Interested in International Security, Terrorism and Geopolitics. Constantly on the look out for my next travel adventure.
It feels like I’ve been waiting my whole life for this.
After four nights out on the town in Cuzco (where I bumped into two different girls from RMS back home) it was time for a rare night in a hotel room to recharge my batteries before joining my tour group in the morning. Bright and early we set off to visit a local community who, all wearing traditional Quechua attire, proceeded to demonstrate how they have been weaving fantastic clothes and quilts out of lama and alpaca wool for millennia. After a quick spot of lunch we were off to the ‘Sacred Valley’ which runs exactly in line with the Milky Way (which the Incas found significant) and perfectly from east to west, meaning it has the sun on it all day. Dotted along the sacred valley are old inca ruins and you can clearly see where they built terraces into the valley slopes to maximise agricultural output. The Incas were way ahead of their time and knew how to harness different altitudes for different crops and quirks in the climate for a natural irrigation system based predominantly on mist. They even built store houses in the most precarious places high up in the hills as at altitude the air is colder and this kept their harvests fresher for longer. One such silo, seen from other ruins in the ancient Inca town of Ollantaytambo, is in the most ridiculously impossible place and is next to an Inca face carved out of the cliff hundreds of metres above the valley floor. Mount Rushmore eat your heart out.
Day 1 of the Lares Trek
After a nice introduction to inca culture and history in the sacred valley it was time to join the small group I would be trekking roughly 33km to Machu Picchu with. To my relief they were all really sound. I’m pretty used to being bundled together with random people what with being a solo traveller and all, but this was the one experience I was praying not to be put with
Americans complete morons for. I was paired with an Aussie guy called Tom from Melbourne, three Canadian girls from Toronto and one of their mums (who is a complete babe). It turns out one of the Canadians is also doing a masters degree in the same area as me in September so we had plenty to talk about.
Our first stop, and last in any sort of vehicle, was the small town of Lares. There isn’t much there other than this ridiculous hot baths complex that looked like something out of Ancient Rome or the Ottoman Empire. Before you know it we are all in our swimming trunks chilling in these pools of varying temperatures feeling utterly pampered and relaxed. Definitely an experience we should have been having at the end of the trek rather than at the very beginning, but great nonetheless.
After lunch we set off, with only 9km to do before we made camp for the first night. Our guide had advised us to stock up on sweets, pencils, hair ties and especially bread and it wasn’t long until we discovered why. As the six of us hiked up this valley and away from any remnants of modern civilisation (although I wouldn’t exactly describe much of Peru or Bolivia in that way anyway) children from indigenous villages would run after us to receive one of the above treats. Our guide would ask them their names etc (they speak a local language, not Spanish) and it was a real treat not only to see the smiles on their faces but to learn a little bit about the way they live and are schooled. I chose the lares trek because you learn about the local communities and aren’t swamped with other tourists. I’m writing this after day two and we haven’t seen a single western person for 48 hours. We got to go into random houses which were like a throw back to the dark ages, made out of stones and surrounded by paddocks of livestock which again were just piles of rocks (the paddocks, not the livestock). One girl of about 14 offered to sell me a lama for 200 Soles (£50) and we bought a Guinea Pig off another which I have just seen is being lovingly prepared by our porters for dinner tonight. In addition to our guide we are being supported by a team of four porters aka horsemen and a cook who all go ahead of us with half our bags and set up camp/ prepare dinner. They are completely local people from remote mountain villages who only speak an indigenous language but we have been able to learn a little about their lives which has been cool, and all the more humbling when we learned how much the work of our tour company has changed their lives. After a basic but nutritious dinner the outside temperature had plummeted and all we could think about was crawling inside our arctic sleeping bags and getting some kip before an early start again the next morning.
Day 2 of The Lares Trek
The big day was upon us. Ahead of the group lay 16km of mostly uphill trekking with over a km of altitude to be ascended. The scenery was stunning, as I hope some of my photos show. It was sort of like being in the Welsh Valleys, only 10x more impressive. There was the constant reminder of our altitude ahead of us as in the form of snow-covered peaks and as we followed the trail the river below fell further and further away. To combat the symptoms of altitude we took a leaf (literally) out of the Quechua people’s book and chewed on Coca leaves. For hundreds of years in Andean cultures the people have used coca leaves to reduce the feelings of hunger, thirst, tiredness and altitude. Miners in the most disgusting conditions in Bolivia still to this day rely on coca leaves to work for hours on end, and it was said that during the inca empire that messengers could run 150km in a single day just by sucking on these strange little leaves. Now it must be said that chewing coca leaves doesn’t amount to ‘taking drugs’ (although apparently you can fail some drugs tests) and you would need to isolate one of the chemicals in 140kg of Coca leaves to produce just one Kg of Cocaine, but it was remarkable the difference that having 6 or 7 little leafs in the side of your mouth could make. Without the symptoms of altitude sickness we were able to hike up to a pass at 4600m (I was closer to the sun than 99%of Europe) from where the views down to a lake below would have taken our breath away had we any left. We felt a real sense of accomplishment, not only looking back down the valley at how far we had come, but also because we knew that by and large our trek would only be downhill from where we stood. We siesta’d after a late lunch, which was well deserved after an arduous 7 hour slog in the morning, then made our way gently down to the second campsite where our tents were up in amongst what looked like ancient ruined stone walls. Upon closer inspection there was nothing ruined about it, we (and the horses, lamas and chickens) were effectively in the back garden of a house that was honestly more backward than cottages we would have had in England 800 years ago. It made Frodo Baggins’ little hovel in the Hill look like Buckingham palace. It was absolutely incredible to see that people still live like this. I mean I’m pretty well travelled now, and have seen more than my share of poverty, but these local people are so far away from knowing what concrete is its scary. Whole families living in a room below poorly thatched roofs, on mouldy lama hides with absolutely no insulation or proper filling between the stones that make up the walls of the house. If anyone wants to shoot a film set in the dark ages then they should look no further than the remote Andes, it’s sad but it’s true.
Day 3 of The Lares Trek
Not much to say here, we broke camp at a not so antisocial 6:30am and trekked downhills until lunchtime. The Guinea pig in our stomach hadn’t seemed to cause any substantive damage and we were able to take in the incredible scenery for a few more hours of leisurely hiking (although going up is far kinder on your knees).
Then it was early to bed, the next day would be a big one and we needed our rest. Especially as our alarms were set for 4:30am.
Day 4: Machu Picchu
Today was a good day. If you are familiar with the concept of a ‘bucket list’ then you will understand how much I have been looking forward to seeing this lost Inca city with my own eyes for as it has been firmly at the top of my list of things I want to do before I ‘kick the bucket’ for as long as I can remember. I actually need to write a new list now.
The weather, as it had been over the previous three days was sensational and we reached the famous site 15 minutes before the sun came up. It was amazing to see the sun transform a landscape bathed in shadow and mystery into one of the most iconic and stunning views you could ever imagine. We all know what it looks like, but it’s even more awe inspiring in real life.
The site was only discovered in 1911 by Hiram Bingham, an American searching for the lost inca city of Vilcabamba. For almost 400 years Machu Picchu had been completely abandoned, after only really being in existence for a about a century. As the Spanish Conquistadors ran riot through the Incan empire, pillaging and torching pretty much every city they could find, the last Incas are said to have fled to Vilcabamba – a stronghold deep in the jungle that has never been found. Word would have reached Machu Picchu and it’s 500 inhabitants or so would have all upped and left for Vilcabamba, taking their possessions and gold with them, but leaving the architecture fully intact. What’s so fascinating about Machu Picchu is that it is only significant now because of its insignificance back then. The centre of the empire was Cuzco and we visited the ruins of other inca sites along the sacred valley at Ollyantaytambo etc. all of which were destroyed in full or in part by the Spanish and have been built upon. Cusco is built on Incan foundations but is the perfect example of colonial Spanish architecture now for example. However the Spanish never arrived at Machu Picchu, it was after all just a small agricultural community perched precariously in the clouds and completely abandoned overnight. Its obscure location saved it from the same fate as the rest of the Inca empire, leaving us with the only perfectly in tact example of an Inca civilisation anywhere in the world. Machu Picchu wasn’t the centre of the Inca Empire (which at its peak stretched from Colombia to Argentina) far from it, but it is a perfectly preserved slice of history that hasn’t been tampered with, manipulated, glammed up, cheapened or had fancy hotels placed by. It is such a pure and spiritual place, up in the clouds, away from civilisation in the most unimaginably picturesque location at the top of a mountain. Machu Picchu truly is special, and hats off of to the Peruvian government for maintaining it so magnificently and for limiting the amount of people who can access it per day. You may have seen it on postcards or on TV, but seeing it in the flesh makes you feel something indescribable, like you have been thrown back in time like no museum or normal tourist attraction ever could. I don’t know if ill ever return, after all I have a new ‘bucket list’ to be focussing on now; but today is a day ill never forget.
Thanks for reading, I hope you found it insightful and that I didn’t come across too smitten with my experiences. Next stop is northern Peru and then into Ecuador (probably). Will write soon.
P.s. there are much better photos on my digital camera, these few are off my iPhone for now. Enjoy.