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Hiking in Peru: Five Extraordinary Treks that are Worth the Effort

If you’ve ever read anything about hiking in Peru, it’s likely you’ve heard about the high altitude being “no joke.” While the altitude does make the majority of all big hikes around here challenging, the views will offer the biggest reward you can imagine. Here are 5 of our most challenging but rewarding treks you won’t want to miss:

AUSANGATE TREK

The Ausangate hike traces through high elevation ranging between 10,334ft and 16,800ft. The trail takes adventure seekers through landscapes bursting with glaciers, snow-capped mountains, thermal ponds, high flatlands, lush green valleys, multi-colored mountains, peppered with Andean camels (llamas).

This trail is believed to be the most profound pilgrimage in the Andes and is one of the most renowned hikes in Peru.

The Ausangate trek is classified as challenging or Grade C in difficulty due to the altitude gain and with 6-7 hours of hiking per day. Anyone with a good level of fitness can manage this hike, but it is recommended that  trekkers have experience with multi-day hikes and high elevations before attempting it.

INCA TRAIL

One of the most popular things to do is to hike one of the world’s most famous hikes – the Inca trail.

Hiking the Inca trail is an experience that will inspire excitement and jealousy amongst your family and friends. This bucket list trip starts from Cusco by car to KM-82 where the magic begins. The trail itself is a narrow path taking you deep into the Peruvian countryside and high into the Andean mountains with stunning lush green vegetation alive with birds, llamas, alpacas, and other small wildlife. The seemingly endless valley view shows incredible Inca sites laid out like breadcrumbs along the way to the Sun Gate and through to Machu Picchu.

Keep in mind, due to the popularity of this trek, there is a limited number of permits available per day. We recommend booking 4-6 months in advance. There is also an option to hike this trail over 5 days and see Machu Picchu twice. Contact us for more information if interested!

ANCASCOCHA TREK

The isolated Ancascocha trek is a true adventure for those craving a chance to commune with nature as you hike the Cordillera Vilcabamba mountain range while walking to Machu Picchu.

This spectacular trail is also known as the other hidden Inca trail- Off the beaten path, stunning, strenuous and challenging due to the altitude gain. With a maximum elevation of 16,270ft and a length 38.44 miles split over 4-days, this one isn’t for the faint of heart.

National Geographic once named the Ancascocha Trek as one of the World’s 20 Dream Hikes.

LARES TREK

The Lares Trek offers something beyond just the beautiful landscapes – this trek shows the traveler exceptional insight into the lives of Andean villagers. This 4 or 5-day trek offers the ideal blend of nature and culture and is the second most famous stretch of the “road” system constructed by the Incas over 500 years ago. As the less-famous sister hike to the Inca trail, Lares is the perfect way to follow in the footsteps of the ancient Incas without crowds so you are guaranteed to get a far greater connection to the local Peruvian culture.

The Lares trek is commonly seen as the least physically demanding option for hiking to Machu Picchu. The highest elevation is 15,786 ft on the 26.7 mile trail with 6-7 hours hiking per day.

HUARAZ- HUAYHUASH TREK

While we’re biased towards hikes in the Cusco region, we can’t have a list of the best hikes in Peru without including the Huayhuash Trek.

With a starting point in Huaraz, located in north-central Peru, this trek takes you through one of the most impressive mountain ranges in the world, the Cordillera Blanca.

Snow-capped mountains above and dry plains below paint a stunning juxtaposition of colors and natural landscapes that will make you want to keep coming back again and again.

The complete Huayhuash circuit is 10-12 days, but we offer a consolidated 7 day trek with the best highlights at a pace of 6-8 hours a day. This mini Huayhuash trek could be noted as one of the most physically and emotionally challenging treks in the country, but certainly also one of the most rewarding.

No matter which of the hikes above interests you the most, there are a few things all of them have in common:

  • Weather in the Peruvian Andes is typically grouped into two seasons, rainy season (wet/ November to mid April with the peak in late January to early March) and dry season (cold at night/ May to September). There really isn’t much fluctuation in terms of temperature throughout the year (nighttime lows -10 to 0 C, daytime highs of 18 to 22 C)
  • The best time to do these trails is between May and October because there are clearer days and sunnier weather to take in the beautiful scenery. The rainy season may sound less ideal, but the clouds and rain make everything green and lush while adding some mysticism to the landscapes that could be perfect for some photographers or trekkers who want to avoid the crowds.
  • The Inca Trail is closed during the month of February due to the rainy weather and risk of landslides.
  • Most of the visiting trekkers live at lower altitudes in their home countries and they are not used to breathing thin oxygen. It’s highly recommended to give yourself time to acclimate to the altitude by spending 2-3 days in Cusco (or Huaraz for the Huayhuash trek) before you hit the trail. This will help you to reduce the risk of altitude sickness.
  • Most of these treks can be completed by trekkers of any fitness level. The terrain is not difficult to navigate. It is just a matter of taking your time, preparing for the altitude, and having good humor. From there, we will take care of the rest.

What is the Ausangate Trek in Peru?

While the whole Ausangate (pronounced Ow-saan-gah-tay) Trek package to Machu Picchu is 6 days/5 nights, technically the “Ausangate” portion is only the first 4 days of the overall experience. 

Over the 4 days hiking and 3 nights camping, you will start by traveling 3 hours south of Cusco by car to the trailhead.  From there, the hike takes you around a portion of the Ausangate peak and glacier – the 2nd tallest mountain in Peru and the highest mountain in Cusco.  Along the way, you’ll see pristine glacial lakes, rural villages where farmers are still practicing the traditions of Incan times, and the biggest draw of the region, rainbow mountains and the red valley.

While the trail itself is not rough terrain, not many people choose to hike here due to the high altitude, so you will have the trail and views mostly to yourself as a reward for taking it on.  The trek ends with an early morning arrival at Rainbow Mountain so you can enjoy it before all the crowds arrive from Cusco with day trip passengers.

To round out the package, we continue on to the Sacred Valley and the tail end of the classic Inca Trail so you can hike into Machu Picchu the way the Incan people did.  You will return to Machu Picchu the next day for a longer tour and the opportunity to tell all your friends you visited Machu Picchu twice.  This trek is an adventurer’s best option to see all of Cusco’s big landscapes and cultural treasures in under one week.

Three Stunning Lakes a Day Trip from Cusco

Cusco, Peru is a charming city in the country’s highlands. While you could easily spend your whole trip wandering through the streets of this city, most people know it as the main gateway to Machu Picchu, the Inca trail, and many other excursions around the region.

Cusco is the perfect base for day trips to some of the country’s prettiest Andean landscapes. The area is most well known for longer hiking and camping trips for adventure lovers to complete once in their lives, there are plenty of gorgeous lakes in the Cusco region you can reach from the city by car. The Cusco region is splashed with hundreds of remote, scenic lakes, many of which are less visited or unexplored by tourists yet.

The incredible lakes in Peru around Cusco may be the country’s best-kept secret. For your first trip, visit at least one of the three lakes we recommend below, all easily reachable on a one-day tour from Cusco.

QUINSA Q’OCHA LAKE

Hidden away near Pisaq about two hours in the eastern end of the Sacred Valley of the Incas, this lake is a three mile loop.

The vibrant blue and green hues of the water come from snow and natural spring water that exist just at the skirt of the mountains. While the cold, sweet water invites an abundance of wildlife (trout, birds, algae, and other microorganisms) we don’t recommend swimming due to the low temperature. But the tranquility and peace of the lake is ideal for a boat experience or fishing sport.

Another reason this is one of the most incredible lakes in the region is due to the adventure-minded variety of hiking, boat riding, and llama trekking trails around the lake

HUMANTAY LAKE

Located in the western part of the Anta province, 90 kilometers from Cusco, this lake and it’s next door neighbor, Inca Chirisak’a lake, are near the starting point for backpackers who take the path to the Salkantay glacier and Machu Picchu.

The Humantay lake is among the most popular lakes and takes two hours hiking from the trailhead of Soraypampa or you can ride horse for forty five minutes. Inca Chiriask’a Lake is a little bit farther and less-crowded than Humantay  Lake. Each is independently breathtaking, with layers upon layers of natural colors, from green to clear blue thanks to the snow-caped mountains of Humantay and Salkantay.

The area surrounding is spectacular too and offers expansive views of the seemingly endless valley. However, the Andes can be both windy and cold with unpredictable weather, so you should be adequately experienced and prepared for remote, high-altitude hiking or camping.

SEVEN LAKES OF AUSANGATE

The glistening 7 lakes of Ausangate are quite close to the Ausangate Mountain which is the second highest Mountain in Peru. The land around the lake has rolling crop fields and domestic animals like llamas and alpacas and natural hot springs with a sprinkling of camping areas in between. It has more locals around compared to other lakes in the area, and some common sights will include scenes of families weaving textiles with their children and farmers carrying their crops and stools on their backs while pulling llamas. It’s a unique cultural charm. It’s also still relatively unvisited by tourists even though it’s one of the most recommended lakes to see.

Seven lakes are three hours by car from Cusco. The trailhead is called Pacchanta and begins at 14,107ft. The whole loop will take 3-4 hours hiking. This tour can be done in one day or as part of the multi-day Ausangate Rainbow mountain hike.

We highly encourage you to visit any and all of the lakes listed above, but please keep in mind that they are all at high altitude – Quinsa Q’ocha lake is located over 4,000 meter/13,123ft, Humantay is 4200m/13779ft, and the 7 Lakes are at 4330m/14,207ft up in the Andes mountains – so we highly recommend that you acclimate for 2 days in Cusco and make appropriate considerations for high-altitude hiking before beginning any trip. The trails are well marked so you can do it by yourself, but we highly recommend visiting these sites with a guide for the best and safest experience.

Worried about Altitude Sickness? 5 Ways to Prepare

Have you been thinking about traveling to Peru but you’re worried about getting altitude sickness?  This condition happens when you travel to a high altitude (elevation) too quickly without giving your body time to adjust to the lower air pressure and lower oxygen levels.  Anyone can get altitude sickness regardless of fitness or experience level, age, sex, or general health.   

The good news is, you don’t have to let a fear of altitude sickness prevent you from experiencing Peru.  With proper preparation, your body will adjust, and you will have an amazing trip.

Here, we list some essential tips that you should consider if you are preparing to visit Cuso or complete any of the high-altitude climbs in Peru:

  1. If you really want to enjoy your vacation and complete the expedition successfully, we highly recommend arriving in Cusco at least two days prior your trip.  During this time, try to do some light physical activities like walking around the city of Cusco or enjoying any of the free things to do in the area.
  2. Talk to your doctor before traveling if you have any of the following conditions:
    • Have a lung or heart condition
    • Pregnancy
    • Live at low elevation or previously had altitude problems
  3. Learn the symptoms of altitude sickness.  You’ll likely feel:
    • Nauseous
    • Lightheaded
    • Fatigue and loss of energy
    • Shortness of breath
    • Loss of appetite
    • Dizziness
    • Insomnia
  4. Be proactive about preventing altitude sickness. 
    • Arrive in Cusco 2 days before attempting to do anything strenuous so your body can acclimate.  This process allows your body time to adjust to the change in oxygen levels. Take your time when walking uphill.
    • Talk to your healthcare provider about taking acetazolamide (Diamox) before your trip. Taking it 24 hours before traveling to a high altitude and continuing for five days can help prevent altitude sickness. Dexamethasone can also be used preventively, but it can have serious side effects. Talk to your provider before your trip.
  5. Try to prepare in advance to help your body acclimate faster.
    • Find ways to “walk up”:  At home in your neighborhood or in an office or mall in your city, walk uphill and up and down stairs as often as possible, with or without a backpack on.
    • Go slow: if you are in Cusco or able to walk somewhere above 10,000 feet, don’t increase your altitude more than 1,000 feet a day for the first 2 days
    • Rest: when you are climbing, try to find a landmark (tree or rock) you want to walk to before taking a break.  Keep your mind busy with the beauty of nature to try to distract yourself.
    • Climb high and sleep low: If you climb more than 1,000 feet in a day, come down to sleep at a lower elevation.
    • Know your body: it’s important to recognize the signs and symptoms of altitude sickness. If you notice any symptoms, slow down and rest, drink water, and, if it’s possible, move to a lower altitude.
    • Stay hydrated: Drink 3-4 liters of water per day.
    • Avoid alcohol, tobacco, and depressant drugs that can dehydrate your body.  These substances will have a stronger effect at higher elevations, which can impair judgment.
    • Eat carbs: Eat a diet that’s 70% carbohydrates while acclimating. 

If you get to Cusco and feel any symptoms of altitude sickness while you are not with a tour group, please stop and rest. If possible drink water and/or the local coca tea or chew candy with sugar to help stimulate blood flow. If you feel like it is an emergency, pop into the nearest restaurant or hotel so they can help you get oxygen or any other medical attention that might be needed. The locals in Cusco are used to seeing this type of thing are extremely friendly and helpful. Do not hesitate to ask for help if you need it.

It Doesn’t Need to Take Too Long to Get Off the Beaten Path in Peru

While Peru is probably most well-known for Machu Picchu, this country is actually full of traditions, customs, breathtaking landscapes, and friendly people worth seeing.  The best way to experience it is to get out and hike off-the-beaten path, but we know most people don’t have a ton of time to spend here.

If having an experience hiking in Peru has been on your bucket list for a while but you just don’t have too much time to do a multi-day trek, you might want to consider one of these shorter options.

  • Huchuy Qosqo trek– this is a 3-day experience but only one night camping.  You will spend a day and a half hiking through the mountains before taking a trail to Aguas Calientes and visiting Machu Picchu on day 3.

  • Waqrapukara & Rainbow Mountain – this is a 2-day experience starting from Cusco with 6-7 hours of hiking on day one.  The terrain is very easy – anyone in moderate shape can make easy work of this hike.  Barely any tourists visit Waqrapukara so you will have the trail to yourself and really experience what it was like for the ancient Incas.  Day 2 at rainbow mountain is also amazing because you will get there before the crowds.

  • Machu Picchu day trip by train – If you don’t have the endurance or time to reach Machu Picchu by foot, don’t fear. You can take a scenic and relaxing train ride instead.

Short treks are a great opportunity to get off the grid and experience what Peru is all about! Consider these when thinking about getting off the beaten path and planning your trip of a lifetime. 

Best Places to See in Cusco – for Free

If you have the time and interest in history, Cusco is one place where you should absolutely hire an experienced guide to give you a full tour and explain all the city’s hidden secrets. We also understand that sometimes you just have a free day or half day to kill while you acclimate to it’s 11,000+ feet of altitude. If you’re looking for the best places to see around the city at your own pace, here are some of our favorite spots you should definitely not miss:

Plaza de Armas
  • Plaza de Armas – This bustling square is the heart of Cusco for good reason.  Not only is it surrounded by incredible architecture, restaurants, and shops, but it’s the hub for your introduction to Inca/Quechua culture.  Each street off the main plaza still has its original Quechua name and the locals can tell you what was once sold on that street through its translation.
  • San Blas – Known for its artisan shops and markets, the San Blas neighborhood is THE place to find your unique Peruvian souvenir.  Just a short walk (up a steep hill!) from the main plaza, you’ll find a small church and tons of shops and restaurants to peruse at your leisure. 
Qorikancha

  • Qorikancha – This is a historic landmark and one of the most important temples in Inca culture.  It was mostly destroyed by the Spanish, but the foundation remains, and the building and catacombs are a museum today.  If you don’t want to pay to go into the museum, take a 5-minute walk from the main plaza down the Avenida El Sol.  You can see the building of Qorikancha and the impressive Jardin Sagrado (Sacred Garden) on your left from the street.

  • San Pedro Market – While it’s still one of our favorite places to get breakfast, San Pedro market has so much more to offer than just food.  You can find any handicraft, food, fabric, or article of clothing Peru has to offer inside this impressive space.  Don’t be afraid to bargain with the locals – they love to chat and make a good deal.
View from San Cristobal

  • San Cristobal – Plan to start or end your day at San Cristobal Church for sunrise or sunset.  It’s a steep climb up the street or stairs to get here (depending on what direction you’re coming from), but the view over all of Cusco is incredible and worth the effort.  You have to pay to visit the church or continue up the mountain to Sacsayhuaman, but the view from the little plaza here will only cost you a few deep breaths.

  • San Francisco Plaza – There is a lot to see in San Francisco Plaza – a smaller plaza 2 blocks west of the Plaza de Armas.  Lined with native Peruvian plants, it’s the perfect square to find a bench to rest and people watch.  Grab a coffee and pastry at one of the bakeries along the square to enhance the experience.

Was Machu Picchu Ever Really Lost?

In 1908, Hiram Bingham had been serving as a delegate at a Pan American Scientific Congress in Santiago, Chile.  As part of his journey home through Peru, Bingham was convinced to visit the archeological site of Choquequirao.  After that trip, he became fascinated with the idea that there could be “lost” cities through the Andes and wanted to explore more.

Hiram Bingham was a professor, not an archeologist, but his curiosity led him back to Peru for an expedition in 1911 where the biggest goal was to find Vitcos – the place most historians called the “lost city of the Incas.”  In order to discover this city, he had to ask the locals to take him through the Sacred Valley so he could continue his search along the Urubamba River.  They found several archeological sites, but Bingham was not convinced they had found Vitcos. 

They eventually reached the small village of Mandorpampa, about 30 minutes from modern-day Aguas Calientes, where they met a local farmer named Melchor Arteaga.  Arteaga was the first to tell him that there were some Inca ruins on the other side of the river and took Bingham there the next day.  Those ruins turned out to be what we now know as Huayna Picchu mountain.

On the skirt of this stunning mountain, he met another family that had been farming crops on some of Machu Picchu’s terraces for a long time.  That day, Bingham was led by Machu Picchu’s first tour guide, the farmer’s son Pablo, who knew Machu Picchu like the back of his hand. 

Most of the city was under dense vegetation so its significance wasn’t quite realized on first discovery.  Hiram Bingham took some pictures and decided to keep exploring other archeological sites with the locals who finally led him to Vitcos.  The locals called Vitcos “Rosaspata” so Hiram Bingham could not identify for certain that they were in the right place.  He believed Rosaspata was Vitcos and Machu Picchu was another place called Vilcabamba.  Later he realized that Vilcabamba was a bit more rustic while Machu Picchu had impressive, finer stone walls. 

A year later, in 1912, Hiram Bingham was sponsored by the National Geographic Society and Yale University to return to Peru to clean up the vegetation at Machu Picchu with the help of the locals.  What started as a 4 month excavation became a multi-year project with much of Machu Picchu still under vegetation today.

In 1915, Bingham began exploring the Inca Trail as well.  He was genuinely surprised to find such fine stone walls preserved at Machu Picchu and the other sites after so many years left by Inca civilization.  Bingham tried to find out the history of Machu Picchu, but his investigation never revealed the true story.

We know now that Machu Picchu was built during the reign of Inca Pachucutec in the 1400s and that it was abandoned after a century around the time the Inca kingdom was invaded by the Spanish in the 1530s.  It’s believed the Spanish never found Machu Picchu because it was abandoned prior to their arrival. 

It’s hard to say that Machu Picchu was “discovered” by one person because this incredible city was never forgotten or lost by locals.  The communities around the area knew it was there for centuries, but it’s thanks to Hiram Bingham’s exploration that Machu Picchu has finally found its rightful place at the world’s eye.

Hiking to Machu Picchu? How to Prepare

There are many ways to get to Machu Picchu and now that the National Park is open to tourists again, we wanted to answer a few common questions about hiking into this magical place. 

How long does it take to hike to Machu Picchu? There are several ways to hike to Machu Picchu and it can take anywhere from 2-11 days.  Currently, the famous Inca Trail pilgrimage is still closed to tourism due to the pandemic, but there are plenty of other trails to choose from.  We are specialists in off the beaten path trails, managing small groups right now for the safety of our staff and customers.  Most of our treks are 5days and 4 nights – understanding that you want to see and experience other parts of Peru while you’re in the area.

Do you have to carry your own equipment?  No, you don’t have to carry your own gear during the trek unless you really want to.  Our staff will handle everything from end to end including tents, sleeping bags, sleeping mats, and all food/cooking equipment.  We also provide duffel bags so we can carry your non-essential items from campsite to campsite.  You only need to plan to carry a day pack.

How do I prepare for altitude sickness? Unfortunately, you can’t prepare for altitude sickness. Every single person is going to feel differently when they arrive in Cusco (11,300ft), and there’s no way to tell if and when your body will acclimate until you get here. The best things to do on arrival are to rest, drink plenty of water, gatorade, or tea, and take your time walking from place to place.

What do you carry in your day pack?  We highly recommend you bring a day pack no larger than 30 liters (not affiliated, but something similar to these would be great).  You will be carrying any personal items you may need between campsites (passport, wallet, snacks, water, and rain gear, for example). Bonus points if it comes with a hydration bladder for ease of use.

How much water do I need to carry for the trek?  It depends on how much water you normally drink in a day or during a hike to say for sure, but we recommend bringing a 2L water bottle with you for the trek.  You will be able to refill your water at the lunch spots and at all camp sites with purified water provided by our staff.

What if I am vegetarian or I have a food allergy?  Our sales manager will ask you about your diet prior to your trip.  Based on the information you provide, our professional chef will make your meals during the trek according to your preferences or needs.

Is there a toilet along the trek?  There are usually no toilets on the trails, but we will set up a biochemical toilet at the campsites and lunch spots every day.  Along the trail, you may have to use nature.  Please keep in mind, that after using nature’s toilet, you cannot leave toilet paper on the trail.  Please bring your own plastic bag to keep any trash you may produce during the trek.  You can leave it at the campsite with our staff for them to take it off the trail at the end of the trek.

How cold are the campsites?  Depending on the hike you choose, it can get quite chilly.  We highly recommend bringing your thermal leggings.  The weather tends to drop at night, and sometimes you will get temperatures below 0 degrees Celsius.  You will get an all-weather sleeping bag and liner from us if you choose to rent one (and a sleeping mat) which will keep you warm enough in your tent, but it will be a good idea to have extra layers including a winter hat and gloves.

How do I get back to Cusco?  The First Step team will manage everything from end to end.  We will ask you questions prior to your trip so your tour guide will know where to pick you up and where to drop you off after your expedition.  The only thing you need to worry about is enjoying your Peru experience with us!

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