Taking the road less travelled –
The Lares Trek
I wrote this piece on the second day post Machu Picchu ACHIEVEMENT. It was the second day after defying my panic, achieving a fantastic goal and it took AGES to write about it – yet it feels like a month ago. When I wrote this post, I was in bed gradually getting a teeeeeny bit of panic back due to the fact that Cusco thinks it’s totally fine to set off fireworks from 5am throughout the day until 9.17pm – and I am totally assuming they’re fireworks by the way, because when I woke up I thought they were gunshots or bombs and then I thought that surely someone would get bored of setting off bombs for that long.. But I digress, what is the Lares Trek I hear you ask? Well, before I did it I hadn’t a clue. I just saw that it was a hike not many people did and you got to meet other communities along the immensely long daily hikes – and not doing the same thing as other people and chatting to everyone are two things I love so I spontaneously booked it.
AND IT WAS THE BEST THING EVER. Although Day 3, I got a liiiiitle bored of hiking in the rain but hey ho, spaghetti oh you can’t be excited ALL the time when it’s raining on you.
The Lares Trek is a 4 day, 3 night hike across hills, through indigenous communities, hitting high altitudes of over 4000m to reach the ultimate destination of Machu Picchu, one of the 7 Wonders of the World.
As you may or may not have already gathered from this blog and previous posts, I suffer from Depression and a Generalised Anxiety Disorder. Although pills have made a HUGE difference, it doesn’t stop occasional blues or panics, so when I started thinking about how high the altitudes were going to be, the hours I knew I’d be trecking OR the fact that hardly anyone I knew had even heard of the Lares Trek, I started panicking ever so slightly.
And by ever so slightly? I mean losing ma SHIT. I’d decided the night before that I was clearly going to suffer breathing difficulties so bad that someone would have to find a speedy Alpaca and run me down the mountain to the nearest Indigenous hospital to be given oxygen through an unwashed tube OR perhaps I’d contract the Typhoid that the girl in my room was recovering from a week ago, and seeing as I drunk from her water bottle I was clearly going to have a Typhoid attack at 4000+m and therefore die. Or perhaps I would get food poisoning and they’d be no Alpacas available to come to my rescue and my death would be painful and drawn out. Or what if everyone was super fit and ran up the hills and I was left at the bottom and then they forgot I existed and carried on walking on to Machu Picchu and I had to create a life amongst the tribes and wear colourful clothes and walk through the mud to start my new career as a Llama farmer?! Either way, 2 days before my trek, these were the types of thoughts that were going through my head and I was starting to majorly panic and creep slowly into myself. It was therefore incredibly pleasant of an Argentinan girl to unknowingly come to my rescue by offering me her Argentinan tea to try (mental note to stop sipping from other people’s utensils) and we had a fun day shopping for numerous presents in markets. In fact I bought soooo many “Alpaca” jumpers that were blatantly not Alpaca, that I got rewarded by the owner of this whole sale store who shoved a load of traditional clothing on me and my friend and told us we could take a picture in it – I mean I would have appreciated a heavier discount but I looked FAB so I got over it.
The following day I woke up at 5am to check out and drunk as many cups of tea as I could to try and warm up – Cusco is not warm in the early hours – whilst trying to imagine they were actually cupfuls of tequila for Dutch courage. I was met by Percy, our tour guide, at 6am at the hostel and jumped into the van to meet our Chef.
“You said you have intolerances right?” Percy asks me.
“Erm yes, I can’t eat Gluten or Dairy .. and vegetarian food please if possible” I respond. Truth be told I’m not an actual REAL veggie – I do try to eat vegetarian as much as possible, due to the severe food poisoning I’ve had from other trips, but the thought of chicken being transported by horse throughout the day and being cooked on a hill during the night did not appeal to me.. nor did the option of eggs, so I apologised to Chef George who raised his eyebrows ever so slightly at the amount of meals he now had to try and conjure up for a vegetarian, gluten and dairy free eater.
I was joined by Maxim and Victor, two 20 year old guys from Belgium I’d met at our briefing the day before. I have to say, I couldn’t have been more lucky to have had two nicer, genuine, more patient guys to join me on my trip. In total there was only three of us, and despite the fact both of them smoked like chimneys, they were miles ahead of me and still waited for me to heave myself up the mountain, encouraging me everytime I told them I couldn’t go further and they should just leave me behind to be eaten by Llamas.
Our first day after getting collected, consisted of us going to an awesome local market to grab some breakfast and buy some snacks for the four day hike as we would be walking about 4 hours that first day and 7 or 8 the following.
After buying sweets for indigenous children we heard we’d be meeting, we set on our way, heading towards the entrance of Lares, where we could pay 10 soles to enter the “hot springs”. I’d decided that I wasn’t going to bother entering hot springs to get myself wet before a four hour hike, even IF they were sparkling, crystal clear waters. However, whoever decided to name them hot springs were most definitely high, drunk or taking the piss. For one, they were not springs, they looked like muddy coloured, elephant watering holes, just with no elephants and screaming children on their summer holidays and also people taking a genuine bath – you know the usual hot spring malarkey.
We set off on our four hour hike that would lead us to our camping base. I don’t even think I’ve mentioned how much I crammed into two days to arrive in Cusco to acclimatise before this trip, but after five minutes of steadily upwards walking I had to stop to catch my breath and try and breathe. I just absolutely could not get my air in at all, and we’d BARELY LEFT THE STARTING POINT. As we started on our trail again, Percy pointed out interesting plants, flowers and fruit littering our track which was actually really handy for me as I could secretly catch my breath by asking him what type of flower this or that was.
We carried on and it was warm; it was getting easier and we arrived after a few hours at our first break point for lunch. The horseman had brought our bags and George had already started cooking as I lay down on the blue sheet, closing my eyes and listening to the sounds of the waterfall right next to me. Lunch was absolutely delicious, and consisted of a starter, mains and drinks with dessert I found out was given in the evening after “happy hour” popcorn breaks. Once finished, I peed behind a rock and we set off for another two hours, passing and venturing through indigenous communities to arrive at our camping site.
One thing I’ve recognised is that due to my Anxiety, I seem to have been able to go from being able to hike an endless amount of time, not caring of how long the journey will take, to needing to know exactly what direction we’re heading and where the end point is so that I know where we’re going. Nothing really to interpret here, just an interesting trait I’ve found has changed – weird eh?
The people living in these communities dress colourfully, authentically and it felt like stepping into a different world. There also seemed to be a certain look to them, the clear, brown skin and red, rosy cheeks that seemed like they’d been scrubbed raw. “Why is that?” I asked Percy, he himself having ancestors from the Quecha tribe (also a name known well in the adventure sports world for a great, inexpensive, clothing company – possibly named after them? Who knows).
“It’s because of the cold”, he explained. “They have no hot water so wash their faces in the icy cold water – their faces are then caught by the wind, that’s why all their cheeks are so red”.
We arrive at the horseman’s house where the two boys and I would be camping in separate tents in his garden. I’ve always wanted to go camping and never had the opportunity of doing it so I was really excited. We ate snacks, another fab dinner – George should really open up his own veggie, gluten free, dairy free, Peruvian restaurant I swear – and we went to bed at 8pm after being told we’d be woken up at 6am. The following day we had 8 hours of hiking to get through so sleep was VERY important. So there I am, excited to camp, freezing cold and unaware that sleeping bags adjust to your body temperature meaning that if someone was to wear 8 layers of tops, a hat and gloves, and three layers of trousers in their sleeping bag – YOU WILL STILL BE COLD. But clammy cold. Like sweaty, freezing, clammy cold and you will be unable to sleep. Note to self – sleep naked and you’ll be fine.
The following day we were woken up at 6am – “SENORITA?!!” was shouted three times before I could actually make myself get up, and I drunk my coca tea (made from coca leaves to help you acclimatise better) and washed my face and manky feet in a bowl of hot water. We ate breakfast together, and started our up hill climb again, in the pouring rain. Starting off is always difficult, but you start to get into a routine of it – walk, walk, breathe, breathe, walk, secret shit behind a rock, walk, walk, get left behind, breathe, can’t breathe etc.
The altitude starts to get higher and higher, above 4,000m now and I’m finding it pretty tough. I mean, I’m DOING it, but it was a struggle. Every 20 minutes I was asking Percy how many more mountains we had to climb, where exactly Summit was and how much longer we had left. Then I realised I didn’t want to know we had another three hours of walking in mud and horse poo and just decided to follow the hill and practise all the different tenses of Spanish in my head. When we eventually started the uphill climb to the Summit peak, Percy had to physically pull me up, breathless, by the hand and arm and then we MADE IT. The highest point of the trek! And to join us was a little three year old girl and her father, who was busy knitting blankets out of Alpaca wool and watching his field of Llamas. I gave her sweets and grinned and grinned and grinned. I HAD MADE IT. IT’S ALL DOWNHILL FROM HERE! (Physically speaking, not emotionally).
We started the decline, and eventually arrived at a little hut to eat. I was so cold from the rain and the wind, that I put on a traditional poncho – and I must say, I looked dishy.
Following our lunch and our crude view of a Llama threesome happening out of our window (I was so disappointed with Leticia the Llama for having two men mount her so quickly one after the other, and wished she had just carried a little more dignity) we carried on for another three hours to our base camp for the night in an awesome, off the beaten path community. It must be said that I met only five tourists walking in the OPPOSITE direction to us this entire trip, where as on other tours you’re surrounded more by tourists then by real, secluded civilisation. We walked to the market where I bought four “Tuna” fruits for 1 sole – 25p – and found out they’re incredibly good for digestion whereas the boys bought a litre bottle of beer made locally. The market itself was bustling with colour and authenticity. I felt like a stranger in a foreign land, I was watching a community function away from the central cities I was used to and I kept thinking if only they knew what London was like, they’d be in total shock.
We returned to our tents, laid out in another person’s garden and I went to bed, this time a lot less clothed and hoped my body would be less clammy when we woke up. The following day was going to be a big one – we were finally getting closer to our Machu Picchu destination and decided instead of walking three more hours on a muddy trail, to take a taxi to a small city where we’d explore and then take a train to Agua Calientes – our final stop of rest before climbing Machu Picchu. Therefore, I needed solid rest and wellness for my impending trip. This is why, when I woke up unable to see out of one eye, I was mildly pissed off.
Am I dedicating an entire paragraph to my half shut, swollen eye? Yes. Yes I am.
For one? I couldn’t open it. In fact my face had felt slightly weird the day before, but having seen my friend Amy react badly to something a week before and had to get to a doctor for immediate antibiotics, Anxious Emily started getting slightly nervous. I mean, I’ve got naturally big eyes – I am used to probably seeing at least 10% more than the average human, and not 90% less. I also was starting to get worried I’d had an allergic reaction to the feathers I’d ripped from my sleeping bag, accidentally blowing everywhere in my tent, my hair and quite possibly my eye. But then I realised, there’s just nothing I can do about it now. I’d just have to wait and see a doctor somewhere and hope that my eye doesn’t swell up anymore or worst case scenario, pop out. It was also feeling a lot better the more aloe Vera I was using on it, and slowly the redness began to go down. I am now convinced that due to my face literally scarring with burn a few days later, I must have literally burnt my eyeball off or something. Who knew you could burn through wind and rain hiking eh?!
Enough about the eye.
We take a train to Agua Calientes and walk through the market to our HOTEL. That’s right, a hotel. An actual place with a double bed and a balcony and no hot water but that’s OKAY because it is not a sleeping bag or a tent. We stay overnight in this hotel before waking up at 4am to take a bus at 5am to Machu Picchu before starting our climb to the top and finding out about its history, before separating on different paths and completing the 2 hour bend around the mountain, eventually meeting again at the exit to finish our descent home, without our lovely tour guide.
Machu Picchu is EVERY BIT as beautiful as I’d seen or imagined. It’s made even more sensational by the fact you’ve climbed and pushed yourself over and above your limits to reach your final goal. I might have had to scream (in my head AND out aloud) that I couldn’t do the hikes and the mountain trecks; I couldn’t be bothered for the weather; I couldn’t breathe; my eye made me look half blind; I was cold; I was hungry and I was burnt but I DID IT – and I will take that feeling everywhere with me. I will take the feeling of knowing that my Grandad was watching me throughout it all and guiding me down the path, hand in hand with mine whilst letting the guys walk ahead of me, whilst I was behind, secretly crying small tears of joy for the views, the tranquility of the mountains, my achievement and my persistence.