The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu gets all the acclaim — and visitors — but its neighbour, the Lares Trek, offers James Cusick a revelatory experience.
Mountains bring out the philosopher in you. It can't be helped. It's something to do with fundamental consciousness, the presence of eternity, the freighted Zen of the earth's natural monuments, the closeness of the transient sky. So, at 4414m up in the Huchuy Qosqo Pass in Peru's Sacred Valley, when I should have been contemplating the legacy of Pachacutec, Atahualpa, and other Inca rulers, why was the prospect of a hot tub, a cold beer, and an emerging blister on my left foot the only stuff on my mind?
There was a time when I could bag a Munro before lunch and head home for a round of golf that afternoon. Now, the fourth floor of a department store might as well be the Eiger Nordwand if the escalators are out of action. Given an over-worship of the sedentary gods, a week's high-altitude hiking in the mountain passes either side of the Urubamba Valley, with 7am starts and twilight finishes, was likely to end like a scene from A Fistful of Dollars and I'd be taken back to town, lifeless, ignominiously slung over the back of a mule.
High in the Andes, out of breath just thinking about the next step, and with a heart-rate mimicking the William Tell Overture, you'll find out what you're made of. Sensing my answer wouldn't be good, I flew from Lima into the Inca capital, Cusco, and began following advice that drinking tea made out of coca leaves helps alleviate altitude sickness. The psycho-active alkaloid of coca is cocaine; so coca tea surely would've had Jimi Hendrix's approval.
Apparently an excessive coca tea regime is a mistake. I'd also been taking acetazolamide tablets without realising one side-effect was pins and needles. I woke up in Cusco at the ultra-comfortable El Mercado hotel sensing just the hint of a Nazca Plate earthquake in my room. There wasn't one.
The Sacred Valley, stretching from Pisac to Ollantaytambo - where an hour on the train will take you to Aguas Calientes just below Machu Picchu - was the heart and soul of an empire that from the 13th century stretched from Cusco to conquer a large swathe of pre-Columbian South America. Before the Spanish conquistadores, led by Francisco Pizarro, destroyed the Inca dynasty in the mid-16th century, their governed territory covered an area the size of western Europe.
The hard-school exploration of the high mountain route that ends at Machu Picchu's Sun Gate is the classic four-day Inca Trail. But overcrowding has led to an alternative route north of the Urubamba River, the Camino Salcantay, gaining in popularity. A few years ago, Mountain Lodges of Peru (MLP), opened plush, small-scale lodges along the Salcantay receiving applause from no less an authority than National Geographic, which called it "the cool way" to the Inca ruins.
MLP has now turned to the Lares Trail in the Sacred Valley and opened three classy lodges that serve as a deluxe reward after a hard day's trekking. The basic idea is that re-heated soup and a damp duvet isn't always required for the full mountain experience. So instead there are beautiful bedrooms, Michelin-aspiration cuisine, hot powerful showers - and, as mentioned, the above-the-clouds hot tub at 3800m at Huancahuasi. If you think your legs and lungs are incapable of another grinding step, it's surprising what decent Chilean merlot and a five-star kip in crisp linen can do for the spirit.
My backpack on day one had enough clothing to accommodate weather in the Bahamas and Nepal. I was a bit over-prepared. However, on the first day's hike from Chinchero, over the Huallata Pass and then down towards a late lunch at Huchuy Qosqo ("Little Cusco" in the Quechua language) I'd sweltered, froze, been rained on, and went through nearly every item - plastic poncho included - that had been stuffed into my day-pack.
There are no roads into the archaeological site at Huchuy Qosqo. You need to walk. Below the main site, there are renovated store houses where the Incas used to keep the maize, potatoes and beans that guaranteed a regular food surplus throughout their empire. The Incas mastered high-altitude farming by constructing layered micro-climates and storage complexes that could accommodate 70 crops capable of being stockpiled for up to seven years.
Day two meant a climb to the Challwaccasa Pass, a downhill trek to the village of Viacha, the appearance of barbecued guinea pig at lunch, and a further trek to the hilltop Inca fortress at Pisac. Sanctuary at the end of the first two days was at Lamay Lodge just south of Calca, and the next two days' base camp was Huacahuasi Lodge, north of the Urubamba River on the edge of a mountain village. Day three meant Cuncani, a two-hour hike to the Cruzccasa Pass at 4188m and a lengthy descent back to Huacahuasi. Day four was the toughest with a series of ascents and descents through two passes, lunch at Qeywaqocha Lake and an end to the day at the village of Qelqena, where a beer felt like a justified survival ceremony.
The fifth day, supposed to be easier, wasn't. It involved a trek up the Ipsaycocha Pass (4333m), down to a glacial lake for lunch, then a long march home, back to Patacancha.
Over the week, lunches became a hybrid of rescue and emergency miracle work. Soup, trout farmed in high lakes, mashed spuds, stir-fries, wine-poached pears, barbecued guinea pig and chicken, sweet fruit and teas: all appeared just when you felt your feet might abandon you. So, resuscitated and revived, you go on, passing another herd of llamas, more alpacas, dogs, women weaving in colourful outfits and hats.
Out of the mountains, on the drive to Ollantaytambo, and later on the train to Aguas Calientes and the morning spent at Machu Picchu, I began to sense the importance of the journey, glad it hadn't happened without a bit of adventure.
The Camino Salcantay and the Lares Trail are about being in the mountains with all the time you never seem to have. Here you'll think, wonder at nature, and marvel at Inca history. But your heart rate, breathing and stamina, and the next step, will seem just as important. And you'll find you're capable of keeping going when you can't.
Air New Zealand offers non-stop flights from Auckland to Buenos Aires three times a week, with onward connections to Lima on either Aerolineas Argentinas or Avianca. airnewzealand.co.nz