This post was most recently updated on July 9th, 2019
What do you say when your college graduating son asks to go backpacking to celebrate his accomplishment? Well, YES, of course! I just had no idea what I was getting myself into when after weeks of discussion he decided on the Peruvian Andes, site of the Lares Trek, home to Machu Picchu and formerly to the mighty Inca.
Since he was busy closing out college I spent my every “googling hour” working out the details. It was clear from the beginning that what nearly all people did was to drop many hundreds of dollars on a tour group and hike with a dozen “new friends”. While the tour group has its advantages it just wasn’t the backpacking experience my son and I had enjoyed in the past and desired for our own Andes Trek.
Inca Trail to Machu Picchu?
Since Machu Picchu was on the itinerary, my first thought was to investigate the Inca Trail. This is the ONLY trail that literally hikes you into Machu Picchu. The deal breaker turned out to be the requirement to have a permit from the government. Those permits are only sold to tour groups. Another factor was the sheer busyness of that route. Neither of these was the experience we desired for our own walk through the Andes. Fortunately, there are many alternate excursions to consider. I found Pinterest pins and YouTube videos of self-guided backpacking from the village of Lares over to the Urubamba river valley where the train to Machu Picchu runs. Guiding our own Lares Trek was a real option!
Use Cusco as the Base
Home base for Andean ascents in Peru is Cusco. Our adventure began there as we spent two days in the city to acclimatize to the elevation. Cusco sits at just over 11,000 feet. Lares Trek will start at 10,000 feet, rise to 15,300 feet and end at 9,500 feet, 21 miles later. My son is in great condition but I worried that I could be a literal drag on the event. For two months I ran four 10K’s a week to get the heart and pulmonary systems in shape as well as drop a few pounds. I hiked some modest hills near my home as well. Did a shakedown hike too. While in Cusco on day two we tackled the nearly 1,000 foot climb to Cristo Blanco and an Inca fort.
Store Extra Gear while Backpacking
The Principe III Hotel where we stayed was familiar with the backpacking crowd. They will store your extra baggage while you’re backpacking the Lares Trek, free of charge. After our hike we returned to the hotel for one night in Cusco and caught an early flight home the next day.
Making our Way to the Lares Trek Trailhead
With the weekend behind us, we were up with the sun Monday to start our excursion through the Andes eventually to Machu Picchu. The thermal baths in the village of Lares is literally the trailhead to our chosen Lares route. Getting there requires almost 3 hours in two colectivos, “locals” buses. The Cusco station was on the other side of the block from our hotel. And the driver who dropped us in Calca directed us to the station that would bring us into Lares.
While in Calca we grabbed a delicious chicken noodle soup (not your standard Campbell’s fare) for breakfast. We also got bottled water and topped off our camelbaks. On the ride in from Cusco we saw Inca ruins and indigenous abodes. Next, the drive from Calca to Lares really whetted our appetite for the Andes. We saw stunning peaks and meadows.
The commute took us over a pass of 14,800 feet. Also visible were glaciers feeding pristine streams.
There were llama and alpaca in hordes. Some of them didn’t take too kindly to our use of their road! (Video footage below!) In Lares we saw vibrant street markets and the thermal baths for which it is famous.
Beginning the Lares Trek
Day one’s hike was 8 miles to Ipsayjasa Pass, about 13,000 feet. It took us through the village of Huacahuasi and beside a stream first on our right, then on the left after we crossed through the town.
This first day on the Lares Trek will start on a relentlessly upward dirt road. But after the village we walked a typical trail. At the pass two trails diverged so on day two we would have to be careful to stay to the path on the left. We were able to see our progress on Google Maps despite being in airplane mode. But we did view our digitized topo maps at junctures like the village and the first pass.
Day one started out warm and sunny so we were down to just our hiking clothes. But we could see colder, precipitative weather ahead at our first campsite.
Eating, and Meeting the Locals
The visual feast before us occupied the time and helped to keep our minds off the challenges of backpacking at altitude. We tried to get close to the llamas and alpacas. Sheep and pigs were in on the action too. Hiking through the village was a hoot. We knew to come prepared with something to share with the local children. Our choice was fruit snacks…real fruit juice, Mom! Not just sugary sweets. They emerged from thin air it seemed and by the time we’d crossed to the other side our load was diminished by nearly 20 snack packs. (Be sure to view the video below to see these sweet kids!) We consumed as we paced for our lunches. Protein bars, nuts, coconut/oatmeal mix, caramels, and beef jerky really hit the spot. After the village we donned our jackets as we headed into colder, cloudier weather at the campsite.
First Night Camp on the Lares Trek
We were pleased to find Ipsayjasa Pass criss-crossed by rock walls and dotted with rock corrals. We set up camp next to rock barriers to protect us should the winds pick up. As it was, there were no gusts all night, but as we were setting up the tent and fixing dinner, we did get hit with a bit of tiny hail. Wool thermals/socks, hiking clothes, a vest and hooded waterproof jacket, and gloves saw us through the cold just fine. Our dinners and breakfasts were Mountain House freeze dried packages that serve two. Just add hot water! We also had some instant mashed potato and hot chocolate mixes to supplement. Meals were loaded with carbs since I’d read they were good for countering altitude sickness. So is good hydration and Vitamin I (Ibuprofen).
Day Two Hiking Lares Trek
Hiking with backpacks on the Lares Trek will test your fortitude. Tuesday morning we leisurely arose, filtered water, had breakfast and broke camp. By 9:30 we were on the trail and headed for Huacahuasijasa Pass at 15,300 feet. Much to our pleasure we soon encountered a woman from the village we had passed with her wares spread out for our review. We bought alpaca beanies she had weaved and wondered if the very wool had come from the dozen or more alpaca that watched our transaction!
It was a misty march which was not ideal for pictures but did ease our exertion. Heart rates and respiration were clearly elevated but we were handling the altitude without sickness symptoms. Soon the rock stacks marking Huacahuasijasa Pass came into view.
After Huacahuasijasa Pass
From the pass we could see a placid lake below and Pumahuanca peak (17,500 ft) above.
Not far beyond this first lake was another, Lake Millpo. I had thought we would make camp #2 at Millpo, only four miles from our first campsite, not knowing how we would feel getting over the pass.
But we were feeling great and now the last half of the excursion was going to be with gravity’s help rather than hindrance. We covered ten miles in all on day two and chose a campsite right next to the stream that led the way back to civilization. Much of our time was spent in the Mantanay Conservation area which was full of beautiful landscapes. At one point we shared the narrow trail with 2 bulls which we passed with caution and concern!
Second night camp on the Lares Trek
When we camped for the night we found ourselves in a different setting from the previous evening. This site resembled the rain forest with thick foliage, mosses, and dampness. My son had to work diligently to make the driest wood he could find into a campfire. There had been no fuel around at last night’s high altitude location. The warmth of this night’s respite invited us to enjoy camp more than the night before. My son whittled a llama to commemorate the adventure. Our Lares Trek was a big success! The sun sets early near the equator so there was time to fill while restricted to camp. Each night we watched a movie downloaded to our phones. One large power bank had been enough to keep my phone juiced for the whole traverse.
Last day of Lares Trek
Our last morning on the trail was again leisurely observed. No rushing through this spectacular land! Our last day hiking was an easy and short three miles into the town of Yanahuara since we had felt like covering so much ground after the pass. We noted as we walked that the descent half the day before and today was a rockier path than our ascent two days earlier. Descents and rocky areas are where I usually use my hiking poles. But for this trip I had left them behind to carry less stuff. I was fine without them and did not regret the decision. Some hikers go at this route opposite our direction. We agreed that we would not have prefered to ascend through this rocky and gravely section. Signs of civilization and friendly people greeted us as we completed the trek.
Yanahuara to Ollantaytambo for trains to Machu Picchu
At the first paved road we headed to the left. This delivered us to the main thoroughfare through the valley where we waited at a corner store for a colectivo.
Several passed until one that had room flashed its headlights at us to ask if we wanted on. We signaled so by hand, lifted our backpacks to the driver who was now on the roof and boarded. We were snugly accommodated among many locals and even a brood of chickens! The cost again, just a few soles each. Exact change appreciated if not demanded many times. This cozy ride of about 20 minutes brought us to Ollantaytambo, home of the trains to Machu Picchu. Lares Trek is not complete until you’re overlooking the city plaza from your restaurant table reconnecting over the free wi-fi.
Pro Tips for Lares Trek:
- Acclimatize 2 days in Cusco
- Take the inexpensive colectivos to the trailhead
- Use sunscreen and repellent with deet
- Drink water, eat carbs and take ibuprofen to ward off altitude sickness
- Bring treats for the kids of Huacahuasi
- Buy some wares from the villagers
- Add your rock stack at the pass
- Catch a colectivo from Yanahuara to Ollantaytambo
- Bring your passport for the train and Machu Picchu
This has been an enjoyable virtual experience through the remarkable Andes mountains, sentinels of the Sacred Valley and portals to epic Machu Picchu. Guiding your own Lares Trek is a real possibility for you, given a familiarity with backpacking generally and good health. Perhaps your day to make this pilgrimage is not far distant! Best wishes always and happy travels wherever life may take you.
This post was composed for you by my husband, Darren Wilcox. We are a traveling family, and I often encourage my family to record their travel experiences for you — especially when I am not fortunate enough to accompany them. Thank you, Darren! The video below is thanks to the handiwork of my talented son, Caleb Wilcox. Enjoy!
To see their Machu Picchu article, click here