Left isolated from tourist in southern Peru, these one-of-a-kind ruins are set on an astonishing piece of real estate atop the Apurimac River.
Waqrapukara or “The Horned Fortress” as best translated from Quechua is a pre-Incan and Incan archaeological site in the Andes mountains. It’s a recent re-discovery being added to the list of national Peru heritage sites as recent as 2017.
Much of the history is speculative and much of the site is still in process of examination but it’s thought to be first inhabited by the Qanchi tribe in the range of 1500 to 1000 BC. This predates the Incan Empire by millennia which is considered to be 1400 to 1533 CE.
During the reign of the Incas, the Qanchi people were fought with their last stand at Waqrapukara before surrendering and pledging allegiance to the Incas to be spared their lives.
The stone construction and hillside terraces that remain today are what the Incas transformed this site with. Archaeologists speculate that the Incas used this as a home for nobility as well as an important astronomical and religious observatory site.
About The Hike
The fortress is only accessible by hiking with the nearest trailheads being a few miles from the site. There are three or four main trailheads that can be used to access the Waqrapukara area and the trails all connect to one and another and meet centrally at the site.
The three towns with trailheads are Huayqui, Campi, and Santa Lucia with an additional trailhead above Waqrapukara on a newly built road that comes out of Sangarara.
When planning a hike to the site, be prepared to spend all day hiking. Depending on the route you take, you may be climbing significant elevation and situated at an altitude of 13,500 feet, the hiking will feel much more difficult.
All the trails are well-built, easy to follow, and safe but having a downloaded GPS map like one from Gaia GPS or AllTrails is highly advised because of the number of split-offs that you’ll come across.
Huayqui Trailhead – Huayqui used to be the most popular town for starting this hike but ever since new trails and roads were built, I believe this has fallen in popularity. Huayqui is a small, mountainous farming village with little traffic and few cars.
Finding the trailhead can be a little difficult but it’s precisely as the maps show which is at the entrance of the town, take the trail in-between the houses and wall that elevates you above the road in. The trail will then cross a grassy stretch as it heads towards the canyon cliffs which at this point you’ll see a sturdy trail and arrows pointing the way along the switchbacks.
This trail ascends on switchbacks for about 2,000 feet before leveling off at a view across the canyon way of Waqrapukara and then it’s about a mile and a half of flat canyon rim trail to reach the site. In total the one way distance is 5 miles from Huayqui to Waqrapukara.
Campi Trailhead – Similar to Huayqui, this small town is located shortly before you reach Huayqui and the town has a trail that connects into the one you would take from Huayqui about 3 miles away from Waqrapukara.
This trailhead is not very popular but can be a fine option if desired over Huayqui for any reason.
Santa Lucia Trailhead – I don’t have any first hand experience on this trail but it’s similar to the Huayqui trailhead but with a little less elevation gain and a little less milage. From the select few hikers and groups I saw hiking, this proved to be one of the more popular routes exiting Waqrapukara.
This trail is about 4 miles and 1,000 feet of elevation gain from trailhead to Waqrapukara.
Summit Trailhead – This is an unofficial name but is a newly built access point to the Waqrapukara site. I’m referring to it as the ‘Summit Trailhead’ because you will go over the summit of high pass in the mountains on your way to and from Waqrapukara.
There is no town located at this trailhead and it’s about a 5-mile road winding up through the hills from the nearest town so any transportation pick up would definitely need to be arranged before showing up here.
The stats on this route are roughly 4 miles and -1,500 feet of elevation gain, so if you were to comeback this way you would be climbing up 1,500 feet.
Route Details to Consider
All trailheads are in remote areas – it is logistically difficult to do this hike self-guided because of transportation. Whereas it’s doable, arranging transportation can be time consuming leaving you with an unset amount of time for hiking.
If possible, hiking from one trailhead to the other is the best way to experience the trail and area around Waqrapukara. If you have a hired driver for the day, a good strategy would be to start at Route #4’s Summit Trailhead then finish in one of the towns. This way you’re mostly hiking downhill the entire time.
Any route that includes elevation gain will take much longer than routes with descents because of the altitude. Make sure to plan for this when calculating time it will take to complete the hike.
Remember to acclimate before this hike. If you are coming from Cusco and have spent at least a day there your body should be acclimated but still take proper precautions like hydrating and not over-exerting yourself.
Transportation From Cusco
A few words can be used to describe transportation to get to the trailheads from Cusco – difficult, long, transfers, and uncertainty just to name a few. After doing this myself, I’d recommend at minimum working with one of the many tour companies in Cusco or at Chuquicahuana (where the bus from Cusco will drop you off) to assist with transportation.
Sharing my experience here to put it all in perspective…
On the morning of the hike, I woke up around 6am, packed my day pack, and my hostel owner made some calls to find out where the buses leave out of Cusco. Around 645am, I walked from my hostel, grabbed a few egg and avocado sandwiches, and walked to the bus terminal going to Sicuani.
Once the bus left at 730am (bus leaves whenever it’s full), it was around 2 hours to where the road splits and I’d get off to grab a colectivo to Acomayo. After another 15 minutes of waiting for the colectivo to fill up, it was about a 30 minute ride to Acomayo.
At around 1030am, realizing there is no colectivo or public transport to Huayqui, I paid a hefty price of maybe 80 sols for a private taxi up to Huayqui. It was now 1115am and I was just starting my hike.
Getting home was even more exciting because standing at Waqrapukara at 4pm the sky turned black and I didn’t have any transport aligned. I knew how tough it would be to get a ride from Huayqui too. I took a risk and figured hiking up towards the Summit Trailhead might be my best chance of getting a ride quickly out to the main road to grab a bus back to Cusco.
Luckily a couple hikers had a driver waiting at the trailhead and I was able to get in on their ride otherwise I’d be hiking down a 5-mile road in the pouring rain. From there I got back on the bus headed to Cusco.
Ideal Transport on a Budget
So, if you’re not going to arrange transport or book this hike as part of a tour, what I would recommend is taking the bus from Cusco to Sicuani for about 10 sols and getting off at Chuquicahuana which is near Lake Pomacanchi.
At this location there will be several colectivos and drivers taking people to Waqrapukara. This is where I would arrange to and from transport with drivers to make it the most seamless for your day.
Sicuani Bus Terminal (Google Maps Location)
Can You Camp at Waqrapukara?
Actually yes, there are some pretty insane campsites spread across the network of trails in the Waqrapukara area with some sites that look straight down to the Apurimac River below.
Did you know: This Apurimac River is the same river that runs below Choquequirao the Incan Cradle of Gold city? You can read about my trek from Choquequirao to Machu Picchu here!
All camping is wild and there are no facilities at the sites so tent and food are required. Permits to my knowledge are not required.
I actually like the camping idea a lot for this hike if you are doing it completely self-guided.
The distance from Cusco is so long that by the time you start hiking you barely have enough time at the site to enjoy. Staying over for the night would give you ample time and a pretty amazing morning sunrise.
Waqrapukara is an astonishing site which only receives a handful of tourists everyday. The trails are desolate and will provide you with an incredible hiking experience as you wind around the edge of the canyon that the ruins sit on.
Most people don’t even know this place exists so consider adding in a day of adventure instead of walking around Cusco for another day while you’re there. You’ll definitely have a one-of-a-kind unique experience to talk about and share to with the many other travelers who’ve been to Peru.
A last fun fact is that from the top of the hill above the ruins which would be Route #4 that I described above you can see Nevado Ausengate, the large glacier peak that sits near Rainbow Mountain and has an incredible trek around it called the Ausengate Circuit!
You can read about my experience and a how to guide on the trip here!
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