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Day-by-day review – the Choquequirao Trek with Alpaca Expeditions

When this Guide began planning hikes around Cusco, one trail immediately jumped out: the hike to Choquequirao. It’s an archeological site spanning an area larger than Machu Pichu, but the difficulty of the journey, and the fact it’s still being uncovered, makes it much less trafficked. You can’t drive a bus up there like Machu Pichu. Doing a five-day hike is the easy route to this mountain farm fortress floating in the sky. In this post, I’ll breakdown each day of the trek and share some tips on Alpaca Expedition’s 5-Day Choquequirao Trek.

If you’re thinking of doing the trek solo, check out this post for tips: “Can you hike Choquequirao solo?” 

If you’d like a packing list for Choquequirao or any multi-day guided hike around Cusco, check out this post: “My packing list for Choquequirao and the Inka Trail

Day 1 - Descent to Chiquisca

The first day took us from the park entrance at Capuliyoq down to Chiquisca, almost to the Apurimac river. It’s like passing through a hyperlapse of the seasons, from a cool, late winter day at the top, into the the blossoms of spring bursting along the path, across whole fields of wild flowers and purple grass waving in the breeze. The descent continues, zigzagging into a hot, steamy summer. Dusty trails and sweaty, surly mules pushing you off the path. Then a baking hot summer on the slope as the sun bakes it at midday. The flowers hide under trees. A few streams find their way down to the river, splashing over the trail, yellow butterflies playing in the puddles. The flora turns to scrub and cactuses as you approach the river. The massive floppy blue-green spikes of the maguey hang over the trail. 

The original plan was to hike two hours to Cocamasana, eat lunch there, and then head down to Chiquisca. But we heard on route that Cocamasana was out of water that day, so we hiked through to Chiquisca and had a late lunch there. 

Chiquisca is a flat shoulder of the mountain, with a cluster of campgrounds and lodgings, overlooking the river. We stayed at Llamayoq Wasi. You can get wifi there for a few soles if you desperately need it. They’ve also got drinks, bug spray, candy, sun screen, batteries, etc, for sale. It’s the most well-stocked shop you’ll see for a few days. We camped in an open grassy area with some early-rising roosters. 

Our campsite at Chiquisca, with the moon rising over snow-capped Padreyoc mountain in the distance. If you continued on past Padreyoc, you’d arrive at Humantay and Salkantay.

How is the food with Alpaca Expeditions?

I did hikes with three trip companies in Cusco: Alpaca Expeditions, Evolution Treks Peru, and Salkantay Trekking. There probably is some variation depending on the chef that joins your trek, but the style of meals were similar at all three companies: you’re doing big platters of food served family-style. The food is nourishing and packed with what you need for a high-altitude adventure.

I did take protein bars, and that was helpful, because the protein at meals was a bit less than I’d usually eat after hiking 4 hours. 

Here are some photos of the food from the trek with Alpaca, at Chiquisca, for lunch and dinner on the first day: 

Lunch for the first day of our trek included a platter of fresh chopped up vegetable salad, roast potatoes, chicken breast in a tomato and pepper sauce, garlic bread, segments of corn on the cob with slabs of cheese, and rice with peas and carrots. And there was water, tea, and chicha morada to drink.

Dinner at Chiquisca included a noodle dish with roast vegetables and shredded cheese, chicken thighs, a cheesey eggy doughy cross between a quiche and a pizza, and potato cakes with crisp outsides and fluffy warm insides. Potatoes in Peru are on a different level than potatoes anywhere else in the world. 

Day 2 - The path to Marampata

The second day starts dark and early so we can get across the Apurimac. As you get closer to the river, you’ll see it’s a self-sabotaging beast. It’s carving out the sides of the mountains, sending walls of granite crashing down into the river. Our guide cautioned us to stick together and watch for falling rocks until we were well above the river. 

A landslide once took out the bridge across the river. And for several years, the only way across was to climb into a metal cage hanging on pulleys and pull yourself across the rushing waters. The cage is still hanging there if you’d like to try it. But there’s also a sturdy bridge now.

That’s our guide, Elesban, crossing the Apurimac, in trademark Alpaca Expeditions neon green.  I was so impressed with the job he did. Working as a guide on these trails is like being part CEO, part kindergarten teacher, part warrior, and part museum interpreter, while moving at an athlete’s pace up and down a mountain, keeping track of clueless tourists, sometimes carrying their packs when they complain too much or get lost. Give gratitude (and tips) to your guides!  

After the bridge, it’s four hours of steep switchbacks with a stop in the middle for lunch at Santa Rosa Baja, a small campsite and shop. This is when you’ll realize why so many guides around Cusco refer to Choquequirao as the most challenging hike in the area.

When was the last time you did a two hour stairclimber workout at the gym, took a break, and then did another two hour stairclimber workout, on a stair machine that’s full of loose, rocks, and mule poo? You haven’t done that before?

You’re about to do it. 

The pay-off, however, is that you arrive at Marampata, a beautiful village floating in the clouds, where you’ll camp for the night amongst terraces of crops and flowers.

The first or left photo is the type of terrain you’re navigating on the second day. It is steep, rocky and loose. Good hiking boots are key. The second photo is the amount of terrain you cover. It’s a big wall of mountain. 

* There are vicious insects on Day 2 of the Choquequirao Trek *

Put bug spray on everything. I wore long-sleeves and trousers the second day and ended up with bleeding bug bites everywhere that my clothes were tight against my skin, like my elbows. You don’t even feel the bites. You’ll just get to the campsite and discover tiny trails of blood, like fairies were firing miniature arrows at you.

On Day 4, when we came back across the river, I knew to spray my clothes as well, and I didn’t get attacked by the angry fairies. 

Day 3 - A magical mountain

Wake up in Marampata and enjoy that epic view.

Prior to the pandemic, you could camp on the grounds of the Inka site at Choquequirao. Passport control for the site was after Marampata. But passport control is now at the very beginning of the trek, and the closest you can camp is at Marampata. This seems to have benefitted the village, because hiking groups or solo travelers need to rent space from locals to setup camp while they explore the archeological site. And what an archeological site it is! Let’s check it out…

As you approach the site, you’ll find yourself surrounded by intensely fertile cloud forest in its own protected microclimate. Much of the site at Choquequirao is comprised of farming terraces and you’ll see why as you’re walking along a forested trail of orchids and berries and vegetables growing wild. 

To arrive at the archeological site from Marampata, you’ll still have around 60 minutes of hiking, but it’s through a magical forest. Several streams fall down the mountain and cross the path. Keep an eye out for delicate teeny tiny orchids growing at your feet or from the trees overhead.

Choquequirao is an incredible impossibility of gravity-defying terraces surrounding a mountain. It’s so large and so steep and was built without the use of heavy-equipment or power tools. There were probably just some useless llamas standing around making those silly meep meep noises while thousands of brilliant Quechua engineers and craftspeople designed and built this farm fortress, hauling massive boulders around cliffs.

It’s difficult to capture the scale of the site. Everything in this photo that is not a sheer rock cliff, is built structure, from the recently uncovered terraces at the bottom of the photo, all of the way to the top. Each one of those terraces is taller than me (over two meters / 6ft+)

The conical hill to the center left at top is the altar. The main buildings are barely visible in this photo. And they’re two/three story buildings. If you look near the top right corner, you can see the triangles of the stone roofs on the main buildings.

The buildings at Choquequirao are excellent educators on Incan cosmology. That stone wall above is a perfect example. It’s a false doorway, with a real window, through which you’re looking at a real doorway, with a false window. In the false window on the opposite side would’ve been some kind of relic, maybe a skull, looking back at you, to reflect the mirrored relationship between this world and the next, and the potential to communicate with the afterlife.

After we visited the stone llama figures embedded in the terrace walls, the assistant guides joined us with a boxed lunch. We ate hiding from some rain that rolled in. After lunch, a few of us continued on up to the altar (where archeologists have only found evidence of llama offerings), and then we continued down to the shaman’s house on the other side of the altar. There was a large area above the main square that we didn’t walk up to. We had a full day at the site and could’ve spent longer.

Then it was back to Marampata for fire-toasted marshmallows, dinner, and a technicolor sunset. 

Snack time! Every day, before dinner, Alpaca Expeditions prepared a snack for the group. There was always freshly popped popcorn and a selection of tea. When we stayed the second night in Marampata, the team prepared roasted marshmallows (over a portable bonfire), cheese-filled wontons, and sweet potato chips. Also, in the photo of the snack table above, at the back, just under the fire hazard, you can see the ubiquitous plastic bag of coca leaves.

Do you need to prepare for hiking in the Andes?

In the name of Pachamama and for the sake of your guide’s mental health, please please train before you go hiking around Cusco, especially if you’re doing Choquequirao. 

We had several members of our group from Florida (much of which is below sea level thanks to climate change) and the majority of our group was too exhausted to explore the actual archeological site of Choquequirao on the third day. They hiked to the main square and then went back to Marampata when they saw all the stairs. Therefore…

Practice walking. You’ll be miserable if you try to go from no daily walking or exercise to 5 hours of walking uphill at altitude (2800m+) every day. I did 1 hr walks, twice per day in Cusco (3400m / 11000 ft) for the week leading up to the trek. I was also in Cusco for two weeks before the hike, carrying my groceries up the stairs from the San Blas market. 

Day 4 - The hard day

Each morning, the Alpaca Expeditions team woke us up with coca tea delivered straight to our tents. On the fourth day, our tea arrived at 5am so we could get down the mountain as quickly as possible. The sun bakes the opposite side of the river. We wanted to cross early to avoid getting baked into sweet potato chips.

Coca tea in my tent at 5 am in Marampata. But coca tea is just way you might battle the affects of no oxygen. On your adventures in the Andes, you’ll likely come across “llama piss” (Agua de Florida). The label of ingredients is so tiny as to be illegible. It’s definitely got alcohol in it. And something yellow. Don’t drink it. You put a few drops on the palm of your hand, rub your hands together, then hold your hands together like a mask over your nose and mouth, and inhale. Airways cleared.

The first three or four hours of hiking on this day are downhill, so why do I say it’s the hard day? The downhill part is rough and steep. The person in our group who talked the loudest about not needing hiking poles struggled with this segment. 

It’s ok to use hiking poles. It doesn’t make you less of a hiker.

But what makes this day particularly challenging is also a quirk of geology that made the Inka’s terraces so effective: the rocks in these mountains absorb heat very well. The terrace walls heat up during the day, creating a greenhouse effect when it’s cooler. That would also last through the nights, as the rocks released heat, protecting the crops from frost. It’s ingenious. But walking along trails of those bare rocks, in the midday sun?

It feels like reaching into an oven to take out your cookies. But you get no cookies.

It’s just heat radiating at you from every side. By the time we got across the Apurimac, that barren, rocky side had been in the sun a couple of hours, and it felt hotter to look down at the trail than up at the sun.

Remember: this is the segment with blood-feasting bugs. I wore a base layer under my travel pants, two long-sleeve shirts, and a weapons-grade amount of bug spray through it this time. No bug bites! But I was toasty.

This is also where I encountered the solo hiker with no sunscreen and no bug spray and no hope: Can you hike Choquequirao solo?

We stopped for lunch at Chiquisca. If you’ve already eaten all of your snacks, it’s an opportunity to stock up for the final day. Some members of our group needed to get carried up by the mules from the river. That took awhile, so I played Juego de Sapo. The frog game! It uses a raised wood cabinet with holes in the top, one of which is covered by a frog. You get different amounts of points depending on which hole you toss your metal discs in. You get the most points for getting the disc in the frog’s mouth. 

We continued on past Chiquisca, up to Cocamasana. It’s a much smaller campsite. Our tents filled all of the available space. It still has a toilet and shower. The shower is pure frigid mountain water and so good after baking on the trail up. What Cocamasana also has is a stunning view. It feels like you’re hanging off a cliff over the river valley, looking up towaards Choquequirao.

What are the toilets like? Are there showers on the Choquequirao trek?

If you’ve already done the Inka Trail to Machu Pichu, this will sound wild: there are toilets and showers on the journey to Choquequirao. The toilets don’t have toilet seats. And the showers don’t have hot water. But it’s a consistently easier and cleaner setup than you’ll experience on the Inka Trail. Alpaca supplied toilet paper. It’s still a good idea to have some of your own with you.

Day 5 - It's over so quick

Five days can seem like a long time when you’re starting out, but then it’s all over so quickly!

The final day still has some solid hiking back up to Capuliyoq and the stores around passport control. But it’ll be relatively short if you have a longer Day 4 and camp at Cocamasana. Then you’ll have breakfast, say goodbye to the chef and porters, share tips with them, and pile into a van for the drive back to Cusco. 

(When I got back to Cusco, I went to LOCAL and had the Pan of Bananas. I was immediately ready to do another 5-day hike.)

To wrap things up, I’ll just share about some things Alpaca Expeditions did that I really liked…

Although the last day is short, the views as you rise up the slopes, are so vast and peaceful. You still get moments of standing on a mountain trail, alone, with just the sound of the wind rustling through the wild grasses.

Would I hike with Alpaca Expeditions again?

I would absolutely hike with Alpaca again. It’s an indigenous-owned company, they had a larger percentage of female staff on our trek than the company I later hiked with that promotes itself as having female staff, and Alpaca was super organized, from start to finish.

Their slogan is: “The Green Machine”, which could sound impersonal, but they embrace consistency in ways that differentiate from other trekking companies. Of all the groups I hiked with, their orientation was the most useful, they introduced us to all of the staff on the trek (I saw them doing the same introduction practice with other groups on the Inka Trail), and the purchasing process was the least painless even though they customized my trek, adding me to a six-day group just for the Choquequirao segment. The rest of the group took the train to Aguas Calientes for a Machu Pichu visit. 

I’d be happy to join Alpaca Expeditions on another adventure.

The cost of my 5-day Choquequirao Trek was $650 USD.

You can get more details on their treks here: Alpaca Expeditions

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