Day 1 Lares Trek
A very early start saw us met by our guide at our digs before a quick nip across town to our vehicle and we were away. We passed through Pisac, a valley town surrounded by maize [corn] farms made up of wild terraces carved into the mountainous landscape – feats of incredible engineering and nothing new to the people around here.
We’d caught our guide’s name – Herlin – but not yet been introduced to the rest of the team. That was to take place after we made a stop at a little town called Calca to visit the market. There we bought a couple of footballs for the kids we were going to visit, some coca leaves for the adults, some marshmallows for the fire [if we got one] and a coffee, as it was still far too early to be doing anything.
Our chef for the trip was Umberto and he was assisted by Abel who also acted as coordinator which amongst other things meant it was him we would be thanking for a dry tent each evening. Rounding off our contingent was Valerio, a quiet man who was tasked with managing the horses that would carry all the necessary gear along the weaving mountain passes at least three times fast as we could go.
Amidst the disappointingly grey and cold weather we moved on until we hit road works, managed in true South American no-nonsense style by workers being carted around in the shovel of a huge JCB. Further along we actually got stopped for a couple of hours by yet more road works, this time electing to get out and take a wander around the local hillsides. Herlin gave us an impromptu recorder concert after we’d built a small shrine to the mountains – this involved blessing coca leaves in the direction of each mountain before placing them on the ground blessed by a fragrant liquid (anis, mint and rose water) and burying them under a pile of rocks. We returned to our vehicle to find breakfast awaiting us which we scoffed amidst the great views that surrounded us. Learning the Quechua word for thank you – Solpayki – we were able to communicate about as effectively as we had done in every other country.
We eventually got passed the road block and went to Lares where they had beautiful hot springs to bath in. We spent half an hour or so about the various pools chatting with other travellers and boiling ourselves before packing up and setting off on the first stage of the hiking.
Beset by weather with changeability that would make the UK proud we were frequently stopping and starting to throw on raincoats, waterproof trousers and ponchos and take the same off again while wandering through hand-cultivated Andean farmland alongside a river. The land simply had to be hand cultivated as the gradients and generally unsuitable terrain was no place for machines or even work animals. They have little choice but to make the most of every inch though and that they do. We reached our lunch spot where Umberto, Abel and our horseman Valerio were already there with Kitchen / Dining Tent, toilet tent and siesta tent already set up and lunch on the go.
Now there’s not a hope in hell of me remembering the makeup of every meal (nor of you being particularly interested) suffice to say that the wonders whipped up in that tent were better than a lot of the restaurants we’ve dined in on the trip. How Umberto and Abel whipped up the breakfasts, lunches, afternoon teas and dinners that they did – lunch and dinner was at least 3 courses every day – is beyond me. Fine meals of both local and international cuisine left us full to busting every single time. It was always too much but then that just means striking a balance between being polite and managing your own intake. It appears I’m far too polite…
After lunch we took a 15 minute lie down in the siesta tent before gearing up and setting off with Herlin while the rest of the gents packed everything up onto the horses.
The rest of the afternoon we spent wandering upwards with little in the way of incident – I mean, when all’s said and done, hiking is for the most part an exercise of staring near constantly at the ground in front of you to ensure you don’t break your ankle. I’ve never been quite sure what the fascination is with what can only be described as ‘hard walking’ but then much like the gym it does you more good the harder it is and I’ve long since accepted that such things need to be done for a better life overall.
For our afternoon hike Herlin voiced his concerns about the litter that other hikers but more often locals discarded on the trails and asked us if we’d pop any we saw into a plastic bag he’d brought along. I figured that I was staring at the floor anyway so switched to full-on Eco Warrior mode and proceeded to relentlessly scour the landscape for everything from huge pop bottles to tiny sweet wrappers. Eventually Herlin actually asked us to stop as we’d smashed the initial plastic bag and filled his bin liner which was getting too heavy to carry. I was surprised by how much crap there was strewn about but I guess what seems inexcusable to us Brits thanks to years of campaigning to point out the obvious (if you throw litter everywhere you end up living in a dump) is far from the mind of the locals working all hours to make ends meet in a lifestyle that’s only loosely changed in generations.
We were joined on our journey after a while by an inquisitive local 18 year old mother and her crazily cute backpack/baby who seemed genuinely intrigued by our trash collection. As we approached our destination we passed a house with a dog outside that was feasting on the recently killed carcass of a Llama – at least we guessed it was a Llama anyway – hairy on the outside and red meat on the inside. It was like watching a David Attenborough documentary live – you could almost hear him.
Thanks to the delay in the morning we reached our evening camp just shy of nightfall which was a shame as we could barely see as the children of the village gathered around our tents for the promise of a vat full of hot chocolate and a sack full of bread that Alpaca Expeditions whip up regularly on their tours. Sat in near total darkness Herlin distributed the gifts that we’d brought along (hopefully in our name and not that of the company) to the hyperactive kids – lollipops, felt-tip pens, colouring books, notebooks, hair clips and two full-size footballs; we’d done our best to bring a host of treats and useful gear and we even had a big bag of Coca leaves for any adults that we happened upon.
In the pitch black we distributed hot choc to nippers barely old enough to walk through to adults masquerading as teens (who could tell in the darkness?) and even tried a bit ourselves. The villagers soon dispersed after the goods were given and we were invited into the kitchen tent for afternoon tea – a massive bowl of popcorn, banana wontons and a hot drink amongst other things. Given the lateness of the hour no sooner had we finished this than dinner was served. We supped a few somewhat expensive beers purchased off an enterprising village toddler while eating soup and a whole host of fine dishes spread in a buffet over the camp table. After eating so much that we felt ready to pop a herbal (Menta – a native flora similar to peppermint) tea digestif rounded off events and we retired early due to the proposed 4:30am wake up the next day.
Day 2 Lares Trek
Ridiculous o’clock rolled around soon enough but we were awoken nicely with a cup of hot morning tea & a couple of big bowls of hot water by Abel. After cleaning up it was to the dining tent for a huge and tasty breakfast. We were on the road by 6 for what we had no doubt was to be the tough day of the trek. It was also supposed to be the coldest so we were togged up to crazy levels.
Before we left the village we were led to the dwelling of an old lady to see how the locals live. Earth floor, straw roof, adobe brick (mud) walls and a couple of beds at one end – the space between which was strewn with grass for the resident guinea pigs to munch on whenever they plucked up enough courage to appear from under the beds. Our host sat at the other end near the stove under the dim light of an energy saving light bulb that took advantage of the relatively recently fitted electricity and seemed almost comically out of place. The lady was extremely nice and we were really grateful to see inside of her home – we gave her a nice big pile of coca leaves as a thank you and even took her portrait which she seemed very pleased with. We were on our way again in no time and back on the steadily climbing trail out of town.
Wandering away from the village we were frequently attended by kids seeking further treats. We were suffering a shortage – they’d cleaned us out the night before – but gave away our travel snacks provided by Umberto (in case the spectacular huge breakfast wasn’t enough!) in exchange for funnily un-smiley photos which they seemed very happy with when shown after the fact.
We were passed by fully laden mules and their handlers as well as workers heading out to till the fields all dressed traditionally and with traditional tools. They paid little note to us beyond well-meaning pleasantries and certainly weren’t out to pose for tourists; this was their life, still almost weirdly unaffected by the steadily encroaching modern world.
After passing numerous Llamas things began to get tough (I’m sorry, but how awesome is that sentence?). While the altitude was doubtless a factor I’m confident that 12 months worth of travel, beer, food and a failure to take adequate care of myself held much more sway over my struggle to ascend to 4700 meters above sea level. I promised myself there’d be big changes when I got settled back home – there was no excuse for the state I’d gotten into and there’d be none for failing to address it.
We pushed and pushed and pushed and as we neared out goal saw what looked from the significant distance like a similar scene to the previous day’s dog-eats-llama show. We were later informed by our binocular-wielding friends & fellow trekkers Eric & Erlinda whom we frequently crossed paths with that this was no dog – it was a BEAR. A freaking wild BEAR. To this day I’m still annoyed at failing to whip out the camera.
And then we were there – at the summit after the hard slog and basking in the cool winds of the unprotected pass. The relief was immense. In fairness at no point was it too intense for me but it should have been easier; it could not be termed pleasant but it was great to be at the high point. Photos were snapped, fruit & water consumed, Andean rituals performed and legs rested. The weather was ropey as had been the case for most of the morning so no stunning images will result but to be fair we couldn’t have cared less at that point.
Descent! We flew downward occasionally passing other travelling groups (the trail was far from busy) sat lunching and made our way over the comparatively easy second summit before reaching our lunch camp and being filled to the eyeballs with delicious foods. Chill winds whipped around us but that didn’t stop us conking out for nearly an hour behind a rock before the rains came again and forced a hasty departure.
As we steadily descended the sparse vegetation we’d become accustomed to gave way to forests of trees related to cinnamon with flaky barks and twisted gnarled trunks and branches – with better light we’d probably have had interesting photos but for whatever reason we never got it; we resolved to focus on putting one foot in front of the other and let the cameras take a rare back seat.
Herlin was a wealth of information on the local flora and fauna as well as Andean and Inca culture and traditions throughout the trek and frequently stopped to point out something new and different with infectious enthusiasm.
In what seemed like no time at all we were at the evening camp which happened to be alongside our bear-spotting trek-friends Eric & Erlinda. The location was lovely – within stone wall remains of old Andean houses alongside a river and deep within almost unfathomably high valley sides.
I was charged – possibly jokingly – with acquiring fire wood. As is well known to those who know it well I am fairly proficient / loco when it comes to this tasking and set about locating a fallen tree – sticks are someone else’s field – to haul back from nearby. Followed by a sheepish Herlin we did indeed discover the perfect candidate and traversed the rocks and river back to camp with enough wood to burn for a week. Thanks to Mr Michael David Fry’s training and Herlin’s own skills we soon had a roaring fire despite the occasional smattering of rain and were roasting marshmallows in no time. Popcorn appeared along with Hot Chocolate (Milo for those in the know) and Cheese Wontons filling us up once again before the unnecessary but amazing 3 course dinner that I couldn’t help but over-eat until I almost passed out. After another hot tea digestif I cried off and hit the sack.
Day 3 Lares Trek
A later start was afforded us for our final days’ walking as we had made such good progress the day before that we had hardly any ground left to cover. Abel was on hand to wake us with tasty hot tea to coax us from our slumber and after cleaning up we groggily made our way to the dining tent. Despite staring at a bag full of confetti for a good couple of minutes it took an alarmingly long time for me to notice that the entire tent was kitted out in streamers and balloons – the lads had decided to start my birthday celebrations a day early and gone to town with the decor. Porridge, omelettes, breads and coffee filled us to the brim before people started shuffling this way and that and in comes Umberto with a massive fully decorated freshly baked cake!
3 gas burners.
The middle of nowhere.
How on earth does this man create a cake?!? Umberto was a wizard.
A little ceremony ensued with lots of hugs and confetti poured in my head by all – then everyone else’s heads – and me getting a fetching streamer scarf. Despite having no room whatsoever I hacked the cake up into 6 and we all squeezed in the tasty slices.
To prove that we could more than anything else we actually got the fire going again somewhat unnecessarily before setting off downhill. 2 hours later we’d reached lunch camp – it wasn’t even 10am!
We thankfully chilled out for a while before our final meal together with the group before some thank you’s and goodbye’s and a nice group photo. It was then time to leave Umberto, Abel, Valerio and the horses and make our way with Herlin toward Ollantaytambo.
On the way we stopped to try Chicha – a distilled corn spirit that tasted oddly like traditional cider. This took place in a Chicha house – signified by a stuffed red plastic bag stuck on the end of a stick outside – full of women drinking litre-sized glasses of the stuff. They were intrigued by my streamer scarf and when Herlin revealed we were celebrating my ‘compleaneos’ they took great delight in nipping out for a bouquet of flowers and more confetti to shower me with. I refilled their glasses by way of thanks which pretty much made me the most popular guy in the room (of which there were only two, so not exactly an accolade).
Now with even more to carry we made our way to Ollantaytambo where we had an hour and a half to kill before our train to Aguas Calientes. They had a packed square with local villagers dancing traditional dances dressed in Andean clothing making for an interesting spectacle which we naturally chose to view from a balcony over a large Cusquena. The backdrop to the town was impressive Inca ruins which post-beer we elected to take a wander for a look at. Fi grabbed a pretty awesome hat and I finally acquired a friendship band in the colours of the Peruvian flag.
Back at the square we took more photos of the revellers before picking up all our gear and heading down to the station. We said our goodbyes to Herlin and boarded the tourist train which was doing its best to try and justify the obscene price tag it gets away with due to its usage being lumped into most tour packages.
The weather got worse the closer we got Aguas Calientes and by the time we arrived it was bucketing it down. We disembarked, collected our luggage and made our way to meet our guide. As it happens he’d not been able to make it but had the wherewithal to send a mate to guide us to our gaff through the rain. We were more than happy with the room – hell, it had a hot shower and a bed; this was luxury compared to our more recent accommodation.
Jose arrived within about 10 minutes of us and filled us in on the details of the evening – we had a couple of hours before being taken for our evening meal. After some very long showers we were out for some pizza before arranging to meet crazily early the next day for the whole point of the jaunt – Machu Picchu.