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Vilcabamba Trail


Peru

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Length:
3-4 days
 
7 days (Choquequirao) can be added
Maximum Altitude: 3,900m
Level of Difficulty: Difficult

Key information: Vilcabamba Trail

  • Walk this trail on ancient Inca paths to the ruins of Espiritu Pampa, the last city and capital of the empire when hounded out of the uplands by Spanish forces. 
  • This is really the (Inca) road less-travelled: genuine wilderness stuff. The path is often overgrown, or obliterated, and must be forged anew; there is not a single formal campsite en route; and many of the ruins at the end have been subsumed by landslip and thick vegetation, or enrobed by giant tree roots.
  • Can be walked as an extension to the seven-day Choquequirao trek; where Choquequirao was the royal refuge in the face of Spanish incursion, Espiritu Pampa (Vilcabamba la Vieja) was for the masses.
  • This is a difficult walk, but mostly downhill, descending from high, remote mountains on which you will have to be self-sufficient, and where altitude can cause real problems. Come prepared.


Walk summary

The Vilcabamba Trail is a stunning 3-4 day trek that, along with the Inca Path to Choquequirao, manages to completely avoid the tourist drags surrounding Machu Picchu. Much of the way is, however, in densely forested valleys and way-clearing can be needed. So, don?t expect the high-ridge drama of many of the other Inca Trails.

There are two ways to reach the Vilcabamba Trail?s Huancacalle trailhead: by road, around 200km from Cuzco, or by hiking to and then beyond the royal refuge of Choquequirao on its seven-day trek.

At Huancacalle, it is worth indulging in a short circuit taking in the nearby ruins ? not worth the grueling 9-hour journey from Cuzco in itself, but a welcome appetizer to iron out the inevitable kinks and stiffness that have set in.

Take the trail opposite the Sixpac Manco Hostel, crossing two bridges onto a steep-sided promontory between two further streams; turn left, climbing immediately to the ruins of a colonial mill. Beyond it, the entire hill is littered with Inca ruins, mostly uncovered. Crest the hill on a narrow neck of path, with precipitous slopes close in on three sides, and just in front of you, standing in a small depression and surrounded by bluffs, lie the ruins of Vitcos.

After nosing around Vitcos? terraces, plazas and cliff-top perches, follow the same narrow stretch back out to rejoin the path. Descend through Eucalyptus groves and beyond successive ruins ? carved boulders, overgrown terracing ? to the valley floor. Further on lies ?usta Espa?a, a tiny site centred on a vast sculpted monolith (7m high; 15m or so wide), replete with carved water channels and elaborate structures.

Beyond this is a junction where the path from Choquequirao reaches Huancacalle, before a final very steep climb back to the high street opposite the hostel.

This civilized, 2-4hr (6km) circuit is entirely unlike the Vilcabamba Trail. Leave Huancacalle at the 1st Station of the Cross (there are 14 such crucifixes lining road from here), on a junction just south of the Sixpac Manco Hostel, climbing a path more or less mimicking the road. Up here are the remains of a 15th Century belltower.

From here you join the road ? not that there?s much traffic ? until it peters out half an hour later after a bridge at the foot of a waterfall. The wilderness is beginning. The climb to Abra Ccolpa Casa, a 3,900m pass, takes you to the highest point on this trek. In amongst the puna grassland are adjacent Inca and Catholic shrines.

A steady descent begins over more boggy ground, before you join some paved sections of ancient Inca path for a really steep drop into the Rio Pampaconas valley. After crossing the bridge (Puente Antiguo) comes a choice: the high road or the low road.

The low road is most common, following the rivers left bank and crossing numerous small tributaries on the valley floor. Easy going, if often boggy. Don?t re-cross the river until you reach the suspension bridge.

The high road is more challenging ? and more authentic. A climb up the valley side through very boggy scrub to the decrepit remnants of an Inca plaza, but then an exciting descent, first on vertiginous Inca stairs and then on classic paved-path, to rejoin the main path just before the suspension bridge.

The going is slightly easier hereafter. Steady descent through cloud forest teeming with birdlife and ever more verdant. The trail undulates above the river often on more original paths and steps eventually crossing the Rio Pampaconas after approximately 1.5hrs. From a pampa on this left hand bank of the river, you can see, high above, the old Inca fort atop the narrow Huayna Pucar? ridge.

Pass below this towering, sharp spur, and stay on the left bank of the river, crossing tributary after tributary on increasingly dodgy bridges. (Some streams, with the worst bridges, can be forded if the conditions are ok.) After the town of Vista Alegre, it becomes log scrambles to cross the side-streams en route to San Cristobal and Urpipata.

These paths get overgrown quickly, particularly when they haven?t been trod for a while; the valleys? steep sides are prone to landslip; the overall direction is down, although constant dipping in and out of tributary-valleys and gorges make for incessant steep pulls and tough walking. This is reminiscent of coastal walking at its most relentless, all the way to the settlement at Consividayoc.

Still parallel to the river (do not cross!), contouring above its left bank, it is approx. 2hrs to Espiritu Pampa ? first climbing on paved Inca paths and the odd set of stairs, then turning away from the river at the unnamed ruins of a 15th watchtower. Here begins a grand ceremonial flight of Inca stairs climbing very steeply out of the valley. Atop a ridge, over two bridges and amidst dense forest, the path branches left to the ruins themselves.

Espiritu Pampa is wilder even than Choquequirao, Machu Picchu?s less-excavated ?sister? site. But still the site is magical: grand Inca baths as you approach; a deep canal before its ceremonial entrance; old tumbledown walls; an eastern platform with residential buildings and the Vilca Stone, an uncarved monolith; the western platform populated with its own ruins and beneath sweeping Inca terracing. From here, where the western platform meets with the civic plaza, a trail leads through dense forest to the Palace of Fourteen Ashlars and Hiram Bingham?s (he of Machu Picchu fame) first local discoveries at Eromboni Pampa.

Returning to the main trail, stay on the left side of the river (currently the Rio Espiritu Pampa) climbing into and out of side valleys: the path reaches the Rio Consevidayoc valley after an hour or so. The hamlet of Posta de Salud greets you soon after rejoining the Consevidayoc.

Beyond Posta de Salud?s farmlands, still on the left of the river, it is 60mins to the bridge finally crossing the Rio Consevidayoc.

Before the bridge, there is the option to branch left along a much more dangerous and less-travelled route to Chaunquiri, the trek?s endpoint.

Taking the standard route, it?s a case of more ups and downs to cross adjoining rivers, some of them steep, all of them tiring, before finally reaching Chaunquiri.

 

Getting there: 7-9 hours by bus from Cuzco to Quillabamba; 7-9 hour bus connection to Huancacalle trailhead. Driving from Cuzco to Huancacalle avoids the Quillabamba diversion.
 
Getting back: Irregular buses leave from Chaunquiri to Kiteni, approx 2hrs. It is sometimes possible to hitch a ride with local trucks: unnerving, though. From Kiteni, a 7-9hr bus journey reaches Quillabamba; from Quillabamba, another 7-9 hrs by bus to Cuzco.

 

See our Choquequirao page for practical information relevant to the seven-day extension; or, look at our Inca Trails pages for general information on the Inca Trails and the Cuzco Area.

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