Trekking in Peru: ‘Alternative’ Machu Picchu Ruins at Choquequirao

Panoramic view of the 'lost' Inca ruins of Choquequirao | Yuri Zvezdny
Panoramic view of the 'lost' Inca ruins of Choquequirao | Yuri Zvezdny

Late 2016, active adventure travel specialist Nicola Croom sees herself walk up Box Hill in south England several times in a row. This is not so much to enjoy the views, that are surely beautiful here, but to prepare for her trip to Peru in which she would do the Inca Rivers Trek. This trek would take her to see the hidden Choquequirao ruins, Lonely Planet’s number 1 region to visit in 2017, and then Machu Picchu as well.

Below, Nicola shares her expertise with us as she explains about what this alternative trek is like, how best to prepare, and how you can see different Inca ruins and Machu Picchu (even when permits for the Inca Trail are sold out).


First things first, can you please give a definition of the below names?

1. Sacred Valley

Also known as Urubamba Valley or Valle Sagrado de los Incas, the Sacred Valley basically follows the Urubamba River from the Machu Picchu ruins to Pisac or Huambutio. Ahead of our treks to Machu Picchu, we take several acclimatisation walks here. Walk down through the Maras Salt Pans and up to the granaries at Ollantaytambo. This not only allows you to see even more Inca sites, but also warms up your legs for what is to come!

2. Machu Picchu Ruins

Located about 80 kilometres from Cusco and above the Urubamba River valley, Machu Picchu is a citadel from the Inca period. It is the most famous landmark of Peru and known around the world. The ruins date from the 15th century and comprise of temples, warehouses, and residences that are either well preserved or restored. A little less known fact is that there are several routes that lead to the site of Machu Picchu.

3. Inca Trail Trek

This is the most famous trail to reach the site of Machu Picchu above the Sacred Valley. It is also known as Camino Inca and is actually made up of three paths. Most people start at either KM 82 or KM 88 and trek on the first day to Wayllabamba, from there the second day takes you to Runkurakay, on to Phuyupatamarka on the third day and you finally reach Machu Picchu on day four. As you walk ancient trails, along the way are interesting Inca sites to take in.

Choquequirao Ruins in Peru

4. Choquequirao Ruins & Inca Rivers Trek

This Inca site about 180 kilometres west from Cusco is very similar in structure and architecture as the citadel of Machu Picchu. One of the biggest differences, however, is that these ruins are only accessible on foot (via the Inca Rivers Trek). Choquequirao is set just below a hilltop that was levelled by the Incas to form a wide platform. Only 30-40% of the site is excavated and along the way you have superb views of the Apurimac canyon.

5. Salcantay Trek

Salcantay Mountain is one of the most sacred peaks in Inca mythology, it is 6,270m high and located just south from the Machu Picchu ruins. As the Inca Trail is getting busier and permits are more difficult to get, a fantastic alternative route to enjoy the site of Machu Picchu is the Salcantay Trek. It allows for views of the dramatic peaks of Salcantay and Humantay, includes crossing the Salcantay Pass at 4,640m (only 440m higher than the highest point on the Inca Trail), and you can take in the contrasting high alpine and low cloud forest scenery. From a distance, you get to absorb views of Machu Picchu before you can explore on your final day of the Salcantay trip. The trek starts in Callacancha and goes via Soray, Andenes and Lucmabamba to Aguas Calientes.

6. Inca Wilderness Trek

This trek follows a stunning trail southwestern from the Sacred Valley and goes from Mollepata to Chilca. From there it is possible to take a train to the KM104 point on the Inca Trail and do the last day of the classic route so that you can still walk into the ruins of Machu Picchu via the famous Sun Gate. The Inca Wilderness Trek is much quieter than the busier Inca Trail and is highly regarded by past trekkers. It follows ancient trails up to 5,000m in the Cordillera Vilcabamba, includes wilderness camping beneath the spectacular 6270m Mount Salcantay (Salkantay), and includes an exploration of the impressive Incan ruins of Paucarcancha.

On the way to Choquequirao

Trails on the Choquequirao Trek

You have not walked the classic Inca Trail in Peru yourself, but chose the alternative Inca Rivers Trek. Can you tell us why?

The reason I chose the Inca Rivers Trek is because it includes the Choquequirao site and also the sense of isolation I expected to get on this route. The trails are quieter, I was drawn to the challenge of the high passes and variety of terrain and environments. We trekked through grasslands, cloud forests and alpine scenery. The scenery was incredible right from the first footstep. At the trailhead at Capuliyoc we had two condors swooping over our heads, and we finished our trek with the rarely seen view of a distant Machu Picchu. You can only reach the Choquequirao ruins by foot and this site is believed to be as big as Machu Picchu. Large sections are still unexplored however. Choquequirao is listed as one of Lonely Planet’s top regions to visit in 2017.

Can you give a few reasons for people to choose an alternative option from the Inca Trail trek?

Permits to be able to trek the classic Inca Trail are getting tougher to get every year as demand keeps growing. The classic trek is incredible and at four days is achievable by most people who have a good level of fitness. This makes demand high from all over the world. Besides this, the classic Inca Trail is the only way to walk into Machu Picchu via the famous view from the Sun Gate.

Each year permits go on sale in late December or January, with some dates selling out the same day as they were released! Getting a permit is not a flexible process at all and a permit can only be purchased when up to date passport details are provided. This means that if you want to experience the classic Inca Trail walk, you must plan early.

Of course, the classic 4-day trip is not the only option if you want to trek in Peru and learn about the ancient Inca civilisation! If you are a keen trekker, then an alternative trek might be a better option for you. It will get you further into the mountains and to remote passes without the problems of the permits. So if you find you have missed out on an Inca Trail permit for this year, you can still enjoy a rewarding trek in the region. If you have less time available or would still prefer a maximum of four days trekking, then our alternative Salcantay Trek could be a good option.

So what happens when permits for the Inca Trail are sold out?

Unlike when you want to see Choquequirao, you do not necessarily have to trek to see Machu Picchu. At the end of the Inca Rivers Trek for example, we take the train to Aguas Calientes (from where busses go up to Machu Picchu) and then the following day enjoy a tour of Machu Picchu.

The other option is the Salcantay Trek on which you get to see Machu Picchu from afar on the last day of the trek. From the Inca site at Llactapata, Machu Picchu is visible in the distance across the valley. You can marvel at its dramatic location from here, high in the mountains with wilderness surrounding it. It is a great way get your first glimpse of the site before visiting it and admiring it from up close the following day.

Stunning views on the way to the Choquequirao ruins

Our guide leading the way

How does one prepare for a trek in Peru?

Hill walking. With a day pack as much as possible. Practice in the hills with a lot of walking, cycling and anything you can think of. Prepare yourselves for the ascents as well! The Inca Rivers trek has some steep ascents and descents. One of the toughest days is a 2,000m ascent to Choquequirao, but you can take this slow and steady. It is important though, to get your legs and stamina ready for this type of ascent. If you can’t get out in the hills, then gym work is a good substitute. But I would highly recommend you try to do several long weekend walks in the run up to your departure.

What is your most memorable experience of trekking in Peru?

Most memorable experience? It is hard for me to pick one moment! Having the ruins of Choquequirao almost to ourselves was fantastic. Our guide sat us down in the ceremonial circle of the ruins and performed a short ceremony for us while he played his traditional flute. It was magical. Another memory is crossing the Yanama Pass in a snowstorm (I travelled late September/early October). We had no views unfortunately, but we did have a real sense of achievement and exhilaration when reaching our highest point of the trek. There were lots of high-fives and celebratory photos taken at the top of the pass in the snowstorm.

For those of you that have already trekked in Peru and seen the impressive Inca ruins there, a similar trek can be done in Colombia. The country recently signed a peace agreement with the FARC and now is a fantastic time to trek up to the Lost City of Teyuna.

Peru Trekking Fact Box

The legendary Inca Trail sits high on many people’s bucket list for good reason. Here are a few things you should know if you plan on doing the trek yourself:

>> The Peruvian Government limits the number of trekkers on the trails. So you do need to book early to obtain a permit, we recommend at least 6 months in advance, and if you can, even earlier.

>> Since we travel in self-sufficient fully serviced camp style, joining one of our groups sees you use campsites that less than 5% of the trekkers use. This allows you to trek over the Sun Gate and see Machu Picchu for the first time without the hustle and bustle of many others.

>> You can choose to trek the classic Inca Trail trek, but have additional options on many other routes that also lead to the ruins of Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu, mountains, Peru

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