Epic Journey. Part 3. Lares Trek

4/7 Lares Trek Day 1

4AM wake up today.  Another shitty night of sleep, but this time thanks to excitement.  Sleepy nods hello to my group as we climb into the bus.  We picked up our chef and two porters along the pre-dawn drive.  Tried to appreciate the sunrise over the Sacred Valley, but too sleepy…

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Chef and his homies whipped up a quick breakfast and tea, and as our brains started to come to life, introductions were re-made around the pop-up table.  Leonie and Niahm were friends from Ireland that had been doing the whole of Central and South America.  Mark, Niahm’s boyfriend, had flown in to meet them at some point, and after this trip was done it was back to work for him.  Carol and Katrina were a mother/daughter duo from Houston.  Pretty cool place to see with your mom (hey mom wanna go climb a mountain??).  Our guide was Eddie, and he was the man.  Also seemed very connected to and knowledgeable about the history and terrain.  We found out later that basically 2/3’s of the month he’s on one the hikes to Machu Picchu.

 

So after the pancakes and tea it was time to get this show on the road.  Whack in a cud of coca leaves, and up we went.  Up.  For a day and a half it was up.  With every step less oxygen.  I will tell you this;  hiking to Machu Picchu is easy, all you have to do is put one foot in front of the other.  But don’t forget to breath, because if you forget to, you won’t.  These mountains don’t give up their scarce air without a little effort…

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the beginning of up

As we climbed the terrain and flora slowly changed around us.  We were basically following a river valley cutting up and through the peaks.  Conversation was actually pretty tough to sustain for long, but when we stopped at some ruins Eddie dropped some knowledge about the life of the Incas.  One thing that stuck with me was when he described the Inca’s cashless economy.  The empire was wealthy beyond belief in pure natural abundance, but they didn’t use money.  Instead they used a work for property system.  Build a temple, lay a road, etch an agricultural terrance and you get a house and land for your family.  This struck me as socialist to the core.  The Quechua descendants still follow the mantra “Ayni”, which basically means “today for you, tomorrow for me”.  It made me wonder if the frequent socialist uprisings that pop up in Latin America (only to be crushed) have some connection to this ancient sentiment.  Imagine if one of the greatest societies to exist in antiquity was a functioning communist model.  That wouldn’t look good in the history books…

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thinking socialism in ruins

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Lunch Day 1_Near Callorumiyoc ruins_3600 meters/11,800 feet

We learned a valuable lesson that first lunch, PACE YOURSELF!  The Llama Path meals are amazing, and each course I couldn’t stop myself from gorging.  “Problem” is the COURSES NEVER STOP!!  It was one of the best meals I’d had in Peru, and by far the biggest including mango ceviche (definitely making that one at home), pumpkin soup, rice, peruvian corn, potatoes, yucca, stuffed avocados, quiche, AND stuffed trout!  Ended with nap time right?  No Eddie passed out snack bags (in case we some how got hungry ever again), and it was back to the climb.  Another half day up to our night’s camp.

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day one lunch spot

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During that last push into and over the clouds, more and more evidence of the Quechua people that still live and farm in these mountains popped up.  It’s pretty amazing that people still hold it down up here.

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After breathlessly dragging ourselves up a final brutal climb, we found ourselves in a meadow on top of the world.  The amazing porters and horsemen, who would somehow run ahead of us after every stop to have everything ready when we showed up, were already getting to work for tea-time and dinner.  All we had to was drop our pack, put on some layers (it was getting cold up here!), and enjoy some coca tea before another gut busting and delicious dinner.

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Night 1_Puyoc_4300 meters/14100 feet

Dark out, and itching to get out of the tent and photograph these amazing stars!  Its like you could just about touch the milky way from here.  The Southern Cross and a bunch of unfamiliar sights all dot the bright sky.  The Big Dipper is UPSIDE-DOWN!  Amazing.  I’m already at my new altitude record (I think Mt. Massive was a bit less than this…), but tomorrow is the big climb.  Over 15,000 to our summit!  Its about 8PM, everyone else is asleep and I’m exhausted but gotta get those STARS!

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above the cloud line

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puyoc camp

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4/8  Sicllakasa Pass.  15,800 feet

Out of breath.  But not as bad as I thought.  Powered up to my altitude record stubbornly not giving in to lack of oxygen.  Thanks to a consistent cud of coca leaves still don’t believe in altitude sickness.  Amazing sea of mountains in front of us, and miles of descending valleys in our wake.  Incredibly satisfying.  The Inca worshipped the mountains as gods, and even today the local people make pilgrimages up here to give offerings to the now hybrid Christian/Ancient gods.  Quite a commitment, those last couple hundred feet were gnarly.   Although they probably trot up here like its a trip to the grocery store.  Awesome, awesome.  On top of the world.

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behind us

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in front of us

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“take in the greatness of God. this is his love.”

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So then we started back down the other side.  This side of the mountain is much more lush with vegetation.  I think its because the wet air comes in from the coast and is shot into higher altitudes by the slopes we just climbed creating rain clouds on this side.  Had a nice chat in spanish with Eddie on the way down.  Just shooting the shit, but good to keep up the practice.  Eventually we descended into a breathtaking nook amongst the cliffs where our lunch was being prepared.  Stunning place to relax, felt like something out of the Lord of the Rings.  A herd of sheep/llamas/alpacas cruised past our spot, herded by a distant Quechua woman and her dogs scurrying about the cliffs like it was nothing.  Another gut busting lunch of lomo saltado (with a delish vegan option of seitan!), arepas, pasta w/ chicken, and ubiquitous rice mound.  God the food was good!  Then we continued down through hilly green pastures amongst the llama, chinchillas, increasing local folks going about their business.

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the red dot is camp

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Night 2_Cunkani_3800 meters/12,426 feet

This is fucking rad.  After the pleasant descent we enter the village of Cunkani.  Quechua kids eying us up and offering a curious “hola” as the gringos passed.  We stepped into a stone corral and thats where we would set up shop for the night.  I can’t lie I felt a little weird at first.  Women are posting up with stuff for sale, but I don’t really need anything.  Also back in Cusco it had been suggested to bring candies for the kids, and I had a bag, but that didn’t really seem right.  With all the natural good food around, giving kids a bunch of shitty sugar treats felt wrong.  So as my hike mates took a nap, I’m kindof just sitting here watching as the camp fills up with Quechua women and kids.  Looks like there will be another group joining us tonight going the other direction.  It is so crazy to be here right now.  This is why I chose this trek.  Although they just see me as another tourist, for me it is very special to be spending the night in this village.

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4/9  Durián

Sunrise at Cunkani.  Last night was pretty special.  We were playing cards in the mess tent to kill time before going to sleep.  “Bullshit” to be exact.  After a while, in sneaks this little Quechua kid.  He literally shimmied under the tent flap, and just stood there smiling.  No one, myself included, really knew what to do, so I figured I’d teach him how to play the game.  I had him “help” me play my hand and eventually gave him his own.  For the record I told him the game was called “mentiroso”, just saying.  He never really got it, not for lack of trying, more my inability to explain the sophisticated nuances of bullshitting in spanish.  Eventually we all headed to bed, but the cloud cover had lifted and the stars were dazzling and the Conquecruz (*never figured out how to spell it properly) glacier topped peak was shimmering in the distance.

 

I grabbed my camera and before I could turn around, there was Durián, smiling silently.  I asked him if he wanted to take pictures of the stars, and he was ALL ABOUT IT!  When I showed him what it looked like on the screen he was ecstatic!   I taught him a few things of which he caught on really quick, and just let him walk around the camp taking shots of the night sky.  He didn’t want to head my advice about keeping the camera steady, preferring the post-modern blurry look.  Fuck giving kids candy, last night was a sharing of information.  He told me the names of the mountains and stars and I showed him how to photograph.  I’ll print up his work and send it to him when I get home.  He said he was going to come walk with us for a bit tomorrow, and I hope he does.  Its WAY easier to take pics in the day time.

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me and durian collaboration

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durian 1

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durian 2

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durian at work

 

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Kids lined up this morning in front of one of the other groups.  The guide gives each of the tourists a bag of candy and they go down the line handing out crap feeling good about themselves.  I don’t like it.  Durian was one of them.  By the time I was done brekkie they were gone.  Durián had his backpack on.  Hopefully he was going to school.

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Well, after we started our days bit of hiking, no sign of Durián.  Shortly into the hike, Eddie pointed out the villages elementary school.  Relatively basic, but surprisingly complete layout.  Out ran a bunch of kids to gawk at us, and sure enough there was Durián.  He was apparently too shy to say much, or maybe last nights fun wasn’t as cool for him as it was for me.  Either way I’m going to send him his pics.  And maybe a Polaroid cam or something.

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The days hike was more of leisurely stroll through the rolling hills compared to previous days.  The final stop was the hot baths in Lares proper.  Good lord I can’t imagine a more heavenly way to end a trek through the Andes.  Warm shower flowing from the rocks (warmest shower I’ve had in Peru!) and free range of four pools ranging from tepid to scalding to soak our aching bodies.  Down below there is a cold bath if you’re into that and lap pool to boot.  Tucked into a serene alpine valley, with a raging river down below.  One last lunch from Chef and the porters, and that was it.  Trek over, back to the bus.

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hot springs at lares

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After the springs, we took a bus to Ollantaytambo.  The ride through the Sacred Valley was amazing on its own.  I like the town here at Ollantaytambo.  Its cute, and the ancient Inca bastions still standing on the surrounding cliffs are pretty impressive.  After a short walk through town we got dinner there, and I got to see a more traditional cuy presentation…aka the whole guy (my verdict: a lot of work for not much meat).  Now we are on the train to Aguas Calientes, where we will sleep in a hotel for a couple hours before getting that first pre-dawn bus to the Main Event; Machu Picchu.

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ollantaytambo ruins

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cuy

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All in all I would say 1000% do the Lares Trek to Machu Picchu.  And go with Llama Path.  I’ve obviously never gone to M.P. any other way, but it can’t get much better.  For those of you puritans, it IS true that you don’t actually walk your ass right up to the Sun Gate, but dealing with the throngs of people one must endure on the Inca Trail seems like a terrible option just to say you did it.  Shit if you want to pay more to shuffle up there with the idiot masses be my guest.  You walked to Machu Picchu.  Great.  But what did you experience?

 

I’ll stop hating and go to sleep.

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