There is a story in Urubamba, a town in Peru’s Sacred Valley, that several years ago the inhabitants all realised they were having the same dream. They dreamed of the Señor de Torrechayoc, a beloved local saint whose image stood thousands of meters above town on a windswept Andean pass. As they slumbered, the saint visited their dreams and implored them to visit him: he was lonely, no one passed his way anymore due to the newly paved highway. And so the locals responded in true Peruvian fashion: they decided to have a party.
I didn't know any of this when I set out to hike over that same mountain pass on my way to Lares, the site of a popular hot spring. "Are you going on the pilgrimage?" asked our taxi driver when we described the trailhead. He went on to explain that now the image of the Señor de Torrechayoc is kept in the church in Urubamba and we had chosen the one night all year when thousands of people walk up the mountain carrying El Señor so he can visit his former home. At the top, there is all-night music, dancing, prayers, a mass and even a wedding the next morning. It wasn't exactly the serene backcountry experience we had expected but we are always up for a fiesta and the driver promised there would be hot soup.
Since most people would not set out until after work that day, we had the trail to ourselves, passing through native queña forest and isolated ruins. The path wound up the narrow Pumahuanca valley, through a series of verdant, smiling meadows nestled among jutting peaks. A frigid stream gurgled under foot one minute, and the next cascaded in a bright, furious waterfall. The air turned frosty as we ascended so we set up camp below the pass where one family was already lighting a fire under a gigantic cooking pot.
As we relaxed and drank hot ponche, a sweet drink made thick with ground fava beans, the pilgrims began to trickle in and by the time it was dark a steady stream of people was passing along the trail. We soon realised that, due to the difficulty of the hike, this was a young person's pilgrimage. Somehow we had found ourselves camping with the entire teenage population of nearby Urubamba.
Stealing a few hours of sleep amid chatter and tinny music from portable radios, we rose early and set our sights on the pass. Triumphant hikers on their way back down gaped at our enormous packs, made fun of us in Spanish or offered words of encouragement: “¡Casi está! Almost there!” Cold and exhausted, we dragged ourselves up the last stretch of rocky trail and, suddenly, there he was: the Señor de Torrechayoc, a lifelike face mounted on a tall wooden cross, solemn in fresh robes and glittering garlands. People milled around him, lit candles and the granite peaks and grey clouds stretched away on all sides, impossibly infinite.
With most of our day's distance still ahead of us, we snapped a photo and followed the few families heading down the other side of the mountain. The hot springs at Lares bubbled somewhere below, the perfect end to a particularly eventful adventure.
There are several ways for visitors to reach the hot springs at Lares and many companies in Cusco and the Sacred Valley offer guided treks from different locations. The route described here crosses a pass called Sicllaqasa, also identified by the name of the valley Pumahuanca. There is also public bus or van service of varying quality from the town of Calca in the Sacred Valley; a winding four-five hour ride if there are no road closures. Many choose to hike in and then catch the bus heading back out. The yearly pilgrimage to Sicllaqasa happens in mid-May. Alternatively, you can book a guided trek in advance through a specialist in Peru adventure tours, such as Tucan Travel: http://www.tucantravel.com/country/overview/peru.