Choqueqirao to Machupicchu Trek

Trip Start Jan 17, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Monday, May 29, 2006

Hey Everyone,

We are back in the annoying city of Cusco trying to recover from an incredible trek from Cachora (a tiny town about three hours from Cusco) to Aquas Calientes (Machupicchu). Of course we were not simply visiting these towns but trekking from one Incan ruin to another. It was by far our most ambitious trek and our most successful attempt to do something truly original here. While we did see two other groups doing the trek with guides and mules (to carry their gear) we were the only people we saw (or heard of) doing it alone and with our gear on our backs. We had a good map, a GPS, and a lot of energy and we were rewarded with an amazing experience. This is going to be a long entry...

Day 1:
5am bus ride to (near) Cachora. Split a car with locals to Cachora and were hiking by noon. Up and lots of down. Cachora is at 9337 ft. and we camped that night at 6082ft.

Day 2:
All uphill. After 5 hours of climbing straight uphill and drinking four liters of water (each) we reached the camp spot just below the Choqueqirao Ruins at 9370ft. Exausted, we crashed and were asleep by 7pm.

Day 3:
This was a rest day to recover from the previous two days. We had difficulty even walking up to the actual ruins (10,062 ft.) but were rewarded when we did. We had the whole place to ourselves! Choqueqirao is known as the "sister" to Machu Picchu and is a remarkable site in itself. It was only recently re-discovered (it was known during the time of the Spanish Conquest but the jungle reclaimed it and it wasn't found again until recently). Only 15-20% is believed to be uncovered and as we explored a bit in the jungle around the site we found stone walls and arches overgrown with jungle and invisible until we were literally right on top of them. We gorged ourselves on our heaviest of foods (boiled eggs, tuna, rice) to lighten our loads for the coming days.

Day 4:
We had planned on leaving but Ashley's legs were still hurting her from Day 2 so we opted to rest for another day before heading out. I spent the day trying to fix our stove which conveniently decided to stop working. A Dutchman who was living in Cusco and visiting the site loaned us a part from his stove for the rest of the trip. A group of 19 US college students on a study abroad program arrived with 30 mules (to haul their gear)for two days at the site. We shamelessly accepted the chocolate they showered us with after their professor explained to them our route for the next week.

Day 5:
At 6am we were hiking up again after breaking camp and cooking a hot breakfast. We climbed past the ruins and continued about 1000 feet more to the top of that mountain... then down again from 10,370 to a river at 6,233. After eating lunch we began climbing up the next mountain from 6,233 up to a tiny flat spot at 9,422 ft. We camped there and enjoyed the fresh corn given to us by the owner of the site (she wouldn't accept any $$ for camping!)

Day 6:
We got up early again and headed up the rest of the mountain through dense jungle and along precarious slopes scarred by landslides. We arrived at the top after 5 grueling hours and stood at 13,779 ft. long enough to catch some photos and then headed down the other side (are you seeing a theme yet... climb up one side... down the other.. again and again!!) We camped that night in the schoolyard of Yanama at 11,594 ft. We were so excited when we heard there was a store in town. In actuality, it was just a small dirt room with few items in dusty boxes. Our hunger got the best of us and we bought a can of "grated fish" (literally.. that was the name of it). It tasted surprisingly good but Ashley quit eating it after listening to my comments about how it was probably made with fish parts the same way that hot-dogs are ground from pig parts!

Day 7:
We awoke excited because this was to be out first "easy" day. After 4 hours of climbing uphill I reluctantly admitted I had made some minor miscalculations when reading the topographical map... namely interpreting the contour lines as dictating downhill travel when in fact it was all uphill. We climbed up our final big pass and reached the top of the 15,341 ft. pass winded and ready for the day to be done. We of course had to go down again (afterall... we had just gone up) and reached the tiny town of Totora 11,482 just before dark.

Day 8:
We awoke exausted but set out and were excited to find some hot springs along a river at 11 am. Ashley enjoyed the warm water while I tried to figure out our next day with some locals passing by. As with everyone else we met on this trek... they we incredible and gave me great advice about possible routes. They were universally shocked and impressed when I told them from where we were coming and where we hoped to go (Machupicchu). We passed a extremely poor village called La Playa (7874 ft.) at 2pm and opted to keep going. We asked around until a local guy showed us what we were looking for... a path with a base of stones that was clearly Incan. This path would take us down the final leg of our journey. We hiked up yet another mountain hoping to find somewhere big enough to put our tent. About 30 minutes before sundown we found a tiny area of grass big enough and plopped down our stuff (8221 ft.). We were exhausted. After a quick dinner we slept like logs.

Day 9:
We got up early again and were hiking by 7am. We reached the top of that mountain (9,102 ft.) and got or first glimpse at what we been seeking for the past 9 days... Machu Piccu. It was as we had read... cradled in the saddle of a mountain and shining in the morning sun. We continued down until we reached a river at the base of the mountain at 5,905 ft. We walked along the river until we reached a hydroelectric plant where we began walking some train tracks that would lead us to Aguas Calientes (the city below Machu Picchu). We rested and chatted with a local woman who had a food stand there. We garfed down 5 bananas, several packs of cookies, two candy bars and some crackers! As we sat there a woman carrying lots of stuff walked up. Ashley asked her if she could help her and the woman proceeded to slap the bundled baby she held on her back into Ashley's arms. Then the woman disappeared... needless to say we were pretty happy when she showed up 10 minutes later! We continued walking down the tracks reflecting on our journey. After about 2 hours of walking a train blew past us and shortly thereafter a tiny track repair truck. It was really funny looking... a VW bus with its wheels removed and replaced with track wheels for riding on the rails. We were delighted when it screeched to a stop next to us and the guys offered to give us a ride for a couple kilometers up the tracks! We explained our journey and they were noticibly surprised. They described parts of the tracks and mountains as we went on and they dropped us off before the train station (they couldnt be seen with anyone in the car). We hiked the remaining few kilometers into Aguas Calientes and sat down for a well deserved lunch. We opted to stay in a hostel (locals told us our stuff would disappear the next morning as we visited Machuu Picchu if we camped).

Day 10:
Our earliest day yet. We opted to climb up to Machu Picchu instead of taking the $12 bus (ridiculously overpriced for Peru). It was a steep one hour climb/run up. We were delighted when we learned that we were the 2nd group to get in line for the 6am opening. The guys who beat us left at 4am while we left at 4:45! As we waited the 1st bus arrived and all the passengers tried to charge past us and into the ruins. A worker stopped them and politely showed them the end of the line to our delight. It must have felt weird for them in their new $200 boots and fancy "outdoor gear" to be waiting behind people in dirty clothes who smelled like bovines!

When they let us in we were immediately taken aback by the ruins. They were incredible! Twenty of us raced up more Incan steps in hopes of getting pics. of the ruins from above without anyone in them. It was a circus. One man pushed by us and had to stop in his tracks, hunch over and gasp for air. You would have thought there was a bag of $$ up on the hillside waiting to be found with people frantically pushing by and competing to get the best shot. We snapped a few shots of our own and then spent the rest of the day roaming around the ruins and taking in the entire experience. The stonework and intricacy of the ruins are mind-blowing! Scientists estimate Machu Picchu housed 500 people in its hayday. Over 2000 people visit the site everyday. As a result the ruins are sinking and will eventually slip off the edge of the mountain. Very sad. That being said... the ruins were even more amazing than we imagined despite the thousands of people that poured in throughout the day.

We were both overwhelmed by the commercialism of Machu Picchu. The train (which most everyone takes to and from Aguas Calientes) is very expensive... $44 USD per person... one way. It costs the locals exactly 1/10th of that. Peru knows it has a cash cow and is milking it for all its worth. Unfortunately little of the money they are making off of the ruins is being invested to protect them for future generations.

In comparison, Choqueqirao is very different. It shares the incredible stonework but lacks the commercialism. Unlike Machu Picchu with its three trains per day (one deluxe train costs $380 USD pp for the 4 hour journey), Choqueqirao can only be reached by foot. It is not a place to be visited by day viewers fresh off the plane from Lima on their two week "check the boxes" vacations. Hopefully plans to build a road (it seems impossible) to the ruins will be foiled by Mother Nature.

We were on a train back to Cusco by 4pm and very, very exhausted. We awoke this morning and treated ourselves to the best breakfast we've had on the entire trip. What an adventure: spectacular scenery, memorable interactions with Andean locals, and seeing two incredible Incan ruins along the way made the hard work well worth it. If you are interested in doing this trek, feel free to email us for the details.
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