They Said This Was Paradise: Lares Trek & Machu Picchu, Peru

November 12, 2014 § Leave a comment

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There was no doubt about it, we were anxious. And scaling a rather large hill in Ollantaytambo less than 24 hours beforehand was beginning to seem like a very unwise decision indeed.

One member of our group had already dropped out of the trek due to illness and many a horror story had been circulated: professional athletes who had succumbed to altitude sickness or other trekkers who hadn’t quite managed to maintain control of their bowels…

Alongside these positive anecdotes were the other bouts of optimistic advice dished out unnecessarily by guides or fellow travellers. “The Inca Trail? Pfft! That’s only about a 6 on the difficulty scale!…. Oh, you’re doing Lares? Ah… Well that’s about a 9, 9 and a half.”

As we collected our walking poles and handed over our bags to the porters (double-checking our rucksacks were sufficiently stuffed full of toilet roll and spare socks), the overall atmosphere was not an enthusiastic one.

Only 500 people are allowed on the Inca Trail per day, only 200 of which are trekkers, so it books up insanely fast, as we discovered when we ourselves failed to get a place on it. The Lares Trek however, we were promised, is equally as beautiful, with just as many opportunities to collapse and die. More so, in fact, given that the second day involves 8 hours of trekking, the majority of which is clambering 1,200 metres uphill.

Ready... steady...

Ready… steady…

And I have to admit, day one wasn’t easy. Our guide, Alejandro, walked at a steady pace and we had regular breaks of one every fifteen minutes or so. Despite this, the altitude really got to us. The constant breaks provided a very welcome opportunity to get our breath back, but the second we began walking again, we were instantly panting.

It is a trek that really sorts the men from the boys, and an order began to form on day one which would continue for the rest of the trek. Nick and Victor, due to either a high level of fitness or, more likely, as a result of some sense of masculine competitiveness, were straight to the front, tailing Alejandro, and held this position for the majority of the trek. Indeed, if they were ever behind me, I would let them pass for fear of holding them back from their quest to become next month’s Men’s Health cover model.

The scenery changes at an absurdly fast pace. For the first four or so hours, our surroundings were luscious and green. Just before we hit the first camping point in the Lares Valley, we could just as easily have been in Holland, with grassy, hilly landscapes and flowing streams; all it was missing was a small windmill in the distance.

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Some most fantastic IPhone photography.

Four hours later, I had succumbed to the same fate as the Potosi Silver Mine guide and was chewing coca leaves like they were the last bag on Earth. They helped power us up the last couple of hills towards Camp one, where the lovely porters were already setting up our tents. It was such a relief to just sit down and know you didn’t have to get up again – at least not until the next day, when it would start all over again! Our first night was made even better by the realisation that there was a toilet – a proper working toilet with toilet roll! And when a small Peruvian lady turned up, selling Coca Cola and beer, our initial evening felt complete. We very quickly purchased every bottle.

The first night in the tent was bitterly cold. Even in spite of the 6 or 7 jumpers I was wearing, and despite our invention of Battle Slugs – a game where you zip your sleeping bag right up over your head and thrash around and try to roll over each other – I only managed to get about two hours sleep as I just could not get warm.

As a result, our 5am wake up call was most unwelcome. It was still freezing when we set off again, which did nothing to help the altitude breathing. We were deep in the valley now and it was surprising to see that it was home to quite a few communities; it really did feel as though we were in the middle of nowhere.

Although we spent the first four or five hours struggling upwards, this was, in my opinion, the most beautiful part of the trek. The large, white glacier that could be seen on a distant mountaintop from camp was suddenly at eye level, and the air became colder and crisper as we climbed.

I wore this hat the entire way, only realising just how much of an idiot I looked when I saw the photos...

I wore this hat the entire way, only realising just how much of an idiot I looked when I saw the photos…

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Higher and higher we trudged and the scenery changed again. The greenery and grass all but disappeared, replaced by an abundance of grey and brown jagged rocks that lurked menacingly as we watched our step and tried to circumnavigate around them. And then, with only another half an hour to go until we reached the peak, something unexpected happened – adrenaline kicked in. Whether I had finally done enough exercise to release some endorphins or whether I had just had enough of Nick and Victor’s smug faces beaming down at me from on high, I was suddenly determined to make it to the top in double time. And I did.

It was an amazing feeling to finally make it to the summit and the views were incredible. This feeling was, however, rather short-lived as it quickly gave way to extreme hunger! Fortunately, we only had to descend for another 45 minutes before we arrived at the tent that had been set up for lunch.

The food on the trek is definitely worth a mention as, considering you appear to be deep in the centre of no man’s land, the chefs set up a big tent, complete with stove and cooking equipment, and make a delicious variety of chicken, fish, rice, pasta and vegetables. They also boil water in the morning, afternoon and evening and, although we had heard from other travelers that we should take diluting juice as it tasted pretty awful, we really didn’t find it too bad.

We reached Camp 2 at around 4.30pm without too many disasters (minus the fact that Amy had managed to burn her crotch on very hot soup at lunch). The beginning of the descent had gone straight to our heads and we arrived at the campsite in a state of uncontrollable laughter. This was quickly cut short, however, when we discovered that Camp 2 did not, as of yet, have a toilet. A few of us had to… um… improvise.

Fortunately, one of the members of our group was a walking pharmacy and, after sharing his stash of sleeping pills with the majority of us, the second night’s sleep came much easier! On the morning of day 3, we were all sitting in the breakfast tent when Alejandro came in and told us some devastating news – some kitchen equipment had broken and we wouldn’t be able to have a proper breakfast. No one was too fussed as we’d had a big meal the night before and the good sleep had improved everyone’s mood significantly. The chefs insisted on coming through to apologise to us all the same, but, when they came through the door, led by Alejandro, they had a lit birthday cake in their hands, and everyone started singing me happy birthday! (NB. It was my birthday the next day).

After our delightful breakfast of birthday cake, we had a casual three hour walk downhill, finally arriving at the finish line at around 10am, where we all celebrated with one (or maybe four) breakfast beers!

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Made it!

If you do the Inca Trail, you have another night of camping ahead of you. Fortunately for us on the Lares Trek, we got to stay overnight in a hostel in Aguas Calientes. There really is nothing quite like a hot shower and sleeping in a comfortable bed after three days of trekking and two nights of camping in sub zero temperatures!

Day 4 saw us up at 4am to take the bus to what has to be the best place I’ve ever spent my birthday – Machu Picchu! Aside from a man projectile vomiting as we approached, it truly was an absolutely beautiful sight. For half an hour anyway, until the mist descended and, by 6am, all we could see was dense cloud.

I fear I may be cursed, as thick fog seems to descend on any Wonder of the World that I visit. The exact same thing happened with the Great Wall of China; all we could see was wall and mist! Thankfully, the fog lifted after an hour or so, and we were given a tour of Machu Picchu as our guide recounted its history.

This visit has been on my bucket list for many years now, so to be able to do it on my birthday (which actually wasn’t planned) was an amazing experience. We finished an incredible four days with a very late night in Cusco, which provided the icing on the cake for what was, most definitely, the best birthday I have ever had!

And just as a final note, of course, I would most definitely recommend the Lares Trek and Machu Picchu to absolutely anyone who wishes to do it! One word of advice though: don’t believe all that you hear. Take it from me, in terms of difficulty, the Lares Trek is nowhere near a 9 or a 9 and a half. I’d say it was more a seven, perhaps a little less. Although I’m sure Nick and Victor would insist it was a 2!

Take music because it pushes you onward when times get tough, take as many jumpers and as much thermal underwear as you can possibly fit in your bag, take sleeping pills if you’ve not had much luck camping in the past, but, most of all, take toilet roll! And just keep going. It’ll be worth it in the end!

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