500 people a day set out on the Inca trail to Machu Picchu, making it the most famous and famously traversed hike in South America. The lesser known road to the citadel, the Lares trail, offers a crowd-free alternative. Beyond my own group of twelve guests and guides and the ever present packs of llamas and alpaca, I saw only villagers and a handful of other hikers on the trail. I was also, by merit of short legs and labored breathing, alone more often than not. My whiskey shooting, swine swallowing, Marlboro breathing boyfriend was always a shaming quarter mile ahead of me, proving with each smug step that my teetotal clean eating yoga preparations were practiced in vain.
Machu Picchu is absolutely spectacular and has more than earned its place among the world’s seven new wonders. Consequently it is South America’s most popular tourist destination and you will have to compete for views and personal space with throngs of other visitors. Some of these people will be in such desperate pursuit of a photo that they will, with wet teeth and weaponized selfie sticks, press you precariously close to death on the edge of a narrow cliff path.
While traveling the Lares trail I had the opportunity to visit several Inca and pre-Inca sites that were in addition to being unbelievably beautiful, virtually empty. Scheduling efforts are made by the company and tour I trekked with, the Mountain Lodges of Peru (MLP) Lares Adventure, to bring guests to the ruins of Chinchero, Moray, Ollantaytambo, Pisaq and Ancasmarkas during off peak hours so they can be experienced reverently. Not a selfie stick in sight.
For future Machu Picchu visitors, a word of advice, the much talked about sunrise cannot be counted on and the citadel will more often than not be shrouded in mythically thick fog. Unless you plan on hiking in via a pre dawn ascent from Aguas Calientes or the Inca Trail itself the earliest bus to the site leaves at 5:30 and arrives after sunrise. Early morning is also the most popular time of day for tourists. Lunch time is when the herd usually thins and returns to Aguas Calientes to feed or catch a train, if it’s privacy you’re after this is your window.
Eco and sustainable accommodations
Because the Lares trail winds by remote villages and often directly through backyards and pastures, certain tour companies have responded by operating with an emphasis on sustainability and community tourism.
Mountain Lodges of Peru have constructed two rustic eco lodges along the Lares route, offering a comparatively luxurious alternative to tented camps. Lodge accommodations are non-traditional and relatively indulgent for a hike like this, but for me the promise of a stiff drink and an outdoor tub to steep my bones in made the last miles of the day pass a little easier. Each lodge is fully staffed by the local community, and all meals, from the quinoa fried chicken (genius) to the trail mix you fill your pockets with, are locally sourced.
The more remote of the two lodges, Huacahuasi, named for the village that surrounds it, cuts into a mountainside at 12,585 ft. Each of the guest rooms comes complete with an outdoor soaking tub to soak hikers’ weary bones. The Huacahuasi lodge was formed as a commercial partnership between the community and MLP. In exchange for the use of the land, community members receive a 25% stake in the business.
Planeterra has established Peru’s first and only community-owned ecological campsite located in the isolated village of Cuncani, from where Mountain Lodges of Peru offers a guided hike to Huacahuasi. The campsite contains solar showers and a flush toilet biodigestion system. Additionally, Planeterra has installed home-based gardens for surrounding families interested in growing their own vegetables. It is an effort to create revenue and contend with the staggering 75% malnutrition rate in the Lares Valley. The Planeterra campsite is open to all trekkers.
Many of the villagers who live along the Lares trail are direct descendants of the Inca and maintain the Quechua language and traditions of their ancestors. A cornerstone of Andean tradition is the art of weaving. MLP offers daily cultural alternatives to hiking, among these was a visit to Choquecancha, a highland outpost renowned for the quality of its weavings. Before departing on the trip we were given a brief lesson in Quechua to ensure we could at the very least communicate gratitude to the people we met.
Climbing to the top of the village we were welcomed into a courtyard by women in wide brimmed bowler hats — their weavings, still holding the smell of woodsmoke in their stitches, hung over stone walls and branches. Our guides served as translators, explaining that the craft is handed down matrilineally and includes the old method of pressing dyes from beetles, ashes, and flowers.
Halfway through our second day of hiking, rain falling in slanted sheets we reached the village of Viacha. Tents were pitched and tables were spread with pitchers of chicha morada, a warm blood colored brew of boiled purple corn and cloves. Outside the hot coals of a Pachamanca earth oven were blooming the caveman bouquet of fire and meat. We were served blistered corn, roasted potatoes, and blackened cuy (guinea pig). For the curious, the taste of the rodent is surprisingly good, greasy and more like duck than chicken.
The Pachamanca preparation has been a part of Andean practice for centuries, the ritual act of cooking food underground, respectfully returning it to the belly of the earth before consumption, honors the mother earth deity Pachamama. Cuy has been eaten in the Andes for centuries and was the primary source of protein until the Spanish brought livestock in the 16th century. So important are the guinea pig to the Andean diet that an oil painting inside the Cathedral of Cusco depicts the last supper with a spit roasted cuy, belly up under the shadow of Christ’s halo, as the table’s centerpiece.
Because group sizes on the Lares Adventure are kept small and many of the communities passed through are not part of a traditional tourist route, visiting them felt less like an intrusion and more a respectful crossing of paths.
What you should know
The number of days spent on the Lares Trail can be condensed or expanded depending on your preferences anywhere from four to seven days, most trips include an overnight stay in Aguas Calientes and a visit to Machu Picchu. The MLP Lares Adventure is a seven day, six night trip that stops at several Inca ruins beyond the traditional Lares Valley route. High season for trekking is May through August when the trail is at its driest. According to the guides I traveled with, April is a beautiful time to get on the trail as the rains have gone but left the countryside riotously lush, September and October are likewise blessed with good weather and waning crowds.[Note: Reda was a guest of Mountain Lodges of Peru.]