By Timothy Scott
Mixing high Andes hiking with sightseeing and cultural stops, a Lares Adventure experience from Mountain Lodges of Peru goes upscale at night, in lodges that function as fine hotels in small villages.
We have been hiking for hours at high elevation, to the top of a pass and then down past lagoons with clouds drifting across the water. As we round the last bend and see Huacahuasi village below, the closest building is a dramatic lodge fronted by large windows. There three staffers greet us with hot tea and cool towels, our luggage already in rooms outfitted with balcony whirlpool tubs to massage our aching legs.
This is an adventure vacation with a payoff at the end each day. There's no retiring to a sleeping bag in a tent, no meals cooked on a propane hot plate in a marshy camping area. Mountain Lodges of Peru's Lares Adventure around the Sacred Valley is a contrast of physical challenges with physical pampering. By day it's about trekking, ancient ruins, and gorgeous Andean scenery. At night it's about gourmet meals, comfortable lounges, and beds we can sink into for sweet dreams and recovery.
We all meet up in Cusco, the original capital of the Incas, at around two miles above sea level. Our orientation the night before departing is at El Mercado Tunqui Hotel, where the guide explains our itinerary and the options for the coming days. Ideally guests have spent a couple nights here to acclimatize, but I fear trouble when I find out some in our group of mostly Brazilians has arrived from São Paulo (elevation 2,500 feet) just that day.
Sure enough, the next morning we drive into the Sacred Valley and start our hike at a five–digit elevation and the group starts separating like racers in a marathon. When we get to the pass at nearly 13,500 feet, there's plenty of time to admire the beauty of the jagged mountains and watch a farmer amble by with his mules, the clanging of their bells the only sound besides the wind.
Fire Pit Protein and Pisac
When we all head down the other side together, we pass a lake and then fields of bright blue lupin flowers beside houses made of mud bricks. We arrive at a small village for lunch and find a group of local women selling their weavings. The traditional Lares Trek route is also known as "the weavers trek" because so many of the villages are known for creating the colorful textiles worn and sold by the Andean people of this region. The four women here perform a song for us before we sit down in a tent and enjoy a spread of meats cooked in the pachamanca fire pit style: pork ribs, beef, chicken, and cuy (guinea pig) for the adventurous.
As we amble out of the village a few locals demonstrate how they use their hoes to get the ground ready for planting. It's like a synchronized dance between two men and a helper, quickly moving down the row using the same tools they've put to use for hundreds of years.
The hike leads us down to a farming area that goes back to before the arrival of steel for those hoes, down to the archaeological site of Pisac. Most likely built in the late 1400s to defend the southern entrance to the valley, it is best known for its vast system of agricultural terraces with transplanted topsoil. This allowed the Inca hierarchy to produce surplus food even at high altitudes.
There's an option on our tour itinerary to walk another two hours down to Pisac town, but the tired group unanimously nixes this idea and we pile in the vans to head to Lamay Lodge. There we get keys to our private rooms with hot showers, furnished terraces, and plenty of space to spread out. There's even working Wi–Fi for uploading photos and checking in on emergencies back home.
All cleaned up and changed, we gather at dinner and dive into sliced beets with two kinds of cheese, marinated beef with a local berry glaze and organic vegetables, then a pudding made with the Peruvian lucma fruit.
Ankasmarca and the Long Winding Road
We take a walk through the town of Lamay the next morning after a hearty breakfast, grabbing from bowls of nuts and chocolate for snacks along the trail. We drive along a winding mountain road with stunning views to the pre-Incan archeological site of Ankasmarca. Despite its hilltop location with mountains rising up all around it, we're the only ones there. We explore it all at a leisurely pace, knowing the crowds will be a different story when we arrive at Machu Picchu the last day.