‘Unreal, this is breathtaking!’ I tried to announce at the 4800-metre summit of the Lares Trek as I marvelled at the scenic valleys, snow capped mountains and turquoise lakes around me in all directions.
I couldn’t though; the altitude had literally left me breathless.
The Lares Trek is one of the lesser taken hikes around the Cusco region of Peru. Organised folks will painfully hand over their dollar for the Inca Trail far in advance while those looking for a comfortable ride will simply hop on the train to Machu Picchu.
If, however, you want a slice of adventure travel served up with a side of local culture, The Lares Trek is your perfect ticket.
Day One: Acclimatise to Cusco
Cusco City, the capital of the Cusco region, is the beginning of any great adventure around these parts.
At an altitude of nearly 3400 metres above sea level, it’s also a handy place to acclimatise to the fact it’s harder to breathe. With a climb of over 1400 metres ahead of you, time here is recommended even if you are on medication before your arrival.
The city centre itself is compact, charming and calming even with traffic cops maniacally controlling the roads in all directions. The impressive grand architecture of the Plazas and the lively markets make for an ideal first day.
Later in the afternoon, you’ll have the chance to meet your new amigos who will be your hiking buddies and see (or smell) you at your worse over the coming days. After a quick bite to eat and the obligatory awkwardness of trying, and hopefully not forgetting 14 peoples names over a Pisco Sour, it’s time for an early night.
Day Two: Locals, Llamas and learning
A quick pit stop to look back over Cusco Valley will have you wondering how they can build houses just so high up the side of a mountain. Then it’s onwards to The Sacred Valley, the heart of the Inca Empire.
Being a sucker for meeting the locals and stumbling through a conversation I was especially excited to visit the two G Adventures community projects.
The first, in a small hillside village away from the main tourist drag, provided a fascinating insight into how the brightly coloured ponchos and hats of Peru come to be. The different wool used here, sometimes Alpaca, sometimes a mix, are dyed using natural ingredients in boiling water. Plants, berries and leaves all contribute to the different palates that make the perfect Poncho.
Projects like these are so important in my opinion, taking the tourists to the locals as appose to making the locals come to the visitors allows for wealth to be spread a little bit better over developing countries.
The second project was a restaurant that G Adventures had built in the middle of nowhere. The food was outstanding, the team were friendly, and the wild boar that chased me into the calm river outside has now been forgiven.
Between The Sacred Valley, Cusco and Machu Picchu you have the centre of the Inca Empire which around five hundred years ago may well have been the biggest empire in the world.
The famous Inca Trail takes in more of the Inca ruins on the hike, but I appreciated the fact we had our slice of history here. Due to this the trek was more focussed on the sheer beauty mother nature has dropped over this region by the bucket load.
The culture and history of the fifteenth century fascinated me as much as the modern day life in the Andes. If you want to know more about local life and the Inca times, then check out my post ‘Prints of Peru‘ here.
The first archaeological site we visited was above the village of Pisac. Approaching the grand agricultural terraces climbing the mountain, with the ruins of a fortress perched at the top, you can’t help but wonder just how this construction occurred all those years ago.
Ollantaytambo village was my favourite. With small cobbled streets and tiny local bars branching off from the main square, it’s somewhere I could have happily whiled away a few days.
The well preserved Inca ruins here are even more impressive, and although damaged by the Spanish, the views from the terrace looking back down on the village were undeniably ‘gram worthy. The towering mountains surrounding the site have cleverly crafted rock houses built into the cliff sides.
Seriously, I reckon these people were superheroes to construct this stuff.
Day Three: The Lares Trek
We kicked off the first day of The Lares Trek with a literal bang which is how our merry crew came to be called ‘Team Crash’.
Our tour guide, Rudy, a complete pro who had more energy than a Duracell battery quickly dealt with the situation and had another bus on the way for us in no time at all allowing us to continue our journey happy, the guilty driver of the other vehicle waving us off apologetically.
This slight change of plans was kind of welcome as it gave us time to stock up at the local market. Most of us opting for the Coca leaf, chewed locally to help deal with the altitude. I’ve since learnt it’s the base ingredient for the manufacturing of Cocaine and makes a mean ‘cuppa tea.
Day one of the trek is an easy start. Commencing in the town of Lares it’s a nine-kilometre hike to the first campsite in Cuncani.
The first couple of kilometres are tame and slightly uninspiring, although the chance to meet locals on the way, have a broken chat over a Coca tea and get used to hiking at altitude were all appreciated.
After a lunch of hot soup and fresh fish in the colourful gardens of a local home, the trek picked up in both height and beauty. Clouds rolled into mountains; rivers broke the green ground and children in red ponchos danced around in the distance.
The Quechua natives are the main indigenous group in the Andes and speak their mother tongue so put your Spanish to one side and learn a few local words, your guide will be more than happy to help.
Both of the G Adventures campsites have cold showers, clean toilets and free movie entertainment in the form of the Milky Way. Porters and mules carry the camping equipment and your main bag ahead so you can arrive at camp ready to rest up and be amazed by the night sky. (Pack light to make life easier for your new four legged friends; you can leave any extra stuff at the Cusco hotel).
If there were a ‘Camping Master Chef’ TV show, these guys would take gold. Three-course meals pumped out of the chef tent, fresh soups, fish and egg dishes giving the energy for the hike. On the final day a freshly baked and iced cake somehow made it on to the table, I’m still yet to figure out how this magic trick occurred on a portable stove.
At each campsite boiled water is provided to top up your bottles and locals set up shops on blankets for any additional drinks. Passing trade is minimal around here so spending a dollars, or local Peruvian sol can make a significant impact, though make sure all plastic and trash go with you to protect the raw nature of the mountains. The money paid for this campsite by G Adventures gets split between the local families, another tick for doing good while galavanting across the world.
Day Four: The Lares Trek (gets tough)
The second day of the hike is the toughest as you head to the high pass of Sicllaccas. The climb from 3800 metres to around 4800 metres makes a notable difference in both your breathing and ability to move one leg in front of the other. Being on assignment, I had a day pack full of multiple camera gear, laptops, water and other bits: don’t make my mistake, pack light!
Big props to the crew on our tour though, with an assistant guide on hand it meant no man is left behind, and the group can break into two, catering to different capabilities. If you are having an ‘I’m considering all my life decisions and can’t move right now’ moment, then one of the kind porters might even lend you his horse for a little while.
Hopefully, though, you’ll remind yourself of the benefits of hiking and forget about how tough it is because the views are out of this world.
Chicon mountain sat in the background with a fresh dump of snow at its peak, the blue lagoons were mesmerising, and the 360 views from the summit into the valley deserve a place on any postcard.
One of the most special things for me on the Lares Trek was the silence. Once you had caught your breath, you could hear a pin drop. Witnessing only a handful of tourists beyond our group, this hike still seems very much a hidden gem.
Locals would walk past herding their animals and slowing to share greetings; kids ran down the mountainsides to the small schools, and friendly Llamas would continue their business oblivious to your presence unless you asked them for a selfie. If you want the real deal, you can’t get much better than this.
Hiking downhill after reaching the top feels like a walk in the park, a very steep park at least.
Perhaps my favourite part of the hike, not because of the ease but due to the valley rising around you and the mind-blowing landscape stretching far beyond the tiny looking town of Moray in the infinite distance.
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Day Five: The Lares Trek and train
Heading back towards the road the hike slowly emerges from black mountains and quaint streams to a rocky path under a tree canopy.
Stopping on the way at a local stone house, we all crowded in as a friendly family gave us an insight into their lives. With Guinea pigs (a local delicacy) living under the bed and a small fire in the corner, I was reminded just how naturally others live.
We saw the equipment they use to farm potatoes with, talked about the long walk to school and found out a woman must be able to prepare a guinea pig for dinner before marriage. I was grateful that the Lares Trek had allowed me to get much closer to the Quechua reality than the Inca Trail allowed.
Waiting for you at the end is a bus to whisk you back to Ollantaytambo. A stop on the way for another three-course lunch served up by the talented team allows a chance to slip some tips to these legends that somehow hop along this hike regularly and kept the spirit high throughout.
Although there are cold showers on the hike, with the chilly nighttime temperature of the Andes, washing between warm bowls of water and baby wipe showers has likely left you not looking ready for a selfie in front of the famous lost city.
The Inca Trail hikes directly into Machu Picchu where as the Lares Trek allows a night in Aguas Calientes to sleep, shower and see the Citadel feeling refreshed.
The train from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu is a show-stealer of its own. Meandering through The Sacred Valley, it passes more mountains, rivers and local villages in air conditioned comfort. You can read more about the Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu train journey here.
Aguas Calientes is a made to order tourist town. Although uninspiring, it serves the purpose of eating and sleeping which ticked all our boxes on the back of the Lares Trek.
Day Six: Machu Picchu IS worth the hype
Busy? Yes. Touristy? Yes. Worth it? F!^& Yes!
Some places you know will disappoint you. I thought Machu Picchu would be one of those.
Happily, it more than lived up the hype.
With around one million visitors gracing the citadel in the sky a year, it felt surprisingly uncrowded once we were inside the compound. Getting to the top of the mountain was another story with the shuttle bus taking around two hours from joining the long line in the early hours to finally being deposited at the entrance to get a cliche but cool passport stamp.
You can hike up to the entry point in less than an hour, but as it was a wet, cloudy morning with no sun in sight for sunrise, we all agreed to take the easy option.
Having not been discovered or destroyed by the Spanish, Machu Picchu is the crown jewel of the Inca empire thanks to how well preserved it still is. Subsiding issues though are making restrictions to visitors inevitable so if you want to see it for yourself, now is a good time to book that ticket.
One of those changes is now you only get a partial day allocation with your ticket. After a guided tour with our main man Rudy who filled my head with more facts than I could remember (though I did jot down a few of them here), we were left to our own devices. Some headed to the sun gate, others the Inca bridge.
I did the sensible thing, however, and spent much of the next hour trying to get the classic Alpaca photo (ok, I’m lying, I was mainly taking Alpaca selfies).
A long train and bus combo will get you back to Cusco after dark, driving through twinkling lights and snowy mountains during golden hour.
Being the last night, we all headed for dinner to celebrate success and drank way too many Pisco Sours. Somehow, we ended up invited behind the bar. Told you the locals were a friendly bunch.
Day Seven: Chill, Cheers and Cusco
Although the tour wraps up this morning, if you have planned a later flight you can chill, cheers a few more Pisco sours or explore around Cusco.
If you are lucky enough to have more time in the country then now it’s time to head off and explore some of the hidden gems of Peru.
The tour was epic, and I’m so glad I was able to join it. Being a solo traveller shifting over to group tour life is sometimes a struggle, but other than the fact wandering off aimlessly into the Andes on your own is never a good idea the local team at G Adventures went above and beyond to show us a sweet time. Rudy, thanks for being an absolute legend!
Join This Tour
A seven-day The Lares Trek trip with G Adventures is priced from £749pp. This includes all accommodation (four nights in hotels and two nights camping), most main meals (allow US$170pp for meals not included), all transport once joining the tour, and a dedicated specialist Lares Trek chief experience officer throughout. Travellers will also experience three ‘G Adventures for Good’ projects on this tour. Prices do not include flights. For more information or to book, please visit www.gadventures.co.uk.
Need to know
Some quick tips to help you plan your Lares Trek.
Lares Trek responsible tourism tips
Water refills, although available boiled on the hike, are not something offered here as commonly as I have seen them in Asia. As such, bring a life straw or similar to minimise the need to burn through lots of plastic bottles.
Anything you take or consume on the Trek needs to come back with you; it’s a no brainer.
I don’t advocate gifting money to kids as it will often deter them from getting an education in developing countries. That said, on the Lares Trek it’s remote and hasn’t been touched by tourism. Consider bringing fruits (hard to access in the mountains) or school supplies for the tiny local schools; these can make a significant impact.
On this tour, G Adventures have done a lot of hard work thanks to their community projects already in place. These run alongside Planeterra(planeterra.org) which you can learn more about here. If you plan on getting any fabrics or gifts, consider buying them at the projects or in the mountains as the passing trade is nearly non-existent here.
Packing for Machu Picchu
As either porters (Inca Trail) or horses (Lares Trek) carry belongings across the mountains, packing light is not just recommended but the rules. On my tour, we were provided with duffle bags and a weight limit of 6km inclusive of sleeping bags alongside whatever you will carry yourself in your day pack. You can leave big bags and additional stuff at your hotel in Cusco.
Packing light and wisely is essential, this handy Machu Picchu packing guide gives a good overview of what to bring.
G Adventures has sleeping bikes and hike poles available to rent during the first-day briefing which the porters will also transport for you. Leave camera tripods behind as ‘professional camera gear’ is not allowed in Machu Picchu though I’m not sure exactly what kind of gear this includes. I had my Canon 5D, 3 Lenses, Osmo+ and GoPro in my bag which wasn’t checked.
Lastly, check with the tour company if this information is up to date as the hikes and Machu Picchu impose their own rules which may change from time to time.
Getting to Cusco
Cusco airport is small, and flight connection options might not always line up correctly. The main local airline LAN, part of the LATAM group, is a reliable bet. G Adventures can help you with booking your flights although these aren’t a standard part of the tour package.
TIP: Use Skyscanner to find the cheapest flight
If you aren’t set on a date, enter in which month you want to fly and let it find the best value dates to fly on – set up an alert and get a message when the price drops!
Don’t miss this Cusco hidden gem
If you have a spare couple of days in Cusco after The Lares Trek considering doing a hike to the Rainbow Mountains. The brightly coloured marvel is quickly becoming a favourite side trip and can even be done by a very challenging one day hike. The altitude is tough so don’t try and hit this up before the Lares Trek.
Got any questions about the Lares Trek? Drop them in the comments below and I’ll get back to you.
*As stated at the top of this post, I was on assignment with Lonely Planet Pathfinders (click here to learn how you can be part of the community) and G Adventures on this tour. All opinions (and Alpaca stalking) are my own :)