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Published: January 11th 2020
Looking back down towards Cancha Cancha
The wide glacial valleys were empty of all but the smallest plants. The orange dots in the photo are the pack horses, carrying all our camping equipment.
The Lares Trek is probably the most scenic and wild trek near Cusco. Salkantay is beautiful, but Lares feels so much more remote. There are at least six different routes through the mountains between Calca and Lares. Also, fewer travel agencies have Lares than Salkantay, so you are more likely to have the trail to yourself, like I did.
I went with SAM Travel from Cusco, to the ruins of Pisac, to the market of Calca to the town of Huaran, where we started hiking. The first day is an easy walk up to the community of Cancha Cancha - it’s too small for me to even call it a village. The second day is a much more challenging trek up over a high pass and down to the village of Qiswarani. The third day is the most scenic from Qiswarani up over another high pass and down to the village of Cuncani.
It was a really early morning, leaving Cusco at 4am, but we got to the ruins of Pisac long before it opened or before any other people were there. It was beautiful to see the ruins in the morning mist, watching the sun come up while
The higher we climbed, the more fantastical the landscape became, even with clouds hiding most of the glaciers.
we marveled at the remains of a whole cliffside of tombs. The mummies and gold have sadly been looted decades ago, but you can still see the most extensive Inca burial grounds in the Sacred Valley. From the ruins, we went down into Pisac where our cooks Fortunato and Irineo had prepared a lavish breakfast for us at a cute little guesthouse.
It’s not even a half hour drive from Pisac to Calca, where we stopped at the market. The cooks bought provisions for the trek and we were left to wander and do our own shopping. This trek goes through some very remote villages and we were encouraged to buy toys or anything we wanted to share with the children we passed on the trail. I bought a package of brightly colored foam balls about the size of baseballs. The other guys on the trek bought some toy cars and dinosaurs. We also got bags of sweet rolls and bags of coca leaves for the adults. It seemed a bit odd to me at the time, buying toys to hand out along the trail, but when we were on the trail I was so happy to have something
Fortunato and Irineo are amazing cooks and also great trail companions. They accompanied our "emergency horse" which was ready to help if I got too exhausted.
to give the children who came out to greet us and watch us hike by their homes.
Back in the van, we drove another half hour or so to the trailhead, just outside of the town of Huaran. We met our horseman, Santiago and the four horses who carried our camping gear, as well as the fifth “emergency” horse that walked with us in case we were tired and needed to ride or wanted to put our backpacks on the horse for a while. None of us used the emergency horse, but it was comforting to have it there following us.
The trail from Huaran up to the first campsite in Cancha Cancha is a gentle uphill along a small river. We walked through a narrow little valley which was quiet and so green with the recent rains. This was still low altitude and there were trees along the path, shading us from the midday sun. We arrived at the lunch spot around 1pm where a tent was set up beside the river and the food ready to put on the table. We got there just in time because it started raining as soon as we sat down
When the clouds parted it always surprised me just how close the glaciers were. I was very aware that we were at high altitude, but seeing glaciers as across rather than up was still novel.
to eat. I was continuously amazed by the food that Fortunato and Irineo managed to produce on a camp stove. As a vegetarian, I got to see both their regular versions of every meal and also how they adapted it for me. There was always more than we could eat and I was glad that the cooks were never offended when we couldn’t eat it all. They were working hard enough that they managed to polish off our leftovers along with their own meals.
The last couple hours on the trail we left the river and the trees, heading up towards the bare mountains at higher altitude. We arrived in Cancha Cancha just as a cold wind hit and were happy to see the tents already set up, ready for us to dive in. We were provided basins of hot water for washing up and an afternoon snack with as much tea or hot chocolate as we wanted to warm up after the last bit of cold trail. A couple hours later was another elaborate meal which left me almost ready to crawl into my sleeping bag.
Before we called it a day entirely, our guide Cliser took
Early in the morning, before the sun rose on Qiswarani, the clouds parted so we could see the mountain we had just camped under.
us to meet one of the families he knows in the community. They welcomed us into their small, one room home and Cliser translated for us as they told us what it was like to live in Cancha Cancha and why they only went down to their house in Huaran when their daughter was in school. There is a small elementary school in Cancha Cancha with two teachers who come up from Huaran every Monday morning and go back to town every Friday afternoon. Since we were starting our trek on Friday, I got to meet them on their way home as we walked uphill. As a teacher, I always wonder what it would be like to teach in the places I travel. Even after spending time there and learning about the lives of the people who live in Cancha Cancha, it is hard to wrap my mind around what it would be like to teach at that school. This couple’s daughter graduated from primary school last year, which is why they take turns going down to Huaran when school is in session, so she can go to the secondary school there.
The mother was weaving when we arrived
We did not see any other hikers on this trek, only people who actually live high in these mountain valleys.
and started to put everything away, but Cliser read my mind and told her that we would like to watch how she wove. She explained what she was making and why she was weaving their clothes with synthetic yarn that she bought in town, rather than use the wool from the alpacas grazing all around the house. Alpaca wool is extraordinary in its insulation and water resistance if you leave in the natural lanolin. It has become very popular outside of Peru and therefore much more valuable. She can make more money selling the yarn or weavings that she makes with her alpacas’ wool than anything else she has. After we chatted for a while, and after I realized that the guinea pigs hiding under the bed weren’t in a hutch but were just there because they were scared of the strange people in their home, she brought out some of the things she has made.
I had been hoping that somewhere along the trail I would have the opportunity to buy an alpaca scarf from the person who not only had woven it, but had raised and sheared the alpaca and also made the yarn. She sold me
One of the best parts of getting to the top of a pass is getting to use the little rock I was carrying on the top of an apacheta. I realize how ridiculous it sounds to carry rocks up to the tops of mountains, but getting to put the top on an apacheta, thanking the mountain for safe passage, is worth it.
the most beautiful baby alpaca scarf, woven of natural colors from her alpaca who are naturally white, brown and black. Baby alpaca does not mean that the alpaca has to be a baby when it is sheared, it’s just the first shearing of an alpaca at any age. Like a human baby’s downy soft hair, baby alpaca have softer wool than adults who have been sheared already. This was not the time or place for bargaining and I happily paid her asking price. It seemed like a lot at the time, but in retrospect I wish she had asked for more. At least we also gave them toys for the kids, fresh bread and coca leaves for the parents.
The next morning, after a hearty breakfast, we started walking up the valley and I got to see the community’s namesakes. Cancha means fence in Quechua and as we walked, we passed many stone enclosures for livestock. Since we were already well above treeline, all firewood had to be brought up from the valley below. There is no spare wood for fences. Some of the enclosures looked abandoned, with walls partly falling down. Others were still very much in use,
Traditional and Modern
The stone homes we passed all had grass roofs which keep out rain but also filter out the smoke from indoor cooking fires. Of the dozens we passed, this was the only one with a solar panel and therefore the only one with electricity.
housing small herds of sheep. The valley was full of mist, with clouds around the mountain tops, so we only got sneak peaks of the glaciers and waterfalls cascading from them which lined the valley.
The trail from Cancha Cancha goes up, then levels out across a wide glacial valley, then up again, then across another valley. The uphill parts were certainly challenging and I appreciated the change of pace that each valley offered. The mountains there are incredibly scenic. We had the whole place to ourselves, walking past grazing alpaca and watching Andean geese on the little lakes high up. Parts of the trail followed a stream, which I gather isn’t there in the dry season around July and August. Tourism drops off steeply during the rainy season, especially during January and February, but I honestly enjoy the mountains more when everything is green and the glaciers all have fresh snow on them.
The highest pass we went over that day was foggy, so we didn’t get much of a view, but it was fun to see alpaca coming in and out of the mist as we hiked along. The top would have been anticlimactic even with
Our guide's best guess was they these two had cut grass in another valley and were bringing it to their llamas or alpacas at home. They were too far away to ask.
a view because it’s more of a rounded slope of scree than a ridgeline. Uphill is always easier for me than downhill and considering how high we had climbed to the pass, I was dreading the downhill. In all the mountains climbing books people don’t get hurt on the way up. Disaster always strikes on the way down. I’ve read Touching the Void, and while the Lares trek is a walk in the park compared to Siula Grande, I was still trekking in the Andes and the story was on my mind.
A couple hours before we go to camp it started raining. I optimistically and naively only put on a poncho over my rain jacket and daypack, not bothering with my rain pants. Half an hour later I had to give in and even though I was already soaked from the knees down, I got out my rain pants. Hiking downhill, across scree slopes, in the rain isn’t fantastic, but I was so happy to be out in the mountains that it was still enjoyable. When we got down to the village of Qiswarani, the tents were already set up and our afternoon tea was ready. It was
Shopping on the trail
They wouldn't smile for photos, but the kids along the trail chatted shyly with our guide and smiled when I bought bracelets and gave them toys and food. Can you spot her house in the distance? It's right by the cliff edge.
so nice to have something hot to drink and a dry place to change clothes as soon as we got there.
Qiswarani is a real village, not a tiny community like Cancha Cancha. There is a road and electricity and even a little building with a sign proclaiming it to be a shop. I didn’t bother to go in, but I did enjoy the view of the seven waterfalls from our campsite and the views of the glaciers above as the clouds came and went. The next morning we had the most stunning view of the glaciers above us, but that afternoon the snowfields above came and went in the clouds.
A couple places along the trail to Qiswarani there had been kids who came out to greet us or were waiting for us on the trail with things to sell. Although I don’t like buying stuff from children, Cliser reminded me again that it was the weekend and I was not encouraging kids to skip school. I bought a little something from each, even if it was just a handmade bracelet. Cliser asked them their names and how old they were in Quechua. I bought something then
Traditional Ways of Life
I've seen women dressed like this in Cusco, posing for photos with tourists. This was the first time I'd seen anybody in such traditional clothes herding alpacas with her dogs.
gave them toys and the sweet bread we had bought in Calca. In town, there were a few older women who came to sit unobtrusively near our campsite with all sorts of things spread out on a blanket to sell. Most of it was handwoven scarves, hats, socks, gloves and little bags. I couldn’t buy from all of them, but I did make a point to at least buy something.
It rained most of the afternoon and evening, so I hung out in the cook tent rather than explore the village. Fortunato and Irineo were very welcoming and we traded a few words of Quechua for a few words of English. Both are fluent in Spanish and Quechua but said that they’d like to be able to communicate better with the trekkers they cook for. It was a lot of fun and both of them are genuinely kind and funny people.
The next morning we left Qiswarani, hiking up towards another pass before heading downhill to Cuncani. Cancha Cancha was definitely more remote than Qiswarani, so I was surprised that the trail leaving Qiswarani took us through the most wild and rugged landscape we had seen yet. There
Herds of Llamas and Alpacas
This woman also had on a very traditional outfit, although you can only see her hat in this pic. The animal on the far right, with the brown face and short fur is a llama. The ones in the middle with furry round faces and longer wool are alpaca.
were more strings of tiny glacial lakes, the trail seemed even less traveled, though I didn’t think that could be possible and the highest pass we went over was much more stunning than the pass the day before. It wasn’t a sunny day, so the colors of the glacial blue lakes and green mountain sides were muted, but still beautiful. Even though colors are brighter under a sunny sky, dark clouds look so much more dramatic to me in photos than blue sky.
This was the day that we saw people actually herding the alpaca, and in some cases llamas too. Alpaca are better suited to higher altitudes because they have more insulating wool and their mouths and teeth are smaller. So high above treeline, plants of any variety grow very close to the ground. Llamas’ larger teeth can barely get a hold of the tiny plants but alpaca don’t have any trouble grazing on what little plant life grows up so high. I shouldn’t have been so surprised to see that the people who live up there still wear their traditional clothes, but somehow I was amazed every time to see the bright, traditional Andean outfits. You can
Nobody would shear the wool off of an alpaca this little, but you can see that it does have softer wool than the adults.
see them everywhere in Cusco, but they’re there to have their photos taken with tourists, not to herd alpaca.
We passed stone homes, just like the one we had visited in Cancha Cancha. They don’t have chimneys but the straw roofs both filter out smoke and protect from rain. Cooking and heating is still done with wood brought up from the valleys, using llamas as transportation. Each has their niche and just like alpaca are better for wool and better adapted to high altitudes, llamas are much better as pack animals.
Winding our way down the last set of switchbacks, to where we could see Cuncani and the van waiting for us, I would have been sad to leave the trail if my knees weren’t so done with the downhill. We did get to see a few more children who came out to watch us hike past, and lots more llamas, but we had left the high altitude valleys and were back below tree line. The other consolation prize for having to leave the trail was the Lares hot springs. I had been looking forward all morning to soaking my knees and aching calves in the hot springs
Laughter along the trail
These two started out telling the sad story of this lamb's mother dying and ended up laughing about all the trouble it gets into. Considering that I know very few words in Quechua, I was happy that my guide was able to translate.
and I was not disappointed.
This was my first time at the Lares hot springs and I was glad that I was warned about the water beforehand. All I had been told, was that is has high mineral content and to not wear a light colored swimsuit because it will stain. I’m sure the minerals are great for skin and health and all, but they do make the water look dirty. The pools at Lares are a far cry from any swimming pool I’ve seen before but still felt fantastic.
Before we got to Lares, Fortunato and Irineo had already set up a tent on the lawn near the springs and another elaborate lunch was ready for us when we arrived. The van ride from Cuncani to the hot springs was probably about half an hour. For future reference, you can camp at Lares, setting up a tent where our lunch tent was located.
After lunch and soaking in the hot springs, it was time to head back to Cusco. The others in the group were going in the van to Ollantaytambo to take the train to Aguas Calientes and visit Machu Picchu the next morning. If you’ve been following my blog, then you know that I’ve already had many opportunities to visit Machu Picchu, so I just went back to Cusco, elated at having spent three days in such rugged mountains.
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