A trek up the magnificent mountains of Peru is a life-changing experience. I set out to trek a lesser-known route to Machu Picchu as well as its remote surrounding regions. Due to its intense difficulty, the 35-mile expedition along the Ancascocha route is not well-known — meaning you may find yourself alone there. Trails wind alongside desolate and incomparable vantage points, offering views of one of the world’s most scenic places. Those views are very well earned.

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Due to the variance in weather — which could bring anything from snow to 75 degrees and sunshine — I needed equipment capable of a variety of conditions. Historically, Incas navigated this trail wearing only thick alpaca-wool ponchos and tunics. Luckily, I had lightweight down and Gortex for this journey. I also had to prepare for altitude. Although I’d acclimated for two days in Cusco, I began to wonder about my training regimen prior to this trip. I live at sea level and we were starting this journey above 11,000 feet.

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We started with a slow, steady climb to the Perolniyoc waterfall, where we took a break and enjoyed the view for a while. The waterfall is fed by the snow run-off from the mountains above and is over 330 feet in height. Our guide spoke of the significance of the waterfall to the Incan people and the area, explaining that it has fed the farmland below from a time predating the Incas.

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An hour after that, we began to make camp. Our first night was spent right next to the Inca ruins of Raqaypata. It was the first time I had seen Inca ruins up close. The structure, fine stonework, and intricate designs were just a tiny preview of what was to come.

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Our second day started with a four-mile climb straight up Kuychiccasa pass. It was slow, steady, and put us around 14,900 feet at about lunchtime. The views were breathtaking, as was the altitude. I was getting my first dose of altitude sickness, but we were just getting started.

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The second half of the day mostly consisted of what I was told is “Peruvian flat.” We walked a series of up-and-down trails, between 12,000 and 14,000 feet. While in the region, we came across a few traditional Andean farms and passed through a mostly empty village.

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The day progressed, we approached camp for the night, and I was excited to rest and refuel. I had been using the mountain range and horizon as a reference for how far I thought we may have gone. As the temperature increased throughout the day, I had to periodically take stops to peel off layers and rehydrate.

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The temperature was beginning to drop as we arrived at camp near the village of Ancascocha. After getting everything set up, we all bundled up as best we could for the night ahead. We were expecting freezing temperatures between 15 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit. I spent the majority of the night outside with my camera and started to ponder what it was like to make this pilgrimage to Machu Picchu 800 years ago.

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As day three began, we began the journey to Huayna pass, notably the highest point on the trek. This is when I started to really appreciate our porters. The air was extremely thin, increasingly difficult for visitors trekking with gear. While there are many tour companies and porters who can assist travelers from the base, I had hired Action Peru Treks to get me across the Andes. I felt they had several adventure tour options, and they are pioneers as one of the first Peruvian companies employing female porters in a once entirely male-dominated industry.

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After we left the valley from Ancascocha, I began to realize how deep in the mountains we truly were. Even at 15,000 feet, astonishingly, there was still an array of vegetation and wildlife.

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As we reached the summit, the view was like no other I had seen. This was the highest point of our trek at 15,400 feet, but I didn’t really notice the altitude because the view was so unbelievable.

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We then spent the next four hours descending to 11,000 feet over five miles. The trail was extremely steep at points and precariously positioned on the side of a cliff.

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My personal highlight happened on the third day. I had found alpacas. They were very cute and curious about what I was up to; their facial expressions seemed like a caricature to me. I am not sure whether it’s because they have a friendly attitude, but they made the journey to our final camp that much more enjoyable.

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As we arrived at our final camp I started to realize we were beginning to get close to civilization. We had come to a fork where the Ancascocha and Inca trail converge. We camped at the base of the Paucarcancha Inca site. This area served as a central hub during Inca times.

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Our last day of trekking was a fairly steady downhill portion on the Inca trail, in the opposite direction of everyone else along the Cusichaka River. These were the first hikers I’d seen on this journey. At the bottom of the trailhead, we took a regional train to Aguas Calientes, the city of Machu Picchu. We were suddenly back in civilization, and I’d only just begun to process everything I’d seen. The Ancascocha Trek is not a beginner hike, but its difficulty sets it apart as a Peruvian mountain experience without many other travelers.

The post Jaw-dropping images from a desolate mountain trek in Peru appeared first on Matador Network.