Due to the current restrictions on the number of hikers on the classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, there have been a number of new treks being offered in recent years. One of the most common is the Salkantay route, which is usually a four or five day hike to Machu Picchu. Another trek that has become popular recently is the hike to Choquequirao, another set of Inca ruins that, like Machu Picchu, are in the high jungle and have been covered with vegetation, and are now being excavated and restored. This is also normally a four or five day hike, usually done with animal support, and is an out and back trip on the same trail.
Because most people who go hiking in the Cusco area want to see Machu Picchu, there is now an option to continue on from Choquequirao on a combination of other trails to Machu Picchu. This route uses small footpaths, some Inca trails and a few seldom used roads, part of which is the same as the Salkantay route. It is normally advertised as a seven to eight day trek and is usually offered with pack animal support. The advantages of these new routes are that as of now (2008) there are no restrictions on the number of trekkers and it is possible to hike them on your own, without being part of a tour group with an official guide. Don’t let the lack of restrictions on the number of hikers scare you, comparatively few tourists are on the trails; it just means that if you are planning last minute and the regular Inca Trail quota is full, you can easily hike one of the alternate trails with no problem. The first part to Choquequirao is more heavily used, we saw about 25-30 people (tourists, guides and locals) total on the trail in that stretch.
To start the trek, you need to get to Cachora. Most tour agency groups leave Cusco at about 4:00 am, either on public buses or private transport. If you are traveling on your own, you can leave at a more reasonable hour. There are a number of different bus companies that have buses going in the right direction, but none of them go to Cachora. You need to take a bus going to Abancay (which are usually also going on to Lima). Sanchez and Wari are two of the companies, Bredde and Chankas are two more (if I have the spelling right). They leave from Terminal Terrestre, which is a 3 or 3.50 soles taxi ride from the center plaza. Most of the buses leave early in the morning, we chose Wari because they had one leaving at 1:00 pm, which worked out perfectly for us.
We had to pay for a ticket to Abancay, which cost 15 soles, even though we were getting off before that. We were told to get off at Saihuite, however that is NOT the correct place to get off. The gravel road to Cachora is just past Saihuite, maybe a half mile or so. The road is on the right, and there is a sign that says Cachora. It takes about 3 ½ or 4 hours to get there. There are usually taxis waiting there and you need to negotiate a deal with one of them to take you to Cachora, which is about 30 minutes away. An “express” taxi, meaning they just take your group, is 30 to 35 soles. If there are others waiting, you can share a taxi for less, I think we paid 15 soles for two people. We started with six people and picked up a couple more on the way (in a Toyota Corolla station wagon)
The starting point is the small village of Cachora, about five hours from Cusco on the road to Abancay. From there you have a beautiful view of Nevado Salkantay as the trail goes down to the Apurimac River. There is a large bridge crossing the river and then you climb up steeply to the ruins of Choquequirao, a total distance of about 29 Km. There are a number of rest stops and kiosks along the way, most of which offer camping and meals. From there the trail continues to climb to a pass, then drops down to the Rio Blanco, with more ruins shortly before the river. After crossing the river on a log bridge the trail climbs again, up to Maizal, which has good camping, then continuing on up through jungle on an Inca Trail to Victoria Pass. The jungle abruptly ends before the pass, shortly after which you pass old abandoned mines and then drop down to the village of Yanama. Choquequirao to Yanama is about 30 Km.
From Yanama the trail follows the Yanama river through a valley, which soon offers spectacular views of a number of snow and glacier capped mountains. Here there is a gentle climb up to the top of the valley, and then a short steep climb up to Yanama Pass. The trail, often just a foot path, sometimes almost disappearing in the grass, then drops down to Totora, with more great scenery if it isn’t cloudy. Here there are a couple of stream crossings that would probably need to be forded during the rainy season. There is now a good trail to a small hot springs below the village of Ccolpapampa and a bridge across the Rio Santa Teresa. At this point the trail is the same as the Salkantay trek for the rest of the way to Machu Picchu, and is a more substantial trail. From Yanama to the hot springs is 19.5 Km.
As you near La Playa, there are a number of small kiosks along the trail, some of them surprisingly well stocked with drinks and food, although as with earlier ones before Choquequirao, the long mule delivery makes it expensive. There are more people living along the trail here as well, and you will see some signs of road construction on the other side of the river, before the trail turns into a road, about 30 minutes before La Playa. At La Playa there is electricity, camping and stores, as well as infrequent combis to Santa Teresa for those who are tired of walking.
Shortly after La Playa there is an optional route at Lucmabamba that crosses the river and climbs up an old Inca Trail to Llactapata Pass, where you can get a good view of Machu Picchu if the clouds aren’t too bad. The other route goes to Santa Teresa, where there is a hot springs and more train track walking back to the hydroelectric plant. From the hot springs near Ccolpapampa to Santa Teresa is 24.5 Km. The route over the pass looks like a shortcut to the hydroelectric plant but there is a lot of elevation gain so it probably takes longer, but the views are worth it. Near the plant is the start of the train service, which you can take to Machu Picchu (but it only departs at about 4:20 pm), or walk along the tracks. There are also many vendors selling food and drinks along the tracks where you board the train.
The last nine kilometers into Aguas Calientes was actually the worst section, it follows the railroad tracks from the hydroelectric plant and for much of the way there is no trail, you need to walk on the rail ties or on the crushed rock rail bed. This was miserable and seemed to take much longer than the two hours and fifteen minutes my watch showed; however in spite of this we saw over a hundred people walking it, mostly Peruvian kids on their end of the year school trips.
Unless you are already acclimatized to the altitude, I strongly recommend arriving in Cusco a couple of days early. You can hike up to Saqsaywaman, Q’uenqo and the other archaeological sites above the city. There are hundreds of steps leading up to them so a few trips up and down them will give you some good exercise as well. The sites are very interesting but the only way to see them during the day is to buy the “boleto turistico” which cost 122 soles in 2008. It may be possible to see some of them after they officially close at 6:00 pm, we got to see Q’uenqo but a security guard kicked us out of Saqsaywaman. Lonely Planet strongly cautions against walking up there, especially after dark, but there were still lots of people around when we went up at 5:00 pm and didn’t ever feel any danger. However, keep your eyes and ears open and be aware of your surroundings. We walked all around the center of the city, including to the train station and nearby tourist market and didn’t have any problems.
A good place to stay in Cusco is at the hostel Suecia II, it is a clean and airy place, with a covered courtyard, run by a friendly older brother and sister, who don’t speak any English. A double room is 15 soles per person for a shared bath and 25 soles per person with a private bath. An American style breakfast with eggs is 6 soles, 7.50 for four eggs instead of just two. They will also store your extra luggage while you are hiking. It is a popular place for hikers to stay, and reasonably quiet, although there is some noise from the music at nearby restaurants in the evening. It is located less than two blocks from the plaza, with Internet cabinas, restaurants and laundry services, as well as tour agencies and trekking supply stores lining the street to the plaza. They don’t have a website but you can make reservations by phone at 51- 84-239757, address is Calle Teccecocha #465.
All information and prices were current as of November, 2008.