September 4, 2015
The trek to Choquequirao, often referred to as the little sister to Machu Picchu, makes a challenging alternative to the classic Inka Trail. The four day return trek to the remote archeological site (currently, hiking is the only way to reach it) sees far fewer tourists than its famous cousin.
The track, down one side of a steep valley and back up the other only to reverse the process on the way out, however, is stupid-hard due to the extreme heat at the bottom of the valley and the unrelenting climb on either side. While the track is generally in good condition and well graded, it climbs continuously with very little shade. On the plus side, the effort is rewarded with stunning valley and peak views and an imperial mountain top setting.
While there are numerous companies that provide a mule-supported trek to the ruins, including good food and roomy tents, the trek can fairly easily be done independently as the trail itself is easy to follow and you can hire a mule and arriero (guy that takes care of the mule) in Cachora. As the arrieros often don’t speak much English, this option works better if you speak some Spanish.
Jan at Casa de Salkantay is the only contact I could find on the internet that would pre-arrange an arriero. On other blogs I’ve read that trekkers just show up in town and make arrangements the afternoon before the start of the trek the next morning. As this trek becomes more popular I’m afraid that this option will become harder to do, especially at busier times of the year.
The adventure begins with a 3.5 hour journey to Cachora. As there are no direct buses from Cusco you either have to take a bus or colectivo towards Abancay and get off at the turnoff for Cachora. From here you can either walk or take a taxi down the hill to town. We took the easier but much more expensive option of arranging a private taxi. Since we weren’t paying much for the rest of the trip, accommodations in Cachora and camping on the trail are cheap, we considered the added expense worth the comfort and convenience.
Having just left Machu Picchu the day before, the drive through the relatively empty countryside to Cachora felt almost surreal. The journey winds through amazing mountains and pure Peruvian rural landscapes dotted with cows, fields of potatoes and at lower elevations, papaya orchards.
The road, having been recently refurbished is the main road between Cusco and Lima. Traffic was very light and our driver made good time, happily chatting about the various towns along the way. The weather was, however, overcast, with low hanging clouds over the mountains tops. A pity as I’m sure the views are stunning in clearer weather.
After the turn off for Cachora the road turns to a rough dirt track and descends another 30 minutes into the valley. A serene setting of terraced fields that hug the valleys walls and low clouds that cling to the hill tops.
Arriving at Cachora, it’s hard to believe that we are just on the other side of the mountains from the myriad tourists in Aguas Calientes, gateway to Machu Picchu. This quiet rural destination seems like it’s on another planet.
Casa de Salcantay is at the very edge of town overlooking an agricultural valley with a backdrop of the majestic Padrayoc peaks. When we first arrived the distant mountains were but a bank of clouds but as the day wore on the clouds began to clear and by sunset the sky was crystal clear, becoming a star filled wonder with the Milky Way brilliantly visible.
Our Dutch host Jan and his Peruvian wife, Joann, run Casa de Salcantay, a casual guesthouse.
Rooms, simple but clean and comfortable, face the amazing mountain views. Jan tries to be informative and is very kind but tends to run on and not answer questions very directly. His wife seems to be the chief organizer and efficiently sorted out the final details, arranging the arriero and getting our taxi ordered for the start of our trek the next morning. Between the two of them they run a great support operation that makes it an ideal stop before and after the trek.
After a filling and tasty dinner of mashed potatoes, vegies and a beef with gravy we sat by the fire that Joann had built for us, basking in the glow of finding such a tranquil gem of place in a world that seems ever more crowded and touristy with true adventures fewer and farther between.