The one question till this date I cannot answer. It is kind of the equivalent of NY vs LA or Melbourne vs Sydney. It’s like asking São Paulo vs Rio de Janeiro, or even Madrid vs Barcelona. Yes, it is the Inca Trek vs the Lares Trek official showdown. Which is better? I am hoping by the end of this I will finally come to a conclusion.
First of all, my name is Tony Perdomo and I lived out of backpack for 8 years leading tours around the globe. Six of them were with Tucan Travel. My first destination was Peru back in 2004. Over the years, I got to trek the Inca Trek and the Lares Trek many times.
It is hard to go ahead and start comparing the Lares Trek with the Inca Trail, since they are both so similar, in so many ways. At the same time though, they are vastly different. They both include several kilometres of trekking up and down mountains at high altitude. If that doesn’t take your breath away, there is the stunning scenery as well. Yet, where one is more “commercial”, the other rewards the hiker with a more intimate feel of locals living in small towns along its path.
Alright, before we begin to compare them, let’s have a closer look of what our days will be like.
What is the Inca Trek? A full-on, 44-km hike that begins at Km 82 (with an altitude of 2700 metres) and takes you right into the Sun Gate and your first of many glimpses of Machu Picchu.
Let me tell you what “full-on” means.
Day 1 on the Inca Trek
Day 1 usually begins with a moderate 3-4 hour walk to our first stop, lunch. They have porters that will beat you there. By the time you show up, tents are up, food is cooked and we may even get a massage. Although the last request never actually happened, it was always good to ask no?
Then more walking and our first of many passes. Uphill, about a 45º steep climb, where it’s very intimidating at first, but once you conquer it with your baby steps and deep breaths, you are rewarded by a very picturesque look at the Andes.
We continue and explore our first of many Inca ruins, before eventually reaching our campsite (3000m). Tonight we spend our last night in tents. We need all the rest we can before the “big day” that awaits us.
Day 2 on the Inca Trek
Day 2 of the Inca Trek usually entails asking yourself why you signed up to do this. Where are the llamas to carry us up, and how in the pacha mama can those porters run UPHILL? As you challenge yourself, you start gaining momentum for what is the big pass, a 7-km uphill trek known to locals as Warmiwañusca. We gringos just call it “Dead Woman’s Pass” aptly named, at 4210 metres above sea level.
The best thing is that you need to conquer this because the amazing lunch and our campsite (3600m) is waiting downhill, yes after all those Inca steps. Ok, the best thing is definitely looking back and seeing what you just did that morning. It is a tremendous feat and I am very happy to have done that several times.
Day 3 on the Inca Trek
Now the fun begins with Day 3 (the longest) with not one, but two passes. One at about 3950m and then other at around 3600m (which when you do pass it, you didn’t realize it was one to begin!). A few more Inca ruins to be explored and then eventually, lunch, followed but more trekking. For some people, the most challenging part is yet to come. Those infamous Inca steps that eventually reach Winay Wayna (2650m) and our campsite, which for about $2, you can finally take a much-deserved HOT shower!
Day 4 on the Inca Trek
Finally, the day we are all waiting for. An early 4am start, to complete a journey that will be engraved in your memory bank forever. We reach the Sun Gate just before sunrise to admire one of the seven wonders, Machu Picchu (2750m).
After a 2km downhill breeze, we reach the restaurant, have a snack, coffee, and then off on our guided tour. We then have free time to climb (yes, some people are still up for it) Huayna Picchu to have a different perspective of Machu Picchu. The day finishes with a bus ride down visit to the town below (Aguas Calientes, 2400m) where we can indulge in dipping into some hot springs or into the local bar. Lastly, we took the train back to Cusco and what a feeling it is to have a long, hot shower and sleep in a bed after 3 nights camping.
The “easier” of the two, well that is the rumour anyway when I was approaching the town of Lares (3200m) for the start of our trek. By this time, I have done the Inca trail about 12 times, so I was really looking forward to conquer the Lares. We visited a small town, bought a few snacks and then it hit me: Where are all the tourists?
Day 1 of the Lares Trek
It was February and I know that the Inca trail is closed due to its yearly maintenance, so I would expect more tourists to be lining up and buying walking sticks and coca leaves. That was not the case. What came as a surprise too was the fact that we had lunch before our first step! Bring it on Lares, if this is any indication of what is to come, I bet I can trek it backwards.
We started our 2.5 hour trek and they told us it would all be uphill. We stopped in some local towns and still, no tourists, just locals living a simple, untouched life. This came as a shock because I didn’t think we would be in the villages.
We continued to climb and climb slowly, effortlessly to reach our campsite for the night, Sondor at 4200m! Wait, isn’t that the same altitude as Dead Woman’s…oh my!
Day 2 of the Lares Trek
We were told that Day 2 was going to be the longest, toughest and the most picturesque. Hey, look who you talking to? Can anything be worse than Inca’s Day 2? Survey says: “Same Same, but Different”, like they say in Vietnam. We started at 4200m, how much higher are we going? We walked, and slowly climbing up to reach Wacawasi (4520m) and that wasn’t as bad as I expected. Then we descend to reach, according to me, one of most breathtaking views I have ever seen in my life. Situated in a very remote location, this lake shares the same view as the surrounding snow-capped Pumahuanca.
I just couldn’t believe what I have been blessed with, what a beautiful country you are Peru. But there was more trekking involved and we just had to climb another 4520m pass. Wayruruyoc wasn’t as bad, because it was a gradual climb that provided plenty of opportunities to admire the views. But again, what goes up, must come down. Fortunately, there were no Inca steps, but it’s still demanding, not so much on your knees, but on your calves. When we reached our campsite (3400m), I was totally blown away by the views on this trek. The towns are basically running without any Westernized amenities, and you meet so many local kids that run uphill to wave “hola” to you because we may very be the first tourists they have seen in days. It really touched me because this all came as a surprise, and a good one it was.
Day 3 of the Lares Trek
Our Day 3 began early and this is the first time we get to visit an ancient Inca ruin while trekking, Pumamarca.
Today was going to be a short day because after our 2.5 hr walk down, we will reach the gorgeous town of Ollantaytambo. Here we get to take the train into Aguas Calientes and check into our hotel! A nice meal, a nice shower and a beautiful journey it’s been so far.
Day 4 of the Lares Trek
Our Day 4 was another early start due to our request. We boarded the 15-min bus ride up to Machu Picchu to be some of the first people there. And low and behold, we were basically the only ones there around 6:30am.
We had our guided tour and there was still time to climb Huayna Picchu, or even the 2km uphill to the Sun Gate. We boarded the train back to Cusco and the rest if history.
So now that we understand the treks and their Day-by-Day, it’s time for me to start comparing the two. I have to start with the fact that both the Inca Trek and the Lares Trek have great guides and amazing porters, and the food is absolutely lovely on both treks.
In terms of difficulty, I can honestly say the Inca Trek is tougher due to its climbs (some steep, some with steps) and the descents (heaps of steps!). But I am not going to underestimate the Lares Trek, which has 2 of 3 passes over 4400m and you’re trekking over 33 km (20.5miles) in honestly 48 hours. The Inca Trek is 44 km (27 miles) in three full days and about 2 hours in the morning of Day 4. But I can say that it’s not about the distance, but the difficulty, and my personal opinion is that Inca Trek is tougher, but not that much tougher than Lares Trek.
You will see more Inca ruins on the Inca Trail vs the Lares, no doubt about that.
You will be amongst 400+ tourists along with the local guides and porters beginning on the trek. They do use different campsites along the Inca trail, but you will most likely be among other groups. The Lares Trek on the other hand, I don’t think I saw another group at all (Feb 2009). So if you want to have a more solitude of a trek, the Lares Trail is your best bet. At the same time, you will come into contact with many locals from the towns. On the Inca Trail, you will see a few on the first day, then they don’t show up until Aguas Calientes.
Do I have a favourite?
So after all of this, the question needs to be answered: If the Incas come out with a calendar saying the world will end in 2020, and one of these treks is on your bucket list, which one would you do? If you are looking for less tourists and a more authentic experience, then the Lares Trek is your option. However for me, after all my years of traveling and leading tours, people ask me what is one of my favourite things I have ever done, and I answer that the same way I end this.
The moment I rounded the corner at the Sun Gate and caught my first glimpse of Machu Picchu was the most uplifting, emotional and heart-stopping moment in my entire traveling life. My hair rose, my eyes got a little teary. I was still macho in Machu! It is an experience, a journey, that to this day still headlines my memory bank.
Regardless of what you think or decide, one thing we can all agree on is that any of these two treks are a MUST in a traveler’s agenda. You will not regret it, I can promise you that.