This is a hike I have been wanting to do ever since I first heard of it a few years ago. I had already hiked the traditional Inca Trail to Machu Picchu but was a little frustrated by being with a structured tour and not able to explore on my own. Ironically, on this trip we had the freedom to go anywhere and to go at our own speed but we got a bit too focused on finishing and didn't do any exploring. Part of that was due to our carrying full packs which were too heavy (we were planning on doing it in six days, but had enough food for seven). There also was no secure place to leave our packs to go exploring, and we didn't want to carry them more than necessary.
I didn't want to do the trek alone, so was waiting for the opportunity to hike it with someone. When Smiley said he wanted to come back for more climbing and to do this hike, I was all for it. We had met on the PCT in 2006 so both have a similar outlook on hiking. After finishing our mountain climbing in the Arequipa area, we drove to Cusco ready to hike. We really enjoyed the hike but also spent a lot of time drooling over the high peaks that kept our cameras clicking. Most of them looked beyond my climbing ability, so I guess I will have to be content with looking at the photos.
Time Disclaimer – we were hiking faster than most people do, we completed the hike in five days carrying our own packs. We were fully acclimated and had just finished a week of mountain climbing, up to 20,000 feet. Most tours take seven to eight days, using pack mules. Adjust your time/schedule according to your fitness and hiking speed.
Elevation Disclaimer – Most elevations given are from an altimeter watch, some are from signs. All are approximate, the signs are notoriously incorrect and the weather was constantly changing, affecting the watch. It rained every night and the days were a mixture of clouds, fog and sun. We hiked at the start of the rainy season, which runs from November through March. We had warm to hot days and warm nights. The nights and high passes will be much colder during the winter season (June to August).
Cusco to Cachora - Getting There
We arrived in Cusco on Friday evening, greeted by busy traffic and not knowing how to get to our hostel. With the help of the map and asking lots of questions, we found it and got settled in. In the morning we did all the preparations needed in Cusco, train tickets, bus tickets, last minute food shopping, stopped at the South American Explorers office for information, and found a place to park the car for a week. (When we went back to get the car a week later, the street was all dug up and there was a three foot deep ditch dug in front of the door! I was afraid we wouldn't be able to get the car out until they finished the work, but thankfully there was a back entrance as well.)
At 1:00 pm we got on the bus for the trip to Cachora. The bus dropped us off a little too soon, and we had a brief but frustrating encounter with a taxi driver who had been drinking chicha (alcoholic corn drink). We starting walking up the road and soon met another taxi, who took us to Cachora, squeezed in with some locals going that way. They confirmed the Lonely Planet's recommendation of hostel Peña, so that is where we stayed. It is a very basic place, with some interesting things hanging on the walls (maps, photos, animal skins and snakes made out of tree roots or branches). The woman at the hostel made a fried chicken dinner for us that evening for 4 soles, and also had hot tea water for us in the morning. Watch out for the low ceiling if you are staying upstairs! That evening, an older man there offered to guide us to the trail head in the morning, but when we were ready to go he was still sleeping. A young guy there took us instead, so no problems.
Cachora to Marampata - Day One
The route starts at the town plaza, where there is a great view of Nevado Salkantay. Follow the street on the right of the plaza, downhill towards Salkantay, going straight ahead at the Tairoma-Ccerabamba sign. Just below that the road makes a loop to the right, you can follow it or take the path through the field along the small irrigation ditch. In a few minutes you will pass an adobe building on your left and the road will turn right. Follow the trail that goes downhill to the left at this point and you will soon come to a large blue concrete sign for Choquequirao, which it says is 32 Km away. However right alongside of this is another sign that says it is 29 Km., and that the current elevation is 2600 meters (8,530 feet).
We thanked our young guide here and took off on our own, only to be momentarily confused a few minutes later when the trail crossed a grassy road. There was a sign but it looked like the arrow was pointing down the road, actually you need to cross the road and follow the trail to the left. A half hour later it looks like the trail is closed but it turns left at a large wooden gate leading to Colmena, which offers meals and camping according to the sign, but we didn't see anyone.
Warning: We took a short snack and water break soon after this (way before we reached the pass and started down to the river) and were attacked by tiny mosquitoes, which we hadn't noticed while hiking. I had forgotten my DEET so wore long pants the rest of the trip. Smiley stayed in shorts the first day and his legs looked like hamburger, even though he had put DEET on at noon, which was too late.
Shortly after this point the trail joins a road and follows that almost to the pass and lookout at Cupuliyoc, where the road ends and a narrow rocky trail hugs the side of the mountain, with a rickety fence complete with “do not lean” signs. After the pass the trail finally begins its steep descent to the Apurimac River, after having climbed slightly for about the past two hours. On the way down, the Cocamasana lookout is reached after about an hour, and campamento Oasis de Chiquisca in another 1 ½ hours. According to the sign, the Oasis offers a green area, bathrooms (flush toilets!), showers, cookies, soft drinks, juices, beer and food prepared upon request. Camping is also available.
The next stop of importance is Playa Rosalina, about 40 minutes later, which is just before crossing the river (4,800 feet). There are campsites right along the trail and then a number of fairly new buildings containing bathrooms, showers, a large kitchen and a room with lots of large water pipes. It looks like a resort complex that was never completed, but surprisingly it isn't trashed, even though everything is wide open and there was no one around. There is running water in a hose, which is a good place to soak your clothes for the hot climb up on the other side of the river. I started the climb at 1:00 pm and 100 degrees F., and according to the kilometer markers (which started where we joined the road), I was going up at the blistering pace of 1 Km. every 30 minutes (1.2 mph). Did I mention that the trail is steep? There are switchbacks but the trail grade is more like the Appalachian Trail rather than the Pacific Crest Trail.
In just under two hours we were relaxing in the shade, and then getting water at Santa Rosa (7,000 feet), another campsite and store about halfway up the mountain. The young man there proudly showed us the New York Times article about Choquequirao, which mentions him and his store. It was well stocked with candy, sodas, water and a few beers and Gatorades. He said the others who lived farther up the mountain were his relatives. About 15 minutes above is Santa Rosa Alta, which offers horses for rent, both places will prepare food. At 5:00 pm, four hours from the river, is Marampata, with a number of nice grassy campsites, water and a bathroom, with a nice view at 9,540 feet. What we didn't know was that 20 minutes farther up was Sunchupata, another campsite that offered a great view of Choquequirao, which we discovered in the morning. This would be a better choice if you are doing the hike on a five day schedule, as we reached our day two campsite just after dark. There were also no barking dogs there (or anyone for that matter) like there were at Marampata.
Marampata to Choquequirao to Maizal - Day Two
About an hour from Marampata is the Choquequirao campsite, which has restrooms and water according to the sign, but we didn't go down there. Twenty minutes later we arrived at Choquequirao (9,950 feet), only to find that there is no water there, however we were able to get water from the camp where the team of archaeologists was working, just before we entered the ruins. The entrance fee has gone up, it is now 36 soles for non-Peruvian adults. We spent three hours exploring the ruins and were the only ones there. There are agricultural terraces, the main ruins and then some more above that. There were also workmen reconstructing some buildings above the main ruins.
I was a little disappointed in the ruins, there wasn't any fine stonework like at Machu Picchu, it was all just rough stone and not perfectly fitted together like there and at other ruins in the Cusco area. However the layout was impressive, although much smaller, at least as far as what has been excavated so far. One interesting place is an agricultural site called the White Llamas, which is reached by a steep trail leading down from the main ruins area. After going down for what seemed a long ways (550 feet), but was only 14 minutes, we reached the terraces made of dark rock with large llamas made of white rocks inserted in every level of the terrace walls.
After finishing at the ruins, go back to the entrance where there is a sign for Yanama, and continue the climb, going over a ridge (10,770 feet) where you leave the jungle behind, and then down towards the Rio Blanco. In about an hour and 45 minutes is a shack that says it is a dormitory. A few minutes later is another building (8,370 feet) that is the headquarters for the crew that is restoring some agricultural terraces. When we were there the crew was gone but the caretaker was there, along with a couple of dogs. He also had a two-way radio, Direct TV and a generator! There is a little water there, much preferable to the murky water down at the river, which is about an hour farther down. These are the last water sources until Maizal, so make sure you have enough for the climb. There were three planks across the river for a shaky bridge at the end of November, I'm sure they won't be there when the water rises during the rainy season.
Here was a bit of a tricky area, after crossing the bridge the faint trail continues down river, although we could see from high up on the other side that we needed to go up river some once we got on the trail. Because of the steep sides along the river, you can't see the trail from there. When the trail turned and climbed up to the right (6,200 feet), we followed it, even though the mule prints from a previous group did not. We soon realized that we had turned too quick and the main trail was still below along the river. We quickly found where it came up and joined it in the climb up to Maizal, which is the next campsite.
There are three separate sites, all called Maizal, in a V shape. The caretaker had told us that the higher site on the left had a covered area where you could put up tents in case of rain, but you have to back track to continue up the trail. We chose to go to the middle site, at the bottom of the V but when we got there at 6:00 pm, just over an hour from the river, we found out that it was dry and no one was there. We continued on to the next one up the trail on the right, which was at about 10,000 feet, reaching there just after dark to find a number of other trekkers camped and a good source of water. There was a small house there but nothing available to buy, like we had been told there would be.
We were camped there with two other groups, one was going to Machu Picchu, the other was going the other way to Cachora. Their guide was very friendly and gave us a map and information that was very helpful. The map itself was not accurate (it was a visualization for tourists) but the village names and places to camp were correct.
Maizal to Before Yanama Pass - Day Three
The trail is a little confusing right here. It seemed in the dark that we turned off the trail to go up to the campsites. In the morning I was going to go back down to that spot to continue on the trail but found out that the trail goes up by the house and then turns right. From here on to near Victoria Pass, the trail is in dense jungle. It is also rocky and was muddy from the nightly rains. However at one switchback it turned from jungle to high grassland almost instantly. Much of the time the trail was an old stone-paved Inca trail.
Language note: Mountain passes are also called abras in Spanish (opening). One map we used even had both, ie Abra Yanama Pass.
At Victoria Pass (about 13,800 feet) you are treated to more great views, looking back towards Choquequirao and looking ahead down into Yanama Valley. You can also see another trail coming in from the left, which leads to Quillabamba. One map showed Victoria Pass as being on that trail. We found many times that the names on the maps, especially for the mountain peaks, were different than the names the local people used. This is not that rare in Peru. On the way down to Yanama village, there are numerous old mines on the right side of the trail. There are a couple of very small stores in Yanama, only one was open when we went through.
As we were passing through Yanama (it is spread out between the trail and the river), we met a young woman going our way. She was the teacher there and was happy to talk with us, and directed us to a small store where we were able to buy some sodas. She was visiting her students and their families along the way, so we soon said goodbye and continued on.
The trail continues a gentle climb up along the river, crossing many small streams and canals along the way. As you get up farther, there are high mountains on both sides, some with large glaciers and sharp snow ridges. There is a campsite named La Rinconada on one of our maps, but we were told it was only an open flat field, and we were never sure exactly where it was. We continued on a ways and found a spot in a pasture just the top of the valley where the trail starts climbing up to the pass (14,000 feet). Just before this, the trail turns right and then follows a small stream up towards a mountain, that has passes on both sides.
Yanama Pass to La Playa - Day Four
The trail goes up to the left, which is Yanama Pass. This is the high point of the trek at about 15,500 feet, however it wasn't even shown on our main map. From the pass the trail goes down quite steeply until it reaches the broad flat Totora Valley and the river. Here there are some fields and we met a few of the locals out on the trail. Just before the river turns right, there is a cable suspended pipe going across the river, with easily visible blue supports. Just before the cable is a less visible two-log bridge, which probably is not there during the rainy season. The trail crosses the river at this point, although it wasn't much of a trail.
On the other side of the river are a couple of thatched roof houses, and you can see a trail climbing up the hill to the right of the houses. This is NOT the correct trail! We were about ready to take it when I decided to ask at one of the houses to make sure. The woman there told us to follow the lower path between the river on the left and the houses on the right, which goes around the bend to the right. You will soon see a square two story blue building. Follow the trail, which is more like a cow path, to that, which is the Totora Health Center (11,000 feet). There is a small store on the right of the trail, and the school is just below the Health Center. Camping is also available in the area. Our tent was wet from the nightly rains, so we stopped by the soccer field and dried it out while we had lunch.
There are a couple more stream crossings, during the dry season you can walk or jump across on rocks, look up stream a bit if necessary. During the wet season I'm sure they would need to be forded. There were also a few streams coming down side canyons that had bridges, but they aren't obvious at first, look up stream for them.
From Totora there is a very nice trail following the river down to just below the village of Ccolpapampa, which takes about two hours. There at the confluence of two rivers is a small hot springs, with two pools (9200 feet). The sign said it cost 3 soles but there was no one there to collect the money. Lunch and a soak there were nice, with a lower area where you can cool off with river water if desired. Here we met up with a young couple who were leading a group of 18 year olds on their "final exam", at the end of a semester of Outward Bound type schooling.
After leaving the hot springs, cross the bridge and continue to the right, now on the left side of the Santa Teresa River. There is also camping available right on the far side of the bridge. From here the trail is the same as for the Salkantay Trek, which is a more common alternate trail to Machu Picchu. There are a number of people that live along the trail, and most have small stores were they sell snacks and drinks, as well as prepared meals. The trail is mostly wide and in good shape, except for the many mud holes due to the rain. It is also easy hiking as it drops down to 7,200 feet by the time you reach La Playa, where there are real stores, electricity, cold drinks and ice cream bars. Most places all along the way offer camping, which ranges from free or a donation, to one or two soles per night.
La Playa to Aquas Calientes - Day Five
From La Playa to Santa Teresa it is also possible to take a combi, but they don't run very frequently, inquire at a store about the schedule.
If you are interested in the Llactapata route, instead of going to Santa Teresa, keep an eye out for the yellow Lucmabamba sign about 15 minutes after leaving La Playa. There is also a plaque on a concrete pedestal and a road leading to the right, which drops down and crosses a hidden bridge. We were told to go to a blue sign and then turn right up an old Inca Trail, but it looked like it has been some years since the sign was blue. It was a large sign and the Inca Trail was wide and obvious so it wasn't a problem; I think it was an INC sign (Instituto Nacional de Cultura), sorry I forgot to take a picture of it.
The trail soon passes through a coffee plantation (Rainforest Coffee) and then by the the Lucma Lodge, which is at 7,054 feet. About three hours after leaving La Playa, most of it climbing, you reach the pass at 9,270 feet. On the way back down to the river are your first views of Machu Picchu, and a large waterfall gushing out of the side of the mountain at the hydroelectric plant. Continuing on is a small ruins, and just past that is a large campsite.
The trail zig-zags down through bananas and other fruit, and crosses the river on a nice bridge at 6,161 feet. After following the river on the right side for awhile, it reaches a road and passes by the falls. Soon after that there is a foot trail climbing up to the right, this takes you to the train tracks at
Hydroelectrica, where there are many vendors selling snacks, food and drinks. Here you can catch the
train at about 4:20 pm or walk the tracks to Aguas Calientes. The walk was miserable and seemed
to take much longer than the 2 hours and 15 minutes that my watch showed. There is no trail for
most of the way, you need to walk on crushed rock or on the ties. However they aren't spaced evenly, so it is impossible to get a good rhythm. We saw over a hundred Peruvian school kids walking, it was the time for their end of the school year class trips and lots of them came to Machu Picchu.
If you are walking, start out following the tracks past the vendors and then go up at the “Escape Route” sign, (I think it was the second one) and turn left when you reach the tracks. You will walk by a couple of Ministry of Agriculture signs, cross a steel bridge, pass the Gardens of Mandor, the Puente-Ruinas train station, the campgrounds, and finally arrive at Aguas Calientes. Be aware that after the campgrounds, you are walking on the road that the buses take to and from Machu Picchu, and they come around the corners quickly, so stay over to the side of the road.
If you are looking for lodging in Aguas Calientes, the poorer you are the farther you need to walk. The fancy expensive places are the first you see as you come into town, we stayed at the Intiwasi, the last hostel on the other end of town, way up the hill, it was 15 soles each with common bath. It was a bit of a throwback to the hippy generation, with a bead curtain in the doorway and a very casual atmosphere, but was quiet and met our needs. Other hostels have double rooms with private bath for 25 soles each.
Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu
Aquas Calientes is a very touristy place, an eyesore and expensive. However its total purpose is to support the tourist trade to Machu Picchu so I guess it succeeds at that. Both are very expensive, compared to other places in Peru. Prices have risen dramatically since Machu Picchu was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. If you are coming from the U.S. or Europe, it might not seem bad but it you are used to normal Peruvian prices it is a shock.
In Aguas Calientes it was a little cheaper than the kiosks on the trail, but it depended on the store as well, shop around. The dollar/sole exchange rate was 2.95 to 3.00 soles per dollar, in Cusco it was 3.05 to 3.08. In Arequipa it was 3.10 to 3.12. Cold Sprite or Coke was 2.50 to 4.00 soles, normal price is 1.50, even in the larger markets in Cusco (the small ones near the tourist hostels were more expensive). However the worst place was at Machu Picchu itself. The rules printed on the tickets say you can not take large backpacks, food or drinks in disposable plastic bottles past the entrance gate. There are some storage areas there if needed.
Because of this and the fact that we didn't have day packs, we didn't take any water or food (except cookies) with us. When we got there, people were going in with plastic water bottles of all sizes and no one checked the packs. After climbing Wayna Picchu, we were hungry and dying of thirst so we went out to the snack bar to eat. Here are some of the prices: small bottle of water – S/10 (soles), Powerade – S/12, Gatorade – S/15, soft drink – S/13, ham and cheese sandwich – S/20, hamburger and chicha (Peruvian drink) – S/30. Our bill for two was US $26.00! Next time I will take my own.
Please see my Choquequirao - Machu Picchu Route page for more information.