The only sounds were the whistling wind, the crunch of boots on rock and my own ragged breathing.
The glaciers of Mount Veronica shimmered in the distance, and the jagged peaks and blue sky were reflected in the mirror-like surface of an Alpine lake.
At more than 13,120ft above sea level, the view from the Cruzcasa Pass was incredible in every way.
The iconic Inca citadel was never found by the Spanish
I was halfway through a week’s hiking holiday in Peru but not the one you might expect.
The country’s most famous walking route is of course the Inca Trail which ends at the fabled ruins of Machu Picchu.
It’s a pilgrimage walked by 500 people each day but I wanted to experience the Inca road less travelled. While the terrain and altitude along the undiscovered Lares Trail can be just as wild and demanding as its famous cousin and both end with a visit to the iconic citadel, there are some significant differences – and not just in terms of the level of foot traffic.
The Lares trail offers a luxurious alternative to the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
The latter is not a specific trail as such but a series of connecting day hikes graded easy, moderate and challenging that criss-cross the Lares Valley, meaning walkers can be as hard or softcore as they wish.
Best of all, the valley is sprinkled with luxurious properties belonging to Mountain Lodges of Peru. Having set up a series of high-end properties along the mountainous Salkantay trail, they saw the opportunity to do the same in the Lares Valley, working in partnership with remote rural communities that are struggling to maintain their rapidly disappearing way of life, and offering innovative programmes mixing trekking, culture and food.
What does all this mean for travellers? Well, no sleeping in a tent and refuelling on lukewarm rice and beans that most must endure along the Inca Trail.
Instead, at the end of each day, I was returning to a hot shower, a gourmet meal washed down with a few Pisco Sour cocktails and a bed as soft as a marshmallow.
The lodges across the Lares Valley are staffed by locals
My starting off point was Lamay Lodge, located an hour’s drive from the ancient Andean city of Cuzco. Set on the edge of a tranquil village in the Sacred Valley, it’s a blend of traditional architecture and contemporary design.
The eight rooms – all with patios or terraces – are decorated with local handicrafts and overlook a flower-filled garden, where three resident llamas act as living lawnmowers.
The next day, a three-hour hike took us deep into the wilderness. A bare legged woman appeared from nowhere, a large, heavy-looking bundle strapped to her back. In battered sandals, she ran past me and up the mountain with the ease of someone born into this wild and beautiful terrain.
The reward for reaching the village of Viacha was a hearty helping of pachamanca, a traditional Inca dish where meat, potatoes, vegetables and fragrant herbs like muña, or Andean mint, are layered over hot stones in a hole in the ground, covered with earth and slow-cooked for hours, until succulent and smoky.
The Lares trail is less taxing that the famous Inca trail
Viacha, a farming community of around 60 families, sits among fi elds of purple lupins and red quinoa, high above the ruins of Pisac with its 15th-century hilltop fortress and a handicraft market that swarms with tourists and locals.
It was a tough six-hour walk to the next base: Huacahuasi Lodge. Grazing llamas, docile and curious, kept watch as I negotiated the rocky trail, stopping to catch my breath and take in the views over the undulating valleys and craggy mountains topped by sparkling glaciers.
Hilltop Huacahuasi Lodge sits on the outskirts of its namesake village and is staffed almost entirely by locals.
Before it was built they’d never seen a hotel, let alone worked in one. Now the women dressed in elaborate traditional clothes greeted me like consummate professionals.
Designed by one of Peru’s top architects, there’s an open-plan lounge with enormous windows that frame the big landscapes beyond, and just eight spacious rooms each with an alfresco hot tub – perfect for soothing post-trek muscles. I spent some time in the village, a short walk away, where giggling children in vivid red ponchos hurried past me on their way to school, and women sat outside their adobe houses spinning wool while they chatted, cheeks fat with coca leaves.
Another long day’s trekking beckoned the following morning: eight miles to the village of Patacancha. The dirt track from Huacahuasi had a gradual incline but at an altitude of 12,975ft, progress was slower than usual. After three hours of walking, there was a final steep push to reach the pass. Then it was downhill to Ipsaycocha Lake, its bright waters glittering among the evergreen hills.
Lunch was waiting and I gratefully tucked into corn soup and guinea pig (a traditional delicacy that tastes like gamey chicken) served with four of the 2,000 varieties of potatoes produced in Peru.
Anticipation was high ahead of our final day. After spending the night in the town of Ollantaytambo, we woke early to clamber up the vertigo-inducing path that clings to the cliff edge to the little-visited ruins of Pinkuylluna.
The stone shell of the Inca granary clings precariously to the mountain, overlooking the imposing remains of Ollantaytambo fortress, where the precision-cut, multi-angled stones and their connection to the earth, sun, moon and stars, were a taster of our final stop, Machu Picchu.
Machu Picchu was once a thriving cliffside community
The iconic Inca citadel was never found by the Spanish and remained, enveloped in vegetation, until Yale historian and explorer Hiram Bingham rediscovered it in 1911. He had to scramble through dense jungle for days to reach the ruins.
I simply boarded the Vistadome train at Ollantaytambo station, which snaked its way through narrow valleys as spectacular scenery unfurled through the panoramic windows, from fast-flowing rivers to misty cloud forest.
After filing off the train and a short transfer, the main attraction materialised. Built in the 15th century, Machu Picchu was once a thriving cliffside community and home to more than 1,000 people.
Imarvelled at the Incas’ architectural prowess and the sheer beauty of the setting but realised that the true highlight was not the destination, as dramatic and enthralling as it was, but the journey to get there.
High Lives Travel (020 8835 7034/highlives.co.uk) offers 12 nights in
Peru from £3,500 (two sharing), B&B.
Price includes return flights from
London Gatwick to Lima, domestic flights and five days guided trekking in the Lares Valley, full board.
Peru tourism: visitperu.com