You’ve got two weeks in Peru. You want to visit Machu Picchu and see the most famous place in South America, but you also want to have a wild, life altering adventure deep in the Andes. It may not sound possible, but you can have all this while staying under budget on your two week trip. How?
By hiking from Choquequirao to Machu Picchu without a guide.
Choquequirao is a stunning ancient Incan temple built about 100 years after Machu Picchu. Much like it’s more famous cousin, Choque sits on top of an Andean Ridge, overlooking a river thousands of feet below. But unlike Machu Picchu, Choque has hardly any tourists. Fewer than 20 people visit each day.
To put that in perspective for you, Machu Picchu gets 5,000 visitors a day. One more time for the people in the back: Machu Picchu gets 5,000 people per day. Choquequirao? 20.
Why the difference? Because the only way to reach Choquequirao is via a grueling two-day hike.
As if that wasn’t adventurous enough, for those in the know, those passionate, outdoor-loving, backpacking maniacs who want to immerse themselves in the Andean wilderness, an even greater adventure awaits you beyond the gates of Choquequirao: the 9-day trek from Choquequirao to Machu Picchu.
It’s an epic journey that follows an Incan trail over two high Andean passes, through verdant valleys, and up to a deserted mountaintop ruin overlooking Machu Picchu.
Imagining, beginning your week at one of the most remote religious sanctuaries in the world, traversing Andean mountains on the same pathway the ancients walked and ending your journey at the fabled Machu Picchu.
This is all possible. Hiking from Choquequirao to Machu Picchu without a guide is challenging, it is stunning, and it is totally doable in less than two weeks.
Hike from Choquequirao to Machu Picchu: The Itinerary
Day 1: Cachora to Chiquisca
Day 2: Chiquisca to Choquequirao
Day 3: Choquequirao to Pichauhuyoc Ruins
Day 4: Pichauhuyoc to Pajonal
Day 5: Pajonal to Yanama
Day 6: Yanama to Colcabamba
Day 7: Colcabamba to La Playa
Day 8: La Playa to Aguas Calientes
Day 9: Machu Picchu
This is a long and extremely challenging journey. Before you go, make sure you are prepared for this trip both mentally and physically. Only take on this journey without a guide if you are an experienced trekker and confident navigating backcountry terrain. Though the path is clear throughout, there are still plenty of opportunities to get lost in the Andean highlands.
As with any hike in Peru, the most important consideration of all is altitude. Give yourself at least one day to acclimate in Cusco before beginning the trek. The path from Choque to Machu Picchu crosses extremely high elevations, the highest point at Yanama Pass (4500m/15,000ft). The air up there is thin and no matter how fit and knowledgeable you are, you will struggle. Acclimate!
This trek is no joke. But for those who are fit, smart, and capable, hiking from Choquequirao to Machu Picchu offers a chance to see a part of Peru most people have never even heard of.
Trekking from Choquequirao to Machu Picchu: What to Expect
I’ve covered what to expect from days one and two when you hike to Choquequirao, so let’s continue to day three, and the morning of your Choque explorations.
After you’ve finished reveling in the tranquility of this ancient temple, head towards the highest part of the temple and off into the jungle. From Choquequirao, the trail winds up the side of the mountain, weaving through dense shadowy forests before descending sharply towards a river valley.
A little more than halfway down to the river valley floor, you’ll come to a set of ancient Incan terraces carved into the wide open mountainside. This is Pichuhuyoc. These terraces and the small temple in the center are the location of one of the last still-functioning Incan water systems in Peru. It also makes a great place to camp for the night.
Come the morning of day four, follow the trail all the way down to the river below. There was no bridge in June 2014, but the crossing was easy nonetheless. From there, the trail is slightly off to your left. Ahead of you is a long and steep climb up to the village of Maizal. Village is perhaps a generous term, it is a collection of four or five houses perched on a mountainside. Not a human soul to be seen when I visited, but I did have a great conversation with a cow standing next to the only source of water.
From Maizal, the trail continues up more gradually, working its way towards the Victoria Pass. Through the lush jungle, the trail clings to the steep mountainside. A glance over the edge of the trail will send your heart thumping up into your throat. When I hiked this in 2014, the path was very wet and treacherous. Quiet narrow, especially when I had to share it with donkeys coming the other way.
Along the way, you’ll pass abandoned Victoria Mines, a narrow chasm cut deep into the mountain. Shortly after the mines, the trail cuts sharply up the mountain in a series of stairs and switchbacks. Once you climb into the sparse, high Andean environment, it should be nearing the end of the day. Though there is no official campsite up here, camp on whatever wide, flat, empty space you can find.
Here is your reminder to practice leave no trace! High elevation environments are extremely sensitive, do your best not to crush plants and other life underneath your camping equipment.
Come dawn of day five, continue up towards Victoria Pass. I cannot encourage you enough to get there as soon after sunrise as you can. Further, into the day, the clouds will gather and obstruct the views. But if you arrive early enough, you’ll be greeted with panoramic views of the surrounding glaciers and sharp Andean peaks.
From the pass, it’s a long but fairly gentle descent down to Yanama Village, where you can camp for the night.
Waking up in Yanama will be a bizarre contrast of modern and ancient. This small village is home to a road. In fact, it is home to the only road that accesses this remote corner of the Andes. You may hear trucks and cars heading in and out of town, a grating contrast to the serenity of your days on the trail.
No need to share the road, however, the Incan Trail you’ve been following for days continues its meandering path up the center of the valley. It’s difficult to get lost at this point as there is only one way to go from here.
Up and up the valley floor you go, gaining altitude and increasing in grade as the day continues. The final push to Yanama Pass is a steep and relentless wall of scree. But make it to the top of the pass and you’ll find views of a glacier so close you could reach out and touch it.
But don’t. Glaciers are very dangerous.
After Yanama Pass, you have a long yet gentle walk all the way down to Colcabamba. Savor the silence because in Colcabamba you’ll meet up with the Salkantay trail and all dirt, grime, people, and noise that come with a heavily touristed trail. But on the plus side, you can talk to another human!
Once in Colcabamba, you can say goodbye to free campsites. Camping here is limited to a few houses and licensed spots, and they will expect you to pay. The good news is you can get a home cooked meal for the first time in almost a week.
On day six, follow the Salkantay hikers and their guides as the trail winds its way down to La Playa, a small village perched next to a river. At this point, you’ve returned to relatively low altitudes and the heat will be intense. Best to drink lots of water and try to stay in the shade.
On the final day of the trek, you have the (boring) option to follow most of the Salkantay Trekkers down to Santa Teresa and from there hike along the train tracks to Aguas Calientes. Or, if you have the strength and want to see Machu Picchu in a way most tourists never will take a lesser known track up to Llactapata.
Llactapata is a forgotten and unimpressive ruin that sits on a ridge overlooking Machu Picchu. Its true beauty is the unparalleled opportunity it offers to look down on Machu Picchu from afar, just as the Inca once would have.
From La Playa, cross the river and continue to hike along the road. Be on the lookout for signs pointing towards an Incan Trail to Llactapata. They are hard to find but you will see it eventually. As of 2014, it was a faded red sign.
After this, the Incan Trail winds up the side of the mountain, not too steep but after a week of Andean hiking pretty much every incline feels steep. Your effort will be rewarded when you stumble out of the jungle onto a small clearing with the still standing walls of a modest temple structure.
Walk to the edge of the plaza and look out across the landscape. On the distant ridge, you’ll see a place where the jungle has been wiped away. Stones cling to the bare mountainside. This is Machu Picchu, and you are standing by yourself in the Andean Jungle looking out over it just as the Inca did long ago.
From Llactapata, the trail down to the valley floor is easy enough and then its just a slog along the train tracks until you reach Aguas Calientes, the town below Machu Picchu.
For accommodations in Aguas, your options are paid camping or budget hospedajes. Take your time and find the right option for you. The cheapest hospedajes are going to be up the hill and far from the main plaza. If you’re not too picky, camping is probably the way to go. Before you go to sleep for the night, make sure to buy your entrance pass to Machu Picchu for tomorrow! Do not wait until the next morning. Apparently now they assign times of day for your visit, so check your ticket to see when you’re allowed to enter the temple.
The next day, wake up early to make the walk up to Machu Picchu! Because you didn’t walk all this way just to take the bus, did you?
If you did, best to get in line for the bus at like 4am I hear. It’s pretty hard to catch a bus. The stairway up to Machu Picchu is tough but not impossible. I say hike it.
All that’s left is your exploration of Machu Picchu. Take all the time you need. This place is worth it.
After your temple visit, I recommend catching the train back to Cusco. It is by far the easiest way to travel back to civilization. If the train is outside your budget, you can follow the train tracks back towards Santa Teresa and from there catch a taxi or collectivo out to Santa Maria, and from there a bus to Cusco.
If you’re really hardcore, you can walk all the way back to the Sacred Valley by following the train tracks in the other direction. This is a 28km walk and takes the full day. Get started early. When you get to KM 82, you’ll find yourself in a small village and from there you can easily get a collectivo back to Ollantaytambo.
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All photos on this post from Macie J.