Due to the current restrictions on the number of hikers on the classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, there have been a number of new treks being offered in recent years. One of the most common is the Salkantay route, which is usually a four or five day hike to Machu Picchu. Another trek that has become popular recently is the hike to Choquequirao, another set of Inca ruins that, like Machu Picchu, are in the high jungle and have been covered with vegetation, and are now being excavated and restored. This is also normally a four or five day hike, usually done with animal support, and is an out and back trip on the same trail.
Because most people who go hiking in the Cusco area want to see Machu Picchu, there is now an option to continue on from Choquequirao on a combination of other trails to Machu Picchu. This route uses small footpaths, some Inca trails and a few seldom used roads, part of which is the same as the Salkantay route. It is normally advertised as a seven to eight day trek and is usually offered with pack animal support. The advantages of these new routes are that as of now (2008) there are no restrictions on the number of trekkers and it is possible to hike them on your own, without being part of a tour group with an official guide. Don't let the lack of restrictions on the number of hikers scare you, comparatively few tourists are on the trails; it just means that if you are planning last minute and the regular Inca Trail quota is full, you can easily hike one of the alternate trails with no problem. The first part to Choquequirao is more heavily used, we saw about 25-30 people (tourists, guides and locals) total on the trail in that stretch. The last nine kilometers into Aguas Calientes was actually the worst section, it follows the railroad tracks from the hydroelectric plant and for much of the way there is no trail, you need to walk on the rail ties or on the crushed rock rail bed. This was miserable and seemed to take much longer than the two hours and fifteen minutes my watch showed; however in spite of this we saw over a hundred people walking it, mostly Peruvian kids on their end of the year school trips.
To start the trek, you need to get to Cachora. Most tour agency groups leave Cusco at about 4:00 am, either on public buses or private transport. If you are traveling on your own, you can leave at a more reasonable hour. There are a number of different bus companies that have buses going in the right direction, but none of them go to Cachora. You need to take a bus going to Abancay (which are usually also going on to Lima). Sanchez and Wari are two of the companies, Bredde and Chankas are two more (if I have the spelling right). They leave from Terminal Terrestre, which is a 3 or 3.50 soles taxi ride from the center plaza. Most of the buses leave early in the morning, we chose Wari because they had one leaving at 1:00 pm, which worked out perfectly for us.
We had to pay for a ticket to Abancay, which cost 15 soles, even though we were getting off before that. We were told to get off at Saihuite, however that is NOT the correct place to get off. The gravel road to Cachora is just past Saihuite, maybe a half mile or so. The road is on the right, and there is a sign that says Cachora. It takes about 3 ½ or 4 hours to get there. There are usually taxis waiting there and you need to negotiate a deal with one of them to take you to Cachora, which is about 30 minutes away. An “express” taxi, meaning they just take your group, is 30 to 35 soles. If there are others waiting, you can share a taxi for less, I think we paid 15 soles for two people. We started with six people and picked up a couple more on the way (in a Toyota Corolla station wagon).
The starting point is the small village of Cachora, about five hours from Cusco on the road to Abancay. From there you have a beautiful view of Nevado Salkantay as the trail goes down to the Apurimac River. There is a large bridge crossing the river and then you climb up steeply to the ruins of Choquequirao, a total distance of about 29 Km. There are a number of rest stops and kiosks along the way, most of which offer camping and meals. From there the trail continues to climb to a pass, then drops down to the Rio Blanco, with more ruins shortly before the river. After crossing the river on a log bridge the trail climbs again, up to Maizal, which has good camping, then continuing on up through jungle on an Inca Trail to Victoria Pass. The jungle abruptly ends before the pass, shortly after which you pass old abandoned mines and then drop down to the village of Yanama. Choquequirao to Yanama is about 30 Km.
From Yanama the trail follows the Yanama river through a valley, which soon offers spectacular views of a number of snow and glacier capped mountains. Here there is a gentle climb up to the top of the valley, and then a short steep climb up to Yanama Pass. The trail, often just a foot path, sometimes almost disappearing in the grass, then drops down to Totora, with more great
scenery if it isn't cloudy. Here there are a couple of stream crossings that would probably need to be forded during the rainy season. There is now a good trail to a small hot springs below the village of Ccolpapampa and a bridge across the Rio Santa Teresa. At this point the trail is the same as the Salkantay trek for the rest of the way to Machu Picchu, and is a more substantial trail. From Yanama to the hot springs is 19.5 Km.
As you near La Playa, there are a number of small kiosks along the trail, some of them surprisingly well stocked with drinks and food, although as with earlier ones before Choquequirao, the long mule delivery makes it expensive. There are more people living along the trail here as well, and you will see some signs of road construction on the other side of the river, before the trail turns into a road, about 30 minutes before La Playa. At La Playa there is electricity, camping and stores, as well as infrequent combis to Santa Teresa for those who are tired of walking.
Shortly after La Playa there is an optional route at Lucmabamba that crosses the river and climbs up an old Inca Trail to Llactapata Pass, where you can get a good view of Machu Picchu if the clouds aren't too bad. The other route goes to Santa Teresa, where there is a hot springs and more train track walking back to the hydroelectric plant. From the hot springs near Ccolpapampa to Santa Teresa is 24.5 Km. The route over the pass looks like a shortcut to the hydroelectric plant but there is a lot of elevation gain so it probably takes longer, but the views are worth it. Near the plant is the start of the train service, which you can take to Machu Picchu (but it only departs at about 4:20 pm), or walk along the tracks. There are also many vendors selling food and drinks along the tracks where you board the train.
For a more detailed description of the route, and lots more photos, please see my trip report.
Of course the easiest way to do the trek is to sign up for a tour with an agency, prices range from around $300 to close to $1000 per person, depending on the company and how many people are in your group. These include transportation to Cachora, meals, guide, tents and mules. Ask lots of questions, get the details in writing and choose wisely. However if you want the experience and
freedom to do it on your own, here is the information you need.
One good place to start is the South American Explorers (SAE) in Cusco (Address - Choquechaca 188 No. 4), they usually have up-to-date information on the trail conditions, and you can also purchase maps and trace the trails on them. They have a topo map for 58 soles which the woman we talked to insisted was needed, but they also have another cheaper one which I think is better. It is the “Guia De Planos Del Cusco” published by Librera Internacional Del Peru S.A., which is also available at large bookstores, for 30 soles. This includes a detailed map of the trek route, a map of the department of Cusco, the city of Cusco, Machu Picchu, and also the Ausangate trek, among other map inserts. This is the map we used, along with a sketch map we got from a guide on the trail. However as in most of Peru, once past Choquequirao there are few trail signs and some confusing junctions so at least a limited knowledge of Spanish is helpful.
Unless you are already acclimatized to the altitude, I strongly recommend arriving in Cusco a couple of days early. You can hike up to Saqsaywaman, Q'uenqo and the other archaeological sites above the city. There are hundreds of steps leading up to them so a few trips up and down them will give you some good exercise as well. The sites are very interesting but the only way to see them during the day is to buy the “boleto turistico” which cost 122 soles in 2008. It may be possible to see some of them after they officially close at 6:00 pm, we got to see Q'uenqo but a security guard kicked us out of Saqsaywaman. Lonely Planet strongly cautions against walking up there, especially after dark, but there were still lots of people around when we went up at 5:00 pm and didn't ever feel any danger. However, keep your eyes and ears open and be aware of your surroundings. We walked all around the center of the city, including to the train station and nearby tourist market and didn't have any problems. One time two young boys suspiciously crowded Smiley as he was standing at a counter, which is a common pickpocket move (they come in all ages, male and female), so we moved away from them.
A good place to stay in Cusco is at the hostel Suecia II, it is a clean and airy place, with a covered courtyard, run by a friendly older brother and sister, who don't speak any English. A double room is 15 soles per person for a shared bath and 25 soles per person with a private bath. An American style breakfast with eggs is 6 soles, 7.50 for four eggs instead of just two. They will also store your extra luggage while you are hiking. It is a popular place for hikers to stay, and reasonably quiet, although there is some noise from the music at nearby restaurants in the evening. It is located less than two blocks from the plaza, with Internet cabinas, restaurants and laundry services, as well as tour agencies and trekking supply stores lining the street to the plaza. They don't have a website but you can make reservations by phone at 51- 84-239757, address is Calle Teccecocha #465.
Everything can be done after you arrive in Cusco before you start the trek but it is wise to buy your return trip train ticket from Machu Picchu well ahead of time via the Internet, especially during the busier seasons. They are available here at the Perurail website. The trains to Cusco sell out early, we had to get one going to Ollantaytambo, and then you need to take a bus or taxi from there to Cusco. However even if you buy your ticket by Internet, you still need to print out a voucher and then exchange that for the actual ticket at the train station. You can also make a reservation by phone at 51-84-581414 but you can't pay for it by credit card on the phone, like you can if you buy via the Internet. And you still need to go to the train station to get your ticket. The price for the Backpacker is $31 to Ollantaytambo and $48 to Cusco, however there is only one Backpacker that goes to Cusco, it is at 5:03 pm. There is also a Vistadome at 3:25 but that costs $71. There are numerous Backpacker and Vistadome trains that go to Ollantaytambo, but prices vary depending on the time of day. For the elite set, there is also the Hiram Bingham, which goes to near Cusco for a mere $307. Check “Routes and Timetables” on their website for the latest schedule and prices.
One caution, if your train only goes to Ollantaytambo, don't wait too long to get a ride to Cusco. We stopped to eat first, and when we returned to the bus area there were no buses or shared taxis going to Cusco. Bus rides had been going for 10 soles per person, now our only option was a taxi for 70 soles. We talked one down to 50 soles but ended up going to the plaza where we figured it would be cheaper. There we found a taxi for 40 soles but we said we would wait until some other passengers came to share it with us. No one else had showed up in 15 minutes and he finally offered to take us for 30 soles (he lived in Cusco and was heading home).
Machu Picchu information
You need to purchase your ticket for Machu Picchu in advance, but not more than three days in advance. Therefore you can not buy it in Cusco because it will expire while you are hiking. There is a ticket office in Aguas Calientes (also known as Machu Picchu Town), you can buy it there when you arrive in the village. The office is near the main plaza, to the right of the church. Current price for the ticket is 122 soles for non-Peruvian adults. If you are planning on taking the bus from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu, it is best to get your ticket the day before as well. They are $7 each way for non-Peruvian adults.
When we bought our tickets, the agent told us that if we wanted to catch the first bus at 5:30 am (in order to get into Machu Picchu early to be able to climb Wayna Picchu – only 400 are allowed to do it per day), we should be at the bus stop at 5:00 am. We got there about 5:00 but the line was already over 30 people long. I think each bus carries about 25 or so. As the line grew longer and longer, it finally dawned on me that they must have more than one 5:30 bus. According to the schedule, there are only about 10 (or less) buses per day. By 5:30 there must have been over 200 people, many of them Peruvian school kids. Then the buses started rolling in, probably about 10 of them. Evidently, they look at the line and bring as many buses as needed. I still don't know if they keep bringing buses as needed or if they just bring a number of buses at each scheduled departure. I think the next scheduled bus was at 7:30 am. For the return the buses run continually as needed, as soon as a bus is filled, it leaves for Aguas Calientes.
If you want to hike up, there is a walking trail that cuts the switchbacks on the road so it is quite a bit shorter, I was told it takes a little over an hour. The gates open for Machu Picchu at 6:00 am.
We were on the second bus and had no trouble getting in the first group of 200 for Wayna Picchu. The second 200 have to wait until about 10:00, but they received tickets so they didn't have to wait in line, they could go see the ruins and then return at 10:00. There are two routes on Wayna Picchu. The short route goes directly up to the top and returns the same way. The long route is to go one way via the Temple of the Moon, or the Great Cave route as it is now called. We went up the normal route and came back down the Great Cave route, which continues down the backside from the top. It is also possible to take the turn off to the Great Cave route on the way up and then come back down the normal route from the top.
A few financial comments about Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu.
It is expensive there, 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 if 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 morada (Peruvian soft drink) – S/30. Our bill for two was US $26.00! Next time I will take my own lunch.
Where To Stay, Camping
Some of our taxi companions were from Cachora, one recommended staying at the Peña hostel. There was no sign out front but a young man offered to take us there, it was only a block from where we were dropped off by the taxi. It is a very rustic place but it only cost 10 soles each and the woman who ran it also made us dinner for an additional 4 soles. She also had hot water and tea for us in the morning, even though we didn't order breakfast. They rent mules and offer guide service under the name of Celestino Peña Adventures. Their phone number is 51-83-830252. I got their card wet but the address looks like San Martin 109, or just ask anywhere in town. There are a couple of small stores, one with a pay phone, and a restaurant that is open when the light is on out front. A boy from the hostel walked with us for a few minutes in the morning to make sure we got on the right trail.
There is also a hostel right on the main street where the taxi dropped us off, the Casa de Salcantay. According to the New York Times article (see link below) the owner is Dutch and speaks English, the cost is US$22 per night, including breakfast.
Once on the hike, there are many campsites and other places you can camp. Popular ones are Playa Rosalina, Santa Rosa, Marampata, the Choquequirao campgrounds, Maizal, Yanama, Tatora, the hot springs, and La Playa (many choices here). Most are one or two soles.
Trekking Poles! Mine are broken so didn't have any, I really wished I had them. The trail is steep, often rocky, and can be muddy and slippery, depending on when you hike it. Make sure your tent is waterproof; rain gear and a pack cover may be needed as well. For us it only rained at night. We had warm weather but from April to August can be cold on the passes and high camps. Don't forget the sunscreen and especially the insect repellent. There are lots of very small mosquitoes, you often don't see them or feel the bite, but it itches like crazy afterward.
There is lots of water on the route, rivers, canals, faucets, and bottled (most places - expensive). Use a filter or chemical treatment for all but bottled water.
Some of the small stores sell tuna, crackers, and noodles, in addition to TP, snacks and drinks, however they aren't always open when you need them. Many also will prepare meals, but it's not "fast food".
Here is a link to a New York Times article about the trek from Cachora to Choquequirao, dated June 3, 2007.
Another New York Times article here about alternate treks to Machu Picchu.