As our regular readers will recall, my partner, Marina, and I are travelling for the summer throughout South America as a means to celebrate the successful defense of both of our PhDs (Read about our travel adventures).
Many people often take holidays to relax and unwind from the stresses of their daily life. Unfortunately, this can result in a week or two of poor if not excessive eating and drinking and little physical activity – not the best way to recharge one’s battery. As part of our South American adventure, we’ve tried to add as much physical activity into our travels as possible. Today I’d like to discuss my experience during our trek through the Peruvian Andes on our way to visit Machu Picchu. If you are considering booking a holiday anytime soon and are looking for an active holiday, I would strongly suggest this excursion.
The eight of us in the trek group are sitting down for dinner around a makeshift table in the middle of a thatch roofed, stone constructed house belonging to a local farmer.
Today we completed the second and most strenuous day of our Lares Trek through the old Inca trails leading through the Andes between Cusco and the magical Machu Picchu. We walked a total of 12 km today, the first 7 of which were all uphill.
While 12km may not seem like much, keep in mind we were performing said trek at an altitude ranging from 3900 to 4600m.
For me, this three day trek represented the most physically challenging part of our travels.
Before we even started today’s trek, some of us were already tired from yesterday’s effort, not to mention the previous night’s broken sleep in a chilly tent, at a dizzying 3800m, in the middle of the Peruvian mountain range.
Needless to say we were exhausted, and after a few spoonfuls of delicious soup, we quickly became giddy, cracking nonsensical jokes about the supposed inferiority of the other popular trek in the area, the Inca trail, began.
When people come to visit Machu Picchu, many simply fly into Cusco, then take a train to Machu Picchu in the morning, snap a few photos and head back to Cusco, then back home. Most of their time would be spent on a plane, train or bus.
For a more active experience, some tourists opt for 1 of 2 main treks through the area, both leading to a finish in Machu Picchu: the Inca trail or the Lares trail.
Both treks take a few days, and require at least a couple of nights camping out in the mountains.
Both treks are led by an experienced guide, and include surprisingly delicious meals prepared by a cook who travels with the group through the mountains (during each meal we were stunned by the variety and quality of food prepared for us using one portable gas stove – quinoa soup was my favourite).
Both treks provide absolutely stunning views of mountains, glaciers, lagoons, and various animals.
The major difference between the two options is popularity with tourists; the Inca trail is by far the most popular trek. Most of the people we’ve met weren’t even aware of alternatives to the uber-popular Inca trail.
Due to this popularity, the number of tourists on the Inca trail can get quite high, resulting in a recently instated capping off at a maximum of 500 people.
This popularity results in crowded paths, huge campsites where sleep is difficult (think hundreds of tents), lineups for many sights, a less authentic experience, and, of course, countless other gringos ruining your Kodak moments.
On the other hand, the Lares trek remains off the beaten path, and allows for a more tourist-free experience.
Our group consisted of 7 travelers: Marina, Killian and I from our original group, plus three young chaps from England, and a kiwi girl who was recently transplanted to Canada’s west coast. Additionally, we had our guide, cook, 3 herdsmen (who took care of the set up of tents, and herding the horses which carried our sleeping gear), and one of the herdsmen’s daughters, Elizabeth, who herded a pack of llamas which came along for the trek.
Aside from these 12 people, we basically saw no other tourists during the 3 days we spent in the mountains.
During our trek we passed by many small villages and got to interact with some of the locals – mostly children on their way to school, all dressed in traditional clothing.
Marina, in particular, seemed to revel in this interaction, shooting easily over 100 photos of local children.
We even got to play a game of soccer with local kids at school during their phys-ed class. Given the high altitude, and my paranoia about altitude sickness I took it very easy – reaching a running pace only a couple of times. After each brief jog, I was out of breath for a good while – the altitude certainly kicks your butt. As per usual, Marina was running around as though we were at sea level – I am envious of her Russian heartiness.
We also came across countless llamas and alpacas along our trek, resulting in even more excessive photography by Marina, who has taken a serious liking to these beautiful camelids.
The scenery was absolutely stunning, and we took frequent breaks to appreciate the beauty surrounding us – not to mention catch our breath.
The stars at nighttime were particularly memorable.
Despite being relatively pampered with food and wonderful views, the 3 days of hiking were pretty tough – at the end of the journey, all of us were quite sore. Quads, buttocks, and calves were the most common sources of discomfort.
For me, my hip joints felt stiff as hell.
“Who needs squats?” I joked with Killian, as we ascended towards the highest point of our walk – a pass at over 4500m.
Another challenge during the hike was hygiene: due to our remote location, we could only wash our hands and face with the bit of hot water we were given in a bowl each morning. On the last day, our collective body odor became rather pungent – we all repeatedly apologized for our respective smells, and sat as far away as possible from each other while consuming our final lunch.
The shower that night was fantastic.
The cold nights in tents were also a challenge for some – the temperature dipped below zero on two of our nights.
Marina, for example, used two sleeping bags during the night.
Waking up to a frost covered tent was a first for me, personally.
Getting out of our tents in the morning was made possible only by the hot coca tea provided at our tent by one of the herdsmen.
In the end, both Killian and I admitted to each other that the trek wasn’t as tough as we thought it would be.
Nevertheless, the sense of accomplishment among the members of our group was sealed with a round of high fives, before we all sank in our chairs and waited for our final lunch, back at Ollantaytambe.
“We actually did it!” Killian says to me, as he sits across the long wooden dining table.
“It’s all downhill from here” I respond.