An Alternative to Machu Picchu: The Lost City of Choquequirao

5 Reasons to Visit the Lost Inca City of Choquequirao NOW

Peru is renowned to be a perfect destination for those wishing to visit the remains of ancient civilizations. From the mysterious Nazca lines  carved in the dry earth by Pre-Incan cultures, to the bizarre misshapen skulls of mummies, to the marvelous architecture of Machu Picchu, this country boasts a wealth of historical wonders.  In fact, the Peruvian government is investing its resources to promote archeological tourism, opening the access to new sites and improving the condition of those already well-known all over the world.

However, the presence of Peruvian pre-colonial civilizations is still very visible throughout the whole of the country, even well outside of the official archeological areas. Shepherds constantly discover new ruins while walking their sheep to the pastures; little children encounter buried mummies while playing in mountain caves; hikers find forgotten agricultural terraces in isolated Andean valleys; farmers uncover ancient golden statuettes from their fields – in a word, there are still so many ruins and cultural vessels to discover beyond what travel agencies are used to offer. There certainly is something more in discovering sites that few people have reached yet…the charm of being one of the first to access the remains of a mysterious past is what turns a trip into a real adventure.

If you are interested in experiencing the lost past of Peru with a similar approach, you cannot miss the ruins of Choqequirao. This is a city rising on top of an inaccessible mountain towering over three valleys and oriented towards three sacred peaks. Its architecture is complex and mysterious, and it is perfectly preserved but still 70% swallowed by the jungle. Does it sound like the place you have always wanted to visit? It most probably is, but here are five important reasons why you should not procrastinate and get there NOW.

1)      Its inaccessibility has been keeping mass tourism away…but not for long

Today, you cannot reach the ruins without hiking for a minimum of two days. Those who want to visit this marvelous site have to earn it, undergoing what could be compared to a pilgrimage. Descending a steep valley constellated with cactuses and wild orchids and then hiking up a mountain covered in luxuriant jungle up to a great elevation is obviously not for everyone. Unlike its sister Machu Picchu, Choquequirao cannot be reached by train, car, or bus; and it is certainly off-limits for people who are not used to hike and camp and who do not know mountains. This makes it accessible to very few people, or barely any: on occasion of our visit we were completely alone wandering in the ruins.

However, seeing a rich business opportunity, the entrepreneurial Peruvian government is planning on building a cable-car opening the way to Choquequirao: a two-day pilgrimage will then be replaced by a 15 minutes commute from a mountain to another, allowing anybody (up to 3.000 people per day) to access the ruins. The project has already been approved and will be implemented before 2017. If you want to experience this lost jewel  like we did, hurry up: you do not have much time left.

2)      It’s only accessible for half of the year

The hike leading to this archeological wonder is not an easy one, and could even turn into a mortal trap if you decide to take it the wrong time of the year. During the dry season, the rocks hanging over the trail are stably fixed on the earth, but as soon as it starts raining they can slide down rivers of mud. The jungle, too, quite docile in the period going from April to October, is completely wild the rest of the time, hiding and confusing the line between the trail and the ravines. Any serious local guide or porter will refuse to accompany you to the ruins during the rainy season –whatever your love for adventure, don’t risk your life and plan your visit for the right time, that is, from April-September.

3)      For the first time, all possible itineraries leading to the city have been studied in depth

The way to Choquequirao was first traced on a map by Leonce Agran in 1837, and then physically travelled by Hiram Bingham in 1909. However, although the locals living in the surrounding valleys have always known the details of the trail, until lately travelers did not have the basic information about the ways leading to the lost city. Where can you find drinkable water? Is there any local people selling food on the way? How many hours will it take to hike from here to there? How much are the fees to enter the site? In how many different ways can you reach the city? Are you obliged to return the same way after your visit? All of these questions are vital in the organization of the trek, but the answers were not available until recently. Lately, however, it has been possible to gather information from both locals and brave travelers who went there in spite of the lack of directions, so that some serious companies are now ready to send people to Choquequirao without risks. Beware, though: if it is now safe to organize a trip from Cachora to Choquequirao and back with several travel agencies, that is not the case with the exclusive itinerary connecting Choquequirao to Machu Picchu. Immediately after having hiked this trek, we checked the knowledge and preparation of many of the companies willing to arrange it, finding out that they had no idea whatsoever of the nature of the journey. Avoid finding yourself sleeping on a 5000 m pass in a sleeping bag designed for the jungle, or taking three extra days to reach Machu Picchu losing both your entrance ticket and your flight back home: for this particular trek, only deal with companies overly specialized in it (internal link to haku choq)

4)      You can now connect it to Machu Picchu, making your visit doubly valuable

Machu Picchu has been declared one of the 7 Wonders of the World, and figures on the bucket list of thousands of people. However, its popularity has spoiled a little bit of its mysterious charm. Surrounded by restaurants, reached by buses, hosting up to 2.500 visitors per day, Machu Picchu is best enjoyed if reached through an enriching pilgrimage. In fact, hiking through the same jungle and climbing the same mountains that the Inca had to face while escaping from the Spanish certainly gives the whole experience a different light. The most unique of these treks is the one that connects the two sister cities of Choquequirao and Machu Picchu. Not only it highlights the historic connection between the two centers, it also shows two different archeological realities – first the unexplored and still uncovered Choquequirao, then the popular and polished Machu Picchu. One visit will inform the other, and the amazing hike between them will provide breathtaking views of the mountains which inspired the religion and culture of the Inca. It is an exclusive journey that is far less known than the now overcrowded Inca Trail and the extremely scenic but more and more popular Salkantay Trek … but it won’t necessarily remain a secret for long.

5)      While you are still in Peru, you should definitely include it in your bucket list.

Let’s be honest: how many times in your life are you planning on visiting Peru? It certainly is an amazing land, but the world is big and who knows when you’ll return. Therefore, be careful while planning your trip, as there are some things that should absolutely not be missed. You probably have your priorities already set, but do include the ruins of Choquequirao in your bucket list. Having lived in Peru for 8 years, we can promise it will be the highlight of your trip. Just trust us, and do not leave Peru before having explored this place between the earth and the sky. Best Instagram shots guaranteed!