Maykol Connaya Puga finished tying the two giant duffel bags together and took a deep breath before heaving them up with a grunt. For a split second, he stood there, regaining his balance with both bags clutched to his chest, before gently setting them on the waiting mule’s back.

These bags contained camping equipment for the first night of our five-day trek. My group knew the trek would be challenging, but as we peered into the Apurímac Canyon and across to the Choquequirao Inca ruins (officially the Choquequirao Archaeological Park), the trek seemed far more visceral. The canyon is deep and Choquequirao is high on the opposite side, making the elevation gain more intimidating than the mileage.

The trail at Capuliyoc starts at 9,950 feet above sea level before dropping to 3,280 feet over 5.6 miles. Then, it’s another 6.4 miles to the Choquequirao ruins. The trail is as old as Choquequirao itself, part of the system of Inca trails that stretch throughout most of South America. It’s hard; it was built for and by the Inca, not for people who spend most of their time working at a computer. There’s been a tram planned for nearly a decade, but construction has yet to begin.

Maykol, our guide, is 26 years old. He left the Apurímac Canyon in 2013 to be a mechanic but moved home during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, the only transportation he works with are his mules.

Maykol feeding his trekking mules

Maykol Connaya Puga feeding one of his mules before heading out on the trail // Photo: Heather Jasper

There are a lot of reasons to brave the trail to the Choquequirao ruins. Like with Machu Picchu, the ruins were never discovered by the Spanish, so they never suffered the purposeful destruction of places like Sacsayhuaman and Ollantaytambo. Choquequirao is often called the “sister site of Machu Picchu,” though it’s actually much more extensive (but also partially covered by jungle). But while Machu Picchu is overrun by tourists and questionable operators, the people who live in the canyon near the Choquequirao ruins are extremely friendly and anxious to meet global travelers. Before the pandemic, the closest estimate was that about 10,000 people visited Choquequirao per year, compared to nearly 1.5 million visitors that head to Machu Picchu. There’s no permit system as Machu Picchu has, and all travelers have to do to visit Choquequirao is register at the park ranger station by the trailhead in Capuliyoc (and pay a reasonable $20 park fee).

Choquequirao Trek: Day One

One of the best parts of the trail to the Choquequirao ruins is that there’s no need to pack food or cooking supplies. Many of the canyon’s families operate restaurants for travelers, and much of it comes from their gardens, where they cultivate everything from fruits and vegetables to Andean staples like potatoes and quinoa.

On our first day, we stopped in the village of Chiquiska, where Melchora Puga (Maykol’s mother) prepared quinoa chaufa for our group, similar to fried rice. “I spent 2020 watching cooking shows on YouTube,” she explained. “There were no tourists and nothing else to do. I wanted to improve my cooking because I knew tourists would return some day.”

The bridge across the bottom of the canyon

Photo: Heather Jasper

From Chiquiska, the trail continued down to a bridge crossing above the river’s canyon, where trekkers usually stop to swim. From there, it’s 3,460 feet of elevation gain to Santa Rosa. It’s tough on the knees, and no matter how hungry you are, you’ll certainly be thirstier — it’s hot in the bottom of the canyon.

Santa Rosa is the only stop along the route without cabins, though it does have bathrooms. But camping costs only s/5 Peruvian Nuevo Soles (about $1.25 USD). There’s only one family in Santa Rosa and they manage all the lodging and dining. There used to be two families in town, but one moved to a larger city to open a restaurant. Maykol worries that the family in Santa Rosa will also have to move if hikers continue to use guides from the cities rather than hiring local guides.

“The problem is that agencies usually send guides from Cusco with their own cook. They always bring food from the markets in Cusco, so they don’t buy meals from us,” he says. “Now, with cabins in both Chiquiska and Marampata, it’s better for people to come on their own. They might hire a guide, but they don’t need to bring food or a cook. We have everything here.”

Choquequirao Trek: Day Two

The town of Marampata near Choquequirao

The small town of Marampata, close to the Choquequirao site // Photo: Heather Jasper

The second day is all uphill. It’s slower but easier on the knees, and our group made it to Marampata by midday. As with most groups, we took a break until around 2:00 PM when the sun and heat were too intense. Marampata is a tiny village, with about twenty houses spread out across a hillside, each surrounded by cultivated fields. It’s the closest you can stay to the Choquequirao ruins.

We stayed at Mamita Panchita, and Luisa Francesca Ccaihuari Hoyos — Panchita for short — came out to welcome us. She said that what she loves about hosting travelers is meeting people from all around the world.

“Actually, I like it even more when people ask about my garden,” she said with a smile. “I like to show them what I plant and how to harvest,” she says. “Nobody in Marampata buys chemical fertilizer. It’s too expensive and too hard to bring from the city. More than that, we prefer to eat natural food. We know that the chemicals are bad for our land and bad for us.”

In the afternoon, I walked around the village, passing dozens of mules that generally wander freely through town. Marampata is beautiful, perched high on the canyon wall. You can see across to Chiquiska and the trailhead in Capuliyoc. From the far side of the village, you can also see the Choquequirao ruins, less than two miles away.

Choquequirao Trek: Day Three

Choquequirao with uncovered buildings on the right

The majority of the Choquequirao ruins are still unexcavated and buried by jungle // Photo: Heather Jasper

I had coffee the third morning with Panchita and her husband Julio, who informed me he was making the trek to Cachora, six miles beyond our starting point. I tried to imagine a man in his 60s walking in one day what had taken my group a full two days.

“My family has been here since 1809,” Julio told me. “Everybody in Marampata is a Covarrubias; we’re all related. We used to farm some of the terraces that are part of Choquequirao, and we lived there. I grew up playing soccer on the Choquequirao plaza. It was our land, but now it’s owned by the Ministry of Culture, and we have moved all our fields to different areas. Nobody farms at Choquequirao anymore. It’s protected.”

When not busy hosting guests, Julio works rebuilding and reinforcing the trail. The government said that if rockslides continue to damage the trail, locals will have to build an entirely new one. “They know we’ll do it because of how important tourism is for us,” he says. “We need to have a good trail.”

From Marampata, it’s 1.5 miles downhill to the Choquequirao ruins. Maykol explained that Choquequirao means “cradle of gold” in Quecha – possibly due to a rumored nearby gold mine – and that it’s divided into 12 sections for everything from agriculture to stone carving. He tells us that as much as he loves the site, his favorite spot is the usnu — a flat hilltop from which you can see into the valley and stargaze at night.

the choquequirao inka ruin in peruvian mountain jungle

Photo: luciezr/Shutterstock

As we walked around the site, we saw stone llamas built into walls and a system of canals and fountains that carried water approximately four kilometers from the Chunchumayu river. Because the city was on the Inca Trail, roads ran to Vilcabamba (12 days on foot) and Machu Picchu (7 days on foot).

With some of my free time at the site, I talked to other travelers, including Peruvian-born Irene, who now lives in Alsace, France. It was on her trip to Peru in 2010 that she first heard about Choquequirao. She was with her friend Noémie, who was on her first trip to Peru and seemed to love everything about it, though she could tell the pandemic had been hard on the economy.

“Our muleteer told us that we are his first group in almost two years. There are still so many people without work, but they support each other,” she says. “It’s something I think we’ve lost in France, and I really appreciate seeing it here.”

Back in Marampata, while shelling fava beans with Panchita, she filled me in on the village’s history. At 62, she’s the oldest resident. It’s home to 15 families, and hikers have been coming through since the early 1990s. While early travelers would camp and be fairly self-reliant, she says that most travelers in the last few years have taken advantage of their lodging and cooking. “I can cook for up to twenty people at a time,” she tells me.

Panchita outside her home in Peru

Panchita outside her home in the Apurímac Canyon // Photo: Heather Jasper

During the pandemic in 2020, most of her nine children moved home, and she eventually had 22 people living with her, including grandchildren. No one contracted COVID-19, and while most of them moved back to the cities, her daughter Ruth still lives with her.

I asked Ruth, or Ruthcarina Covarrubias Ccaihuari, what it was like growing up in the tiny village of Marampata. The village doesn’t have a school or health facility as the government will only build official facilities for towns with at least 200 residents.

“The government told us that we can build a private school, but nobody here can pay tuition for a private school. Also, it’s too hard to get teachers to stay in Marampata. We’re so isolated, so far from anything,” Ruth offers.

Ruth also knows that the language barriers can be a challenge for finding professionals like midwives or teachers. In Marampata, residents speak Quechua. It’s the traditional Inca language, but only about a quarter of Peruvians speak any form of it. Spanish is the country’s official language.

Cachora, Apurímac / Peru: December 16 2012: Looking back up the road leading down to Cachora in preparation for the Choquequirao Hike

Cachora is the nearest “big” town near the ruins // Photo: Island Photographer/Shutterstock

“Maybe we could find a doctor or a teacher who wanted to live far from the city, but how do we find one who also speaks Quechua?” adds Ruth. She thinks that children who primarily speak Quechua don’t have enough opportunities to grow up and become doctors or teachers, which further complicates the problem. Panchita grew up in Cachora and speaks Spanish fluently, but Quechua is the first  language for most residents (though many understand and speak some level of Spanish). Panchita thinks the government has forgotten about them out in the valley, but Ruth points out the government’s contributions to their tourism infrastructure, like solar panels and cooking ranges.

Later that night, I returned for dinner and chatted with Juan Carlos Covarrubias, Panichita’s eldest son. He guided in Cusco for ten years. Now, he and his wife own Apurímac Adventures, where he does the guiding, and she does the office work. He moved back to Marampata as he thought it’d be safer for his children during the COVID-19 pandemic. He says that families in the valley used the lockdown to improve tourist facilities. Twelve of the town’s families built new cabins, and the others improved their dining rooms and kitchens. Panchita, his mother, built a new dining room four times as large as the old one.

His next goal? Help everyone in the valley benefit more from tourism.

“Right now, many people stay at the first house they see. I want to make a sign at the entrance to Marampata so visitors can see the names of all the families who offer lodging,” he says. He also wants to expand cell and internet access; he thinks only one person so far has listed their cabins on Airbnb.

It was already 9:00 PM, which is late for people who get up at 5:00 AM to work. I thanked Juan Carlos for his time and went back to my cabin.

Choquequirao Trek: Day Four

Cabins built by Maykol Connaya Puga along the Choquequirao trek

Adobe cabins built by Maykol Connaya Puga // Photo: Heather Jasper

Our return trip descended into the canyon for a dip before returning to Chiquiska. We stayed in cabins Maykol built in 2020 from handmade adobe bricks. They have thick walls and, like any well-made adobe, are cool during the day and warm at night. Below the cabins is the canyon and the snowy peak of Salkantay in the distance.

During this time, Maykol tells me more about his history. His family has owned land in Chiquiska for roughly a decade, but they mostly used it graze and rest mules. They didn’t build a guesthouse until 2019, giving them only a year to operate before the forced shutdowns. “The borders of Peru were closed for most of 2020, and we didn’t have a single tourist come through between February and November,” he says. “I had to sell 25 of our 40 mules just to get through the year.”

He tells me that a trekking agency called Amazonas Explorer brought food to people who needed help, as did he and his family. “Here we work with ‘ayni,'” he says, “which is a Quechua word. You can translate it as ‘today for you, tomorrow for me.'” Maykol tells me that he hasn’t bought his mules back. He rented the mules we’re using from a family in Cachora as Maykol likes to let his mules rest for several weeks between trips. But despite the hardships, he thinks he’ll stay in the canyon rather than going back to the city to be a mechanic again.

Maykol and two rented mules

Photo: Heather Jasper

“I like walking the trails, helping travelers, and seeing them leave happy with their trip,” he says. “I like working with the mules.”

“What do you not like about your work?” I couldn’t help asking.

“The uphill and the downhill,” Maykol said with a laugh.

Trek logistics:

Most travel agencies charge between $500-$800 to do the Choquequirao trek. If you opt to do Choquequirao on your own, with a local guide but without a travel agency, it costs about $50 for round-trip transportation from Cusco plus about $20 per day for food and lodging from local families. Most people do it in three to five days, depending on how fast you want to hike and how much time you want at the ruins. Choquequirao sits roughly 8,600 feet above sea level, so plan on a few days to acclimate if you’re coming from a lower elevation.

The best time to visit is March through November, as the winter months tend to be rainy and wet. It would be difficult – but not impossible – to do the trek with a local guide if you don’t speak Spanish (but you’ll want to download a cell phone translator app).