Dragging ourselves out the hotel door at 6am we clambered, sleepily, onto the van waiting to take us to the start of 3 day/4 night Lares trek. The Lares Trek is an alternative route to the famous and insanely crowded Inca Trail. Hearing good things from a couple we met in Quito we thought it sounded about our speed: between 3 to 6 hours of hiking a day, all meals included, the highest pass was 4400m above sea level and we only had to carry our daypacks. Wanting to do out best to promote sustainable and fair tourism we looked around at a few tour companies and settled on Qente, a long-standing tour operator in Cusco.
We weren’t disappointed.
Craggy hills and low-lying clouds marked our ascent into the Andean highlands. Our tour guide, Kari, introduced us to the native plants, explaining how the land is farmed as well as sharing an encyclopaedic knowledge of Inca history and mythology. Dedicated to her job and intuitively aware of the trek and it’s impact on the locals Kari encouraged us to buy a big bag of bread explaining that bread is like cake to the highland kids. Unused to sugar the bread is less harsh on their teeth than packaged treats, and with the lack of dental care, fresh bread is the best option. Personally I am still unsure about foreigners offering treats to the local kids as I think it encourages begging and the expectation that foreigners will always have something to give. However when little kids started popping out behind rocks bellowing “GRINGOS!” and running down hills to meet us along our hike it was pretty nice to have something suitable for them.
We spent two nights camping, our first site at 3800m above sea level and the other at 4200m. My god, was it ever cold. So cold that I think all of us had every imaginable layer of clothing on. So cold that were dreaming of hot showers, extra blankets and those long johns we didn’t buy. Bed was right after dinner as the sun had long since disappeared taking the heat with it. Curling up in our sleeping bags we waited, through bouts of icy sleep, for morning and the warm rays of the sun.
Lucky for us our last night was spent in a lux hotel in Aguas Calientes, complete with hot shower, before heading to Machu Picchu. We rose the last day at 4am to get in line for the bus by 4:45am with hopes of getting a fairly exclusive ticket to climb the mountain directly across from Machu Picchu. Only 400 people per day are allowed to climb Huayna Picchu, where you can see the ruins from a bird’s eye view. Stunned by the amount of tourists ahead of us we anxiously got on our bus and prepared ourselves to run to the ticket booth as soon as we got into the grounds. Tickets and passports checked we followed Kari as she expertly wound her way through the ruins to the ticket booth. Coming in at numbers 385 and 386 we made it by the skin of our teeth. Word to the wise, if you want to climb Huayna Picchu and if you are going to get up at 4am anyway you might as well get to the Machu Picchu bus line-up at 4:20am
Machu Picchu is truly amazing. However by about 1pm the ruins are swarming with tourists, taking away a little of the specialness and making clean photo ops few and far between. But it was quite a sight from Huayna Picchu and we were left uncertain about what this place really was… a city, a refuge, a place of chosen women? It’s secretive location and lack of definitive explanation makes Machu Picchu a very mysterious, albeit heavily touristed, locale indeed.