Breathless ... on the Lares Trail, children greet walkers in the village of Chaki Qocha.

Breathless ... on the Lares Trail, children greet walkers in the village of Chaki Qocha. Photo: Ewen Bell

High above the Sacred Valley, Ewen Bell takes a spectacular alternative route to the crowded Inca Trail.

The Lares Trail is the most recent alternative to the Inca Trail, a remote route of high-altitude scenery just north of the Sacred Valley. It doesn't lead you into Machu Picchu with dawn views of the Sun Gate but it does get you among the rugged ranges of the Andes to meet farmers and villagers. Trekkers can expect all the llamas they could ever want and maybe a few they didn't.

The Inca Trail is so popular these days that hardly anyone gets there. Let me explain. Surprisingly few people who plan to visit the trail manage to do so because a permit system restricts numbers to 500 people a day.

Left unchecked, the demand for trekking would destroy the trail, hence walking poles are no longer allowed, pack weight is reduced to 10 kilograms and you can forget about having a horse to carry anything up the hill.

The permit system raises a few problems for independent travellers because the commercial trekking operators buy their share of permits well in advance. Solo trekkers can no longer turn up in Aguascalientes and buy a permit to trek the following day and even securing a place on commercial treks requires bookings well in advance. Many travellers choose to trek somewhere else.

North of Cuzco, the Lares Ranges, with peaks reaching 5750 metres, tower above the Sacred Valley. Even the high passes between one valley and another can exceed 4400 metres, which is about two kilometres higher than Machu Picchu itself. A handful of commercial operators have begun supported treks into the Lares Ranges, with scenery you won't find on the Inca Trail and a chance to meet Quechua, whose ancestors pre-date the Incas in the Sacred Valley by several thousand years.

Modern Quechua are farmers who survive on the margins of arable land. Potatoes grow at 3600 metres, if you plant the right type, but only llamas and alpaca are adapted to the conditions to graze in good health.

Horses are a luxury; better tempered than your average llama but high maintenance in an environment with so little nourishment. The only horses I see during my Lares trek are the ones carrying our camping gear and cooking pots, or occasionally a trekker too tired to walk.

Whenever the trail dips low into a valley, we find a hamlet taking advantage of the glacial melt that feeds the rivers year-round.

The best times for trekking in Peru are the winter months of June and July, when the skies are clear and the temperatures cool. During the day the high-altitude sun blazes and you rarely need more than a shirt to stay warm while walking. The nights, however, are cold - I spend each night wrapped in long johns, polar-fleece pants and a subzero-tolerant sleeping bag. I use my day pack for a pillow and the water bottle inside my pack is frozen solid by morning.

The llamas, too, prefer some warmth. Our campsite on the first night is one of the village's llama pens and the creatures aren't happy about giving up their patch. One of them manages to escape from the neighbouring pen and joins our camp, poking about my tent as though waiting to be allowed inside for a cup of tea and a biscuit. An unhappy Quechuan farmer runs over to sort out the llama trouble; it seems this isn't the first time the llama has gone camping.

Next morning, our tent covers are frosted white when we emerge for hot chocolate and pancakes for breakfast.

The villagers let their llamas loose at dawn and they hoof up to the top of the hills where the warming sunlight has already arrived. Possibly the same troublesome llama that wanted to go camping last night has found its way into a potato field and made a start on breakfast.

The standard trek through the Lares Ranges takes three days, starting at 3400 metres and climbing to a high pass of 4400 metres before camping overnight at 3700 metres. The second-day's walk climbs steeply to 4400 metres, descends through villages at 3600 metres, ascends again to 4500 metres and then heads gradually downhill. The second-night's camp is tucked into a mountainside next to the still waters of Ipsaycocha Lake. The llamas love this location, too.

Supported trekking of this nature is a luxury but even with your gear carried by horses, it's something of a challenge. In many ways the Lares Trail is more difficult than the Inca Trail: it goes higher and makes three major ascents. Most people spend a few days in Cuzco before the trek to adjust to the altitude, or head to Lake Titicaca to climb up and down a few islands at 3800 metres to give the lungs a workout in the thin air.

Three things make the Lares trek a great alternative to the Inca ruins of the Sacred Valley. A glimpse of the life of Quechuan farmers is fascinating, in their remote stone dwellings. The landscape is remarkable as you cross from valley to valley, looking down upon glacial lakes and rivers. And the llamas, they're hairy, smell strange and have bad manners but in Peru, this combination makes you pretty popular.

Ewen Bell travelled courtesy of Gap Adventures.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

LAN Airlines has a fare to Cuzco for about $2150, flying from Sydney via Auckland to Santiago (17hr, including stopover), then to Lima (4hr). You spend a night here at your own expense before flying LAN Peru to Cuzco (75min). Fare is low-season return including tax; Melbourne passengers fly to Sydney to connect and back from Auckland on the way home.

Touring there

Gap Adventures' seven-day Independent Lares Trek departs from Cuzco and includes a morning visit to Machu Picchu. It costs $1069 a person (for two adults), which includes meals while trekking, hotels and two nights' camping, most equipment and transfers. Phone 1300 796 618 or see www.gapadventures.com.