The Vilcabamba Traverse and Choqequirao Ruins

We arrived safely back in Cusco today after six days and five nights on the trail. We departed with the intention of traversing the Vilcabamba mountain range and ending, via hiking, at Machu Picchu. Our plans changed after sickness, injury, and very conflicting trail information.

We obtained a topographic map from a credible source in Cusco and a trail summary from a Footprint guide book. The trail information and topo map conflicted in where the ruins were located as well as having the topo map not seem quite accurate as we traveled. Signs along the trail listed the ruins at varying distances (none of which made sense). Aside from conflicting information, however, we had a great experience on the trail, camping with 18,000 foot snow peaks towering overhead while we overlooked a deep valley 5,000 feet below.

Our first day began with a 3.5 hour collectivo (taxi with multiple people) ride from Cusco to Cachora, a small town where the trail head is. Cachora itself is located at the base of a very steep valley. The road down begins directly over the town a few thousand feet below and gradually works its way down to where the trail begins. Searching for the trailhead itself was a quite a task and took a lady running down the hill after us to let us know we had just passed the trail entrance (it was quite poorly marked and in the middle of farm houses).

We began the trail heading up a slightly sloping dirt path over a small steam and up through tree-lined mountain side. We passed several small traditional mountain farms with pack animals walking freely along the trail. After a couple of hours, we reached an amazing lookout that literally dropped right off the face of the mountain into the valley below. Amazing view though! Imagine a very exposed flat area that juts out over a deep valley, surrounded on all sides by towering peaks. You can see all the way from the lush valley to barren area above tree line and all the way to snow capped peaks above. After 16 kilometers (around 10 miles), we camped at a local´s semi-ranch that had a small flat area on the mountainside. That night we sat by our tent staring at thousands of stars through pitch blackness and a snowy peak accross the valley. We had a great vantage point of the trail to come as we could see all the way down the river in the valley.

The next morning we awoke and were treated to a three hour downhill with numerous switchbacks while being beaten constantly by a very hot and dry sun. By the time we reached the valley floor, Ashley was nearing heat stroke and my ankle was killing me (Ashley says downhills are my kryptonite), so we decided to make camp in a small clump of huts. A nice man who lived there let us use a room in his house (an open air stone-floored hut) to cook in as the bugs at the site were quite nasty. I have pictures of my arms that look like I recently had the Chicken Pox again!

We awoke, feeling slightly better and determined to reach the Choqequirao ruins by night fall. The only thing that stood in our way way was a 7.5 hour vertical (like 15 degree incline) hike stretching nearly 6,000 feet… straight up… with packs on our back. The sun was strong, but our determination proved to be stronger as we successfully reached the ruins early that evening. We passed a couple of suprisingly nice rest areas along the way, which were in fact people´s houses who have created small areas for hikers to rest or camp along the way. If you have never seen a house perched on a 45 degree slant on a few thousand foot cliff face, it is pretty interesting!

The next day we spent exploring the ruins. They were simply amazing! The way the Inca´s adapted to living in the mountains is unbelievable. The terraces and houses they built are hanging on the edge of these mountains in ways that most people would not think possible. What is possibly more exciting for us is that the Choqequirao ruins will soon be equal to that of the world famous Machu Picchu. Choqequirao was re-discovered only about a decade ago, so we were able to see still overgrown ruins in tangles of vines and trees as well as restored ruins that are in great shape. The water channels they created and how they utilized them through their terraced crops is almost mind boggling. WOW! The Choqequirao Ruins are in fact the second capitol of the Incas after Cusco fell to Pizzaro and his army. It took almost another half century for the Spanish to find and conquer this capitol.

After realizing that we had some very misleading information on the trail, we decided to do the return trip to Cachora rather than continuing into the heart of the Vilcabamba mountain range. We did hire a horse for this day to carry our packs (most people who do the trail only carry a few pounds of water and snacks and horses carry their packs) and were able to make it 22.5 kilometers in one day up and down thousands of feet of incline and decline. We also met a brother and sister that hiked out with us, Meg and Pat. That night we camped at a small hut that had numerous farm animals around it on a very steep slope. We slept more or less in the bottom of the tent as we kept sliding downward in the middle of the night (yes, it was that steep). The man was very hard to understand and might have spoken some Qechua (a local language) rather than Spanish. He was quite friendly though.

Our last day, we hiked out on a more level surface for about two hours. The worst part was the last few hundred meters UP into town, which was steep. The funny part of the day is that our porter, who actually lived at KM 5 on the trail, just past where we camped still had my shoes in her saddle bag from the day before. As we were hiking by in the morning, looking for her house, we heard loud shouts from a ways up the mountain side. It was Nancy, our porter, who was waiting for us to pass to give me back the shoes. She was very nice and I am happy to have my shoes back! We had a nice lunch with Meg and Pat before grabbing a collectivo back to Cusco and recovering with a great meal at one of our favorite restaurants in Cusco, Jacks.

– Jason

4 Responses to “The Vilcabamba Traverse and Choqequirao Ruins”

  1. J and A says:

    Hey, glad to see you on our site. How are you doing?

  2. Pat says:

    Hey, I stumbled upon your card today and decided to give the site a look. Hope your travels are still going as well as these few days!

  3. Dori says:

    where are the new pictures?

  4. Dori says:

    you 2 are amazing!

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