A journey that took me to the Andean valleys in Peru was a trip through the customs, a trip through the Quechua traditions, a trip through the vastness and remoteness of the countryside yet a supremely enriching experience. A trip that started with another plane ride evolved into all forms of transport; A locomotive engine, an automobile , horseback ride and of course my own two little feet.
As with most journeys in this land which I’d rather refer to as the Inka kingdom, it starts in Cusco, capital of the magnificent Inka empire. Cusco, at just over 11,000 ft does bring back some memories and feeling like Tintin in “Prisoners of the son” I bask in the warm winter sun feeling may be a little bit out of breath. However as the locals say, cocoa tea is that magic pill for altitude sickness and admittedly its a weak concoction and doesn’t do much for me. So I do what I do, get used to the altitude. Embarking in the week of the Peruvian independence day was a great feast for the eyes watching the schools, local fire and police units parading in the central Plaza de Armas, Sitting on the balcony on a lazy day sipping a Pisco sour watching the locals intermingle with the tourists in a rich colorful array of cultures was a treat.
Then the journey begins into the Lares valley. Our group is typical of an international contingent with a Peruvian (Quechua Indian) guide and an assortment of French and Polish folks. Traversing a village meat market where heads and hooves of cows are out on display before we headed out towards the Lares Valley while going over a 12,000 foot high mountain pass. Llamas and alpacas are a common sight and seem to have formed a special bond with humans, being the source of food and clothing for all around.
The first day hike goes up from the relatively low elevation of 10,500 ft to the camp 1 at 12,500 ft. The hike takes us through remote Indian villages where life is at complete peace unhindered by technology and simplicity is at its best.The hike is gradual yet tests out the endurance of the feet and heart; frequent rests become the norm as the altitude gets up to above 12,000 ft. The camp we get into as remote as it can get but yet close to the village of the horsemen, where womenfolk dressed in colorful bright red garb spread out their wares consisting of alpaca wool gloves and scarves. It becomes an instant flea market and you cannot help but admire their tenacity as they are fascinated by us and we in turn are fascinated by them. The camp tents are surrounded by the glorious Andes peaks and as the cold sets in, the silence of the darkness is only broken by the occasional barking of dogs and the soothing flowing of the nearby stream.
The second day hike starts fairly early and as the caravan departs towards the mountain pass the journey has to be made. We have to be at 15,000 feet in under 5 hours. The terrain is rocky, the slopes are steep yet we must march on. Tyros take frequent breaks while the seasoned hikers lead the trail. Passing other hikers, horses carrying supplies but what is most amazing is the endurance and strength of the men and boys that literally are seen jogging up at these elevations like it was a jog to the convenience store round the corner. After a steep climb and some assistance from the horses, we finally make it to the 15,000 ft point, the mountain pass overlooking a gorgeous lake that makes it all worth the effort. Then the rest of the day is about going downhill and hiking for over 4 hours like a billy goat takes us to the camp 2. A warmer place yet superb in its location where we “chill” for the night.The day 2 has probably got to be one of the most grueling days I have ever encountered in my life and turns out that I actually walked close to 25 miles!
The Day 3 is then decamoing, hopping on to a coach to get to Ollantaytambo and walking around this charming town before getting on the Perurail train to Aguas Calliente. Machu Pichu beckons.
Not just hiking in Machu Pichu, but what is absolutely rewarding are the hikes to the Inka bridge and the Sun Gate that makes it special. A must do, if you haven’t done it already! Then the final hike down the steps from Machu Pichu to our base camp in Aquas Callientes.
The valley hike, meeting the locals, great group of people, discovery of new lands and the sheer feeling of serendipity as we hiked some mind boggling trails around Machu Pichu.
Be prepared for high altitude effects; breathlessness, parched throats and remember its a marathon not a sprint.Hike light and let the horses carry that extra heavy hiking backpacks. Lots of water highly recommended alongwith sun protection. It may have been winter but when the sun gets out, it shines down hard.
And spare a thought for the village kids who wear smiles and go on about life with such verve and enthusiasm it is infectious. Consider contacting a local agency if you are keen on supporting their education and development, I am certain there are appropriate avenues. What is it they say- “A good deed never goes unrewarded”.
The trip has put life in a different perspective and makes me want to do more of this; miles to go before I sleep !