Choquequirao to Machu Picchu - hiking without a guide
Ruben and I are both hard-wired a certain way. We see the words "the most challenging route to (insert destination of choice)" and invariably one of us looks at the other, eyes wide, and blurts out "let's do THAT." We weren't satisfied trekking to Everest Base Camp from Lukla. Oh no, we had to follow the route that Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hilary took, hiking in from Jiri for an added 6 days and countless miles ascending and descending (full disclosure: we did skip Kongma La Pass, the third pass that completes the Three Passes Loop, and only climbed Cho La and Renjo La Passes, but still, cut us some slack!). So when we started researching alternative routers to Machu Picchu, it is no surprise that we found a 9 day trek that piqued our interest.
For many, the holy grail is to hike the Inca Trail, culminating at the Sun Gate at Machu Picchu at sunrise. It is a 4 or 5 day trek and since there are only 500 permits per day, the route sells out months in advance. We wanted a longer, more challenging, and perhaps more interesting option. The most popular alternatives are the Salkantay and Lares Treks. And then we found it: the trek to Choquequirao, continuing on to Machu Picchu, which typically runs 9 days. Online, we found the trek advertised for upwards of $2000 per person, well out of our price range, so we went to talk to a few local agencies in Cusco. Most agencies offer a 4 day, round trip trek to Choquequirao, returning to Cusco and not continuing on to Machu Picchu, so when we described what we wanted to do, eyebrows rose.
"You know that is very hard?"
Yes, we know. Yes, it really is what we want to do. Yes, we are in shape and capable. So, can you take us?
It appears that very few travelers are interested, so our only option was a private tour, which ran $750-$1000 per person, still more than we really wanted to spend. We just came off a successful solo trek to EBC. Could we do this solo too?
When we started researching solo trekking to EBC, there were countless blog recaps. In hindsight, while the trek itself was challenging, the logistics were surprisingly easy - tons of available information, easy to follow maps, villages with tea houses en route, so no need to carry a tent or food. All we had to do was walk every day. In contrast, there is very little information available about trekking the Choquequirao to Machu Picchu route solo. We found a handful of blog recaps with varying degrees of useful information. There are no lodges, so a tent, sleeping bags, camp stove and food were necessities. That much was clear. But beyond that, details were slim: Some campsites may offer meals - which ones/how many of them? How much food did we really need to carry? Was there running water at the campsites? What were the altitudes/distances?
To aid future solo trekkers, I hope this post provides the information you need for a successful trip. I would definitely have done a few things differently had we had a little better intel upfront. The trek is amazing and I highly recommend it, but believe people when the eyebrows rise and they say "it is very hard."!
This information is accurate for the high summer season. We trekked in June, 2017. I can't vouch for the off season. Scroll to the end for a recap of distances and altitudes.
The facilities on the trail are better than I expected. The campsites generally charge S./5 per tent and if they provide meals (which was the case more often than not) breakfast and dinner are typically S./10 each, per person. We did find ourselves at a few campsites without available meals, so the cook stove did get put to use, but we only needed to cook 2 breakfasts and 2 dinners. Lunch is a crapshoot - we ate peanut butter sandwiches, occasionally busted out the cook stove for a hot bowl of ramen and once or twice stumbled across a campsite or town at the right time to buy a real lunch. Running water is available at all sites, but needs to be purified to drink. Bathroom facilities range from basic outhouses to legit bathrooms with western toilets (most were on the latter end of the spectrum) and some sites offer hot showers for an additional fee. There are also a few small markets dotted along the trail on the last few days, so you can restock on necessities: ramen, Gatorade, toilet paper.
Before leaving Cusco:
We went to the Terminal Terrestre bus station the day prior to departure and bought our bus tickets (S./20). You want to get off at Ramal de Cachora, but you need to buy a ticket all of the way to Abancay and ask the driver to stop. There are a few bus lines that run the route, so just find the one leaving at the time you want to go. The ride takes just under 4 hours.
There are plenty of shops renting gear in Cusco. We picked up a tent, sleep mats, cook stove and gas for a total cost of $10.50 per day. Set up the tent at the rental shop before agreeing to take it - make sure there are no missing parts!
Food: there's a supermarket across from the Mercado in Cusco for provisions. We brought enough food for 5+days, more than we actually needed for the 7 days we spent on the trail.
You need to purchase your entry tickets to Machu Picchu in advance. You can do it in person in Cusco, which is easier than navigating the website. The rules have changed since our visit: you can now only buy half day tickets and you need to have a guide. We planned our visit for day #9. In hindsight, I would have built in one extra day and bought the tickets for Day #10. We had no room for error.
DAY BY DAY RECAP
Day 1: We decided to take the 10am bus to Abancay and to spend the first night close to the trail head. We let the bus driver know we wanted to get off at Ramal de Cachora and it went without a hitch. Four hours later, we were on the side of the road, at the turn off to our next stop. There are taxis waiting at the intersection to drive the 10 miles down the hill to San Pedro de Cachora (S./25). We stayed at Hostal Salkantay but had dinner (S./20) and breakfast (S./15 - but may be included in the nightly room rate) at Inka Dream. The owner of Inka Dream is from Lima, but hated city life. He moved out to the country and is building the hotel by himself. His food was great. I'd recommend staying there over the hostal we chose, which was charmless. There is very little to do in town, so after a stroll and dinner, we were ready for bed.
TIP: Taking an earlier bus and hiking to the first campsite on Day 1 will build in some wiggle room, but we really enjoyed meeting the owner of Inka Dream Hotel.
Day 2: The trail head is out of town and there is little reason to walk the 11Km along the road. For S./30, we took a cab to the trail head: Mirador de Capuliyoc (2885M).
At 8:30am, we set out for a long descent to the river. The first campsite - Chicisqua - is at 1886M. Although we didn't stay, they had a small market selling fresh fruit and snacks, decent bathrooms, and seemed to serve meals. This would be a good alternative to staying in San Pedro de Cachora on the first night. It's an easy 2 1/2-3 hour descent. After a quick snack, we continued to descend to Playa Rosalina (1440M), where there is a checkpoint and campsite. We met people who stopped here to rest in the mid-day sun and started the ascent later in the day, but we decided to keep moving.
Our packs were the heaviest they have ever been. We had a tent, cookstove, food for days, sleeping bags, etc. Mine was probably close to 15Kg, when usually I carry 11-12Kg. Ruben's was an easy 20Kg. We underestimated the toll the weight would take, not to mention the heat and the STEEP 1400M altitude gain we were about to tackle...after an equivalent loss.
At Playa Rosalina, we crossed the river and CLIMBED. The trail was so steep that at times, if Ruben was just in front of me, his hiking boots would be at my eye level. We passed campsites: Santa Rosa Baja and Santa Rosa Alta, both of which had basic toilets and served meals. We stopped for a snack and a rest. Ruben wanted to stop for the night but I had my heart set on reaching Marampata (2845M). Finally at 5:30pm, we made it. We stopped at the first campsite in the village (the next morning we passed a few additional spots). It had a decent bathroom facilities with a cold shower, toilet and sink with mirror (!). We struggled with our rented tent as the sun was going down and found ourselves in the dark before we were set up for the night. Fortunately, the owner of the campsite cooked us what would become the standard dinner: fried eggs, rice, salad, plus lentils as a bonus. We were exhausted. The day was harder than any we could remember on the trail to EBC. I was worried that we weren't going to make our date with Machu Picchu. We'd see what the next days would bring.
Day 3: After breakfast at camp, we trekked the last rolling 4Km to Choquequirao. There is a checkpoint where you register and pay S./60 per person, which includes the entrance fee for the site and overnight fee for the campsite. We got to camp before 10am, set up our tent and headed UP to the ruins. The trails aren't very well marked, so after getting lost once or twice, we arrived at the main plaza of Choquequirao 45 minutes later. Other than a few scattered tourists, we had the ruins to ourselves. A major archeological site. EMPTY. We walked down to the Llama Terraces, the only known ones of their kind in Peru. We were able to meander with impunity. It's an amazing site, especially considering only 30% has been uncovered. Unfortunately, we started to get hungry before we had truly exhausted exploring, so we headed back to the campsite for a late lunch. It's a haul from the ruins to the campsite, so as much as I would have liked to go back to see more, it just didn't happen, and the next morning, we needed to be on our way to make our date with Machu Picchu. The campsite has separate men's and women's bathrooms with toilets and sinks, plus a large trough to wash clothes or cooking utensils, but you are on your own for meals.
CHOQUEQUIRAO IN PHOTOS:
Day 4: We took a few wrong trails leaving the campsite in the morning (did I mention they aren't well marked?) but finally got ourselves pointed in the right direction. The trail climbed over 3270M and then down to a small set of ruins at Pinchaunuyoc. We stopped for a rest and Ruben tried to fly the drone but kept getting error messages about the magnetism. Those crazy Incans! We continued to descend to the river (1800M). Maps.me failed us here. It showed the trail crossing the river and continuing along it on the far side, but we couldn't find an easy place to cross. Finally we just sucked it up and went rock hopping to the far side, only to see the bridge another 250M downstream. Don't cross until you get to the bridge! The app also showed a campsite right before the trail starts to ascend away from the river. We planned to stop there for lunch, but when we arrived, there was just a stinky, tiny clearing, filled with bugs. (This is the only campsite listed on Maps.me that was a "fail." All other campsites shown were legit sites.) We headed up the trail and found a flat spot to enjoy lunch instead. After lunch, we started another brutal ascent and finally arrived in Maizal (3050M) at 4:30pm. There are 2 campsites. We followed a giant sign to what I believe is the smaller of the 2, but it is also a little further along the trail, cutting the next day's hike shorter. A lovely guy came out of the house as we approached, offered us drinks for sale and pointed us to a spot to set up our tent. There was a simple outhouse and running water. We were the only ones at the site and we asked if he could make us dinner. He invited us into his one room house and made a delicious plate of pasta with anchovies and tomatoes, choclo (Peruvian starchy corn) and tea. I amused myself with the cats and guinea pigs that shared the space while he and Ruben spoke in rapid fire Spanish over dinner. Spending time with him one of the highlights of our trip!
Day 5: After another egg and rice breakfast, we set off for another tough ascent. From Maizal, the trail climbs to Abri San Juan (4135M) over the course of 5K. We stopped here for a snack and to enjoy the view, before descending to Yanama (3520M). We arrived before 1:30pm but decided to enjoy a short day, wash some clothes and take showers while the sun was shining. There are 3 campsites in Yanama and all seem to have toilets, cold showers and meals available. Ours had a small store for provisions. There is also a road into Yanama, something we hadn't seen in days!
Day 6: An early departure from Yanama. The trail runs straight through a beautiful valley, alongside the barely used road. Purple flowers were in bloom everywhere. It was picture perfect and fairly flat for awhile. And then there is the climb to the highest point on the trek. The trail merges and crisscrosses the road several times before veering off to the pass. I had read it was over 5000M, but in reality, the pass is (only!) 4660M. We headed down the other side into the village of Totora. We had planned to stop there for the night. We found the campsite - it was small but did have a toilet and a small market for provisions. When we realized there was no meal service available, we decided to continue on the the next town: Collpapampa (2800M). It was 9Km away, but the 2 towns are joined by a slightly downhill dirt road. We started clicking off 5Km an hour and arrived in no time! Collpapampa is where the trek takes a turn. The much more frequented Salkantay trek also runs through the town. We had seen a mere handful of people on the trail to this point and suddenly we were sharing the trail with parades of backpackers on organized treks. The town has several campsites AND a small restaurant where we had, you guessed it, eggs and rice and potatoes for dinner!
Day 7: We set out of town with a swarm of 20-somethings towards the town of La Playa (2120M) - a bit of a misnomer since there is no beach in site. Along the trail, there were a few little shacks selling fruit and drinks and snacks. Once we got into town, we found a little restaurant for lunch. We feasted on chicharrones (fried pork), a delicious hominy side dish and lemonade while watching the other Backpackers trudge by smile-less. We hadn't decided how far we wanted to hike - we just needed to get to Hydroelectrica by mid-afternoon the next day. The trail and the road are one as you head out of La Playa until finally the trail takes a turn up and to the right. We once again found ourselves climbing, but this time through coffee trees. There are a few places along the trail that offer cups of freshly roasted and ground coffee, but it was way too warm for hot beverages. We passed a campsite and a gorgeous Lodge - the first legit hotel we had seen - but continued to climb to the top of the final pass (2850M) on the trail. There is a campsite with toilets and snacks for sale, but it was buggy and dark in the trees, so we continued down the other side. We passed another small set of ruins at Llactapata and suddenly had an amazing view across the valley to Machu Picchu. We arrived at what the map called the "Llactapata Lodge." I was hopeful that we could ditch the tent for the night and sleep in a real bed, only to find the "Lodge" to be a restaurant that serves lunch only (closed by the time we arrived) and a campsite. The place seemed deserted but after calling out, a young man came out of the back to give us the lay of the land. There were a few bonuses: an awesome hot shower, an amazing view of Machu Picchu, plus he let us cook and eat inside. Not the "Lodge" I had envisioned but a pleasant night's stay nonetheless.
Day 8: We had an easy day planned: it was downhill to Hydroelectrica and then we'd catch the train to Aguas Calientes (now also called Machu Picchu Pueblo). Ruben spent some time flying the drone after breakfast and we still made it down to the train station by 10:30am. We had an early "lunch" but we still had hours to kill before the train, plus it's expensive, so we decided to suck it up and just walk the final 10Km. The trail runs along the train tracks and is boring, but busy with Backpackers. We strolled into AC, splurged on a nice hotel room, cleaned up and got our bearings. We bought RT bus tickets to MP for the next day - yep, we had walked this far, but we were taking the bus to the ruins :-) - plus found the train station for our trip back to Cusco.
Day 9: MACHU PICCHU! We got up super early and then got into line for the bus in the drizzle with throngs of other tourists. We had clear blue skies during our entire trek, until that morning. Once we finally made it to the ruins, we started the visit with a hike to the top of Machu Picchu Mountain (Requires an additional ticket. You can also climb Haynu Picchu but it was sold out). Unfortunately, the rain had stopped but the clouds and fog hadn't lifted so there was no spectacular view of the ruins below. From there we walked out to the Sun Gate at one end of the complex and then to the Inca Bridge at the other, before strolling through the main complex. After visiting Choquequirao in solitude, the crowds were a little overwhelming, but an amazing visit nonetheless. We caught the bus back into Aguas Calientes just in time for our train back to Cusco.
MACHU PICCHU IN PHOTOS:
Day 1: Arrive at 2885M, 0KM
Day 2: Mirador de Capuliyoc (2885M), descend to Playa Rosalina (1440M), ascend to Marampata (2845M). Approx. 17KM, 8 1/2 hrs hiking.
Day 3: Marampata (2845M) to Choquequirao (3033M): 4KM, plus visiting the ruins, all day
Day 4: Choquequirao (3033M), ascend over 3272M, descend to Pinchaunuyoc ruins (2419M), continue descending to the river (1800M), ascend to Maizal (3050M). Approx. 12KM, 7+ hours hiking.
Day 5: Maizal (3050M), ascend to Abri San Juan (4135M), descend to Yanama (3520M). Approx. 8.5KM, 4hrs, 40min hiking
Day 6: Yanama (3520M), ascend Pass (4660M), descend to Totora (3500M), continue to descend to Collpapampa (2800M). Approx. 26KM (yes, 26), 8hrs, 45min hiking.
Day 7: Collpapampa (2800M), descend to La Playa (2120M), ascend final pass (2850M) and descend to Llactapata (2575M). Approx. 24KM, 8 1/2 hrs hiking. (Yes, you read that correctly: 50KM in 2 days.)
Day 8: Llactapata (2575M), down to Hydroelectrica and on to Aguas Calientes (2040M). Approx. 15KM, 4 1/2 hrs hiking.