The name of the underappreciated city Choquequirao comes from the Quechua language (“chuqui” meaning gold, k’iraw meaning cradle) and means “Cradle of Gold” – and is certainly a relatively undiscovered and, therefore, undisturbed treasure of Peru. It was an Incan city, cultural hub, religious site, and fortress, and is much more difficult to reach than its sister city, Machu Picchu, or many of the other popular travel destinations, as there are no trains or buses available for direct access, but is a similarly gorgeous ancient city and well worth the challenge. Other names it has been given include “City of the pagans”, “Shelter of the inca”, “City - or Town - of the silver smith” and “Last refuge of the Incas of Vilcabamba”. It is located in the district of Santa Teresa, in the province La Convención, in the Cusco region.
The unique location of Choquequirao at the foothills of the Salcantay Mountain, in the Vilcambamba Valley, which is often called the “eyebrow” of the Andes, gives it incredible ecological diversity and the combined beauty of the mountains and the lush green jungle. Common animals in the area include condors, pumas, quetzals, foxes, hummingbirds, skunks, deer called tarucas, spectacled bears, quetzals, and the beautiful and brightly colored national bird of Peru, called the “gallito de rocas” or “rock hen”. There are also gigantic ferns, wild grasses, and a wide variety of gorgeous orchid flowers that grow wild in the area. The entire site is lush and green, like most of the mountains seen around Cusco. The jungle itself is even more so, completely brimming with life and provides ideal conditions for an enormous variety of naturally growing plants as well as crops like coca, cacao, maíz, various fruits, and coffee. As indicated by paintings and discovered cemeteries, this vast historical site was an important cultural and religious site for the Incas, as well as being widely considered one of the last fortresses of resistance against the Spaniards, from 1535 when the Incas abandoned the city of Cusco until the capture and execution of Túpac Amaru in 1572. During the Incan empire, it is supposed to have served as a gateway between the forest and other important centers, such as Písac and Machu Picchu. The existence of the city was publically announced by historian Cosme Bueno in 1768, but it wasn’t until 1865 that Emilio Colpaert first charted the path from Chachora to Choquequirao on a map of Cusco. Even before then, it is presumed to have been visited for many years by various travelers and adventurers. Once Machu Picchu was discovered in 1911, it was assumed that Choquequirao was of less historical significance, and continues to be thought of as such by the general population.
However, so quickly dismissing the city was undoubtedly an error. It was and continues to be an architectural wonder with beautiful paintings and the llama mosaics, and is separated into 9 distinct sections, including a temple and multiple plazas, like Hanan and Hurin, the highest and lowest plazas respectively, and the main plaza, Huaqaypata. There is also a ceremonial platform called Ushno. The architecture of the city is similar to Machu Picchu in many ways, with many stone buildings and agricultural terraces organized along the mountainside.
There are residential buildings as well as churches, jails, and government buildings. The ruins weren’t authorized to be renovated until 1993, and that work continues today. The city of Choquequirao is undoubtedly one of the most important sites to visit to understand the rich history and culture of the Incas. Located at 13°32’ South and 72°44’ West and 3,033 meters (9950 feet) above sea level, Choquequirao (sometimes spelled as Choqequirau or Choquekiraw) is two to four days of rigorous hiking through the mountains from the nearest village of Cachora, which can be reached by bus from Cusco. The trek there is definitely an unforgettable trip unto itself, and can only be taken on foot, although it is possible to take horses or mules, and the way back is along the same trail. In total, the trip takes about 5 days. There are no hotels or any kind of building along the trail, only campsites. The trail passes through one of the deepest valleys in the world and over the Apurímac River, which are only a few of the many natural beautiful locations along the 60 km. Other landmarks to be noted are the Blanco river (or “white” river) and the sometimes snowy peak of the Salcantay mountain.
In the Andes, it is always recommended to bring the following things:
For this particular trip, given the demanding nature of the hike, also consider the following:
The Choquequirao trip is a total of five days of travel, starting and ending in Cusco. Transportation to Chachora, which is the small town where the hike begins, is provided. The drive takes about five hours and provides beautiful views of the countryside. The first day consists of a hike through a wide variation of vegetation, ranging from wooded areas to flatter, drier land with cacti – where insect repellent is highly recommended. The first campsite is on Playa Rosalina, on the shore of the fiercely flowing Apurimac River (popular for white water rafting). Here, there is the option of visiting the Saywite Stone, which is an outcropping of rock where carvings by the Incas still remain. The first of day two is a grueling, steep climb, but the afternoon is easier and the group should reach the ruins of Choquequirao by evening. Day three is almost entirely dedicated to exploring the ruins of the city, until late afternoon. There is a short hike to the campsite for that night, which is called Raqaypata. Day four is two distinct parts; a steep descent into the Apurimac Valley for lunch and then a climb up to Coca Masana for the last night of camping. The final day comprises of a short hike back to Cachora on a different path, with legendary views, and then the 5 hour ride back to Cusco
The largest and most obvious difference between the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu trip and the trek to Choquequirao is the level of popularity of the trips. Government restrictions had to be imposed on the number of people allowed on the Inca trail each day because of degradation of the trail. The Inca trail has several different historical Incan sites along the way, but the Choquequirao trip has few other Incan relics or locations. Additionally, there is the possibility of taking a train to or from Machu Picchu, which isn’t an option for Choquequirao. Both trips takes approximately the same amount of time, but the Inca trail is slightly easier and there will almost definitely be more people on the trail at a time. Also, there will be a hotel available close to Machu Picchu, whereas Choquequirao has no available housing – only campsites.
This trip is a lesser known, less traveled route to Machu Picchu. It is a longer trip than both the Choquequirao hike and the Inca Trail, taking 5 days. Also, as of now, it is accessible to everyone without requiring a permit. This is certainly a similar trip in terms of the level of popularity and the amount of privacy available. However, this trip also includes a night in a hotel and a train ride home, and from Choquequirao the only way back is to complete the 4 day trek in the opposite direction.
Another 4 day hike, this trip includes mules for the 2 days on the Cachicata trail. Again, a main difference between this trip and the Chocquequirao hike is the availability of a train between the two trails and from Machu Picchu, two nights in a hotel, and obviously some different scenery due to the two separate hiking locations. This trip includes views of the Wiñaywayna ruins and the Huorocondor terraces, as well as a gorgeous waterfall.
This trip also takes a train to and from Machu Picchu, and the hike itself is very different from any of the others offered so far. It is largely a cultural immersion experience, as the Lares region is known for the continuation of the traditional colorful dress. There is also beautiful scenery, as with all the other hikes, with waterfalls and lakes. It also includes the famous thermal baths of Lares which are supposedly medicinal. This trip takes 4 days in total.
A shorter trip for those who don’t want to do the entire Inca trail, this trip follows the same route but the hiking begins at the smaller archeological site of Llactapata, located along the Inca trail, and then continues up to Machu Picchu. It is only two days but also includes the train and bus back to Cusco, and is really not much different from the Inca trail in the sense that there will be many others making the exact same trip. However, there are two distinct Incan ruin sites, unlike the one city of Choquequirao.
All in all, the Choquequirao trek is ideal for any serious hiker who wants a challenge, and also to have a more original experience than the typical Inca Trail and Machu Picchu trip. These ruins are historical, distinctive, and every bit as culturally significant as the more famous sister city. The Choquequirao trip has the additional benefit (depending on the desired experience of course) of being more secluded and private – the travel group are unlikely to come across many other hikers during their travels. The mountains, valleys, and forests are unique, beautiful, and mostly untouched by the tourism industry so far. It is likely that, with the regulations now imposed on the Inca trail, Choquequirao will become increasingly popular, so the window to experience this landscape in its most natural form is quickly closing. See the most undisturbed Incan ruins in Peru at Choquequirao.