Tough Love on Choquequirao

Cachora, the gateway to Choquequirao from the south
After waiting to pick up laundry (i.e. everything I own) and leaving last minute instructions for Sarah to meet us in Huancacalle in 7 days, a string of cars and buses finally dropped Trinity and me in Cachora. We were ready to start our Choquequirao trek... around 3:30pm. Right on time! Before leaving Cusco, we had consulted the SAS offices (our tour group from Salkantay) to get info on the trail. The office personnel knew little more than costs, but we caught up with a guide who gave us details. He left out one major detail- that this was going to be one of the most spectacular and physically demanding treks of the trip. One detail he did include was there was a landslide in April that had washed out a bridge and no one was sure if there was a way across the river- but we figured we would cross that bridge when we got to it, literally. As we began hiking in twilight we noted how many huge mud, rock and landslides covered the road or stole parts of it away and dropped them thousands of feet below. The song "Landslide" began playing immediately on repeat in my head for the entire week.

Stunning views of the Salkantay range as we hike a few hours from Cachora before sunset
Camped out on a lush plateau several thousand feet above the valley floor with a backdrop like this and mountains seeming to crumble all around us, we already knew that the Choquequirao trek was going to end up high on our lists. The real trek began day two for us, descending switchbacks to Rio Apurimac... little did we know it was going to be a perpetual ascent/descent combination for the next few days. We kept our eyes peeled for the destroyed bridge but we spotted the massive rockslide first. Before arriving at the river, we were stopped to sign a release form:

Trinity signing her life away, fingerprint included, acknowledging that there are "seasonal dangers on the trail" 
First glimpse of the bridge and we were envisioning American Gladiator type moves, seriously hoping that our upper body strength wouldn't fail us... 
...but then we realized they had installed a cable car alternative.  Phew!
Winter solstice was only a few days away but it still felt like summer deep in the jungle with the sun pounding down. We had received many offers for mules to carry our bags, but it wasn't until mid-ascent that I realized we were probably the only people who turn down that offer. The trail climbed about 1500 meters in less than 8 kilometers to Marampata. Choquequirao was just around the corner as we set up camp and enjoyed a hot meal with a local family and an anthropologist from Lima hiking with his poodle. A morning (unguided) tour of the ruins was topped only by hot lunch at the top. There is a serene silence that accompanies a place with such a past and mountains with so much depth. The advantage of Choquequirao over Machu Picchu was definitely the self-exploration and the fact that we only saw two other tourists on the site. Known as the "2nd Machu Picchu" about 60% of the ruins are still covered in thick jungle overgrowth since excavation only began in the 70's.

This only shows about half of the mountain across the valley... massive!
Choquequirao ruins (at 3100m) - you can barely see the upper part, look hard!
Breathtaking view from the top of Choquequirao
One of the local guides told us about this "short cut" - climbing up the old Incan canal, Indiana Jones style!
Trinity beginning the 1350 meter (4430 ft) descent to Rio Blanco 
Achy ankles and knees led us down 1300 meters to the Rio Blanco. Since our original goal was to get to Maizal by day three, and we were a bit behind since the first day late start, we pushed the envelope and began the steep ascent up the other side. From the Rio Blanco to the top of the San Juan pass (4200 meters) we were preparing to ascend 2300 meters (7545 feet) the following day and thought we should get a head start. The sun dropped fast and we hiked until the trail cleared enough to where we could camp smack in the middle of it. We even convinced our new friend Carlos and his poodle to join us at our makeshift campsite. Our only concern was if rain would wash us down the steep trail... well, rain, face-sized tarantulas and other unknown jungle creatures lurking in the thick undergrowth. With a clear sky and bug head nets, we put those thoughts to rest until morning when we woke up to swarms of mosquitoes. We hiked in rain gear and head nets until the combination of heat of moisture was too much to handle. Made it to Maizal to regroup before the big push- another 1,600 meters/5,250 feet to the pass!

The trail zigzag up the opposite side of the valley to begin the ridiculous ascent 
Refusing to get out of the sleeping bag with so many mosquitoes around!
The old man at Maizal shared potatoes and corn for lunch. The other land owner fled with his family after two huge mudslides in April took out land on both sides of their house
This picture is meant to describe the "lone tree" that identified which pass we were going to cross... it is too far away to even show up in the picture.
Since we were dripping wet on the ascents, we hung up clothes to dry whenever we stopped
The night before we had descended down the left, lush green side, only to ascend even more this side of the valley the following day
The view from the top of San Juan pass after Maizal... Shelley catching the last rays of sunshine
Trinity and Shelley at the top- Views like this make all the uphill worthwhile!
Our new anthropologist friend Carlos from Lima and his faithful Poodle
This is one of our favorite times of the day- the alpine glow hitting the glacial peaks
The sun had left our side of the pass as we ascended and a damp chill ran through our bodies. We raced to catch a bit of sun at the pass. The last bit of sunlight warmed our skin as the alpine glow of the glacier peaks warmed my heart. There is something very fulfilling about summiting a pass at sunset. The air cooled and lupins and mint were fragrant on the breeze. We made it off the rock cliffs before the sun disappeared and hiked by headlamp to reach Yanama. Yet another amazing valley and delicious home cooked lunch (eggs and potatoes) gave us the energy for the final day from Kelca Machay to Choquecatarpo Pass. The Incan trail appeared, clearly laid out with a large boulder highway on the ascent and descent as we approached Huancacalle the last day. The snow thickened as we reached the 4600 meter mark- maybe winter really is here after all...
The disturbed land from the many slides is prime real estate for the lupins
Massive cliffs (and drops) kept our jaws dropped the entire descent to Yanama
One of our best lunch spots- roses and glaciers!
Towering peaks before Kelca Machay
Incan highway, paved with huge rocks, started as we ascended the final pass
Looking back through the valley
Pack animals are not allowed on the Incan Trails in an attempt to keep them in good shape
  • Seeing a Condor fly 20 meters overhead, definitely the closest we have gotten!
  • Following original Inca trails and imagining how much work they were to build
  • Since arriving in Peru, buses seem to leave when we want and go where we want 
  • Home cooked meals along the way- potatoes, eggs, even fresh fried trout in Yanama! (A lot of the local villages have trout farms)
  • The squeal of guinea pigs in all the local houses... they are adorable but soon to be eaten!
  • A 15 year old girl followed us out of Cachora telling us about local plants and herbs
  • After 10 days of silence, Trinity's voice finally came back!
  • Taking a video waking up in the morning at one of our more fabulous campsites.. we decided we really need more videos (and we will figure out how to post them at some point)
  • Hiking with a poodle!
  • One of the best hospedajes, Sixpac Manco, randomly in small town Huancacalle but the Señora made us wonderful vegetarian meals and dished out the cups of tea in her pleasant courtyard garden
  • Feeling like the intense climbs were whipping our butts into shape
  • Getting praised from all the guides and locals that we passed for how fast we are: "Caminan bien!"

  • After getting a lesson from the local girl on plants, I picked some "muña" (mountain mint) to make tea that night. I must have missed something in the lesson (like don't use the flower part?) because my muña wasn't even drinkable
  • The steep descents were hard on the knees and ankles, especially with the land falling away from under you
  • Being back in the land of free-roaming cows, they still shake me up a bit since we got charged outside of Cochrane
  • Camera died on the last day- luckily we still had the Droid (which we have been using with additional navigational tools but are sending back with Sarah to cut weight)
  • Getting a huge blister on my heel- it has been months!
  • Kids persistently begging for candy and chocolates... they don't even offer up a hello, just "dame dulces"
  • Ascending 2300m nearly all in one day
  • After the trek, Trinity reading a book about Vilcabamba (the area we were in) that showed a picture of a man holding up a huge Boa that he had killed in this area... we hadn't even added being constricted to death to the list of worries about sleeping in the open on the jungle trail!

FYI Choquequirao Trekking Times

Cachora to Chiquisca                                     4 hrs

Chiquisca to Rio Apurimac                            30 mins (quoted 2 hrs)

Rio Apurimac to Santa Rosa                          2 hrs

Santa Rosa to Marampata                               2 hrs

Marampata to choquequirao                           1 hr

Choquequirao to Rio Blanco                          3 hrs

Rio Blanco to Maizal                                      3 hrs

Maizal to San Juan Pass                                  4 hrs

Pass to Yanama                                               1.5 hrs

Yanama to Cholgana (?)                                  2 hrs

Cholgana (?) to Kelca Machay                        3.5 hrs

Kelca Machay to Choquecatarpo Pass            2.5 hrs

Pass to dirt road (end Incan Trail)                   1.25 hrs

Road to Huancacalle                                       3 hrs

*NOTE: We don't hike extremely fast but we don't break either

 We reached Huancacalle in 5 days, 2 hrs as opposed to our predicted 7 days. The plan was to meet Sarah in the "plaza" but upon arriving we realized this strange little town did not have a plaza. It looked like government houses that sprang up over night but we couldn't figure out what it would be for. On top of it all, we called Sonnet back in the states who relayed an email from Sarah that she was still in Lima. We did find the only lodging in town charming and made friends with a few local guides. When we told them our plan was to continue to Espiritu Pampa they looked concerned and sincerely warned us against the trek. Apparently "narco-terroristas" (Shining Path) occupy a lot of that region and there have been a few recent incidents with them. I was curious to know what would happen to us if we did continue, but the only response we got was "better not to find out" and "next year may be better." Locals have warned us about a wide variety of things in the last 9 months on the trail but this was the first time we actually scratched a trek all together. We might be crazy but we aren't dumb. Change of plans- Trinity and I headed to Ayacucho to meet back up with Sarah.

Huancacalle.. Shelley thinking "Hmm... is Sarah really going to make it to this town in the middle of nowhere??"


  1. Larissa HillukkaJune 25, 2012 at 1:45 PM

    Exhilarating and beautiful scenery!

  2. Really, you couldn't make this stuff up. A poodle, peaks that make me swoon even sitting here on the prairie, Incan highways, that amazing light, and photos that just keep getting more astonishing. Bless you for being flexible about not going on to Espirtu Pampa. Another time ...

  3. I am jealous, this just keeps getting better!

  4. My post was deleted? It seemed so innocuous . . .


    1. Shelley-
      So sorry! We don't know what post you are referring to? We received one comment from you a while back "Delighted to have found your smart, beautiful blog from Gossamer Gear's web site. I look forward to continuing with you (vicarously, alas) for the rest of your incredible journey. -Shelley" which was posted on "Southern (Hemisphere) Hospitality" back in March- I remembered seeing it specifically because we share a great name!! Apologies if somehow another post was deleted, I don't think we ever had a chance to see it!

    2. No worries! I hiked from Cachora to Espiritu Pampa several years ago, and I enjoyed returning (via this post) to some of the places I visited on that trip. I continue to be a big fan of your blog and your adventure, chicas.


  5. Thanks so much for taking the time to share your adventure. Wow!

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