September 22, 2017

Running Around the World: Machu Picchu

The Lares Trek

When embarking to the most heavily visited tourist attraction in Peru – Machu Picchu – there are three different ways of getting there. By far the most popular is the four day Inca Trek which cumulates with an early decent on the final day through the Sun Gate which reveals sunrise capped Machu Picchu.

With only 500 permits given by the government per day for the Inca Trek, some like myself have to settle for the lesser trodden path of the Lares Trek. But settling for the Lares Trek would be far from the case and I consider myself lucky to have experienced what it offers.

Rather than trekking to Machu Picchu itself, the Lares Trek takes a more elevated route over three days of walking, ending in a small town called Ollantaytambo before taking the bus to Machu Picchu itself the next day.

The entirety of the Lares Trek was undoubtedly one of the most special experiences of the whole trip to date. Our guide, Edison, was knowledgeable about anything and everything that we threw at him. Being from Cusco itself, Edison has watched his hometown transform into a quiet city into a bustling tourist attraction, whilst also retaining its colonial nature.

Starting here in Cusco, our initial altitude was 3,400m, from which we would climb over the first day and a half to nearly 5,000m. The trekking was relaxed and never a race (the 44km Inca Trek record is 3 hours 30 minutes) and any gaps which opened up in the group were quickly bridged. Terrain was rugged and damp but never an issue across the first day which culminated at the land of a native family who doubled as additional guides and chefs.

The soggy evening was made comfortable by the welcoming family who were nervous, yet brave to interact with us ‘Gringos.’ The five of us on the trek found this one of the nicest experiences of all as the usually shy porters who accompanied the trek by carrying the equipment, spoke openly and were excited to find out more about how the outside, globalised world lived.

Not only did the porters carry the equipment and some of the load for those trekking, but also provided incredible, hand made food. The traditional soups of Peru were served a plenty, ranging from quinoa to chicken and noodles. For me, this new cuisine – not only on the Lares Trek but throughout Peru – was a certain highlight, being a satisfying addition to my experience of Peruvian culture.

As we continued to climb higher over the second day, the altitude became a noticeable factor leading to a member of our group having to have oxygen a number of times. A highly recommended cure for altitude sickness however is the Cocoa leaf.

Cocoa leaves – the vital ingredient and source of Cocaine (banned by the UN) – are available in both Peru and Columbia under heavy governmental regulations. The naturally grown plant can only be suitably found at altitude and contains high levels of Calcium along with properties to stimulate greater red blood cell production. Therefore, Cocoa leaves are a great remedy for altitude sickness and are sold in every corner in Peru.

Having successfully reached the summit, hiking downhill through the ‘Sacred Valley’ was a greatly emphatic reward to our hard climbing. Here we partook in the traditional prayer to the Quechuan goddess of ‘Pachamama,’ who is still worshipped in this Peruvian region.

The short final day hike was a wonderful conclusion to our journey from Lares to Ollantaytambo. Over the course of the day we were incredibly lucky to meet and interact with local, colonial families who were ecstatic when we provided never before seen bubbles.

This brief experience of meeting Quechuan locals was yet another eye opening and special encounter, giving a greater perspective to this insular lifestyle.

As our journey culminated towards Ollantaytambo and Aguas Calientes, Edison further educated us on the changes brought upon South America and the Quechuan empire which once incorporated Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru and Columbia. During the 16th century, the Spanish invaded, and despite all the valuable golds handed over in turn for peace, the Spanish took control of the people and land, splitting South America into its now well defined regions.


Machu Picchu

The only thing left was the visit to Machu Picchu itself. Having risen early at 4AM, we caught the bus, fully packed with eager tourists, up the mountain in time for the sun to rise over the ‘Big Mountain’ which is the direct translation from Quechuan to English for Machu Picchu.

Being one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, Machu Picchu certainly didn’t disappoint; showered in sun and utterly cloud-less upon arrival, we were treated to spectacular, sweeping views of the Inca ruins which were undiscovered by the Spanish due to their altitude.

It was not until 1911 that American archaeologist/ explorer Hiram Bingham discovered the lost city which would become probably the largest and most famous tourist attraction in South America. The detailed use of rocks without mortar to the carefully crafted tombs from both man made and natural rock make this site every bit as extraordinary as expressed by those who visit.

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