What can make an increasingly popular alternative to the Inca Trail is the hike to CHOQUEQUIRAO via trekking tours (3 or 4 days) that leave Cusco on-demand and daily during tourist season? Not entirely as spectacular as Machu Picchu, this is still an impressive Inca citadel whose name in Quechua means “Cradle of Gold.” 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 and a ceremonial center.
It was built in the late 15th century. It almost certainly had an important political, military, and economic role in controlling people and producing between the rainforest communities of the Ashaninka, who still live further down the Apurimac River, and the Andean towns and villages of the Incas.
One can easily imagine coca, macaw feathers, manioc, salt, and other Ashaninka products making their way to Cusco via Choquequirao, sitting among fine terraces under a glaciated peak Salkantay range. Less than half the original remains have been uncovered from centuries of vegetation; visiting here is similar to what Hiram Bingham may have experienced at Machu Picchu when he discovered the site in 1911.
Bingham came here in 1910 in his search for lost Inca cities. Regardless of the exquisite stonework of the ceremonial complex and the megalithic agricultural terracing, Bingham – as have many archaeologists since – failed to see just how important a citadel Choquequirao was. Here, evidence from digs suggests a large population that 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 Apurimac, over 100km from Cusco and some 93km north of Abancay; from here, it’s a further 30km (15–20hr) of heavy but stunningly beautiful trekking to the remains of the Choquequirao citadel.
A longer and even more scenic route to Choquequirao involves taking a twelve-day hike from Huancacalle and Pukyura and then over the Pumasillo range, through Yanama, Minas Victoria, Choquequirao, and across the Apurimac ending in Cachora.
The first two hours do spend hiking to Capuliyoc, where, at 2915m, there are fantastic panoramas over the Apurimac Valley.
The trail descends almost 1500m from here to Playa Rosalina on the banks of the River Apurimac, where it’s possible to camp the first night. The second day has the most grueling uphill walking – about five hours as far as Raqaypata and a further two or three to Choquequirao.
You can come out the same way in four to five days. The site was a political and religious center well-served by complex aqueducts, canals, and springs. Most buildings are set around the central ceremonial courtyard or plaza and surrounded by well-preserved and stylish Inca agricultural terracing.