SKIPPING THE INCA TRAIL

We couldn’t come to Peru and skip Machu Picchu, but we’re skipping the crowded Inca Trail. We’ve found an alternate route boasting fewer trekkers, more Quechua culture, and unencumbered vistas of peaks, glaciers, and rivers: the Lares Valley Trek.

We’ve chosen this alternative because: 1) Erin and I are exhausted from the Choquequirau Trek, 2) my husband Dale has arthritis in his hip that makes severely strenuous hikes unfeasible, and 3) Inca Trail permits are sold out. The little-known, three-day Lares Valley Trek whispers a quiet reminder that popular doesn’t mean better.

The little-known Lares Valley trek whispers a quiet reminder that popular doesn’t mean better.

Our journey begins with a four-hour drive up a steep, narrow, winding mountain road – five hours, if you count the broken tie rod, and the wait for a new car to struggle the rest of the way up. In perfect answer to the resulting tension, our first stop is at the Thermal Baths of Lares.

Our first stop is at the Thermal Baths of Lares.

I’m the only one who opts for a soak in one of the deliciously warm, green pools, nestled in a little canyon, surrounded by waterfalls, and flanked by a stone footbridge over the white rush of the Rio Lares. My muscles feel like butter as we begin our late afternoon walk into Lares Valley.

The Thermal Baths are flanked by a stone footbridge over the white rush of the Rio Lares.

As the sun sets, the Lares River glimmers through soothing green and brown meadows stitched with rock fences and yellow flowers. The only other brilliant hues come from the hand-woven clothing of the Quechua people: oranges and reds, with accents of blue, green, yellow, and purple. “There is not much vegetation in Lares,” our guide Cynthia says, “So they wear the bright clothes.” The women wear broad skirts, shawls, and hats shaped like upright bowls. The men wear ponchos and brimmed hats with tassels. Each village’s weavings are unique, but all are decorated with ancient icons, such as llamas representing fertility and crosshatch patterns representing crops.

Each village’s weavings are unique, but all are decorated with ancient icons.

Local farmers grow potatoes and quinoa, and raise alpacas for wool and meat. They use llamas and stout horses as pack animals. As we walk past their stone and adobe huts, children call out, “Buenas Tardes!” We pass two girls playing plic-plac, what we call hopscotch. I hop through the dirt squares, which doesn’t seem to surprise them at all.

The Quechua people use llamas and stout horses as pack animals.

We don’t reach Huacahuasi until dusk, so we turn on our headlamps to avoid rocks and alpaca poop in the fields. The village sits above 12,000 feet, and after dark the temperature plummets to freezing. We set up tents on a farm, and eat dinner in the farmer’s adobe hut, shivering every time someone opens the door.

Nobody locks doors in the valley, because they trust each other not to steal, Cynthia tells us. “But if someone breaks the rules, they are very violent. For example, if someone steals something, everyone from the village will punish him” – here, she punches the air with a fist. I find it hard to imagine that our host, a slight, quiet man with llama-like eyes, could ever beat up anyone.

The next morning, we hike through spongy green muskeg and gnarled volcanic rock, repeatedly looking over our shoulders at the lumbering Urubamba Mountains. The nearly 18,000-foot Mount Pumahuanca looks like a chilled volcano, flowing with glacier ice instead of lava.

The nearly 18,000-foot Pumahuanca looks like a chilled volcano, flowing with glacier ice instead of lava.

We climb to Ipsaycocha Pass, which sits at about 14,400 feet. An unrelenting, freezing wind blasts the small saddle, prompting Cynthia’s assistant Johan to shout, “Cierra la puerta! Shut the door!” I giggle in teeth-chattering agreement. We build a stone cairn to thank the Apus, or mountain spirits, for bringing us here. Then we hightail it down to Ipsaycocha, which means “Blue Lake” in Quechua, and eat lunch next to its melted glacial water.

As we descend into Patacancha Valley, the wild donkey carrying our cooking supplies makes a clattering, pot-flinging run for freedom. Our porters give chase and rescue our dinner, just before we arrive in the village of Patacancha for the night.

On the next day’s walk, we pass men and women engaged in a division of labor backed by centuries of tradition. In Huilloc, mothers sit on the ground weaving clothes, shuttling bright threads across wooden handlooms, while keeping an eye on nearby toddlers. In Pumamarca, men plant crops with bull-powered plows, not far from the ancient crop terraces built by their ancestors, the Incas.

In Huilloc, mothers sit on the ground weaving clothes.

In Pumamarca, men plant crops with bull-powered plows.

We follow a traditional footpath, widened in recent years for occasional vehicles. The Patacancha River dodges back and forth like a child, making us cross several bridges to stay out of its playful way.

We reach the stone town of Ollantaytambo just as children are walking home from school hand-in-hand. The ruins of the Inca city of Ollantaytambo sit high on the hills overlooking today’s descendants. The ruins weave history and myth together like the threads on a Quechua loom.

The ruins of the Inca city of Ollantaytambo sit high on the hills overlooking today’s descendants.

According to tradition, the city was named for the Inca military captain, Ollantay, who risked everything for forbidden love. Ollantay loved Cusi Qoyllur, “Joyful Star,” the daughter of Pachacutec Inca. The Inca (which means ruler) forbid the young lovers to marry, so Ollantay led a revolution against him. When Pachacutec died, the next Inca gave the couple his blessing. They married and had a daughter named Ima Sumaq, “How Beautiful.”

This city was named for the Inca military captain, Ollantay, who risked everything for forbidden love.

How beautiful, too, is their city, lying against the slope in a synchronous embrace. A long stairway takes us up to the “Temple of the Ten Niches,” a wall of seamlessly fitted stones with ten recesses where idols once sat. We pass through a trapezoidal arch, to an outcrop where the unfinished Sun Temple stands – the Spanish invaded before it was completed. On one freestanding wall, a sideways-facing, three-step pyramid was carved, representing the three Inca worlds: heaven, the physical world, and the underworld.

“The “Temple of the Ten Niches” has ten recesses where idols once sat.

The Spanish invaded before the Sun Temple was completed.

All of Ollantaytambo’s construction conforms to the shape of the hill, and natural boulders remain intact in the midst of otherwise geometric walls. “These were nature people,” Cynthia explains. “These were ecological people.”

Tonight we take the train to Aguas Calientes. Tomorrow we’ll catch a bus to Machu Picchu, the most complete remaining Inca city, and our best chance to walk into the past of these “nature people.” We won’t arrive by the same trail as other trekkers. But we’ve come by the best way we can imagine – a trail almost undisturbed by the powerful winds of time.

5 thoughts on “SKIPPING THE INCA TRAIL

  1. D. Siekman

    This is a very interesting blog (of which) I have enjoyed reading or should I say
    traveling around with you. Thank you for sharing your experiences.
    There is a photo on this blog of a woman (in a purple sweater) weaving a hand-loom.
    A small child sits on the left side. It is a gorgeous photo and I would dearly LOVE to do
    a painting from it. Who do I contact to obtain permission for this?
    Thank you for your response.
    D. Siekman

    1. Cara Lopez Lee Post author

      D. Siekman, Thank you for letting me know you’ve enjoyed my posts, and the photo, which I took. I deeply appreciate it. I’m the person you would need to contact for permission. I’m flattered that you want to make a painting of my photo. I’m happy to give permission so long as you’ll do three simple things in return: 1) take photos of the painting when it’s completed, 2) email me the photos, and 3) give me permission to post them. I’ll email you so that you’ll have my email address. Again, many thanks for your interest.

  2. Cara Lopez Lee

    I’ve been wondering what to serve as a vegetarian option at our next book club at my place. Popcorn! What an inspired idea. Good grief.

    Your Inca Trail experience sounds just awful. So glad I didn’t talk to you before I went to Peru, I might have been terrified. Though I love the idea of an “I puked on Machu Picchu” shirt, and think you should still have one made for Bryan.

    I got food poisoning at least 3 times during my trip around the world. In 1999, I arrived in Delhi in the middle of a heat wave, but was so sick from something I ate in Kathmandu that I was shivering. I almost passed out in the street. Then an auto-rickshaw driver tried to hijack me to some friend’s shop. I refused to get out, until he finally took me back to my crap hotel in the backpacker ghetto. I was so violently ill, for the next several hours I had visions of dying in my horrible little room. I wasn’t worried about death so much as the fact that I was alone and no one knew where I was, so it might have been days before someone found my body. Gross.

    Perversely, these stories always make me wonder wistfully when my next adventure will be.

  3. Jen Reeder

    We hiked the Inca Trail back in 1997. It was memorable for good and bad, and bad makes the best story…The vegetarian option at several meals with our guide was popcorn so I was pretty weak by the time we got there. Bryan caved and ate the meat – which gave him and several other people food poisoning. When we got our first view of Machu Picchu on the 4th day of hiking, he was so overcome with sickness that he vomited. I was very sorry that they didn’t sell “I puked on Machu Picchu” shirts!

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