Trek the Lares Valley to Machu Picchu

ChildrenThose interested in avoiding the crowds on the famous Inca Trail will love the trekking off the beaten path in the Lares Valley. Skip the other backpackers and meet Quechuan-speaking shepherds and local children as you hike high in the Peruvian Andes. The Lares Trek gives you the chance to interact with the modern descendants of the Inca who still follow age-old traditions; practicing agriculture in mountain valleys and herding sheep, llamas and alpacas high in the peaks.  The Lares Trek is at once adventurous and enlightening. It’s a journey you’ll never forget.

BLEEP BLEEP BLEEP BLEEP. What is that horrible sound? How do I make it stop? Where am I and why am I so cold?  These are all important questions that are surprisingly difficult to answer at 4.30am.  They were also questions that I would have to get my head around daily for the better part of the coming week. Oh god. What time is it? I thought to myself before muttering “I’ve got to get up” and stumbling out of bed. After all, today was a day that I had looked forward to for months. Today my friend Andrew and I would begin our trek through the Lares Valley in the Cordillera Urubamba region of the Peruvian Andes Mountains. This trip would ultimately culminate in a visit to that most famous of South American wonders – Machu Picchu.

After the rude awakening and emerging from my warm cocoon into the icy air of our hotel room in Cusco, I made a beeline for the shower and stuffed a quick breakfast down my throat. Why hotels in Peru choose not to use indoor heating – even in the middle of their winter, I will never understand.  The cold is just one thing you’ll have to battle through if you want to go hiking in the Andes (remember the movie Alive?). While shivering this morning, it would become clear later tonight that we didn’t know the true meaning of the word cold.

From Cusco to Lares, Peru

We pilled into a late 80’s Toyota station wagon that was filled to the brim with camping gear: a gas stove, bags, mats and all sorts of poles and rods. This was not exactly the impressive tour bus I had envisioned when we booked the trek online a few months back. Due to the global economic slowdown and the shear number of tour operators in Cusco, Andrew and I were the tour group.  We were joined by our fearless guide Christian, our gourmet chef Rivalino and our white knuckled driver Jorge.  We were just 5 dudes cruising out of town, looking for adventure.

CalcaWe sped along the well-maintained roads through suburban Cusco and into the Sacred Valley of the Incas. The landscape soon became more rural with three-wheeled taxis and little grocery stores giving way to cows, sheep and farmers. After about an hour of driving, our first stop was the market town of Calca. Here we would get the opportunity to buy fresh-baked bread for the scores of local Quechuan children we’d soon encounter in the mountains along with other necessary hiking supplies.

From Calca, it was time for 3 solid hours of off-road action. Along the way we straddled the side of mountain passes, turned blindly around no-look corners, honked at herds of wandering cattle, and bumped and bounced our way toward the town of Lares.

We headed up and down and back up again along dusty dirt roads. Racing past herds of llamas, alpacas and their watchful shepherds, we ascended to a height of over 4,500 meters above sea level (or 14,763 feet).

We were pleasantly surprised to find a gourmet 4-course lunch waiting for us in our tent at the trail head. The meal included home made soup, a stuffed avocado and locally caught trout in a delicious lemon herb sauce. How Rivalino did it, we’ll never know. To conclude the meal, coca leaf tea was served. Coca leaf tea is the ubiquitous drink of the indigenous population of Peru. While the leaves used in the tea are technically a low dosage source of the drug cocaine, it is a popular local remedy to alleviate the symptoms of altitude sickness. This of course is very common for travellers visiting this part of the world.

Trekking the Lares Valley to Machu Picchu: Day 1

It was finally time to go! We began the slow ascent upwards. While not always steep, the air was thin and the sun was hot. Even in the winter, the sun high in the Andes Mountains was much stronger than I was used to.  The terrain leveled out and we reached the valley of the Quishuarana River. Grey stone houses with tan thatched roofs sat in clusters and behind the stone walls of family compounds. This was the town of Quishuarani.

HikingHere we encountered our first group of youngsters, eager to meet us and to receive the gifts that all trekkers appear to bring them. Christian reminded us to get our bread and stationary supplies ready as they came running out from their homes. As the descendants of the Incas, the Quechuan-speaking people of this area have no native word for bread – a European introduction.  But the fresh, pita-like baked goods made in Calca were thoroughly enjoyed high in the Andean farming communities. Most of the houses here had no power and no running water, as was soon made clear by some the children’s grimy faces. They wolfed down the bread, smiled shyly and tried to thank us in Spanish (their second language). 

Soon we’d begin our grueling ascent out of the valley along the course of a beautiful waterfall. Despite it being the dry season, the rain began to fall. This rain soon turned to hail, but the novelty of the experience had yet to be dampened by the weather. This was a steep and draining section. Andrew, who was suffering from the effects of altitude sickness, took the slow and steady approach to mountain climbing. I, on the other hand may have had too much coca leaf tea at lunch and adopted the “sprint uphill as fast as you can for 30 seconds, catch your breath, and then sprint some more” technique.

When we reached the top of the passage, we caught our breaths and admired the views over the valley below. We turned around to see the glacial lake before us. It was here that we’d set up camp for our first night in the mountains.  In the distance behind the lakes sat the snow covered peaks of Nevado Sirihuani and Nevado Chicon – both towering well over 5500 meters (18, 044 feet). Before the hike began, I had heard that the second day was the toughest. Surely we weren’t going in that direction tomorrow.

The sun began to set. While it was summer back in Canada, it was winter in Peru, and pitch black by 6pm. Of course there was no light pollution from neighbouring cities to help illuminate the sky. Rather a dense blanket of fog had rolled in, and between the darkness and the mist, it was almost impossible to find the food tent for dinner.

As I could no longer see my hand in front of my face, bedtime soon followed another fantastic meal. The temperature was already hovering around zero degrees Celsius as I lay my head down on a makeshift pillow. The temperature would continue to drop by the hour. Have you ever been so cold that your brain will not allow you to fall into a pattern of deep sleep for risk of not waking up? Well for the next 8 hours I awoke every 15 minutes to shiver and curl up into the fetal position. It was damn cold.

Trekking the Lares Valley to Machu Picchu: Day 2

As I woke up and tried to estimate just how much sleep I had gotten last night, I remembered that today was supposed to be the hard day. It turns out that we were indeed heading around the lake and straight up toward the blinding white snow-covered summits straight before us. From 4000 meters above sea level we would climb up another 450 meters over the next 3 hours.

HikingThe path was steep and rocky. Every time we’d get to the point that we thought was the top of the peak, we would look up and see another rocky outcrop to drag ourselves towards. Again I took on the hurry up and wait approach to climbing. The calorie-burning bursts, and more importantly – not bothering to pack a hat would soon come back to haunt me. 

Finally we reached a level section of land where we could pose triumphantly for manly mountaineering photos with the glaciers directly behind us, and stupid walking stick-jousting shots to post on Facebook.  From here it was only another 30 minutes of ascent to the highest point we’d reach during the trek.  Despite the blazing sun, at 4450 meters (14, 599 feet) I really began to feel the chill. My pancake and coca leaf tea breakfast had run through my system, my face was purple from the sun, and I was running dangerously low on drinking water. 

Being very heavy on your feet is a fine attribute for a rugby forward to have, but it makes for a clumsy and painful descent down steep paths covered in loose, slippery rocks. As I tried to fight gravity’s pull, I could feel the pressure build in my knees and feet. Now feeling lightheaded as well, I began to stumble – my walking stick keeping me vertical on several important occasions. I fell behind Christian and Andrew, and at times I lost them far into the distance. Finally I saw a yellow tent in the distance. That surely had to be our lunch camp. The only problem was it looked like it was miles away, set along a stream in the valley below.

The descent from 4450 meters to our lunch camp at Cancha Cancha would consist of 2 of the most grueling hours of my life. Falling over on several occasions, I progressed down at a snail’s pace. While I relished the climb up, I just wanted down now – and fast. At several points I almost gave up and wanted to lie on the rocks until I could regain some strength.

As I pushed on, buoyed by the fact that another amazing, nourishing meal awaited me at the bottom of the valley, the yellow tent finally came within my grasp. I thought that it didn’t quite look the same as the tent we had eaten in this morning, but this was surely our tent. It had to be. With Christian and Andrew far, far ahead at this point, I staggered into the camp. Who were all these people? That certainly was not our horseman Valentine setting up the supplies. Luckily for ever-faltering me, the local porter of another group of hikers would walk me back out to the trail and point me toward another red tent kilometers in the distance. That was my pit-stop.

Lunch and a 15 minute nap in the yard of a local school did me wonders. I was renewed and refreshed and ready to roll. As we continued down and out of the mountains, the landscape changed dramatically. The barren yellow brown hills of the higher altitudes gave way to a raging river that made the surrounding landscape green with almost jungle like vegetation. We would encounter more and more local people as we descended into more forgiving altitudes.  A woman on a donkey tried to sell us a bushel of coca leafs. A young farmer whipped rocks at the friendly dog that had been following us since lunch, claiming that the pup was his.

We reached our night camp outside the hamlet of Iscayrumiyoc. Tonight would feel very warm in comparison to last. Still woozy from the sun, I’d again pass out in the tent around 6.30 or 7. Tonight there was no fog and the stars were visible. Hundreds of bright stars unlike anything I had ever seen before, and I couldn’t care less. I was exhausted.

Machu PicchuTrekking the Lares Valley to Machu Picchu: Day 3

The 3 hours of easy hiking that greeted us the next morning was certainly welcome to this battle-weary city slicker. I had put in my 2 days of camping in the mountains and was ready to return to civilization for the evening. As we walked through more farming communities toward our final destination of Huaran, Christian gave us the extended history of the struggles of aboriginal people in Peru. Finally we were picked up by our driver Jorge along the highway and driven to the train station in Ollantayambo.

While the journey had technically ended, the adventure had not. We were transported by train to Aguas Calientes where tomorrow morning we’d have another date with the alarm clock, and another long day of hiking and exploring.

Tomorrow we would visit Machu Picchu. Soon we’d find ourselves huffing and puffing up another steep ascent along the narrow, death-defying, unforgettable trails of Huayna Picchu.

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