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 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.
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.