7 Things Only Someone Who Hiked the Lares Trek Would Understand
Trekking the Lares Valley is undeniably one of the top 5 trekking adventures I’ve completed in life. Initially, I was unsure of whether it’d be better to hike the more popular Inca Trail or explore alternative treks. For me, it was really important to experience one-on-one culture and step away from the tourist crowds.
I wanted to grow closer to nature while observing the everyday, untouched lives of the locals living high in the Peruvian Andes Mountains. When it was time to book, I saw the Inca Trail actually required more advanced booking so fate took the reins and made the Lares Trek the perfect fit for me. I took a press trip private tour with Valencia Travel Cusco and my partner and I practically had the valley to ourselves -- with the locals and porters, of course.
I fell in love with every challenging hike, and was enamored of the endless sea of life surrounding me. No, not sea of people; not buildings; not shopping. Just life.
Sharing about my Lares trek leaves me speechless and sometimes frustrated… there are some things you have to experience personally in order to truly grasp its splendor. Time and time again, I cannot find enough words to depict the experience.
I've come to terms with the fact that firsthand experience truly is the best journey. Here are some of the things I've learned only people who’ve trekked the Lares Valley can understand:
1. The world is yours to explore
Many indigenous traditions believe that the world is not ours to claim. I agree with that. When I say "the world is yours" it represents a feeling, not land ownership. An acceptance that Mother Earth, or goddess Pachamama, gifted us this earth and all that grows from it.
While trekking in the Andes Mountains there were endless peaks and valleys with rapidly changing weather patterns. At every turn -- whether hail, sunshine, or rain -- there would be alpacas, sheep, or wild dogs wandering, accepting your presence as nature and continuing on with their roam. It was comforting to see myself with nature in all forms, walking free. I knew that if this became a popular, over-trekked trail, we'd ruin that.
2. Bringing gifts and medicine to the Lares people might feel conflicting
I never wanted to intrude. But I wanted to trek. I didn’t know the most respectful way to do both. It’s a fine line, tourism, and I was afraid to overstep my boundaries.
If you trekked to Machu Picchu you probably remember being asked to buy items to gift the Andean locals along the way. Before the hike, we stopped by a shop and purchased coca leaves, candy, and medicine.
Over the span of three days we handed out the coca leaves to working locals (for a little boost and buzz), sweets to the children, and cold and fever medication to the families (as medical facilities could be at least a day’s trek away). I felt like I was contributing to their wellbeing, or at least offering gifts of thanks for sharing their home with me. The smiles on the faces of workers harvesting potatoes or women dressed in bright colors and watching the herds while weaving, were priceless.
But I did feel conflicted: we were bringing candy to children but not teaching them about dental care from sugars. We were bringing plastic products to families but there was no way to recycle, and every once in a while you'd spot wrappers and containers scattered along what was once an unspoiled terrain.
How can we do better? I trusted that this was a delicate process and loved that my tour guide, who grew up in the region, was sensitive to these issues.
3. You'll have the insider’s scoop on the best hot springs, and it’s not in Aguas Calientes
Trekking the Lares Valley led us to the local hot springs: a far cry from the tourist hub, Aguas Calientes. Mostly locals visit this site and it was wonderful to join them and feel like I was a part of their world!
We mostly bonded on moments like “holy crap this is hot”: laughing, cringing, and beginning to sweat--simultaneously. They mostly spoke Quechua, so eye contact and winced faces were all the communication we needed.
An added bonus: though the baths close in the evening, our group was allowed to camp inside the facility and take advantage of the hot pools throughout the night, waking up at our leisure (with newly relaxed muscles) before our last hike. Valencia Travel Cusco, in particular, scheduled the trek so that we could spend our last day at the hot springs, as opposed to the first day -– which most tours tend to do.
4. You'll feel the need to explain the importance of the Lares people to everyone
I didn’t know about the Lares people. Most people who didn’t do the trek don’t know about the Lares people either. I now get excited every time I have the opportunity to enlighten someone (if they’re interested) about what I’ve learned.
Our local guide, Alex (my Alex's tocayo), shared how the Lares people were essential to Inca survival. This weaver’s trail already had an existing community when the Inca arrived. Instead of conquest, the Inca proposed peaceful assimilation, as they knew the Lares people were the middlemen between the high jungle: the Inca’s gateway to accessing fruits and medicinal plants. The Lares people agreed and joined them.
5. Walking at the pace of Andean locals is no joke
If you want to feel really insignificant, walk with a 4-year old local in the Andes mountains.
Because of the high altitude, Andean ancestors had almost a third greater lung capacity than the average human, slower heart rate, and more hemoglobin (to transfer oxygen to the body). They are more physically fit to live, breathe, and trek these mountains.
We learned that quickly when we agreed to walk with a young girl to her grandmother’s traditional home. She was one of our porter's daughters and we were leaving him behind as he ended his part of the trek to go home. We huffed and wheezed as she skipped “slowly” over to what seemed like the next mountain! My Spanish yells for her to go slower were met with giggles from the team -- all in good fun.
6. Machu Picchu can feel… overwhelming
I loved the Lares Valley. Maybe too much -- I wasn’t sure I wanted to leave yet. It was free from congestion, over-tourism, and noise. The only sounds that surrounded you were the sounds of nature itself. It was very therapeutic.
Then I arrived at the famous Machu Picchu site and returned to reality. Crowds rushed the uneven steps to take signature selfies, cultures clashed with unfamiliar manners and social etiquette, and I just wanted to run back to the Lares hot springs away from it all!
Thankfully, our guide Alex prepared us well and used the four days to arm us with loads of information, so we could piece it together onsite and feel familiar with Inca history.
Within the hour of our guided tour, Alex (the guide) found quiet spots to chat about the site’s architecture and agriculture, and offered great viewpoints for photos. Even though initially overwhelming, he helped remind me of its beauty and grandeur.
7. You can officially say you’ve had your head in the clouds
When you reach the highest peak on your Lares Trek (15,000+ ft / 4,500+ m), you will find your head in a thick fog where you can barely see in front of you. It’s actually tear jerking because the small hill it took you 45 minutes to climb (you know, the one you thought you could skip up in 10 minutes), as your lungs sent you death threats, made you feel like you’d never make it.
But you did. Because you’re awesome.
When I booked my plane ticket to South America, my head was in the clouds. When I confirmed my trek to Machu Picchu via the Lares Trek, my head was in the clouds. But when my head finally met the clouds, I stopped. Because I finally felt grounded.
Word can't fully describe the Lares trek
...but I hope my words inspired you to experience it for yourself, if you haven't already. It is a surreal experience.
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Note: I first wrote this article as a guest post for The Blank Map in June 2015, which is now discontinued. It has been reposted and updated for accuracy.