One activity my boyfriend was eagerly expecting was trekking in the Andes. He loves outdoors activities and at his first visit to Peru he did one of the famous treks of the region that left him wanting to return and explore more. In my case, my experience hiking was limited to a one day hike in Annecy (French Alpes) that went from easy and calm to hard and slippery thanks to a constant light rain. After that I was a little traumatized but the fact of knowing I was visiting one of the countries with some of the best hiking on the world empowered my inner explorer and filled me with a large adventure sentiment. So I told myself “ok, this is it, this is the time to embrace new challenges and fill my life with wonder, discoveries, and adventure,” and I went to Decathlon to get hiking boots and pants to replace my Reebok’s EasyTone (definitely not recommend for outdoors sports) and my yoga pants.
My boyfriend was the one in charge of planning everything that had to do with trekking (leave beaches and cities to me.) Luckily he was in charge cause before the trip I had no idea camping tents where classified by seasons and the world of boiling or simmering stoves and canister vs. liquid fuel was new to me, I thought if you wanted to cook you could simply light a fire.
Turns out that you can do hikes and treks pretty much everywhere, so my idea of a couple of days trekking to Machu Picchu was erased with plenty of short hikes and long treks. Even though most of the treks where in Peru we also dedicated some days in other countries to explore local communities and awesome landscapes.
Though it was physically hard for me and sometimes I prayed for an enormous vacuum to extract me out of the mountain (Hunger Games style,) I pushed my limits and overcome all my fears, I proved to be a good and fast hiker! Reaching the top of the mountain or finally getting to the distant place at the end of the map and knowing all the effort that took you to get you there, that particular feeling is priceless and totally rewarding.
Here are the 5 treks that I enjoyed the most and I definitely recommend. For info, we did all the treks solo, meaning no tour, companies, guide or muleteer hired. As I mention before my boyfriend is an enthusiastic walker so he had everything prepared. Besides that, most treks especially in Peru, are very frequented and well sign posted so it is easy to spot the typical wooden posts pointing the direction or cross a local or a tour.
What about the altitude? Though many tourists have a bad time adapting to the altitude we were lucky and didn´t feel that much; we only had the impression that we got tired more quickly and that we needed to slow down especially at the ascents but that didn´t last long. No need to chew coca leaves or drink tea.
• Santa Cruz | Huaraz, Peru
This is the most popular circuit in the Cordillera Blanca, Parque Nacional Huascaran. From Huaraz you must take a bus either to Cashapampa or to Vaqueria. At Huaraz we asked a couple of tour guides for some info and luckily one told us it was better to start at Vaqueria rather tan Cachapampa. All the tours start from Cashapampa but we felt really confident on what the guide told us and decided to star from Vaqueria.
The mountain pass is at 4750 meters high. In my opinion the guide was right and starting the trek from Vaqueria is better, you have better views of the mountains and the ascent is more gradual. If you book a tour you will need 3 days to complete the trek but is totally doable within 2. We saw tours in the camps already at 2 p.m. but we kept on walking till the sunset so we could skip a day and we weren´t dying because of the extra hours.
We heard that in Huaraz people were told it was not allowed to go on the trek without a guide, which is nonsense. It is allowed and doable. You have to pay an entrance fee of 65 soles each, which in our opinion isn´t used for the maintenance of the park.
The variety of landscapes the parks offers is really something and at the pass “Punta Union” there is a glaciar and a turquoise glaciar lake. You will find also many locals and cattle along the way.
› Trip Length: 2 to 3days
› Difficulty Level: Medium
• Salcantay Trail | Cusco, Peru
There’s nothing like the satisfaction of approaching Machu Picchu on one’s own two feet. Besides of what many people think the classic Inca Trail isn´t the only trek that can take you to Aguas Calientes, Machu Picchu´s base town. And thank god! The Inca Trail has become a really touristic experience that now is limited only to 500 persons per day, porters and guides included. With a really high demand you need to book way on advance and the price is far way of being backpacker friendly. Though I´m sure it most be a great experience, personally I don´t understand why someone would pay minimum 700 USD for a 4 day trek of only 34 km. Fortunately, the Inca were master road builders who blazed trails all throughout the Andes (some paths lead even to Chile) and many of these are alternate routes to Machu Picchu, solo doable and way cheaper. We decided to take the route that leads to one of the sacred peaks, the Salcantay.
From Cusco you need to take a bus or minivan to Mollepata town, both leave from near downtown and it takes around 3 hours. Even if this is an alternative rout from the Inca Trail it is still very famous aso from the moment you get to Mollepata you will start meeting with lots of tourists.
The classic Inca Trail is famed for the diversity of its topography and ecosystems; the Salcantay Trail is even more impressive. Besides the 20,500-feet-high Mount Salcantay, a sacred peaks and religious pantheon still revered today, you will find a subtropical cloud forest, an ancient Inca highway,coffee plantations and the ruins of Llactapata from where you can gaze a few miles across the valley and get a view of the full Machu Picchu complex. This beautiful trail will take you to “La Hidroelétrica“ the famous train station which railways you will need to follo for a couple more hours intil finally getting to Aguas Calientes and buying your ticket for visiting Machu Picchu the next day.
› Trip Length: 3 to 4 days
› Difficulty Level: Medium to Difficult
• Cordillera de los Frailes | Sucre, Bolivia
This trek was an amazing surprise. La Cordillera de los Frailes is a mountainous region in the central parts of the Bolivian Andes that can be summarized in: an Inka trail, traces of dinosaurs, cave paintings, local indigenous people, a massive crater and mountains of a thousand colors, yes it is as great as it sounds. There are several agencies that make the trek, the most famous is Condor Treckers. An ONG located a block from Sucre´s main plaza that helps with development programs to indigenous communities. They offer tours from 1 to 4 days; the 4 day trek is around 100 usd all included. If you decide to do it solo you need to take a bus to Chataquila and from there continue to Maragua, the little village inside a huge crater. Also you must be really careful in following the right path towards Maragua. This is a trek where signs are not very frequent and the language of locals is Quechua, so not everyone you meet can speak Spanish. After crossing the junction that takes you right to Chaunaca and left to Maragua, you will descend approximately 300 mts and then the path divides into two, you must continue to the right through a car bridge. We continued left and we lost 4 to 5 hours trying to figure out the way. We still saw nice things in the way but it took us longer to get to Maragua. Maragua´s crater is not volcanic but was formed by erosion and covers an area of 8 km. There used to be a big sea there so fossils of marine shells are still found in the region and sold by local children. It is possible to spend a night in inside the crater and is also possible to buy crafts from locals, specially Jalqas textiles, and some groceries from the one shop in the village. If you are there the one day the bus to Sucre pass then you can go back from there, if not then you can continue the trek and go to see the dinosaur’s prints which are not so far from the crater.
› Trip Length: 2 to 3 days
› Difficulty Level: Easy to Medium – Trail can easily be lost so if you are not that prepared with directions hiring a guide is not a bad idea.
• Cotahuasi Canyon | Arequipa, Peru
Welcome to one of the deepest canyon in the world! This 12000 feet deep canyon is located in the province of Arequipa which is home also of the Colca Canyon, one of the principal attractions of the country. Why did we choose to skip the famous attraction and visit the not so famous one? Because rather than choosing the touristic and expensive option, we decided to choose the calm, cheaper and far away from tourist one. We also met some travellers who wisely advice us to visit the Cotahuasi Canyon for a more authentic experience, plus in the deepest part, the canyon reaches 3,535 meters of depth! That was really something we wanted to see. To go there you need to take a night bus to Cotahuasi and start walking in the morning. The landscape is impressive as also the locals. We met some really friendly and kind people who offered us something to eat and showed us their community. The canyon´s region is huge, we trekked for 3 days but you could easily spent more time there. There are hot springs, alca villages with the typical fields, waterfalls, a cactus forest, the village of Quechualla (the deepest point) a rock forest stone and the list goes on. Though the ascents are mainly gradual there are some points in which some stones have collapsed making the path really narrow and kind of dangerous. There are different communities through the canyon so it is also possible to go to some places by bus but prepare to be patient; transport here seems to know no organization.
› Trip Length: 3 to 6 days
› Difficulty Level: Medium to Difficult
• El Solitario Trek | Puerto Montt, Chile
This is not a trek on itself but a one-day hike from Puerto Montt, but exploring the Vicente Perez Rosales National Park is really worthy. My first impression here was that everything seemed more colorful, it was as if I was looking across a beautiful landscape of the most vivid colors. To get to this beautiful black volcanic sand trail one most take a bus from Puerto Montt to Ensenada and walk through the dirt road till the beginning of the trail, everything is well sign posted. From there you start trekking in the foothills of the volcano, first within an ancient forest and then on volcanic rock through the forest. Fine views of volcanoes Osorno, Puntiagudo and Calbuco and the Llanquihue Lake accompany the walk. At the end of the trail you get to a highway where if you continue walking less than 1 km you will fine the Petrohué falls. There, we met a nice couple of Chileans on long weekend and they invited us to join them and visit the Todos los Santos lake and go up to the volcan Osorno to check out the view. A great way to discover some of the Chilean Patagonia.
› Trip Length: 1 day
› Difficulty Level: Easy