Obviously coming to Peru I was keen to go hiking, and the only trek I knew about was the Inca Trail. Lots of other people are obviously in the same position, as it's by far and away the most popular trek, now restricted to 500 people per day, with permits selling out months in advance. So based on not a lot of internet searching I selected the Lares Trail as an alternative. It's a three day hike, and on the fourth day you visit Macchu Picchu. Sounded perfect for us.
However in another of my well-documented examples of failing to read the material very closely, I had not realised just how challenging the trek would be. After it was booked and paid for, Rod, who had actually read the trip notes, mentioned to me that we get pretty high, at our highest point reaching a pass at 4800 metres. From my comfortable sea-level apartment this sounded very achievable. After all, I walked the Annapurna Circuit many years ago and we reached 5400 metres so obviously this would be a doddle. How deceptive time and memories are!
We started early on day one, with a 6.00am pick up from our
hotel in Cusco, and a two hour drive to Ollamtaytambo, which was a pretty little town in the Sacred Valley. Rod and I had breakfast in a café overlooking the square, eagerly anticipating the days to come.
We were joined by our trekking companions for the next few days: Ben and Emma, a young couple (both doctors) from the UK; Aoife, another young doctor from Ireland; and Phil, an English engineer based in the Middle East. Once again Rod and I would be the oldest by at least 15 years.
Our next stop was at Calca, a small town with a thriving local market, to stock up on some recommended essentials. It was suggested that we each buy a bag of coca leaves each to chew on as we walked, both for energy and to adjust to the altitude, as well as some bread rolls and fruit to give to local children we would meet on the way. Then after about another hour of driving we finally we arrived at the start of our trek in the Lares Valley, eager to get underway.
The first day’s walking was fairly easy. We stopped for lunch and I was
amazed to find that the simple clearing had been transformed, as our horses were carrying gas bottles, tables and chairs and a large tent which doubled as both a kitchen and dining room, not to mention a special bathroom tent which had been set up. Lunch was a cream of asparagus soup, rice with vegetables and a delicious trout with pesto sauce.
After another couple of hours’ easy walking uphill we finally arrived at camp. Our tents had already been set up for us and to my amusement we were soon joined by around a dozen local ladies selling bottles of beer, water, Gatorade, woollen hats and gloves and other little tourist trinkets. Lined up along the stone fence their colourful local clothes made a lovely contrast. They all sold exactly the same thing, so Rod and I tried to space out our purchases – we bought one beer from one lady, one from another and a Gatorade from yet another.
Then it was time to meet our crew: Julio, the chef who was like a magician, conjuring up delicious two-course meals using only a couple of gas rings; Timoteo the ‘waiter’ who also seemed to be in
charge of setting up and running the camp site; and our horsemen – Eugenio, Lorenzo and Axel, all from local villages, who run the team of horses that carried our packs and all the gear. Each introduced themselves in Quechua and our guide Jason translated for us. Then Jason explained what was coming up the next day – an early wakeup call with coca tea and a big day of walking. It was a very early night for us.
The next day was much tougher, and it was here that I had glossed over or failed to read the fine print at all. We had a very early start at around 5.00 am and then headed up….up…..and up! We climbed from 3800 metres to 4800 metres over rough stony pathways, as the clouds rolled in. It became very cold. At one point it started to rain, then this became hail, and before too long it was snowing! I was glad of my purchase of two heavy duty ponchos in Cusco, not dreaming that I would ever need to use them.
It was a very hard day, and I was puffing and breathing hard due to the altitude, chewing
on the coca leaves hoping for some energy! However despite being the oldest by a very long way Rod and I were at the front of the bunch, which was quite pleasing. Although before we could get too smug, we were humbled when Timoteo, aged 57, carrying a full pack, raced ahead of us to set up camp for the lunch site.
We walked for several hours uphill. Rod’s watch has an altitude reading, and every few minutes someone would ask how high we were, an adult version of “are we there yet?”
The walk was very challenging, but the reward for all this was the stunning scenery over the valleys, beautiful lakes, lush green mountains and snow-capped peaks. We also passed a number of local children, all very quiet and shy and whispering their names in Quechuan to Jason who would translate for us.
There were three in our group who were clearly struggling with both fitness and altitude. Poor Ben was really quite unwell, so ill that for a while he got on one of the horses, which had to be blindfolded before he could climb aboard! Being on a horse as we made our
way up the narrow rocky pathways was frankly quite terrifying, and after a while he said he’d rather walk, despite feeling so terrible.
Our group soon split into two, with Rod, Phil and I forging ahead at the front with Julio as our guide. It was exhilarating to reach the high pass, although there was a very cold wind so we didn’t spend long at the top to celebrate despite the stunning scenic views, it was onwards and downwards from then on.
While it was good to be heading downhill, it was slow going as the path was very slippery with loose rocks and gravel or at times very muddy and wet. However after about six hours of walking we reached the lunch spot, which had unbelievable views over the valley. We lay in the sun and snoozed while we waited for the others, who finally arrived about 1 ½ hours later and we all enjoyed a very well-earned lunch.
From there on it was literally downhill all the way. That afternoon we had an easy walk of about 2 hours, before setting up camp in one of the most scenic, yet coldest places I have ever
Start of the Lares trek
Note for drivers: don't go fast, don't kill anyone, don't die. Makes sense really.
stayed in. Some of our group had been advised that they should have two sleeping bags, and at midnight when I was woken because of the cold and I had no more layers to put on, and was lying on the hard ground shivering, I am not sure I have ever been so envious of anyone else in my life. Oh for the luxury of two sleeping bags!
However apart from the cold for a few short hours, this trek was absolutely spectacular. It felt like we had the Andes to ourselves, as apart from the local children and villagers we only saw two other trekking groups. When I think about 500 people every day on the Inca trail I am very grateful that the hiking passes were sold out months ago, as I couldn’t have wished for a better experience on the undiscovered Lares trail.
As I think back to the picturesque valleys and remember the untouched villages, time and memories are still playing tricks, I’d do it again in a heartbeat. What altitude?
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