Photo cred to BDF for the epic pano as the cover for this post. I’m going to state the obvious now: Peru is high and it has hills. And when you’re coming from two cities that are both much closer to sea level, and in my case, not as hilly, you tend to run into some issues walking back to your hostel that sits above a staircase. Did I forget to mention that you also have some chicken, guinea pig, and alpaca stuffed into your stomach? That was our Cusco city walking experience in a nutshell for our two days of acclimation to the altitude and terrain of the region.
The main event of our trip was the Lares Trek through a part of the Andes and a day trip to Machu Picchu. We had booked our trek with Alpaca Expeditions. Shameless plug right here: this tour group made our trip one of the best travel experiences I had. The guides were incredibly professional, spoke English (big plus when your 6 years of Spanish education has been reduced to “Quiero este” and “¿Que es?”), and incorporated lessons on Incan history and culture in relevant parts of the trek. They also excelled in helping us prep and schedule our trip by having manageable group sizes, providing sturdy and fairly new rental camping and hiking equipment, and accommodated our more custom schedule by providing private transportation back to Cusco when we wanted to extend our stay by a day in Olly. Overall, they helped make the trip what it was, and, having a talented cook just made the experience just that much better. I mean, the dude made us a cake without and oven and kept my hanger in control by providing at least two of the three key food groups every meal. B-O-M-B.
The trek was split into three days and two nights. Plus an extra day in Olly, the entire trip (ex Machu Picchu) can be divided into the following parts:
- Some Crazy LOTR Shit Goin’ Down
- Them Squats be Paying Off
- What Goes Up, Must Come Down
- What’s another Mountain?
In keeping with the Fitbit tradition, here’s what parts 1 – 3 looked like, from the pov of my left wrist:
Just because bpm maxed out at about 120 doesn’t mean I wasn’t working. On the contrary, we did some serious lunging/squatting/step climbing on this trip, and the floor count showed:
Lares Day 1: Some Crazy LOTR Shit Goin’ Down
Let me start by saying, there was an emergency horse for those who couldn’t make it up (or down) parts of the trek and neither of us used it! However, the first leg of the journey was probably the hardest since we had no idea how high or steep some of the trails would be. Taking literally the meaning behind the phrase, “You think you know, but you have no idea.” After visiting a local market and eating breakfast outdoors, we set off on the hike. I made the following observations:
- Alpaca poop takes the form of tiny round black pebbles, much smaller than I had thought
- Middle aged women put us to shame by walking up steep hills in sandals
- There’s not that many giant rocks for coverage if I do need to use the bathroom so I better ration my water appropriately
Silly observations to the inexperienced Peru trekker, but these observations have the following implications:
- Watch where you sit, those aren’t rocks
- Get over how you’re struggling up the mountain because the locals will put you to shame regardless of how fit the best person in your group is
- Hold it in, just hold it in
The weather did treat us well. We had gone during the dry season in Peru, which meant no rain (woooot!) and plenty of sun to keep us warm as we’re moving about. We wore layers, which helped with the weather patterns because there’d be patches of the trails where it was 40 degrees Farenheit, and then areas where, under the sun, it felt like 60+. I also got a mean sunglass tan during the trek due to how high we reached in our climb. Had to even that out by not wearing my shades during the latter half of our time in Peru.
Day 1 wasn’t too eventful in terms of sites to see on the hike, but we were able to breath in fresh mountain air, see some clear blue sky, and when we arrived at the resting site for lunch, we saw this off in the distance:
All that’s missing is a giant, fiery eye, two hobbits, and a hot, sexy elf. But there were none. We had a solid 20 minutes to just stand by the waterfall and admire its beauty and epicness. After having been up since 5am, we were getting tired by 3pm at this point of the trek. We made one last push to the campsite at the top of the hill and prepared to sleep for the night. What was more impressive than the view we saw there? The fact that the chef and porters cleaned up after us for lunch, packed up the horses (including the portapotty) and made it up the hill and set up camp and put up all the tents before we huffed and puffed our way there.
Lares Day 2: Them Squats be Paying Off
What made this day special were the views we got. From the morning when you woke up to the evening night sky, Day 2 was filled with magnificent views of the Lares region – a different version of air, land, and sea, if you will.
It started with the view of the Blue Lagoon after packing up and leaving our campsite. Then, we hiked up a mountain and got a pretty kick ass panoramic view of the area below, where we had hiked the day before. Moving up further, we reached an area where you were surrounded by rolling hills on all sides, and straight ahead where glaciers on snowcapped peaks.
The downhill parts were harder than going uphill, since I’m more afraid of face planting and sliding for about 50 ft down a mountain than slipping and scraping a knee while going up. Our view before we hit our lunch spot included two glacier lakes, more snowcapped peaks, and, oh just look below:
While resting for lunch, some of our furry friends joined us. Our campsite for the night was over another set of (smaller) mountains. We’d pass by a local school and play with the kids. Our guides had bought provisions to give the children, including animals crackers and the kids were extremely excited to receive goodies from us. Some of them had trekked the same path we did to reach the school on a daily basis for school. Made me appreciate the yellow bus much more.
At night, we visited an alpaca farm, and hugged one of those cute, furry, delicious creatures. (That’s right, I’m not ashamed that I ate one). As the sky darkened, we were also gifted with a clear night sky, where you could see hundreds, if not thousands, of stars. If only I had a long exposure camera, but whatevs, I took a mental picture…. *click*.
We made camp, and after another delicious meal by our chef, called it in for the night. High on our day, DBF and I decided to postpone sleep and have a karaoke session. As Asian-Americans, we appreciate our unique cultural blend, naturally selected a playlist that reflected our upbringing as 90s kids in suburbia, including Eminem, Backstreet Boys, Britney, and Diddy. Sorry Leehom, we’ll play you on the next trip. Our guide had a good laugh the next morning when he delivered us our hot water to wash our hands. He was welcomed by Danza Kuduro.
Lares Day 3: What Goes Up, Must Come Down
We woke up to this:
We started Day 3, knowing that it was downhill, at the head of the pack, and stayed that way. After eating and packing up, we started our descent back down to flat ground. Nature didn’t disappoint, it provided some tree coverage from the sun and still let us see a wild animal or two. Remember how boss our guides were? One of them looked at a cow and said it was 2 years old. Mind. Blown.
We also got the full nature experience. DBF and I did a fairly good job with the bathroom situation. Even here, when we had to go, we both found good coverage. And, the benefit of being ahead of the pack meant we could ask our guide to stop and allow us to run ahead to take care of our business. I had the misfortune, though, of having to fight a cow for a perch behind a push. I won.
Our descent ended with one final lunch by our amazing chef. DBF and I wanted to tip them well considering how great a trek we’ve had so far. Afterwards, we packed on to a van and took a quick tour of Maras, an area of the Sacred Valley with natural salt ponds, before boarding the train that would take us to a hot shower, cable (US Open!!!!), electricity for our battery depleted phones and cameras, and beds. Next day, Machu Picchu.
Ollantaytambo: What’s Another Mountain?
Fast forward a bit. We bid our farewells to our tour guides after Machu Picchu and returned to spend a night in Ollantaytambo. It’s one of the oldest Incan towns in Peru, with some of their architecture spanning back to ancient times. The city was quite picturesque. For us, one of the best parts was eating at El Albergue, which served up some delicious chicken, pork, and alpaca for us, as I mentioned in the previous post. We tried to thoroughly explore the town and the immediate area on foot. Having conquered Lares and Machu Picchu mountain, we were fairly confident in our abilities of standing by ledges without killing ourselves, so what’s another mountain to add to the list?
The Incans excelled in architecture — able to carve stones to fit in exactly the right spaces, and make their walls completely sturdy without any putty or other sticky materials (my knowledge of construction goes as far as screwdrivers and hammers people). The land was still used for farming, as you can see from the pictures, but the town was clearly evolving to be more modern and embracing its role as a center for tourism. It’s even got a Kwik-E-Mart!
There were two hills/mountains to hike. One was a set of ancient Incan ruins, which didn’t pique our interest too much since we’ve already been to Machu Picchu. The other was Pinukuylluna, a mountain that had the remains of old Incan storehouses. Among the ingenuity of the Incans (rope-making, road building, architecture, agriculture), the storehouse acted like a modern day refrigerator. There were strategically carved out windows that allowed a breeze to flow through the structures to preserve the food. According to our guides, the Incan Empire grew but no one ever went hungry. Not many civilization, both then and now, can say that.
What did we do as we climbed up? We tried to go off trail and used the storehouses to help block us from the window. You do get a serious case of vertigo if you stand up straight and look down, not because of the height, but rather a gust of window will sweep you away.
Alpaca sent a driver to take us back to Cusco that night. He arrived on time and dropped us off at the steps up to our hostel. Those were a piece of cake compared to what we did the 4 days prior, unlike our first night there…Win.