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Published: September 15th 2008
The classic postcard photo, joy.
As I'm sure you all know we have both been looking forward to what for some is the jewel in South America's crown of amazing sights: Machu Picchu.
However the actual "Inca trail" is booked up almost for a year in advance so we had known for some time we could not do the traditional trekking route to Machu Picchu but there are several alternative routes to trek which offer very different experiences. We have moaned before about booking treks but this experience has to take the biscuit. As mentioned in the previous blog Cusco was very touristy and you could barely walk down the street without someone trying to sell you trips to Machu Picchu or llama postcards or alpaca wool jumpers/ponchos/hats/tea cosies/pants. Most important to us when choosing our tour company was that they were environmentally ethical and also that they cared about their staff and the communities we would trek through. Many companies we visited seemed pretty unprofessional and did not give us the reassurances we were seeking about certain things. We have heard so many horror stories on our travels about unhelpful guides or the exploitation of porters, we knew the tour company would be really
important to our Machu Picchu experience. We were probably a little bit cautious but this was the place that we had been imagining getting to for so long, the highlight of our South American adventure? After many days visiting tour agencies and questioning them about their various treks we opted for one we felt very comfortable with: Peru Treks. They seemed like they were in a different league from other companies, really professional and friendly. And they had fab track records for porter welfare and organised many community projects in the towns we would visit.
After our research we opted for the "Lares Trek" which takes 3 days, your forth day being spent at Machu Picchu itself. The more we read about this trek the more we were glad we were not actually doing the Inca trail! The Inca trail is notoriously busy with hundreds of tourists making their way along this route daily in massive groups, so you would not be given a moment's peace and that is not the type of experience we were looking for. However the Lares trek by contrast is far less travelled and far more cultural. Our group would only consist of us
and another couple from England, happy days! Before setting off we met our guide twice to discuss the route and what we needed to take and were given some important equipment: huge, warm sleeping bags and walking sticks.
So after a few lazy days relaxing in Cusco we were ready. Day 1:
we were picked up at 6am by our guide, Hubert and the other trekkers, Hannah and Jonny. We left Cusco and headed for the town of Calca, which would be the last place to pick up supplies (ponchos for the rain and water) and also to have breakfast. We were taken to a market cafe by Hubert who explained that in the Andes the breakfast is the most important and biggest meal of the day. Expecting perhaps porridge or the likes we were shocked when we were given soup followed by meat and chips. We found it a little strange to be eating such fare so early in the day but soon we were gulping it down. It was freezing outside and the food really warmed us up! Back on the bus along very windy bumpy roads until we arrived at Quisuarani (3700m) which was the starting
Day 3 morning, a young girl tends her family flock
point for the trek. Here we met the porters and our cook as they loaded up the horses that would be helping carry the gear. We then took our first steps towards Machu Picchu! We zig-zagged slowly up the valley and not long later we were ovretaken by the porters and horses who were already going at a very fast pace - we were to get used to this as the days went on. Soon we reached our first peak and were treated to a spectacular view of an emerald green lake in the valley below us. From here the final stretch to our camp was easy going and we arrived at the little settlement where we would spend our first night at 5pm. Here we were welcomed by the porters who had already set up our camp and had some afternoon tea and popcorn ready for us! This felt very different from the camping we are used to but we are definately not going to complain. We spent a few hours chatting and warrming ourselves with a few brews in the dining tent getting to know one another. It was getting cold fast and everyone gradually added more layers
until we were all looking like Michelin Men wrapped up in all our clothes! Dinner arrived and we could not believe how the cooks had managed to produce so much good food on two gas burners! We were treated to a massive 3 course meal, followed by more teas, hot chocolate or cocoa tea. Swiftly after dinner everyone set off to their own tents for bed. Despite the freezing temperatures we were not too cold as we had the magic warm sleepings bags and of course our fetching poly-pro thermals (thanks Ian). Despite being fairly cosy we both didn't get much sleep, perhaps it was the altitude? Day 2:
We were woken early again by Hubert, who brought us a cup of tea to have before getting up out of our sleeping bags! wow, this really is like no other camping we have done before. Dressing quickly as it was still cold, we got up and had breakfast and tea as the porters took our tents down. We were constantly amazed throughout the trek how hardy these guys were, they never seemed to tire and were always really chipper and friendly. After breakfast we got back on the trail
The highest point, 4800, day 2.
around 07:00am. We walked slightly downhill for the first 2 hours to the Chancachaca Valley (3600m) and then up for about 1½ hours to the small village of Huacawasi (3700m). All the houses that we saw were built from mud bricks and had thatched roofs. The people of this village produce beautiful colourful textiles which you could buy from the locals on the trek. From here we started to meet more locals on the path, most people who lived here in the mountains lived on subsistence farming only, and made money from selling their crafts to the tourists who passed on the treks. They sold beautiful knitted bracelets which Karen couldn't resist and she ended up with a colourful collection by the end of the trek. Another huge 3 course lunch, followed by a group nap before we climbed steeply to the highest point of the trek at 4800m Ipsayccasa Pass, from here we were amazed at the stunning views of the surrounding mountains. Here Hubert led us through a ceremonial offering to Mother Nature or Pachamama. This Andean custom involved offering some Cocoa leaves and wine to Mother Nature and thanking her for her gifts. We all took a
turn to say some words and thank her for the beautiful scenery. It was a touching ceremony and nice to be a part of, although it was a bit cold and windy at the top of the mountain! We had another easy walk to camp at the edge of Ipsaycocha Lake here we saw lots of Andean Geese bathing. Again we were greeted by popcorn and tea. Before dinner Tony and Jonny went off with Hubert and the farmer whose land we were camping on to take part in a little trout fishing. No rods involved, Tony and Jonny were shown how to scare the trout out of tunnels in the tributaries of the lake by jumping up and down while the farmer caught the trout in his net. Dinner caught successfully the lads came home proud and warmed up after all their jumping around. That night was much colder, we all ate dinner quickly and wasted no time in getting to bed. Another sleepless night was had by all. Day 3
: We awoke to the ground covered in ice, even the llamas and alpacas looked freezing despite their thick wooly coats. Thankfully Hubert told us over
breakfast that today would be a much easier day. And not soon after we had began walking we all began to heat up as the sun came up, soon we were all walking in our t shirts. It is amazing how quickly the temperatures change here. We began to meet loads of children here as we passed through little settlements, most of them were out watching their family's herd of llama or alpaca. Here we must explain some of the photos... as we knew we were going to be meeting lots of children on the way, many from very poor families we had decided to take along some presents for them, some coloured crayons and colouring-in books and lots of happy face stickers. We had been meeting children on the way and playing with them, most seemed thrilled to get their presents others a bit bewildered! But today we seemed to meet children on every turn of the path. It was great fun playing with them and some really loved the stickers, getting carried away with them and sticking them all over their faces. It was lovely to see them having fun, and we enjoyed ourselves too! It was amazing
to see how the people lived and we were surprised by how many people lived in such isolated locations. All the people we met were dressed beautifully in colourful hats, skirts and ponchos. The people from this area are known locally as "Huayruros" - the name of a red and black seed reminiscent of the colour of their ponchos. We had lunch in the valley, and lazed in the sun as we waited for the minibus back to Ollantaytambo. Before long the children had seeked us out and soon Tony was off playing football with the chicos and Karen was playing hide and seek with the chicas. Thankfully our bus was late and we were able to have even more playtime! Finally our bus arrived and we said goodbye and a huge thank you to our porters and cooks. They had been great and we really appreciated all their hardwork. We passed even more beautiful scenery on the way to Ollantaytambo: unbelivably tall, steep terraced hillsides and lovely plants and trees and rivers and even more llama! Back in Ollantaytambo Tony and Jonny tried Guinea Pig (which they both thought was 'a tastey sweet and succulent meat') at Hubert's restaurant
before catching the train to Aguas Calientes where we would spend the night in an hostel before going to MP the next day! Day 4
We had stressed to Hubert our guide that it was of vital importance that we arrive at Machu Picchu as early as possible in the morning to beat the crowds and enable Tony to snap that classic postcard photo of Machu Picchu with as few people about as possible. So we were up early and in the queue for the first buses by 6am. Unfortunately hundreds of other people had the same idea (funny that!) and there was a few busloads of people already waiting. Oh no! It looked like we weren't going to be first people into Machu Picchu afterall. No buses appeared. The queue grew anxious, you could feel everyone's excitement and growing impatience. People began skipping the queue and letting their friends in who hadn't been queuing like us. People began to nudge and shuffle forward, and barge in. Human nature in all its glory. We could see that a fight could easily break out as people were so determined and hell bent on getting to Machu Picchu before everyone else.
You had to laugh. Thankfully the buses began to arrive and we were off, twisting our way up the hills in the darkness, as the clouds lifted we could make out the silhouettes of the famous Wayna Picchu peak and mountains surrounding Machu Picchu covered in thick verdant jungle. We got off the bus and joined another queue to the entrance of the park, wow! we were actually really near the front, maybe it would be OK after all. Once in we made our way to the lookout where Hubert advised we would catch that classic postcard photo, so we rushed up the hillside in the trees as the crowds made their way into the ruins. Coming out the trees and seeing Machu Picchu laid out below us in all its glory was surreal. We were finally here, Tony snapped away happy to have the classic shot safely taken and we had to pinch ourselves to believe we were really there - cheesy but true. It was beautiful, stunning, mystical, magical, amazing....
Our guide showed us around all the main sights for a few hours, explaining how it was built and what all the buildings were used for. It
gradually started to get busier and busier and we were really glad we had got there early to appreciate it with very few people around. As Hubert showed us around we thought how lucky these people were to have lived in such an amazing location, we were also in complete awe at how they had built such a magnificent structure in such an isolated location. After we finished our guided tour we were left to explore on our own, it was great fun finding our way (and getting lost) in all the alley ways and imagining people many years ago living there. There was so much to see, we spent 5 hours wandering around! But by lunch time we were tired, hot and hungry and ready to catch the bus back to Aguas Calientes to meet everyone for the return trip back to Cusco. It had been a wonderful end to a fantastic trip. Our heads are now buzzing with stories of how the Inca people lived, very inspiring.
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