It isn’t lined with Inca stones; it is a rough mountain path, but in many ways it takes you to a much deeper, more real Peru. You may not see ruins three times a day, however, you go through two magnificent lost cities and a few genuine untouched Quechua villages, not to mention the most incredible mountain views. What’s more – this trail is not for everyone; it is for those who can take it.
The trail goes from the village of Cachora (three quarters of the way from Cuzco to Abancay), through the lost city of Choquequirao and the Vilcambamba mountain range to the village of Santa Teresa and from there, to Machu Picchu. It takes seven to eight days to complete, depending on your preferences.
You will need to hire a guide in Cachora – a small village on the way to Abancay. It is basic, but it has all the provisions you'll need. Make sure you come with enough cash; there will be nowhere to get it. Also advisable is a mule for your backpacks, and one for riding, if you are not a strong walker.
The Road to Choquequirao
The first leg of the trail is to reach Choquequirao, another lost Inca city in the vicinity. Largely unknown, it is a treat for an adventurous trekker. I have written a BootsnAll article on The Real Lost City of the Inca.
The Big Push
The adventure really begins on day four. As unknown as Choquequirao still is, its route is known. That morning, however, we dived into the bushes off the terraces of the ruins, and began our steep ascent for discovery and knowledge. Climbing large boulders, we were wet from the arid forest at 3,500 meters; requiring a sharpness of mind and body (a two-day walk to the nearest hospital). After two hours of battling our way through thick bushes, we came upon an amazing panorama of the range and the valley below. Then followed a schizophrenic zigzag to the valley.
Hopping over the stones to cross that valley river at the bottom, I couldn’t help wondering if anyone ever passed that way. It was the primordial wilderness.
Another steep three-hour ascent and we reached our station – a lonely hut with a roof full of corn cobs and the floor occupied by numerous guinea pigs. The Quechua woman kindly cooked us dinner. Her husband had gone shopping and would be back in six days.
We acquired a new member to the expedition. A small dog had followed us from Choquequirao; she stayed with us for the rest of the trek. She was a traveller.
The Other Side
We started with a two- to three-hour steep ascent, higher and higher, until the vegetation vanished. We fought the path amongst rocks and boulders. It is a vastness of space, at the top of the world, with only the wind. We reached 4,000 metres; the altitude was becoming apparent. Short rests were necessary every 100 metres. There would be no more food until we reached the night station. We shared the last tin of sardines, and headed for the white light at the top of the ridge. It was obvious we were about to cross – something – somewhere – a kind of salvation.
What an unforgettable mountain pass – a border between the known and the unknown. No matter how lost Choquequirao was, everything behind us was known – informed backpacking. We saw the same view for the past four days, only from different angles and in different corners. Now we were at the edge of that view – the second installment, a whole new package. Everything was dissimilar – everything: the shapes, the colours, the path, the light, the air. It was the second wind, the re-birth. From now on we were on The Other Side.
Descending into the valley, the path became a wide road, practically etched into the face of the mountain wall. Spring was here in the flowers, the insects, the birds. We regained our joy. I took my T-shirt off; I burned within an hour – a mistake I would regret on day seven.
Two hours later, we were in the valley, approaching the village. It was a different world; locked away from the rest of the planet. Everything was in slow motion, time had stopped. The people were quietly surprised to see us. They did not attempt to meet us, nor were they unfriendly. It simply seemed strange our two worlds would come into contact.
We headed straight for the shop, ate a whole box of chocolates. We camped by the river on a vast field, under the brightest stars. I had never seen a sky like that; so close to my face.
Pure grim, or maybe we were just tired. We barely talked to each other due to the unforgiving zigzags up and down claustrophobic corridors, on steep irregular rocks. The sky was dark; it was showering, occasionally breaking into a strong rain. The mountains were angry.
Then we went through a settlement. It was a large one (perhaps 400 to 500 people), and spread out. Since it was raining, we met almost no one – a ghost village. Victor pointed out a hospital; the only one in these mountains. I thought of the woman who hosted us on the fourth night. If she is unwell, she has to walk for at least a day or two to get help.
We camped at the edge of the village. The owner of the field had his wife cook us dinner – the best fried potatoes I have ever tasted. Wet, worn out, covered in mud, stinking of six days of trekking, with numbed brains and full stomachs, we wanted this day to be over. We crawled into our tents.
The Finest Hour
No one could have guessed how this day would turn out. It began with a leisurely walk for an hour along the edge of the valley, with a solid wall of mountains on the left. It was green and warm. Out dog chased sheep. Then the valley ended and we began ascending. Once again, the vegetation vanished and it got dark. Soon we found ourselves in snow. The wind, blowing over the pass, created a mini-blizzard. It was a harsh colour scheme of black and white. The pass was barely noticeable through the white flakes. We were now at 5,000 meters.
At the top of the pass we came across an apachita – a small column of flat stones. The Quechua put a stone there every time they pass to appease the gods of the mountains. They also believe that if you bring a stone from far away, leaving it on the apachita relieves you of a burden.
Two hours later, after a sharp descent, we were in the Santa Teresa valley. We had cleared a good 4,000 meters in that time. Walking in the lush, tropical vegetation on the banks of a playful river, bathing in joyful sunshine, surrounded by all forms of life, it was so hard to believe that two hours earlier we were making our way through bold rocks and a blizzard.
We came across a hut, where a smiling, friendly woman sold us tropical fruits. Plastered in sunshine by the river, I was savouring the music of life, so dissimilar to the silence of the mountains.
Down in the valley, it was a two-day walk, but since it was all the same landscape, we took a truck to Santa Teresa; nothing like riding a truck after six days walking in wilderness. It feels like the height of civilisation.
From Santa Teresa, Machu Picchu is only three or four hours away. All we had to do was follow the railroad, but we had maybe two hours of daylight left, no mules for the packs since we had let our guide go. Frustrated, we had a beer and decided to go anyway.
The trail went along the river; it was anything but easy – ups and downs with the load digging into my burnt shoulders. We didn’t clear half the way when darkness fell. At 8:00 p.m., we came to a dead-end. There had been a landslide; the trail was destroyed. A sign warned us of danger beyond. We hesitated. Should we walk in the dark for three more hours just to get back from where we started?
We stepped beyond the sign. It was pitch-black. A tilted field of loose rocks slid from underneath our feet into oblivion. One wrong step and over a 20-metre drop! Only one free hand (flashlight in the other) and 22 kilograms on the back. After some close encounters with the Grim Reaper, we decided not to tempt fate.
We got back to the end of the path. It was now 10:00 p.m. There was no place to camp, not safe, anyway. The gods heard our pleas. A campesino, carrying a sack of bananas, appeared on the path. He was happy to lead us. Our gratitude had no limits.
The way over the landslide turned out to be higher than we thought, as you would expect when rocks fall over a path. Still, it was risky and narrow in places, but bearable. Half an hour later, we were at the rail tracks.
It wasn’t over yet. We had two more hours on the train tracks; not the easiest surface. Finally, we saw the camping ground below Machu Pichu. We collapsed as soon as we entered. It was 1:00 a.m.; we had started at 7:00 a.m. We had walked a total of 15 hours, mostly over rough terrain, eight of those with backpacks, and two in landslide conditions.
I wouldn’t swap this trek for three Inca Trails. There were no ruins, but we camped at a lost city. There were no Inca Steps, yet we walked the genuine trails of the Quechua. We were submerged in lost villages. We saw the hearts of the mountains. We flew to snowy 5,000 meters. The sight of Machu Picchu was that much sweeter.
Note: make sure you are accustomed to the altitude, you are reasonably fit, you do not need medical facilities, you are properly equipped with warm clothing and have good boots. There is no hospital for days.
Alex is the webmaster of Valencia City Guide – an independent resource on travelling in Valencia, Spain.