When most people plan a journey to Peru, they envision the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu or the infamous trek along the Inca Trail to get there. The Inca Trail is, without a doubt, one of the most famous treks in South America and THE ONE that most eager travelers or trekkers have on their bucket lists. The Inca Trail is a 26 mile, historic and sacred stone path through the Andes that concludes at the gateway to the Lost City of the Incas, Machu Picchu.
Most people know that I’m not one to do what everyone else is doing. So although the attraction of the Inca Trail was something that interested me, I wanted to get off the beaten path a bit more. I wanted to see Peru, I mean, really see it. I wanted to experience the terrain, the people, the culture, the communities. While doing my research, I found something that appealed to me; a trek called the “Lares Community Trek“. This trek offered the ability to hike through the mountains and experience remote communities, but also know that by doing so, part of the money I spent to have a guided service there would go directly back to these communities to help with education and healthcare. So on a whim I booked a 10 day trip with Dragoman to Peru and Bolivia. Part of this overland trip included the Lares Community Trek which was guided by a local Cusco company called Andina Travel.
A lot of people aren’t aware that there are several popular treks in Peru. The Lares Trek, The Salcantay trek, the Choquequirao Trek to list a few. These treks are not as popular as the Inca Trail, quite frankly, because they are not as well-known. Most people want to walk on the Ancient Road of the Incas; arrive at Sun Gate on the last day and watch sunrise over Machu Picchu, then return home to tell their friends that they conquered the Inca Trail. I know several people who hiked the Inca Trail and found it to be an awesome and rewarding experience worth every bit of effort. Despite this, I was confident that I was making the right choice. Because…why not try something different?
The Inca Trail’s popularity is not without its downfalls; crowed campsites, overused latrines, hoards of people to contend with along the route and even the possibility of missing sunrise at Sun Gate for a variety of reasons. The benefit of the alternative treks is that they give you a more secluded, challenging and rugged experience. In fact, I saw no other hikers for the 3 days spent hiking on the Lares Community Trek. The landscape on the Community Trek, much like the Inca Trail, is phenomenal, and though you may not walk through Sun Gate to the ruins on the final day, you can easily take a bus to the ruins and enjoy them in all their glory; after a good nights sleep !
This trip was extra special for me because I had my Dad and Brother join me for the adventure. People ask me all the time where I get my adventurous spirit, and when it comes to my family, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree 🙂 After a long journey to get to Peru, the tour itself began in the city of Cusco (which by the way was my most favorite city visited the whole trip; I loved the vibe, the shops, the food, the excitement and the culture here).
The first stop on the trek was a the ruins of Sacsayhuaman (pronounced “sexy woman”) not far from Cusco. These ruins are made of massive boulders, fit together like puzzle pieces forming zigzagging walls and built into a terraced fortress. Further along the Sacred Valley, we visited the ruins of Pisac, nestled into the mountainside and guarding the valley below.
The trailhead for the trek awaited in the highlands of the Cordillera Urubamba, where the altitude was already leaving me short of breath. The trail on day one followed the path of a river through the valley up into the mountainside and was a “gentle climb”, but it certainly took some adjusting to get used to finding my pace at this altitude.
If you never have hiked or visited a place at this altitude (greater than 12000 ft), it’s important to understand that altitude affects each person differently. Although being physically fit is beneficial, it doesn’t mean that you won’t suffer the effects. I found the altitude to be pretty brutal and frustrating. I was used to hiking hard at sea level, so it was a huge change to be winded after just a few steps and feeling crummy all around. Understand the effects of altitude sickness and listen to your body during these treks!
My favorite place on this hike was camp (Day 1) at the village of Cancha Cancha at about 12700 feet. Our campsite was set up next to a babbling brook, among the stone houses of the small community, surrounded by glaciated peaks and farmed mountainsides.
The people of the village work long hours and awake before sun rises to tend to their crops (primarily potato cultivation), and their herds of llamas; even the children join the adults in fields. Some of the children we encountered on the hike would have to walk hours along these same paths to and from school each day. It was an eye-opening experience for all of us on the hike to see the daily lives of the people who live in these remote mountain villages.
Day 2 would prove to be a bit more taxing as the trail climbs all day to reach a rugged mountain pass. Uphill, not my favorite… After a sleepless night (altitude makes sleeping more difficult) and tired legs from hiking the day before, it was hard to get moving on the cold mornings. The scenery today was far more dramatic and impressive as the trail climbs high into the mountains, overlooking glacial lakes and spanning snowy summits.
Llamas, Alpaca, sheep, birds and rodents were saying hello along the trail. The Lares Community Trek is a rugged, rocky trail with lots of climbing and desending. The trails on the Communicty Trek are maintained only by the footsteps of the local people and the animals. I recommend a sturdy pair of hiking boots!
The Inca Trail has the infamous Dead Woman’s Pass, the highest point on the route, sitting at 13828 ft (4215m). The highest point on the Community Trek is called Pachactuec Pass which is at 15419ft (4700m). That pass was the goal for day two. Slow and Steady… step, step, breathe. That was the pattern for the day, combined with lots of rests, and photo and snack breaks. The scenery was spectacular, and although the altitude had me feeling extra crummy, it was hard to be too miserable when you are enjoying such an incredible landscape.
After a long and trying climb, the highest pass of the hike was conquered by all. The look on our faces at Pachactuec pass is worth a 1000 words. “Happy to be there, but ready to be not there,” I think is the best description. It was hard work to make the climb and the wear of the altitude and the trail was felt by all.
Thankfully the trail winds its way back down to another village called Quishuarani. Here, waterfalls cascaded down the verdant slopes of the surrounding mountains, framed by massive rock summits in the distance. I’ve yet to find a landscape as awe-inspiring as this.
On Day 3, with a lot of dragging and whining and putting one foot in front of another, I made it up another brutal pass called Huillquicasa pass at 14400 ft (4400m). This was the most rewarding one of the hike. It had expansive views over the Andean mountains and glacial lakes.
Beyond this pass the trail descended as the hike was reaching its conclusion. The landscape became greener and more populated as we entered into the village of Trapiche where the medicinal hot baths of Lares awaited. It was a perfect end to a rugged and exceptional hike through the Andes. Were able to make camp right on the grounds at the hot baths, complete with showers and flush toilets (a luxury!) and have a proper send off for our guide team who did a tremendous job.
Though the hike technically ended in Lares, the next day the tour continued by van to the town of Ollantaytambo where the massive ruins watch over the village below. After a good nights sleep, we caught a train to Aquas Callientes where a bus took our group to the Citadel of Machu Picchu. Although we arrived long after sunrise, we were just in time for the morning rain and fog to lift and the temps to warm up. That meant great photo opportunities.
A guided tour of Machu Picchu was part of the tour package. If you are a history lover, you will LOVE Peru; this country has no shortage. The culture, mythology and history of these places are facilitating. For those who wish to adventure a bit further, try Huayna Picchu or the short trek up to Sun Gate for a different perspective of the ruins. After the last three days of hiking at higher elevation, walking around Machu Picchu felt like a breeze since it sits at only 7,972 ft (2430m).
The entire experience in Peru was truly special. From the history of the ruins, to the breathtaking landscapes, or the animals that greeted us along the way. For the insight into the daily lives of the remote communities to enjoying the experience with new friends and my family as well. It was also special to know that by enjoying this particular trek, I was giving back to the communities that showed us such wonderful hospitality in allowing us to stay on their land in their villages and who greeted us with smiles everyday.
I am often asked if I wish I had done the Inca Trail while visiting Peru. That is a difficult question to answer because I haven’t had the experience of the Inca Trail to compare. But, I can say that I never ask MYSELF that question, because I’m thrilled to have enjoyed the Community Trek in the Andes. I feel extremely lucky to have enjoyed a part of Peru and a different experience that most choose not to see. It felt secret, pristine, rugged and real. I enjoyed the solitude and peace of not hiking with hoards of people. I do believe this allowed me to enjoy the landscapes and the experience far more. I was able to walk out from my tent at night, hear nothing but the wind and look up at the brightest starry sky I’ve ever seen in my life. I am grateful that I did something different and the experience was one I will never forget.
I hope I was able to capture a different highlight of Peru for those who want to try something off the beaten path and a bit different from the traditional trek during their visit. There are many tour companies for hire who offer these hikes, so I encourage you to do your research and find what suits you and know what you wish to get out of your adventure before you embark. The guides in Peru, in my opinion can make or break this trip for you. There is SO much to learn about the places you visit and the culture of the land, the people and the sacred ruins. Our guides were passionate about teaching us and were able to pass on so much knowledge, allowing me to take home more than just photos. Peru is one of my favorite countries I’ve been lucky enough to explore in my travels; there is so much to see, learn and experience here. While Machu Picchu is amazing and a MUST SEE, be sure find out what other places and adventures await and get out there and experience them; it is truly an incredible country worth exploring.
Have you done an alternate trek in Peru or have done both to compare? What were your thoughts?