail that turns west and right here, up towards Dead Woman’s Pass – La Abra de Huarmihuañusca. Throughout the trail, the landscape and scenery are very similar to the Inca Trail, though this route brings you much closer to the edge of the glaciers. The trail is steep and hard, up to the high pass at 5000m, which takes you around the southern edge of Salcantay glacier, before descending directly south to the village of Mollepata.
The trek is increasingly approached in reverse, with guides and mules hired at Mollepata where there is less competition for them than there is on the Huayllabamba side; this route means you finish up in the Urubamba Valley, between Machu Picchu and Ollantaytambo. There are no official camping sites en route, but plenty of good tent sites and several traditional stopping-off spots.
AusangateAn important mountain god for the Incas, AUSANGATE is still revered daily by locals. One of the most challenging and exciting treks in southern Peru, this five-day trail is also relatively quiet: you’ll see very few people, apart from the occasional animal herder, once you leave the start and end point for this trail at the village of Tinqui at 3800m.
The Ausangate Circuit explores the Cordillera Vilcanota, weaving around many peaks over 6000m. Ausangate, the highest peak at 6384m, remains at the hub of the standard trail. Many of the camps are over 4600m and there are two passes over 5000m to be tackled. A good map is essential – the best is the PERU Topographic Survey 1:100,000 – 28-T, available from the South American Explorers’ Club – and a local guide strongly recommended. The management at Tinque’s Hostal Ausangate can arrange guides, mules and a muleteer (arriero). Some supplies are now available at the trailhead, but it’s still safer to bring everything you need with you; there’s more choice in Cusco, but some food and cooking utensils could be purchased en route in Urcos.
The first day’s uphill walking from Tinqui brings you to a natural campsite on a valley floor almost 4500m above sea level close to the hot springs near Upis with tremendous views of Nevado Ausangate. Day two requires about six hours of walking, following the valley up and over into the next valley through the high pass of Arapa (4800m) heading for the camping area at the red-coloured lake of Laguna Jatun Pucacocha; from here you can see and hear the Nevado Ausangate’s western ice-falls against a backdrop of alpaca herds.
Day three tackles the highest of all the passes – Palomani (5170m) – early on. From here there are views over Laguna Ausangatecocha, and the walking continues up and down, passing the Ausangate base camp en route. From Palomani it is three or four hours’ walk to the next campsite, offering some of the best views towards the glaciated peak itself.
Day four continues downhill towards the Pitumarca Valley, which you follow left uphill to a campsite beyond Jampa, a remote settlement way beyond the electricity grid, but just this side of the magical Campa Pass (5050m), where centuries’ worth of stone piles or cairns left by locals and travellers adorn the landscape honouring the mountain god. From here there are spectacular views towards the snowcapped peaks of Puka Punta and Tres Picos.
Day five takes you uphill again through the pass and down beside Lake Minaparayoc. From here it’s a three- or four-hour descent to the campsite at Pacchanta where there are some welcoming hot springs, traditionally enjoyed by trekkers as they near the end of this trail. Beyond Pacchanta, it’s another three-hour walk back to Tinqui for road transport to Cusco.