How to Lose Friends and Mortify People While Hiking in Peru
Story by Marco Ferrarese, photos by Kit Yeng Chan

Trying to impress an old friend, a travel writer decides to take a shortcut during a Lares trek and a mountain hike in the Andes becomes a test of survival.

Trek through Peru travel story

"I am telling you, we must descend from here!" Eyes bulging, my best friend Carlo, whom I hadn't seen for a few years, was trying to convince us that the best way forward was steering left down a 75 percent incline.

Where the hell was Cancha Cancha?

It was dark. Three of our four mobile phones had flat batteries, my headlight was about to die, and my map application had now stopped indicating the correct way. Frustrated, we stood on a remote hill slope, nine hours into a perilous trek in the Lares region of southern Peru. Did I really have to try to kill my wife and friends to make an impression and celebrate our reunion on the other side of the world?

Catching Up for a New Adventure

Me and my best friend Carlo come from two different cities in northern Italy and met as teenagers because we were both editing punk rock fanzines. Soon after, Carlo started the indie record label that released the early singles of my old punk band, the Nerds.

Barely twenty years old, we rocked across Europe and the USA in rickety vans, playing whatever punk rock venue imaginable, from squats to clubs to laundromats. When I moved to China and then Southeast Asia to teach languages ten years later, he was the first to come and visit me. We were like bread and peanut butter—but life, like a crazy slingshot, had thrown us at the two opposite sides of the world.

I was married to a Malaysian Chinese girl in Penang. Carlo had a similar story, but with a Peruvian girl from Lima. I had promised to visit him for a decade, but Asia always had had something more pressing to keep me there—at least, until I signed to research my first Latin American guidebook to Peru for Fodor's. My last trip before COVID-19 changed the world as we know it.

"I need to leave the city," Carlo told me over the phone, "let's meet in Cusco and travel together the way we like." That invitation sounded like the "let's go have a damn wild adventure" refrain of our former punk rock days. When I finally met Carlo again in the hall of a Cusco hostel, I already had too many plans in my mind to fill up the nine days we'd spend together.

Andean Scenery Peru

One was to hike for three days and 55 kilometers across a very unknown parallel section of the Lares trail. In my signature style, we'd have no guides nor porters—just an offline map, tent, stove, some food, and the guts to do it. Dying of exertion and getting lost was certainly not part of my plan.

You'd Better Listen to the Locals

The idea came from our overconfident hostel warden and local hiking enthusiast, who pointed out a sketchy route on Google Maps. "You can start in Lares, stay at the hot springs for the night, and then start walking south towards Cancha Cancha and then onto Calca," he had said with confidence.

His promise was finding absolutely stunning Andean scenery, including a string of seven high-altitude lagoons. We could overnight at villages en route, and then proceed down to the valley exit at Huaran, where the Urubamba river meets the highway to the town of Calca. "Me and my mates usually do this in two nights, but maybe it'll take you three," the hostel warden said with a hint of pride. "It's impossible to miss the route—just follow it from village to village," he had said.

And that's how I, Carlo, my wife Kit, and Aga—a Polish woman we had met on the road in Bolivia—set off from Cusco. The winding road to Lares set the right mood of rolling mountains studded with roaming llamas and alpacas. Lares' hot springs were a fun and welcoming place for the first night.

We set off early the next morning and by 10 am had already reached a small settlement where, according to my GPS, there was a bifurcation that could have saved us a sensible portion of the route, giving us chances to see a mountain peak or two from close distance—my favorite stuff, and the best to impress a good friend on an adventurous streak.

"You had better keep to the main village path," suggested a local man we hit up for directions. "The mountain path is faster, but you need to know the way," he had suggested.

"Well, we have a GPS," I lifted up my mobile with confidence and the young man smiled back at me. He agreed on taking us to the beginning of the walking trail, which already looked like a dead end at the bottom of a viridian wall.

We parted ways, bestowing a bunch of coca leaves in the man's hand, put some inside our mouths, and started walking up... and up... and up again. We hiked up until the grass became rocks, the sky got laden with clouds, and the path transformed into a mountain slope with no apparent way to get around it.

Squinting at my offline map, I led the group onwards by proceeding as straight as I could—of course, the map didn't show the obstacles and uneven surfaces we had to negotiate to climb from the last line of homes clinging to the slope, to the top of a rocky plateau where we would expect to find the first lagoon between the two mountain walls.

Llamas treking through

It took us the best part of an hour of trial, error, and retracing steps until we bumped into a group of alpacas. As soon as they saw us coming, they started twitching as if someone had just plugged their electric cords into invisible sockets.

Like a Straight Arrow Through the Andes

"We'd better go before it starts raining," said Carlo looking at the gray sky. We spent a bit longer than usual to boil water and cook our lunch of rice and vegetables because of the altitude, and by the time we were walking again it was already past 1 p.m.—clearly behind my prospected schedule.

The rain got us in the middle of a green valley where the path disappeared into a multitude of possible routes. The issue was to get across and up a slope that, according to my map, would reconnect to the main Lares path and get us downhill to Cancha Cancha.

"Do you know the way?" my wife asked. She was soaked, grumpy, and visibly hopeful of getting a positive response. I said, "yes of course," but in truth I didn't have a clue beyond following my digital compass as it kept flipping madly from north to south. I decided to keep to the north regardless of the steep incline ahead of us. As the rain decreased a bit, we found ourselves scrambling up an almost vertical incline, pulling ourselves up and balancing under our backpacks to avoid a drastic fall.

"Is this the right path?" someone behind me asked, but I didn't bother answering.

lost hiking through Peru

When we finally reached the top of the crest and the rain gave us a break, an ocean of rugged, treeless mountains studded by clouds and shiny lagoons extended for miles in front of us. The hostel warden was right: this was a beautiful place. Out of curiosity, I checked the altitude on my mobile app and felt quite proud to know we were now standing at 4,300 meters above sea level.

But it was 3 p.m., our raincoats were drenched, we had roughly three hours before dark. Cancha Cancha, where we wanted to spend the night, was nowhere in sight.

Rolling Down the Hill

Without really knowing where we would end up, I pushed the group forward along dry ridges and volcanic-like rock formations until the earthen path we trawled on turned into a washed-out staircase. According to my map, that was the section of the Lares trail we had been looking for.

llamas in the ditanceWe were finally going downwards through scenery dotted with timid llamas grazing on the slopes surrounding us. We came to a bend, and then saw a magnificent lagoon shimmering like the side of a half-buried, opaque jewel lost between the mountains. A wall of low clouds hovered just beyond and above it as the last sun rays cast an ethereal light over the scene. Comforted by beauty, we sat to take it all in—but the setting sun meant it was getting dangerously late.

Cancha Cancha seemed to be not that far anymore—we kept walking along a stream until those same clouds enveloped us, darkness approached, and everything became indistinguishable.

"It looks like it's going to rain again soon," said Carlo, who, by now, looked tired beyond recognition. Out of our four mobile phones, only one still had battery life to serve as a torchlight.

I stood last in a single file, inching onward slowly as I shed light for the others to move on the path ahead. Suddenly it twisted to the left, becoming narrow and slippery as it went down a slope that, based on my map, was exactly right above Cancha Cancha.

That's where exhausted Carlo proposed to shortcut down the hill to follow the GPS—an idea that could have caused a broken leg, when we still had a 35 kilometer walk to civilization the next day.

The End of the Trail?

"Move ahead and forward along this path, keep calm." That's when you have to grab your best friends by the shoulder, push them on, and make sure they don't do anything stupid. In five more minutes, devastated, we arrived in Cancha Cancha—or so we thought, as the darkness was impenetrable, and everything was so silent that it felt like we had ended at the bottom of a well.

llamas in the distanceWe scrambled across a rickety bridge using my phone as a torchlight, trying to find any sign of life. The courtyard of a stone house up the road was lit by a feeble luminescence, and that's where we went knocking. The boy who opened the door looked at us as if we had just come out of a toilet hole. He closed the door again and went looking for his mother and sister, to whom our Spanish sounded as foreign as it was—but we had no Quechua or Aymara skills to back that up.

With a bit of luck, in the end they understood that we were looking for a safe place to camp and avoid a possible storm and let us into a room at the side of their courtyard. That's where we set up the most difficult campsite of our lives—because by now it was hard to even bend down to string a shoe.

I had never seen Carlo so tired in all our adventures together. Sure thing, we had aged quite a bit from our young punk rock days, but the discussing our next day of walking back to the highway made him totally grumpy. My wife and Aga had no energy to talk anymore. On my side, I was proud of having taken them all alive and well to a relatively safe place. It was now time to take out pots and pans, cook dinner, and die for a few hours inside our tents, while the rain started to batter on everything on the outside.

"You know what," Carlo told me before entering our tent, "I think I'll never ask you to travel together again."

I smiled and nodded without replying. The man was tired—and that, in his own way, was a sign of appreciation for having made it together once again.

Marco Ferrarese is a book author, freelance travel and culture writer, and metalpunk guitar-slinger based in Southeast Asia. He toured most hellholes of Europe and North America, hung out with Kurt Cobain's alleged murderer, and rode with truck drivers from Singapore to his native Italy. He shares his Penang knowledge at, blogs about overlanding in Asia as a couple on, and you can follow him on Twitter @monkeyrockworld.

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