When the only other group camping at Playa Rosalina woke up way before dawn to begin the climb to Choquequirao we had a good indication that this was going to be a big day…and that certainly turned out to be an understatement. Unfortunately for us, neither my friend nor I could muster that same pre-sunrise ‘up and at ‘em’ motivation. We had 2 rounds of coffee in our system before we broke down camp and crossed the bridge across the Apurimac at 8AM or so. You should treasure that moment on the bridge, because it’s pretty much the only flat spot on your trail this day.
The switchback climb away from the river starts abruptly after the bridge and begins a somewhat brutal ascent directly back to, and above, the same altitude you descended from the day before. Fortunately, we decided to return to the same campsite that evening and were able to leave the bulk of our stuff behind, my friend carrying only a day pack with our food and water. As the climb continues without mercy I found myself once again amazed by the Incas’ ingenuity and perseverance. In order to seek sanctuary they built a city literally perched on cliff-like mountain sides that could only be reached with incredible effort. But, then again, given the speed that the local horsemen and camp workers motor up the trail apparently the human body can get used to this sort of undertaking – but probably not this one any time soon.
As we climbed we once again gained those lofty birds eye views of the peaks above and the river below, and passed through the various levels of vegetation. We also passed the Santa Rosa established campsite that would have been a great place to stay if we could have convinced ourselves to climb an hour or so of switchbacks after our descent the day before. The air up there is cooler, and the views are pretty amazing. You’re also that much closer on the morning you wake up to explore Choquequirao.
I won’t go on and on about the trail; I’ll just say it’s a solid climb and worth some time hiking your local hills or at least doing stair laps to prepare your quads, glutes, and calf muscles.
The ascent does mellow a bit as you approach the ridge and have your first views of the amazing Inca city. The lower section is literally carved in to a cliff; I can’t even imagine how they began building those first walls with such a steep drop off behind them. Again, it’s another reminder that the Inca probably did not have the same apprehension about heights that I do. Higher up on the ridge you can see the beginnings of the main plaza section of the city nestled in to lush vegetation. After paying a fee of 37 soles at the archaeological park entrance you have about another `1 ½ hours of up and down trail to the site, and you certainly won’t be disappointed when you arrive.
Choquequirao was built with the same architectural principals as Machu Picchu and certainly rivals the world famous site in beauty. To enter the main plaza area you walk along gorgeous terraces and flawless stone walls until you reach the flat area the Inca cleared for their homes and public meeting space. The views from here are indescribably beautiful: 360 degrees of mountain peaks plunging down to the aquamarine ribbon of river below. After a long day of sweaty hiking the cool mountain breezes also feel amazing. We ate lunch on the high plateau above the main plaza and tried to decide where and to what extent we could explore this incredible place in the limited time we had.
There are several sections of Choquequirao you can explore, and I would suggest that to do it properly you should camp at one of the sites within the park’s boundary or along the ridge as you exit, and give yourself an entire day at this site. Again, most guided tours do this trek in 4 or 5 days, making this a possibility for passengers. Although we didn’t have time explore the entire site, what we did see was truly amazing and makes the challenging trail entirely worth it. The other upside to the challenging terrain is the lack of crowds. You literally have this place almost to yourself, making it feel more like an authentic mountain sanctuary; the Inca’s last retreat essentially.
We ended up negotiating the last couple of hours of switchbacks back down to the campsite under a brilliant sunset followed by a star-filled sky. Although we were physically spent when we reached our campsite the beauty of the ancient Inca city and the surrounding mountains were definitely what stuck with us as we passed out in our tent that night.