Many travellers visit Peru with one distinct ambition: to trek the legendary Inca Trail from the charming tourist-haven of Cusco to the ancient ruined civilization at Machu Picchu. But the Inca Trail’s unassailable popularity is part of its own undoing; the ongoing erosion of this famous route by an ceaseless procession of visitors means that tour numbers are now limited and treks must ideally be booked months in advance. The other problem with the Inca Trail is that every traveller you speak to has done it, or is planning to.
There is, however, an alternative trek to an ancient Inca site from Cusco that is every bit as challenging, awe-inspiring, and rewarding as the Inca Trail but benefits from an exclusivity that the route to Machu Picchu may be gradually sacrificing.
Dating from the late fifteenth-century, the magnificent ruined city of Choquequirao is reached via a four-day trek through the mountainous Apurimac Valley, where Peruvian Condors wheel and soar high above the glittering ribbon of the Apurimac River. Setting off from the sleepy village of Cachora on Cusco’s outskirts, farmland soon gives way to a wide mountain path offering jaw-dropping panoramic views as it slowly descends to the valley floor. The horses and guides who will cook and set up camp for the expedition each day soon vanish into the distance, well-accustomed to the route. Everyone else is left to enjoy the warm, silent and utterly unpolluted majesty of the Salkantay Mountains.
The food is surprisingly good; decent breakfasts, lunches and (three course!) dinners are rustled up with effortless aplomb by chefs armed with maximal culinary skills and minimal equipment. At the end of each day a welcome cold shower, followed by a hearty meal and a comfortable tent provide the perfect antidote to aching legs, and sleep – even in the knowledge that vampire bats inhabit the region – isn’t a problem.
The final ascent to Choquequirao itself is a demanding climb along a seemingly unending path which zig-zags its way up a mountainside until a plateau is reached and ancient terraces begin to reveal themselves, carved into forested hillsides. And then there is the ancient city itself; at once both welcoming and breathtaking. Amongst rich vegetation punctuated by wild flowers, ancient stones warmed by centuries of sunlight form the remarkably well-preserved remains of temples, terraces and dwellings, each with their own stories to tell. If you’re lucky enough to witness Choquequirao at sunset the spectacle is nothing short of magical and might even leave you wondering why so many people rave about Machu Picchu in the first place.