West of Cuzco

West of Cuzco is the road to Abancay (195 km from Cuzco), where the principal overland route to Lima, via Nazca, heads west and another road continues through the highlands to Ayacucho. There are enough Inca sites on or near this road in the Department of Cuzco to remind us that the empire's influence spread to all four cardinal points. Add to this some magnificent scenery, especially in the canyon of the Río Apurímac, and you have the makings of some fascinating excursions away from the centre. One, to the ruins of Choquequirao, is a tough but rewarding trip; getting there requires an expedition of four days or more.

Anta to Curahuasi

The Cuzco-Machu Picchu train follows the road west from the city through the Anta canyon for 10 km, and then, at a sharp angle, the Urubamba canyon, and descends along the river valley, flanked by high cliffs and peaks. In the town of
Anta
, felt trilby hats are on sale.

Some 76 km from Cuzco, beyond Anta on the Abancay road, and 2 km before Limatambo, are the ruins of
Tarahuasi
. A few hundred metres from the road there is a very well-preserved Inca temple platform, with 28 tall niches, and a long stretch of fine polygonal masonry. The ruins are impressive, enhanced by the orange lichen that give the walls a beautiful honey colour. It was near here that the
conquistadores
, en route to the Inca capital of Cuzco, suffered what could have been a major setback. Had it not been for the arrival of Spanish reinforcements, they may well have been routed by the Inca army at Vilcaconga.

One hundred kilometres from Cuzco along the Abancay road is the exciting descent into the
Apurímac Canyon
, near the former Inca suspension bridge that inspired Thornton Wilder's
The Bridge of San Luis Rey
. The bridge itself was made of rope and was where the royal Inca road crossed the river. When the
conquistadores
reached this point on the march to Cuzco, they found the bridge destroyed. But luck was again on their side since, it being the dry season, the normally fierce Apurímac was low enough for the men and horses to ford. In colonial times the bridge was rebuilt several
times, but it no longer exists.

Choquequirao

Choquequirao is another 'lost city of the Incas', built on a ridge spur almost 1600 m above the Apurímac. Its Inca name is unknown, but research has shown that it was built during the reign of Inca Pachacútec. Although only 30% has been uncovered, it is believed to be a larger site than Machu Picchu, but with fewer buildings. The stonework is different from the classic Inca construction and masonry, simply because the preferred granite and andesite are not found in this region. A number of high-profile explorers and archaeologists, including Hiram Bingham, researched the site, but its importance has only recently been recognized. Now that the tourist industry has caught on, following the introduction of regulations to cut congestion on the Inca Trail, Choquequirao is being promoted as a replacement for the traditional hike.

The main features of Choquequirao include the
Lower Plaza
, considered by most experts to be the focal point of the city. Three of the main buildings were two-storey structures. The
Upper Plaza
, reached by a huge set of steps or terraces, has what are possibly ritual baths. A beautiful set of slightly curved agricultural terraces run for over 300 m east-northeast of the Lower Plaza. The
usnu
is a levelled hilltop platform, ringed with stones and giving awesome 360-degree views. Perhaps it was a ceremonial site, or was used for solar and astronomical observations. The Ridge Group, still shrouded in vegetation, is a large collection of buildings some 50 to 100 m below the
usnu
. Unrestored, with some significant hall-like structures, this whole area makes for great exploring. The
Outlier Building
, isolated and surrounded on three sides by sheer drops of over 1.5 km into the Apurímac Canyon, possesses some of the finest stonework within Choquequirao. The significance of this building's isolation from other structures remains a mystery, like so many other questions regarding the Incas and their society.
Capuliyoc
, nearly 500 m below the Lower Plaza, is a great set of agricultural terraces, visible on the approach from the far side of the valley. These terraces enabled the Incas to cultivate plants from a significantly warmer climate in close geographical proximity to their ridge-top home. Recently uncovered are further terraces decorated with llamas in white stone; ask if they are open to the public.

Cachora to Choquequirao

There are three ways to reach Choquequirao; none is a gentle stroll. The shortest way is from
Cachora
, a village in a magnificent location on the south side of the Apurímac, reached by a side road from the Cuzco-Abancay highway, near Saywite . It is four hours by bus from Cuzco to the turn-off, then a two-hour descent from the road to Cachora (from 3695 m to 2875 m). Combis run from Abancay to Cachora. Accommodation, guides and mules are available in Cachora.

From Cachora take the road heading down, out of the village, through lush cultivated countryside and meadows. There are many trails close to the village; if uncertain of the trail, ask. After 15 minutes, a sign for Choquequirao points to a left-hand path, initially following the course of a small stream. Follow the trail and cross a footbridge to the other side of a large stream. From here the trail becomes more obvious, with few trails diverging from the main route. After 9 km, two to 2½ hours from the start of the trek, is the wonderful mirador (viewpoint) of
Capuliyoc
, at 2800 m, with fantastic vistas of the Apurímac Canyon and the snowy Vilcabamba range across the river (this also makes a great day-hike from Cachora). With a pair of binoculars it's just possible to recognize Choquequirao, etched into the forested hills to the west. Condors are sometimes seen in this area.

Beyond Capuliyoc the trail begins to descend towards the river. Further down the valley lies
Cocamasana
, a rest spot with a rough covered roof. From this point the river is clearly visible. At Km 16 is
Chiquisca
(1930 m), a lovely wooded spot; if you don't want to continue any further on the first day, this is a good campsite, but ask permission of the local family. Another one-hour descent leads to the suspension bridge crossing the Río Apurímac. On the other side the path ascends very steeply for 1½ hours.
Santa Rosa
, a good area for camping, again near the property of a local family, is just after the Km 21 sign. Clean water is available. If this area is occupied, another larger site is available 10 minutes further up the hill. Ask residents for directions. From Santa Rosa continue uphill on a steep zigzag for two hours to the mirador of
Marampata
, from where the trail flattens out towards Choquequirao. After 1½ hours on this flatter trail you enter some beautiful stretches of cloudforest, before a final short climb and arrival at Choquequirao itself. If coming from Santa Rosa you should have the afternoon free to explore the complex, but you could easily allow an extra day here. To return to Cachora, simply retrace the route, possibly camping at Chiquisca, which would nicely break the two-day return trek.

Other treks

The second and third routes take a minimum of eight days and require thorough preparation. Both cross the watershed of the Cordillera Vilcabamba between the Urubamba and Apurímac rivers. The second hike uses the same route from Cachora as the first trek, then continues from Choquequirao to the
Yanama
river valley before continuing to
Santa Teresa
or
Machu Picchu
itself. The third route splits from the second in the Yanama valley and goes to
Huancacalle
, via the pass of
Choquetacarpo
, 4600 m high. From Huancacalle it's possible to continue on to
Espíritu Pampa
on the edge of the rainforest . Either route can be undertaken in reverse. Both pass the mines of La Victoria and both involve an incredible number of strenuous ascents and descents. En route you are rewarded with fabulous views of the Sacsarayoc massif (also called Pumasillo), Salkantay, other snow peaks, and the deep canyons of the Río Blanco and the Apurímac. You will also see condors and meet very friendly people, but the highlight is Choquequirao itself.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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