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Choquequirao – Machu Picchu’s sister city

The route to these dramatic Inca ruins is one of Peru’s best treks

The Inca ruins of Choquequirao are as impressively located as those of their more famous sister city Machu Picchu, and the route to these dramatic archaeological remains is one of Peru’s best treks. Less well-known than the popular Inca Trail, the two-day hike to Choquequirao takes walkers into the remote Vilcabamba mountain range, characterized by snowcapped peaks that rise above the densely forested slopes of the region’s deep valleys and narrow canyons. This is a fascinating trek through spectacular scenery and a vivid regional history of empire and conquest.

Whereas the ruins of Machu Picchu are situated amid the cloud forest enveloped eastern slopes of the Vilcabamba mountain range, the Incas built the settlement we now know as Choquequirao (“Cradle of Gold” in Quechua) on the western slopes of the same mountain range. Both settlements were established by the Incas in the mid- to late-15th century, during the height of the Inca imperial phase. As the Incas consolidated their control over the territory beyond the Cusco valley, they ventured into the forests of the Vilcabamba region, seeking to secure their frontiers against the possibility of incursion by the ethnic groups who occupied the lowland forests, and to expand their agricultural frontier.

Choquequirao is located on the western slopes of the Vilcabamba range at about the same parallel as Machu Picchu. Mirroring each other’s locations on slopes covered in cloud forest vegetation rich in endemic flora and fauna, both citadels stand half-way up their respective mountains, overlooking two of the region’s major rivers. The Vilcanota-Urubamba River flows far below Machu Picchu. This major river was considered sacred by the Incas, who called it the Willka Mayu (“Sacred River” in Quechua) and saw it as the earthly manifestation of the Milky Way they observed in the night sky. Beneath the ruins of Choquequirao flows the Apurímac River (“The God that Speaks” in Quechua), its frigid waters racing down into the Amazon basin.

For hikers who walk the trail to Choquequirao from the typical Andean village of Cachora, the approach to the ruins involves a steep descent from over 3000 meters above sea level to the Apurímac River at 1200 meters, followed by an even steeper ascent to the ruins. The site is perched a magnificent 1600 meters (one vertical mile) above the river, surrounded by densely-forested mountain slopes, beneath huge, snow-capped peaks. The hike to Choquequirao takes two days, after which trekkers can return via the same trail to Cachora, or continue on a fascinating route that ends at Machu Picchu.

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