Footsteps of the Incas: Machu Picchu to Choquequirao
The Inca Empire is shrouded in mystery for three major reasons: first, the Inca lacked a written language. Second, Inca mythology told of an invading force of pale-skinned people mounted on monsters which introduced an element of fatalism when the Incas were faced the conquistador cavalry. And third, the exploitative nature of the conquistadors meant many key Inca artefacts disappeared.
This expedition is an opportunity to see the evidence for yourself in the company of head guide Edwin Duneas who livse and breathes Inca history. There are certain iconic sights and experiences in the world that exceed the expectations of travellers who succeed in visiting them; this expedition, that explores beyond Machu Picchu, is one of them.
“Of all the treks, rides and travelling experiences of my life, I rate this highest of all. The grandeur, remoteness and pioneering feeling of the Choquequirao Trail is hard to replicate in the C21st ; besides, there’s a real feeling of achievement when you finally learn to pronounce “Choquequirao”!”
MD after the Choquequirao trek.
Below: Profile map showing the altitude at each camp.
The ride starts near Machu Picchu and goes “over the back” following a network of Inca trails, passing “tamba” which are fortified Inca B&B’s (ruined) all the way to the sister citadel Choquequirao. The trails themselves are a marvel; the surrounding peaks are snow-capped and the occasional up-draft from the east brings steamy Amazon air all the way to 4,000m and higher. The natural history and topography are enough in themselves to justify the expedition; add in the Inca culture, the riding, the glimpse into local communities and you have a unique travel experience.
13 days, 12 nights in Peru; 8 riding days; 5 nights in hotels (the first 3 and the last 2); 7 nights camping. Ride between 10 and 25 Km per day; max 7 hrs per day; several sections of uneven or steep ground (up and down) which requires dismount and leading.
The highest point of the trail is the San Juan Pass (4,668m).
Arrive Cusco (3,300 m) the old capital of the Inca Empire. We take acclimatisation seriously and set off immediately for the near-by Sacred Valley; a 1 hour drive brings you to Ollantaytambo 2,792 meters (9,160 feet) – a much more comfortable environment to spend the first night.
Ollantaytambo is the starting point for the 4 day Inca Trail and has a real “traveller’s buzz” about it. We spend the morning exploring (with guide) some of the many Inca ruins in and around the town. In the late afternoon we catch the narrow-gauge train that sways along the valley to Mapi, a market town at the foot of the Machu Picchu hill.
Overnight in Ollantaytambo hotel. [N.B. The ride that begin with the Summer Solstice (20th June) we spend the first night in Machupicchu Pueblo, not near-by Ollantaytambo.]
Today we visit the citadel of Machu Picchu, on foot, which is always a moving experience. We are joined by a specialist guide for a full day in the ruins and you need a specialist because the secrets of Machu Picchu are subtle. Our guide walks us through magnificent architectural monuments and temples, pointing out key ceremonial features that represent mountain and sun worship that has been incorporated into the design. Strolling around the ruins you will naturally acclimatise without even noticing it.
Overnight back in the Ollantaytambo hotel.
The drive to Huancancalle (2,950 m) takes about 6 hrs following twisty-turny roads and crossing the Panticolla Pass to reach the small town with a strong Inca heritage. We arrive by mid-afternoon and this is where we meet the mule train and wranglers. The rest of the afternoon is free to watch the wranglers prepare mule loads and get ready for tomorrow. Adjacent to the hotel are Inca sites and you can stroll around and explore independently; most of these sites don’t even feature in guidebooks, but are just as inspiring as Machu Picchu. Overnight in the characterful Sixpac Manco lodge which was established by Inca archaeologist-explorer Vincent Lee.
This morning we visit Rosapata, a fortress that is also known as Vitcus. This fort was the final stronghold of the Incas during their clash with the Conquistadors band is where “Yurac Rumi” (“White rock”) is found, as noted in Hugh Thomson’s book “The White Rock” (highly recommended.) The guide will accompany you on a walking tour of this hidden gem of an Inca site.
We return to Sixpac Manco and saddle up for the ride to Yanaqaqa which means “black rock” in the Quechua language. Quechua is the Inca language that is still spoken in areas around Cusco.
Tonight is our first night under canvas: we use spacious two-man tents (mattresses are supplied) and you do need to bring your personal sleeping bag and inflatable pillow.
Miles ridden: 7 miles
Saddle time 3 hrs
Today we get the first experience of trekking at altitude: the aim is the Choqeticarpo Pass at 4,600 m. This is our fifth day at altitude, so you’ll be acclimatised and ready for the high mountains. We follow an Inca trail which is part of a 14,000 mile network that the Incas constructed – larger in fact than the Romans ever built! This trail here is wide so that it could accommodate llama trains that carried agricultural products from the highlands to the population centres around Cusco and the Sacred Valley and it’s the main route that connected Machu Picchu and Choquequirao. Riding mules is comfortable and somehow more relaxing compared to riding a horse! And today you can hop on and hop off as you wish. Camp tonight is between two massive granite boulders near Quelqamachay.
Miles ridden: 12 miles.
Saddle time 6 hrs
Ride to Yanama.
Leaving tents and baggage to follow on behind, we set off riding up a winding trail into the remote Cordillera Vilcabamba range. If weather permits, spectacular views of geometric Inca fields will dominate the view of the valley below. Crossing a high ridge to the Yanama Valley, we pass several small, hidden-away farms called Chacras, cultural remnants of the distant past. These people live much as their Inca ancestors did; planting potatoes with a digging stick and keeping a rugged Andean existence tolerable with coca leaves and corn beer. We camp on the playing field of Yanama village school in a dramatic high spot overlooking the village and its picturesque valley. This must be one of the most remote schools anywhere in the world.
Miles ridden: 11 miles
Saddle time 6 hrs
Ride to Maizal
Tea and coffee served in bed, followed by a tub of warm water for a morning wake-up splash. We share breakfast in the large mess-tent then head out, usually around 8:30 or so. We climb 1,200m up a precipitous trail carved into the cliff-face to reach the San Juan Pass (4,668m). On the way we pass an abandoned colonial-period silver mine, Mina Victoria. Where the name comes from is a mystery: whose victory? Who was Victoria? We don’t know and history doesn’t record. The descent is so steep that we have to walk this section and lead the mules. We have our first view of the immense Apurimac River far below. This deep canyon and its powerful river is one of the great geographic wonders of the Americas. The name Apurimac means “voice of god” or “mighty speaker” in Quechua. It thunders hundreds of miles through the remotest part of the Andes to join many other rivers and eventually form the Amazon.
We follow a winding trail down 1,400m to camp at a small farm carved out of the precipitous mountain side which is home to our wrangler Froilan Munos. Having climbed slowly through cloud forest we have the afternoon to explore, take photos and marvel at the extraordinary views of the great ice peaks above and plunging canyons below; nature on an overwhelming scale!
Miles ridden: 10 miles.
Saddle time 3 hrs and 3 hrs walking/leading.
Ride to Choquequirao
The trail leads down to the Rio Blanco where we bathe and enjoy tropical warmth. Condors are frequently seen here, drifting effortlessly on the afternoon thermals high above. In the afternoon ascend 625m to an Inca temple site named Pinchu Unoyoc, with not a soul around. This is an unusual shrine to the sacred spring which still flows through carefully constructed stone fountains. The final 1,100m ascent brings us to our objective, the spectacular camp amongst massive stone constructions and jungle tangle, adjacent to the imposing walls of an ancient ceremonial city, Choquequirao. We camp amongst the ruins.
Miles ridden: 12 miles.
Saddle time 6 to 7 hrs.
Choquequirao is nestled at almost exactly 3,000m on a prominent ridge overlooking the Apurimac chasm. The backdrop of ice-sculptured mountains, with the steamy Amazon jungle far below creates the perfect mysterious atmosphere. Choquequirao rivals Machu Picchu in beauty and importance but unlike Machu Picchu, very little of this sight has been cleared and renovated. Archaeological teams are working here and new discoveries are being made every day. There is no doubt that we’re learning more every year about this major, seldom-visited, Inca site. It’s first mentioned in European writings by the British historian Sir Clement Markham who visited the area during the late 1890’s but has been largely eclipsed by its more famous sister. This is a leisurely day allowing time for the camp cook to prepare the Andean traditional feast, Pachamanca (potatoes, lamb and spices cooked in a pit covered with hot stones) and to take a guided tour of the site.
Miles ridden: 0 miles.
Saddle time 0 hrs.
Ride to Playa and Chiquisca.
We descend a winding steep trail some 1,950m down to the Apurimac River. Crossing over a swaying Inca style, cable-bridge suspended above the raging rapids, we make a bivouac camp just above the river and within earshot of the rapids below.
Miles ridden: 9 miles.
Saddle time 6 hrs.
Ride to Capuliyoq; transfer back to Cusco.
We complete the trek at the road-head village of Cachora, sadly bidding mules, cooks and wranglers goodbye. We toast our staff and the successful completion of a magical journey back through time. We bus back to Cusco and the comforts of a modern hotel.
Miles ridden: 5 miles.
Saddle time 2 hrs and driving time 2 ½ hrs.
Free day to explore Cusco. Overnight hotel.
Mules have a serious PR problem! People tend to associate mules with stubbornness and a general inability to co-operate, missing the point entirely! I think it is fair to say that mules “know their own mind” but this is a good thing in mountain terrain such as this. Mules don’t take risks, they’re no-nonsense animals that work all day and have incredible stamina. They are sure-footed and know how to negotiate steep, narrow mountain trails, which many horses would shy at or stumble along. On an expedition such as this one, you require a mountain specialist.
Anyone can ride a mule and the terrain is such that the pace is steady; there is no opportunity to canter or gallop. Fording the rivers has to be done carefully, the long ascents and descents require a steady pace and sure foot, and the altitude demands respect and even breathing which are all characteristics that favour mules over horses.
Each mule is a unique character and every one of them makes for a kind, reliable mount deserving of the very best consideration. Sizes 14 hh to 15.2 hh.
English-style snaffle bits are used, but you ride mules with one hand; they respond to neck-reining, minimum contact and go off your leg.
A cut-down variant of the US cavalry McClellan saddle is used. If you imagine a Western saddle but remove the horn and a great deal of the skirting, you end up with a McClellan. The Peruvian variant uses a single girth and no cinch. The stirrups are closed “Conquistador” style.
There’s no need to take a seat-saver.
All horses are equipped with twin saddlebags.
Rider’s weight limit is 95 Kg. Riders over this weight can be accommodated, but will require a second mule to use on alternate days. This will attract a small additional fee.
Max 20 Kg per person. All baggage is transported by the mule-train and catches up with you in the evening. It’s best to use a soft-sided hold-all, as we recommend for all our rides, rather than a suitcase. On this expedition it is worth investing in a waterproof hold all such as Helle Hanson and North face make. The bags are wrapped in a tarpaulin, but experience shows that it’s never 100% effective and there’s nothing worse than arriving in camp to find your kit is damp. Excess baggage can be left at the lodge in Cusco, if you plan to travel on after the expedition.
It is best to wear several layers of clothing because temperatures vary so dramatically between nighttime and daytime. This ride takes places during the summer months of the year, but the range is still from zero to over 25°C. A good hat is essential and a buff helps to keep the sun off your face and doubles up to keep the dust at bay. The glare from the sun is strong at altitude so sunglasses, with a retaining-string, is a good idea. Sunblock, lip-balm and plenty of water are essential. Jodhpur boots are better than long boots (too hot) and the multi-purpose “H20” boot from Ariat is good because they are comfortable when walking / leading and waterproof.
Saddle mule and tack for the duration.
Full board throughout.
All camping equipment excluding sleeping bag.
5 nights hotel (first 3 nights and the last 2 nights)
7 nights camping fully supported by camp staff, wranglers and camp cook team.
International flights, if booked with Venture Co, are fully ATOL protected.
Visas (not required by British passport holders.)