Day 1 of the Choquequirao Trek

Technically, Day 1 of my Choquequirao experience was the entire day my friend and I spent negotiating the local bus/taxi connections in order to get to the village of Cachora and the trailhead for Choquequirao that leads out of it. Since Cachora is such a tiny town, located 40 or so minutes by car from the main road, there are no buses that actually take you directly there. So, on the morning of our departure from Cusco we purchased bus tickets to Apamayo and let the driver know we would need to get off at the start of the road to Cachora. He indicated that would be no problem – but somehow 4 hours or so later we were pulling into the Apamayo bus station without any indication that we had passed our turn off an hour ago. So, we ended up finding a taxi that was willing to drive us directly to Cachora for 40 soles, and spent another hour and a half driving on the same winding mountain roads and then down a long and winding dirt road to the tiny town that marks the beginning of the trek to the Inca city cradled deep in a mountain ridge high above the Apurimac River. We got to our destination a few hours past our intended arrival with one clear lesson learned, and one recommendation: there are several reasons to do this trek with a reputable tour operator, the first one being private transportation directly to the trailhead…
We wanted to make at least some progress that day, even though the sun was hanging low over the beautiful snow-covered peaks that dominated the horizon. The trailhead is easy to find from the main square of Cachora: just follow the main street down the hill, past fields of corn and towards the stunning vista ahead for a half hour or so until you get to a bridge across the river and a sign clearly indicating that this is your path to Choquequirao. We walked for two hours or so that day until the sun began to disappear and we set up our tent alongside the smooth dirt road on one of the only semi-flat spots we could find – which basically meant the hill wasn’t too steep. Although we spent the night fighting a slow slide to the bottom of the tent we did wake up to amazingly beautiful views of the snow peaks shrouded in clouds directly in front of us.
And from here is where the true trekking begins. The first hour or so our morning’s walk was again on that road that was flat, smooth and had me thinking that maybe all the rumors of quad and calf muscle punishment were fiction. We were able to take in the incredible views on this leisurely stroll until the prominent lookout point at Mirador de Capuliyoc, where we had stunning panoramic views of the mountains surrounding us, the deep river canyon below us…and the steep switchbacked trail that would take us between the two points with hours of downhill hiking. Here is where my second reason for taking a professional guided tour comes in: let a mule team carry your stuff and use trekking poles if you have knee or hip problems. My friend was definitely carrying the bulk our stuff in his large pack, but even with my small pack I finished the day’s downhill feeling like my knees were going to buckle and my toes seemed like they were on the verge of busting through the front of my hiking boot.
The shining light in all of this hard walking is some of the most beautiful scenery you can imagine: Peru at its best. Your trail takes you from the lofty canyon rim with straight across views to the snow fields on the opposing peaks, through tall alpine grasses, into Dr. Seuss-like yucca and cacti, and finally down to the roaring Apurimac River. The sharp topography of the mountains and sheer drop offs are amazing.
We took full advantage of the river to cool off and wash the sweat and dirt off and decided to camp at the small riverside established camping area at Playa Rosalina with its papaya grove and free range roosters. There are bathrooms, cold showers, and basic rooms also available here. Perhaps most importantly, there is also beer and water for sale. Reason number three to do this with a guide and mule team? In order to have enough water for the trek you either need to carry it all in, take the time to boil it or treat it with iodine, or buy a 2 liter bottle for 4 times the price you would pay elsewhere. After having to drink warm water that had recently been boiled a few times in the Andean sun I was happy to pay 10 soles for a bottle of water.
The sun set that night around 6, and I think it would be stretching it if I said I stayed awake until 7; amazed and exhausted by the beauty and challenge of the day’s trail.