With numerous treks crisscrossing the Sacred Valley to converge on Machu Picchu, it’s tough to know which to choose.
The Inca Trail, the most famous route, reaches the ethereal citadel on foot, while others traverse the Andes’ surging contours to the towns of Ollantaytambo or Santa Teresa, before taking a train or bus to the base town of Aguas Calientes.
Tongue-twister Quechua names and abundant huacas (Inca ruins) on the map can confuse further.
In May I opted for the less common Lares Trek (see map).
It covers 33 kilometres over three days, going from the natural spa town of Lares (2,900m) to Ollantaytambo (2,790m) with stays in the remote villages of Huacawasi (3,850m) and Patacancha (3,800m).
It was an enchanting experience, marked by its tranquillity and honest insight into the indigenous people of the valley’s way of life.
The stunning vistas of glaciers, which cleave the jagged mountainsides to form tributaries and streams, as well as interactions with goofy alpacas and llamas, added to its cachet.
Solitude is bliss
Crucially, Lares is a foil to the well-trodden and oversubscribed Inca Trail, or other popular tourist fare such as the Salkantay or Jungle Trek.
I encountered only four groups of two over my hike’s duration.
Solitude really was bliss. I was the only hiker in my group, guiltily benefiting from the misfortune of five others who couldn’t start through altitude sickness.
If you’re looking for serious physical challenge, Lares can be underwhelming however. Altitude indeed plays a role, and the second day’s first half is a long slog to the reach the windswept Ipsayccocha Pass at 4,400m.
But walking is mostly leisurely and not for more than seven hours with ample rest time. It’s suitable for those with a basic level of fitness.
On day one, after driving from Cusco through the fertile communities of Pisac and Calca, I started with a dip in the healing hot springs of Lares before trekking steadily uphill for five hours to the village of Huacawasi.
It was a loosely clustered village of stone dwellings and smallholdings.
No electricity here.
I stayed at the house of our horseman, Luis, sleeping outside in tents.
There he lived with his wife – a cholita who wore the distinctive pollera layered skirt, a lacy blouse, a pink and red striped shawl around the shoulders and a felt bowler hat – and young daughter.
Luis by contrast wore jeans and a cloth shirt, for he had adapted to city life 50km away in Cusco.
“After my father died I was tired of my 15 years in the city,” said Luis in his native Quechua tongue, translated by my guide.
“I longed for a more rural life and set myself to marry.”
He now had a herd of 70 alpacas, whose soft wool fetched good prices, and kept chickens and a few packhorses.
Grimaldo, our cook, served square meals based on local produce such as quinoa, yuca and mashua (two of Peru’s 3,000 varieties of potato), choclo (sweetcorn), salted pork, flat bread, coca leaves and Andean mint and other herbal brews.
We arrived at dusk, as swathes of mist rolled up the plains as temperatures plummeted.
Climatic conditions change rapidly in the Andes and can catch you out.
Nights are frigid, while days can reach 30 degrees Celsius.
Moreover, hiking in the transition between wet and dry season meant donning a rain poncho one minute, and stripping down to shorts and t-shirts another.
Waking up to Inka Kola
The second day I awoke to bright sunshine and young girls outside my tent with Inca Kola and artisan handcrafted gifts.
They had bright magenta cheeks, bitten by the sun and wind.
We set off and ascended to the mountain saddle point of Ipsayccocha that afforded spectacular views of lakes and verdant grazing patches, before descending to our second overnight stop in Pachamancha.
There a village fete was taking place and members of communities had travelled several miles to trade both foods and gossip.
Men socialised over glugs of chicha, a maize-based homemade alcoholic drink of about 10-20 per cent strength like moonshine that’s served in forty-litre buckets
That night the sky was crystalline.
My guide pointed out to me the ‘sacred river’ belt of stars along with dark shape-shifting pools, devices the Incas used to augur the forecast for the coming year’s rains or droughts.
Above, the constellations of Orion, the Southern Cross and “Spoon” were translucent.
Onwards to Ollantaytambo
The third day we walked for three hours down a recently built road to the charming town of Ollantaytambo before taking the tourist train to Aguas Calientes.
As the air grew thicker, the villages were greater in number. So too were political posters for November’s municipal elections.
Hillsides were farmed using the Incan platform (andén) technique, where otherwise rocky sites are levelled to provide a flat surface for crops to grow, propped up by stonewalls.
This harnesses the varying microclimates, where some prosper in the midday heat, while others fare better in the windier higher reaches.
It leaves the valleys wrinkled.
One village, Pumamarca, had two guesthouses to rein in tourism receipts, as well as modern schools built with government funds.
Local men in their multi-coloured yarn ponchos overtook us effortlessly downhill, and uphill we passed multitasking women, knitting and chatting, all the time carrying children in their shawls.
I arrived in Ollantaytambo with its grand terraces of Pumatillis, tired and with aching knees.
The trek had been sensational. I had unhindered access to isolated villages practising centuries old methods in the present day, as well as others being brought slowly into the fold by central government.
Their sustainable, harmonious relationship with the land seemed a world away to imperious and polluted Lima.
The trek was topped off by a half-day’s visit to Machu Picchu on the fourth day.
All the snippets of information my guide had offered about the civilisation along the way suddenly made sense as I surveyed it from the vantage point of the Sun Gate.
If you want wilderness, the Lares trek is for you.
N.B. I booked my trek through STA Travel in the UK, and Bamba Experience, based in Cusco, were the local agent. It cost about £400 ($660).