Lonely Planet Writer

Pathfinder pics: hiking the Lares Trek and Machu Picchu

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Lonely Planet Pathfinder Dan James experiences Peru's most famous attraction and its lesser-known Inca hiking experience.

Machu Picchu, one of the seven wonders of the modern world, is deservedly near the top of most travel lists, including mine. The magical region of Cuzco, Peru is home to the sophisticated citadel that welcomes around one million tourists a year. If that sounds mighty crowded then fear not, the real adventure is, as always, in the journey rather than the destination...

While the Inca Trail is the most popular route in the region, the lesser-explored Lares Trek, which I recently hiked with G Adventures, offers a more remote, local and authentic experience, served with some truly mind blowing scenery to boot.

Welcome to the Sacred Valley

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The Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu and nearby Cuzco formed the central hub of the Inca Empire, and are home to incredibly well preserved Inca ruins, that I found made for an excellent introduction to the history of the region. This includes the beautiful terraces of Písac, which were built to increase the agricultural area are impressive feats of construction, and the cobbled streets and ruins in the village of Ollantaytambo, which are as charming as they are educational.

Meet the Quechua locals

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One of the highlights of the Lares Trek for me was meeting the locals, both at the community supported projects by G Adventures and in the small villages and stone houses dotted along the route of the hike. With fewer tourists passing through this valley, you get a glimpse of the Andean Mountains' slower pace of life. The Quechua natives, in their brightly coloured ponchos, herd their alpacas, llamas and mules past you, stopping for broken conversation in Quechua and exchanging coca leaves, which are chewed to help with the altitude.

Admire rugged, remote beauty

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With landscapes of snow capped mountains, blue lagoons and grazing wildlife, I was in awe from day one, but it was the silence of the Andes that had me captivated. I can count on one hand the number of tourists our group passed over the three days, and every time I paused I was amazed by just how few people were around to share the incredible vistas.

Sleep under the stars

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After the sun sets the the temperature drops dramatically, but that didn’t stop me from wrapping up warm, grabbing a coca tea and admiring the incredible night sky above our tents. With no light pollution to speak of, the milky way and constellations were the brightest I’ve ever seen in my life.

The Lares Trek is breathtaking (literally)

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The highest point of the Lares Trek is at 4800m, and here both the view and altitude will take your breath away. Spending a couple of days in Cuzco to adjust, taking acetazolamide tablets before arrival and drinking or chewing the coca leaves are all ways to alleviate the effects. One thing I can promise you though, is the views from the top are well worth the strenuous climb on day two, the toughest of the three day hike.

End with a modern world wonder

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Once you’ve conquered the hike, the reward is one of the most impressive citadels in the world, Machu Picchu. While the Inca Trail hikes directly in, at the end of the Lares Trek you take the scenic train to the touristy town of Aguas Calientes at the base of Machu Picchu. The pit stop allows for a much needed warm shower and good night's sleep before exploring the most famous Inca site. Built in the 15th century, there are a few theories about the exact use of the Machu Picchu, but I can guarantee that it truly lives up to the hype.

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