The Inca trail permits for the months of May through August 2017 have almost sold out, and many people are exploring alternate hiking trails to Machu Picchu. In the Cusco area, there are hundreds of travel companies offering a variety of alternatives to the Inca trail. Perhaps the most common of the alternative hikes is the Salkantay trek. Recently, the Lonely planet has chosen Choquequirao as one of the best destinations for 2017. Could this be the best alternative? If you don’t just trust the opinion of a local tour guide, or the Lonely Planet’s piece for that matter, here are 7 reasons why you should go to Choquequirao in 2017 based on the experiences and opinions of some of the trekkers that have been over there.
1. You can’t take anything with you.
No extra possessions, no souvenirs. The prize is something you can’t take home with you, but if you’re up for the challenge, the memories of Choquequirao will delight your mind forever. The trek is strenuous, and can leave you wondering how and why the Inca decided to settle in such a hostile homeland. The sweat and tears, however, do not go unrewarded. As Cynthia Cane from the BBC puts it, “for those who make the strenuous journey, the rewards are plentiful: lush wilderness, sweeping mountain views at every turn.” A big part of the reward is the solemn connection with the immensity of the surrounding mountains, the feeling of disconnection with the outside world, and the inevitable strike of awe and wonder of the location of this place.
2. You will feel lonely.
Mark Johanson, in his piece for Vacation and Travel Magazine, mentions this when he describes his first impressions of Choquequirao, “My arrival at Choquequirao is unlike any I’ve experienced at other historical sites. It’s not the altitude that overwhelms me; it’s the solitude. Silence is a virtue far too often missing in the modern-day experience of our world wonders, but at Choquequirao, you’re left only with the voices in your head whispering wild whims and half-remembered factoids”. So, be prepared. Consider yourself warned. You will not find wifi but the connection between yourself, the Earth, and your thoughts is everywhere. I have visited Choquequirao almost every year for the last two decades, and every time I go there I get the same feeling. It is a feeling of solitude and infinite smallness, of belonging, and surrendering to the immensity of the mountains. With every visit, I am swept off my feet by an enormous feeling of peace and satisfaction almost impossible to obtain in the world outside of the Andes. Often, I wonder if perhaps this feeling was a reason for the Inca’s inclination to build sites such as this in order to worship Nature, Mother Earth, the Pachamama. Atlas Obscura speaks to the feeling of solitude saying that, “One thing is for certain: Choquequirao is spectacular now because of how untouched and remote it is… the ruins still make you feel as though you’re the first to find them.” This feeling of discovery and reverie can be perceived by anyone lucky, and determined enough to witness the wonder of Choquequirao.
3. The nights are really dark.
If the silence and immense topography of this amazing place were not breath-taking enough during the day, the scene at night is truly awe inspiring. At night, the vastness of our universe is laid in front of our eyes. Not only you will see the wide range of constellations corresponding to the Western Zodiac, but also you will be exposed to much more than that. In the words of Cynthia Cane from the BBC, “The Milky Way appears, sharpening until you could see the patterns of darkness that the Inca imagination had stretched into constellations. The llama. The snake.” The negative space of the galaxy is brimming with Incan cultural cornerstones. This spectacular view of the Milky Way is one of the most underrated things in blogs and posts about Choquequirao and the Andes. If you are afraid of the dark, Choquequirao is not for you. If, however, you are someone who loves the stars, then this is the place you have looking for. Choquequirao has a magnificent view of the Southern hemisphere and the Milky Way. If you are lucky, you will learn how the Andean peoples and the Europeans had completely different ways of understanding, deciphering, and relating to the universe, Amanda Zeisset from Adventure Junkies notes the Incan propensity for astronomy when she states, “All these cities (Choquequirao and Machu Picchu included) have many things in common, the sites were meticulously planned and designed in accordance with astronomical alignments, and were precisely built in relationship to sacred rivers, mountains, and celestial phenomena.”
4. You’ll have to do your own research, and not all of the information out there is factual.
Mark Adams, the author of Turn Right at Machu Picchu, puts it this way: “Separating fact from fiction in Inca history is impossible.” This is because virtually all the historical sources available are Spanish accounts of stories that had already been vetted by the Inca emperors to highlight their own heroic roles. Imagine a history of modern Iraq, written by Dick Cheney and based on authorized biographies of Saddam Hussein published in Arabic, and you’ll get some idea of the problem historians face.” This shouldn’t discourage you from wanting to learn about the history of Choquequirao or the Inca. Adam’s own book, besides being an entertaining read, provides a basic framework for the history of the last days of the Inca people who built such sites as Machu Picchu and Choquequirao. The archeological legacy left at Choquequirao and other sites speaks volumes of who built them and for what purposes. For instance, Atlas Obscura mentions that “One of the most impressive features found in and around Choquequirao is a set of terraces that incorporate figures of llamas or alpacas. The shapes of the animals have been set into the large terraces using carefully carved white rocks”. I believe that these terraces and other impressive Inca sites in Choquequirao and Machu Picchu ought to be understood within the larger context of the Inca civilization. Most people will not read about the Inca unless you are a passionate archaeologist or historian; but to get you prepared for this adventure, and to avoid being misinformed by the many pseudo theories that exist out there, I suggest you spend a couple of hours watching these two videos from the BBC and author Jared Diamond.
5. You’ll run in many creatures.
The remoteness of this area makes its natural beauty something unseen in other hiking areas in Peru. Amanda Zeisset from Adventure junkies’ description of Choquequirao’s beautiful landscape is perfectly accurate: “The ecosystems are always changing allowing you to see a variety of landscapes. You go through canyons, deserts, rainforest and passed glacier peaks”. This is a precious insights of what you are expected to see along the path toward Choquequirao. This wonderful ecological diversity allows you to experience multiple ecological zones in the span of 4 or 7 days, if you take the longer version of this hike. You will see plants, insects, birds and animals that are indigenous to these mountains and valleys. Dozens of varieties of orchids, amazing hummingbirds, and butterflies of all sizes and colors, Condors, and even the famous Paddington bear, a spectacled bear, the only one of its kind in South America.
6. You will have to be responsible.
On a more serious note, many people are concerned about the future of Choquequirao as its notoriety increases. This concern has become more pronounced amongst tour guides, trekkers, and others involved in the travel industry, particularly local villagers. The fact that the Lonely planet named Choquequirao the best destination for 2017 has encouraged more tourists to visit this place. Some people think that the purity and isolation of this ancient site will be threatened, and the magic and spirit of Choquequirao will be destroyed. The discussion is reminiscent of a debate sparked in 2007 by a piece written by Ethan Todras-Whitehill in the New York Times. The crux of the matter is figuring out what to do with the increasing number of people going to Choquequirao, and determining how the local populations can most benefit from the increase in tourism while maintaining and preserving the land and culture of their ancestors.
This is an ongoing struggle between sustainability and appropriation. Between authenticity and exploitation. No matter what the outcome of the debate, the impact of more people going to Choquequirao will be felt in both positive and negative ways. As the secret slowly gets out, and people begin to arrive at Choquequirao en masse, the nature of development and protection of the natural areas, the archaeological sites, and the local inhabitants need to be the central focus of government and community action. For instance, The Machu Picchu, Inca trail, and Salkantay trek experiences are lessons in what not to do in Choquequirao. It is very important to understand this struggle and its consequences as a by-product of a much larger force, sometimes pervasive, that is the travel market and the economic system as a whole.
Personally, I think that privilege breeds responsibility, and those who benefit directly from taking people here, namely travel companies, have the primary responsibility for protecting Choquequirao’s beauty and peaceful nature. In addition, those who had the privilege to have been there and want others to have a similar experience need to hold travel operators accountable for their role in preserving Choquequirao as the sanctuary it truly is. If tourists don’t hold their travel operators accountable for the best environmental and sustainable practices, then nobody else will do it. Private travel companies won’t do it, as the bottom line often trumps the morality of preservation, The Peruvian government won’t do it, its bureaucratic nature often serves as an enabler for destruction. Local people can’t do it alone, they need you as an ally in this struggle.
7. You might end up walking more than you expect.
In 2011, as part of a section called Tour Operator Challenge featured in the UK’s Sunday Times, I collaborated with Chris Hasslam to help his readers decide which trek would be better to hike as an alternative to the overcrowded Inca Trail. The readers were presented with two alternate trails: the Salkantay and Choquequirao Treks. At the time, I didn’t hesitate to say that the Choquequirao trek to Machu Picchu was the best alternative. That was true then and it is still true now. It is clear that this is a challenging hike, it takes some commitment to achieve the goal and reach the Inca site. But when it comes to organizing a trip to this place, people are confronted with two options, whether to continue hiking all the way to Machu Picchu, or to return to Cachora. Hal Amen from Matador Network suggests that “For those who truly want to immerse themselves in the land of the Inca, you can turn this into a 9-day trek that ends in Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu town). From Choquequirao, the trail drops and climbs a few more times, passing other minor archeological sites, old silver mines, hot springs, and coffee and banana plantations en route.” The truth is that due to the construction of the road to Yanama from Qolpapampa, the meeting point of the Salkantay trek, the distance to Machu Picchu has been shortened by 2 days. This is good news for those wanting to continue to Machu Picchu. Nowadays, you can go by car from Yanama to Hidroelectrica, it takes about 4 hours by car. From “Hidro,” you can either take a train to Aguas Calientes or walk for 3 hours over a path right next to the train tracks. At Aguas Calientes you can spend the night before you visit Machu Picchu. Personally, this route makes more sense than the 2-day hike back to Cachora, the launch point of the Choquequirao trek.