Among the numerous and impressive Incan ruin sites in Peru, the ancient city Choquequirao is one of the most awe-inspiring and mysterious. Today, you can only access the site on foot via a challenging high altitude trek in the remote Andes, not too far from Machu Picchu and Cusco. The trek is a favorite of well-traveled hikers and local guides alike due to its stunning scenery and fascinating archeological history.
The ruins sit in the saddle of a high Andean ridge, 3000m./10,000 ft. above sea level and 1,500m./5,000 ft. above the roaring waters of the Apurimac River. Ringed by spectacular snow-capped peaks and flanked by plunging, thickly forested slopes, the city is an inspiring example of an elite Inca ceremonial center, dedicated to the worship of the mountain gods, the river and the elements of nature.
Choquequirao has been called “Machu Picchu’s sacred sister”, because of the striking similarities of design and ceremonial architecture to its famous counterpart above the Urubamba Gorge. Yet it remains an enigmatic place whose history is a matter of speculation. One theory of its origins holds that it was a royal estate built for the emperor Tupac Inca, perhaps in an attempt to rival his father Pachacuti’s spectacular domain at Machu Picchu.
For centuries Choquequirao lay shrouded in obscurity, protected by its remoteness. Unlike Machu Picchu, people knew it was there – it was first mentioned in a Spanish document of 1710, later visited by various explorers and treasure hunters, and roughly surveyed in the 19th century by the French consul in Lima, Leonce Angrand. Finally, in 1909, the indefatigable U.S. explorer Hiram Bingham –the future scientific discoverer of Machu Picchu — explored and mapped the site.
Today we can trek to Choquequirao via a modern footbridge across the Apurimac River; there are no roads or trains to Choquequirao – you can only hike there. The journey is as awe-inspiring as ever, taking us through an astounding range of ecological zones, from Andean farming valleys, descending through a hot and arid canyon environment featuring kapok trees, cactus and agaves, and climbing again to a region of lush cloud forest, beneath the dizzying snowcaps of the Cordillera Vilcabamba.
The trek options are 5 days or 12 days. The 5-day trek is to the Choquequirao ruins and back (or a loop in some cases) to road accessible villages and on to Cusco. The 12-day version takes you on the first two days of the normal hike (getting you to the Choquequirao ruins) but then you hike much, much further into the backcountry along a much more challenging trail. You pass through small villages and outposts where people still live many miles from any roads, much the same as their ancestors. You finally wind up at Machu Picchu’s backdoor and take the little-used alternative train up to the site and explore the more famous Incan city – a satisfying end to such an epic and scenic trek.