Choquequirao: The other Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu Without the Crowds
While most people have heard of Machu Picchu, the Incan citadel high in the Peruvian Andes Mountains, few have heard of nearby Choquequirao, the "Sacred Sister of Machu Picchu". Built in the 15th century and later abandoned, Machu Picchu's sophisticated dry-stone walls fuse huge blocks without the use of mortar, playing on astronomical alignments and panoramic views. While its original use remains a mystery, it attracts nearly a million visitors a year, and nearly 5,000 per day during high season. In comparison, Choquequirao receives only a couple dozen tourists per day during high season. On the day I visited in mid-September, 2017, I counted 41 people in the logbook andonly ran into about 10 people throughout the entire site.
Choquequirao, the last Inca refuge from the conquistadores, was built by roughly 20 Inca families in a location that the Spanish conquestadores wouldn't find. It is located at 3,050 meters above sea level in the same Andean Mountain region as Machu Picchu. The site, although deemed not quite as impressive as Machu Picchu, has a very similar structure and architecture, and offers equally breathtaking views. Most tourists, understandably, focus on visiting Machu Picchu and never even learn of Choquequirao, which is only accessible by hiking an additional 4-day trek beyond Machu Pichu. The difficulty in accessing Choququirao means the site is relatively empty, offering a taste of what Machu Picchu must have felt like before the crowds began to arrive decades ago.
All of this is about to change, as the Peruvian government is planning to construct a a cable car that will glide up to 3,000 visitors per day to the ruins in only 15 minutes. While this is great news for travelers with limited time on their hands, it means it could be less than a year remain before the crowds arrive. Locals and guides on the ground told me, however, they expect the project to drag on the ground, as the local municipal bureaucracies can't settle on who will pay for the cable car and benefit from the ticket fees. Though excavation began in the 1970s, archaeologists are still peeling back the jungle, which still hides two-thirds of Choquequirao. Untouched and remote, Choquequirao makes you feel as though you are the first to discover it. Now is truly an exciting time to go.
The Choquequirao trek is a quiet, challenging and amazingly beautiful adventure. The Choquequirao trek to Machu Picchu is considered the toughest Inca Trail route, reaching a top altitude of 4,668 meters. Dizzying ascents up endless switchbacks are not for everyone but those fit enough (and crazy enough) to attempt the sometimes grueling 45-kilometer hike are rewarded with their own private Inca citadel.
I decided to break the treks into two, enjoying a 4-day Machu Picchu trek that also included mountain biking 45 kilometers, rafting, and zip-lining, then returning to Cusco to rest a day before embarking on the 4-day Choquequirao trek. I couldn't be happier with my decision. What makes Choquequirao such a difficult trek is that it is purely uphill and downhill, there is nearly no flat ground. I don't recall walking more than 100 meters at any point before the climbing began. The trek starts by descending a very steep, dusty mountain, that took about 90 minutes to descend. Since the trek returns the same route, we passed groups of people struggling to make the ascent in the hot sun, many of them opting to do it by horseback instead. We then crossed a river by small bridge, climbed a mountain and camped overnight. The trek to Choquequirao is basically climbing up a mountain, down the other side, up the next mountain, down the other side, and up to Choquequirao, which itself includes significant descents and ascents to view all the archeological sites and viewpoints.
If the trek weren't difficult enough to begin with, I caught a cold the night before it started. I spent the next four days congested, sneezing, coughing, dizzy and struggling for breath up as I scaled the mountains. I got left way behind my group (which consisted of a guide, two cooks/porters, a French traveler and a Singaporean traveler who wrote a day-today blog about it), which was slightly concerning in case I passed out, but I found it so peaceful to have the entire mountains to myself. It was a grueling four days and I think it was the most difficult physical challenge of my life but after completing it, I literally feel like I can do anything!
As the Choquequirao is not nearly as developed as the various Machu Pichu treks, which offer hotels and campsites near thermal hot springs, the campsites we camped at three very modest campsites, all offering impressive views of valleys, rivers, and breathtaking sunsets over the mountains. Bathrooms typically consisted of a shower head dribbling out freezing cold water over a barely functioning toilet inside of a wooden shed. As the only woman in the group, and as one of the tallest people in the entire country, I was slightly nervous showering the first night, as my head towered above the "bathroom" door and 1-2 inch gaps in the branches left dozens of peepholes throughout the bathroom door and walls. The men were respectful and nobody approached the bathroom while I was in there and as we ascended the mountains further and the wind picked up, it was too cold for any of us to shower the following two nights. On the last night, to my disbelieve, the porters from another group unloaded a portable hot water shower from one of the horses. They had no luxury alternative, however, to the toilet installed in the dirt downhill, which had no option to flush and was missing a wall. We all agreed it would have been preferable to simply use the bathroom in nature.
This trek was one of the best, albeit challenging, experiences of my life and I became friends with not only my group, but also the group of Lima businessmen with the hot water shower. We met up in Cusco after the trek and one connected me with a friend to help plan my trip to the Puerto Maldonado jungle, which was equally unforgettable. This trip and this trek allowed me an authentic view into "the real" Peru, enjoying the top tourist locations like Machu Picchu, along with this quieter trek and non-touristy, "locals only" adventures through Cusco.