Finding 'The Lost City'

Trip Start Jun 04, 2009
Trip End Sep 06, 2010

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Flag of Peru  , Sacred Valley,
Monday, July 13, 2009

Well this was it, our biggest event in South America the Lares Trek! We were going to find for ourselves the lost city of the Inca's…

For those who do not know already we were initially booked onto the Inca Trail which is a 4 day hike through the Andes following paths and passing ruins made by the Inca and finishing up at the magnificent Machu Picchu the only settlement not found and turned to ruin by the Spanish invasion.  It was something we were desperately looking forward to but as is the way with life sometimes the smallest of errors, and biggest of cover ups, on behalf of STA our travel agency meant that we were not able to do the actual 'famous’ Inca Trail.  Bookings have to be made at least 4 months in advance and we were left with no time to rectify the problem and rebook for new passes.  Needless to say we were disappointed when we found out but we were determined to stay positive and asses our options so we started to look into the Lares trek as an alternative hike

The Lares valley is near both the sacred valley and Machu Picchu and offers a very different experience to what we would have had on the Inca Trail.  On the Inca Trail 500 people can start the trek each day and all stay at the designated campsites en route, you can’t get away from the crowds of people.  On the Lares Trek we would be alone in the mountains apart from the few remote mountain villages we passed en route, it sounded a bit more like our style!  The main difference being that the Lares does not allow you to walk directly into Machu Picchu on the last day of the trek, instead we would have to get a train and bus in the early morning to then entrance.  All treks in Peru require you to be escorted by local guides, cooks and porters as a way of job generation and in particular the role of guide is considered very prestigious and takes 5 years university training to achieve.  For our Lares trek we had a group of 7 of us from our tour group (another girl also on this due to an STA admin error!) so we had one guide, Ray, and a cook and three porters who did everything around the campsites from putting up and taking down the tents to leaving individual bowls of hot soapy water out for us to have a clean after our long days.  Our bags were carried by horses for us and they and the porters set off without us to have camp set up before we arrived each day, on the Inca Trail peoples bags were carried by the porters themselves, up to 70kg each, and they had an entourage of about 20 people to look after them!

The night before our trek began we had a briefing from Ray at our hotel and instantly realised we were incredibly lucky to have such a nice guy who was as enthusiastic as if this was his first trip.  We were given bags that we could fill to 7kg which included our sleeping bags and these were going to be carried by the horses for us.  Ray then came back to pick us up at 6am the next morning for the drive to the Lares valley.  On route we stopped at a local market to buy some bread and coca leaves to give as gifts in the mountain villages we passed as these would be a treat to the people out there.  Before we got to the start of the trek we drove up to a high point above 4,000m for a ‘walking test’ so Ray could asses us at altitude and make sure we weren’t going to be incapable of breathing and walking up hill at the same time, I’m pleased to say that we passed!  Eventually we arrived at the start point and the bright sunshine and were eager to get some altitude underneath us to keep a bit cooler and the mosquitoes away.  On the first day we had spectacular views of the valley as we made our way up into the mountains above and we passed through our first village.  The village was quite a shock to the system when we arrived, about 20 houses and a small school, I hadn’t thought a great deal about the gifts we had bought but when we were spotted on the horizon and the children started running out of their homes and up the hill towards us I couldn’t help but get a lump in my throat.  They all wore traditional Andean dress and spoke a language called Quechuan which I speak even less of than Spanish so we weren’t able to communicate with them clearly but we got some lovely smiles from them when showing them the screen of our cameras and they could see the photos of themselves, later in the trip when we met some far more remote communities our guide explained some of the children had never seen a photo of themselves and giggled in fascination at their expressions, it was an unexpected highlight and something I’ll never forget.

We stopped for lunch a couple of hours later and our cooking group had gone ahead and set up a dining tent and wash bowls to freshen up.  We had a four course lunch of salad, soup, chicken and fruit followed by coca tea to help with the altitude (and digestion!).  Everything was washed up and packed away for us while we lay in the sun, I think it was supposed to be relaxing and enjoyable to have people do the hard work for you but for us we felt awkward sitting around like fat white gringos while the locals did all the hard work however we had to remind ourselves that this was for job generation and these people were proud of their work so it would have been more inappropriate to interfere.  Walking the next few hours with a full stomach all uphill was harder work but we made very good time and got to our campsite for the night ahead of schedule.  It was here that we could truly appreciate the isolation of just us and the mountains and I couldn’t imagine the 500 strong campsite that the people on the Inca Trail were experiencing instead.  After a few rounds of a card game that Ray taught us in which he always seemed to win and Steve always seemed to loose, we had both afternoon tea, freshly made popcorn with local corn and then a four course dinner before tucking ourselves up very tightly for the night.  We were camping at 4,200m and the weather here frequently drops to below zero at night so the porters kindly made us up some hot water bottles and we didn’t have much trouble sleeping after a long day’s hike and the thought of more to come tomorrow.

An early wake up call at 5am in the tents was cushioned by the porters delivering coca tea to us in the tents until we shook off the groggy morning and stuck our heads out to see that during the night the mist had swept in and enveloped the campsite.  It was beautiful in itself to see the mist swirling and allowing patches of sunlight through in brief shafts and it certainly helped to keep the temperature up during the night also.  We had breakfast while camp was dismantled and then started off to put 6 hours of hiking in before lunch which involved our two highest passes of the trek, one at 4,680m and one at 4,400m.  The first one nearly killed me!  I felt like I needed to be violently sick but at the same time I didn’t actually feel like I was going to be or could be.  I was shaking and having hot and cold flushes but plodded on with the group not falling too far behind.  Ray gave me some cotton wool with some red liquid on, I can’t remember what it was (as wasn’t exactly listening at the time) but after inhaling the fumes from it for a while I certainly started to feel better, it smelt like a strawberry ice pop and whether it was a placebo or not it got me to the top and from then on I was fine to pick up the pace.

Our highest pass was made more enjoyable by Ray’s pen knife which has an altimeter on it so we could prove our achievement (now Steve’s must-have-gadget of all time)!  It also distracted us from the fact that the mist still hadn’t cleared so we didn’t manage to get our views of the surrounding snow capped mountains and glaciers.  Not long after the high pass though a dramatic gap in the mist showed us a beautiful lake below us and it gently began to snow.  It was very beautiful and really perked me up so the second high pass caused me a lot less stress.

The rest of the day took us to very remote communities hours walk away from any roads other than small dirt tracks or other civilization.  These people live very traditional lives and it was a pleasure to be welcomed through the village.  Often we would find the children over an hour away from their villages looking after herds of llama and alpaca on their own.  One time we saw two figures on the horizon two little boys who I would guess where no older than 3 and 7 and when we got closer we could see that the older boy had a tiny baby strapped to his back also.  They were very appreciative of the bread we gave them and I wish we could have given more, I’ll always think of them out in the cold before I ever complain about being at work again.

The second campsite was lower at just over 3,000m so we had a warm night and another good feed before our final day walking along an original Inca pathway up to some very rarely visited Inca ruins which we explored all to ourselves, a very rare thing considering the massive tourist draw of all the surrounding ruins in the more easily accessible areas.  The final walk took us past beautiful Inca terraces until we arrived at Ollytantabo, where we visited on the Sacred Valley previously.  From here we took, what I was told was, a very scenic train to Aguas Calientes the town closest to Machu Picchu.  Unfortunately I fell asleep the second I sat down!  We had an early night staying here in a hotel and then were up at 4.30am to get one of the first buses to Machu Picchu in the morning.  There is always a big rush to get there first and the rules have recently been changed so that buses can arrive before the hikers on the Inca trail get there, which would have annoyed me a great deal if we were on that trail but as it happens it turned out to be in our favor.  The reason being is that only 500 people per day are allowed to climb Huayna Picchu, the mountain at the back of Machu Picchu for the views over the site and only the first people who arrive will get to put their names down for it.  We got lucky!  We were within the last 20 people who got to do it that day.

It only took 35 minutes to reach the peak but it was a grueling climb on slippery wet steep stairs with gusts of winds and a steep drop off but at the top we were rewarded with….clouds!  We sat at the top for twenty minutes and eventually our patience was rewarded and gaps in the cloud mysteriously showed us where the lost city of the Inca’s was beneath us in true Indiana Jones style splendor, it was chilling and beautiful and I think a far better way than on a clear day, it wouldn’t have been a ‘lost city’ if it was easy to find after all!

After we made our way back down we had a guided tour of the not-so-ruined- ruins and learnt a lot more again about Inca tradition and ways of life.  Certainly the best place to be was ‘postcard corner’ where all the famous views are taken from and we were lucky the clouds cleared for us here to show Huayna Picchu in the background for us.  Unfortunately those on the Inca trail didn’t arrive in time to climb Huayna Picchu and left before the clouds parted so I think in the end we got to see the best of it given the route we took.

It was such a shame not being able to do the official trail but what we had instead was a completely different experience that we wouldn’t have wanted to miss.  Well done for getting this far if you are still with me, next few days are in Cusco still to recover and then on to Colca Canyon, the deepest in the world! 

Lots of Love

Amy and Snow-peak Steve
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