Sep 26, 2012

Trekking to Machu Picchu

Some moments that we experience and then file away in our memories become lost, or faded. Certain others, though, remain crisp and clear, laminated, easily accessible. These are the important ones, our defining moments. I can say with near certainty that watching the sun rise over Machu Picchu will be one of my unforgettable moments.  

Sunrise at Machu Picchu, Peru
But before that sunrise, there was a journey through the mountains. We set out on the Lares trek with Alpaca Expeditions last Monday morning, with 3 days of high-altitude trekking, sub-zero camping and a whole lot of unknown between us and the famous Inka ruins.

Day one started with a 3 hour drive from Cusco to the village of Lares with our crew, including porters Jean and Ilario, cook Mario, guide Raul and our 3 Aussie trekking mates Mark, Kylie and Nicole (it was, as most are in Peru, a cozy ride). Before we started hiking they lulled us into a false sense of security with a two-hour dip in the natural hot springs.
lovely Lares hot springs
After our soak, we started out into the hills. The first section was all dry, rolling hills dotted with tiny villages and grazing sheep and alpacas.
shirts vs. sheeps
alpacas galore
We broke for lunch and got our first sign that we'd picked an amazing company - waiting for us was a three-course lunch, tea and a shady spot for a siesta. This would be par for the course for the rest of the trek with Alpaca Expeditions.

Alpaca's gourmet mess hall
After lunch things got a bit tougher, as we headed up to 3800 metres above sea level to the village of Wakawasi where we'd be spending our first night. As we got higher, the views got better and better.

Sunshine & llamas. What more do you need?
 Wakawasi is a small village perched in a valley just above the point where you can grow anything but potatoes. Residents still live a fairly traditional life, from clothing to farming to family structure and homes. they allow trekkers to camp in the village for a small fee. We'd brought gifts for the kids, and our guide Raul spread the word that we'd be giving out hot chocolate and presents later that night. I have never seen more excited children in my life.
Sean handing out bread to the kids in Wakawasi
We handed out pencil crayons, notebooks and bread (a luxury at an altitude where wheat won't grow). Probably the sweetest thing I've ever seen was one tiny girl who collected the bread in her skirts so that she could share it with her mom later. Cliché alert: hanging out with these kids gave me a serious dose of perspective.

Our day 1 campsite with village home behind
We didn't sleep much that night, as the temperature dipped below zero and our campsite was lucky enough to play host to the royal rumble of stray dogs all night. But regardless, we were up at 6am for breakfast (another epic feast) and to take a quick tour of one of the local family's homes. The typical family home is a single-room, clay brick and thatch or tin roof building. Cooking, sleeping and socializing all happen in the same room, warmed by a wood/llama dung stove. And don't forget the squeaky roommates/future meals, the family guinea pigs. Most of the men in the town nowadays work as porters on various treks, while the women are responsible for the home, the kids, the farming and the livestock. Again: major perspective adjustment.

Me, wondering if I'm going to make it
Day 2 was the toughest day of hiking, as we set our sights on the peak, which sits at a cool 4600 metres above sea level. it was just us and the mountains, save for a couple of local farmers and a whole bunch of llamas and sheep.

My new pals
We reached the peak by noon, feeling pretty proud of ourselves. Sean built a snowman.

4,600 metres and a lot of cursing later
After another gourmet meal from chef Mario at our lakeside lunch site, it was an easy couple of hours downhill to our camping spot for the second night, where I would survive being the coldest I've probably ever been. At one point, I was wearing 8 layers of clothing. Even the delicious jug of macha tea (aka spiced fruit tea spiked with a whole bottle of rum - delicious) couldn't save me. The stars were almost distracting enough though - it's hard to put into words what the sky looks like at night miles away from civilization at 4,300 meters above sea level.

Luckily by the morning the bone-chilling wind had died off, and we crawled out of our ice-encrusted tents to another gorgeous sunny day, and the easiest day of hiking yet: all downhill, back to the Sacred Valley and civilization.

starting our descent
As we descended, the temperature warmed and we started seeing more trees, as Raul educated us in the history of the Inkas and the Spanish invasion. As we got closer to the town and our lunch, the path turned into a stream. But, as Raul was so fond of saying to us whiny gringos, "it's all part of the experience".

Trekking down a path/stream, being as graceful as ever.
Our final lunch was probably my favourite meal on the trek. We shared the yard with adorable little kids, kittens, dogs and a chicken that looked like it had a toupee - but the real highlight was the soccer pitch. This led to a gringos vs. porters match, in which I managed to score 2 goals before almost collapsing from running at 3,000 metres above sea level after a 3 day hike. Awesome afternoon.

Lunch in the Peruvian countryside
Gringos and porters
We all piled back into the van for the drive to Ollentaytambo, where we'd catch the train to Machu Picchu. We had just enough time to slip into a tiny little nook to try chicha (homemade corn alcohol, fermented in giant tubs by the locals), which was actually quite tasty (like low-alcohol beer with a strange fizz to it) and then grab a hard-earned cerveza on a patio.

after 3 days, possibly the tastiest beer of all time
Then it was onto the train for Aguas Calientes (aka Machu Picchu base camp) for a night in a hotel, which seemed like heaven on earth after our 2 frozen nights in tents.

Now, finally, we can talk about that sunrise.

Getting up at 4:30am to catch one of the first buses up the hill was definitely worth it - Machu Picchu is busier than Disneyland and we were able to snap a few shots of the empty ruins before the hoardes descended.

See that big peak behind the ruins? That's Waynapicchu. Sean and I decided to climb it...and it's just as steep as it looks. But climbing up hip-height stairs, clinging to the side of a mountain, for 45 minutes is worth it when you get a view like this:

Neither of us is scared of heighs, but at times on Waynapicchu you're literally standing on the edge of a precipice, without a railing or supervision of any kind in sight. It's pretty intense... and totally amazing.

We clambered around for about an hour taking photos, clearly very excited about our current location.

It's an extra $15 USD to climb Waynapiccha, and worth every penny. You have to buy a pass in advance though, as they sell out weeks early.

After our hike/flirtation with death, our most awesome guide Raul gave us a personal tour of the ruins. By this time, though, it was midday and busier than Costco on a Saturday, so we didn't spend as much time as we might have. Those first few quiet moments in the morning really were the highlight.

With the best guide of all time, Raul
Machu Picchu is busy for a reason - it's absolutely breathtaking (and you don't have to trek, an easy bus and train ride will get you there from Cusco). It's worth a spot near the top of anyone's bucket list, and I'm so glad I was able to cross it off mine.


  1. Wow Leah!!-it looks like an amazing trip and you have a real gift with your writing! Awesome photos too!

  2. Awesome!!!!! And I can only imagine how crazy that night sky would have been. Looks like you guys had a gorgeous eye opening time!

  3. That sounds amazing! Sleeping in cold tents is on my list on NOTS but seeing ancient ruins without tons of other people is a HOT!

  4. Incredible trip Leah!!! Breathtaking pictures.