Trekking Peru's Lares Trail within Machu Picchu's Sacred Valley
I remember the overwhelming beauty of Machu Picchu - its bulbous green hills scattered with ruins from an age I couldn’t comprehend and the seemingly impossible terrain of the Sacred Valley in which it was built. But it was the three days spent trekking in its surrounds that stand most vividly in my memory. The shy faces of Andean village children wrapped in colourful ponchos of llama wool peeking out from behind doors, playing football at more than 3000 metres with porters whose powerful mountain lungs felt no obstacle against the thin air, and mountainous landscapes dotted with forgotten remnants of the Incan Empire.
Finding an alternative to the Inca Trail
I had not submitted my application for the Inca Trail early enough and its limited spaces had filled up - its popularity insatiable. My only available option, if I wanted to trek one of the routes which traversed Machu Picchu’s surrounding landscape, was to do the Lares Trek. This 3-day hike departs from the village of Pumahuanca within the Sacred Valley to the hot springs of Lares, 34 kilometres away. While the celebrated Inca Trail is the final stretch of a great Incan route which once traversed the land, the entire region around Machu Picchu is criss-crossed with trails where Peru’s ancestors once commuted, including along sections of the Lares Trail.
|While shorter than the Inca trek, the Lares traverses higher altitudes, with the challenging Huacawasi Pass sitting at 4,600 metres. Photo by Pip.|
While shorter than the Inca trek, the Lares traverses higher altitudes, with the challenging Huacawasi Pass sitting at 4,600 metres (compared to Dead Woman’s Pass on the Inca Trail at 4,215 metres), and combines equally impressive mountain scenery, idyllic lakes, and river-cut valleys. Unlike its counterpart which hikes east to west into Machu Picchu and enters through the aptly named ‘Sun Gate’ on the final day, the Lares Trek is within a mountainous region slightly further east, and hikers arrive at the ancient site via train from Ollantaytambo early on the final morning. As with all Inca Trail trekking tours, the Lares is tackled over 4 days/3 nights and includes a guided visit around Machu Picchu, together with all accommodation, food and transport to and fro.
Luxury camping in the Andean wild
Our group was led by llamas and pack mules, weighed down with our luggage but buoyed by years of experience in this high-altitude, mountainous terrain. Local porters, tiny in stature and with weather-worn faces, guided them along. The pace they set was one that none of us could match, storming ahead to set up camp for the first night. With the only burden being our day packs and accompanied by two English-speaking guides, we negotiated the steep, narrow paths, soaked up the immense scenery, and paused often to regain our breath in the thin air. Low clouds often moved in across the valleys, slowly retreating to reveal jagged peaks and reflective lakes.
|Local porters, tiny in stature and with weather-worn faces, set a pace that none of us could match, storming ahead to set up camp for the first night. Photo by Pip.|
After hiking 14 kilometres on the first day, arriving at camp to see our tents fully erected and smoke billowing from the kitchen hut was a welcome sight. From someone accustomed to wild camping, I felt a sense of luxury having my mattress already prepared, a hot bowl of water ready to wash away the day’s grime, and a three-course meal of locally sourced produce to refuel my body. Each day of the trek began with a hot drink of tea or coffee brought to the tent - a luxury I rarely got at home.
|The scenery through the Lare trek was spectacular. Photo by Pip.|
Working alongside local communities
While the scenery was spectacular, it was the villages and communities we passed through that had me truly enthralled. Hardy, mountain dwellers, living in remote and often exposed regions, who worked with the land to provide a sustainable and ongoing existence. The women wore billowing, layered petticoats and llama wool shawls, while the children’s cheeks, bright red and chaffed by the wind, edged curious smiles. Referred to as a ‘community trek’, the Lares provides assistance to the villages en route through financing and help in building projects. On the second afternoon, after a shorter day of hiking, we rolled up our sleeves with the village men to move a large pile of wood in preparation for a new school hut.
On completion, a game of football broke out with teams composed of local men, porters and tourists, the former knowing that the foreign lungs would not survive long. Although normally surviving a full 90 minute game, I was exhausted after 5 and retired to the sidelines to watch the ceaseless energy of the mountain men. Being directly involved with the rural communities which lie on Machu Picchu’s doorstep was an unexpected but rewarding experience. While the focus of the region is its rich Incan history, epitomised in the ruins which lure thousands upon thousands of tourists ever year, the human story of those who live in often difficult conditions in its surrounds is one which should not be overlooked.
|The villages and communities we passed through that had me truly enthralled. Photo by Pip.|
Well-earned rejuvenation in the Lares hot springs
On the afternoon of the third day when I sat in the geothermal springs of Lares, every muscle feeling the efforts of the days just passed, I was blissfully happy. With multiple pools of different temperatures set within a steep valley, a soak in the hot springs was the ideal opportunity to reflect and rejuvenate. The people we had encountered along the trek and the landscapes we experienced far surpassed my expectations, and the extreme camping conditions were made almost indulgent by the porters and guides who escorted us on this adventure. On the final afternoon we were transferred to Ollantaytambo for the following morning’s train journey and I fell asleep early in a mix of satisfied exhaustion and anticipation for the day that lay ahead at Machu Picchu.
|After the trek, I was blissfully happy with all the beautiful memories I got. Photo by Pip.|
Exploring the ‘lost city’ of Machu Picchu
Spread across the saddle which sits between the mountains of Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu, the setting of this former city was undoubtedly magnificent. The ruins and restored buildings provide countless tails and legends which the throngs of visitors who milled around us had come to discover. As I looked down across the site from the elevated viewpoint of the Sun Gate, the so-called ‘lost city’, speckled with camera-wielding sight-seers, felt far from secret. But i knew that in the hills and valleys which surrounded what was now one of the ‘New Seven Wonders of the World’ was an existence far removed. A world where indigenous communities still lived in tune with the land and Peruvian traditions were alive and strong.