I don’t exactly remember how my obsession with mountaineering books started. It was one of those things that slowly creep up on you. Before I knew it I had read a ton of them. I’m aware of the fact that I’m not physically capable of being an actual mountaineer, and let’s be honest, isn’t it enough to have one hobby where you frequently suffer (sailing)?
However, you don’t have to be a climber to go spend some time in the mountains. Somehow the dream of doing the Mount Everest base camp hike manifested itself within me. As if it was meant to be we met Molly, Baxter and Kala the dog this summer in La Coruna. Molly and Baxter had done that trek for their honeymoon. Baxter decided to go back and climb Mount Everest! I was in awe and even more excited and determined than before. Those 3 are pretty cool, by the way, check out their blog:
Since I have zero experience in the mountains we decided to start off easy and, at the same time, kick another item off the bucket list: Machu Picchu. Now there are different options on hiking there. Of course there’s the Inka trail, but 500 (!!!) people walk that trail EVERY DAY! Can you imagine? That sounded just awful. The Salkantay trail sounded a bit too advanced for little beginner me, so we chose the Lares trek.
The Lares trek is very remote. It leads through two villages deep in the mountains, where you have the chance to meet the locals and experience how they live. That sounded right up our alley.
We decided to book the 4 day/3 night tour with Alpaca Expeditions out of Cusco. The choice was somewhat random. There are roughly a million tour operators in Cusco. Alpaca Expeditions had some good reviews, and when I sent an inquiry I got an answer within a few hours. Good communication is an important point!
Since we did this as part of an extended vacation there was a lot of traveling involved and we arrived in Cusco only the afternoon before we started the trek. It is recommended that you arrive 2 days early to acclimatize, but it was hard to fit all the pieces of the trip together as it was, and all of it last minute as usual, so much acclimatization wasn’t in the cards. We spent the day before in Quito though, so that helped.
Anyway, we arrived in Cusco after a rather dramatic almost plane crash in Lima and were happy we made it there in one piece.
That evening we had a briefing at Alpaca Expeditions. First we were told that we were going to be in a group of 6 total. That seemed like a fine group size. After a few minutes (and some confusion) it turned out that the other 4 people had booked a private tour and weren’t going to be with us. Meaning? We also got a private tour!
The details here are funny. The other 4 people were Canadian family, father, mother, a 13 year old girl and an 11 year old boy. They had had a travel agent book all of it for them, since they had also been traveling for a while and all over the place. The travel agent booked the private tour and they had no idea. We ended up meeting anyway, because we were going the same route at the same time, and even though all of us tried to convince our teams that we could just go together we didn’t get to.
The next morning our guide Manuel picked us up at the hotel bright and early at 5 am. We drove through the Sacred Valley to the Lares Hot Spings, where we got to take a dip and had breakfast.
Alpaca Expeditions indicated on their website that since you were going to meet the locals it would be a good idea to bring some gifts along – for example school supplies for the children. If you ever get the chance to ask TJ about the story with the tooth brushes in the San Blas Islands please do so, and then you’ll know that we immediately knew school supplies weren’t a good idea. Instead we asked our trusty guide Manuel for recommendations.
So we stopped at a local market and bought a bunch of little round breads, oranges, coca leaves, cute little hair ties and ginormous over sized safety pins.
Back in the van and off we went to finally start the trek. The first stretch wasn’t too far, maybe 2 hours or so and then we stopped for lunch. The scenery was already stunning, and I had a slight altitude headache. I drank tons of water and coca tea and it went away. I also had a power nap after lunch on a plastic tarp in the sun.
Off we went again, and now the trail started ascending, not too gently.
After another maybe 3 hours we arrived at our campsite just over 4000 meters. It was a stunning site at a lake. Our team had been ahead of us and had already put up our tent. I’m not sure why, but the entrance was about 3 feet from the edge to a good drop down to the lake. I was idly wondering if I’d just break an arm or maybe even my neck if I got up at night to pee and forgot about it.
(Spoiler alert: nobody fell into the lake).
The campsite was right by a small village. Two little girls were eyeballing us. The locals there speak the old Inka languages and mostly very little Spanish. Manuel grew up in the mountains and is thus familiar with those languages. He called the girls over and we gave them bread and oranges. Here we found out why Manuel made those choices for us, too. Up there the locals have a little bit of agriculture, but they mostly grow potatoes, so they mostly eat potatoes. The bread and oranges were a welcome sight.
Before dinner Manuel took us to visit one lady in her house. The kitchen and the living/bedroom were two separate houses. We were invited into the kitchen, and Manuel and the lady went right to work, trying to stuff TJ into a traditional outfit. I had a good laugh, until it was my turn, and then TJ was the one laughing. All the while we were watched suspiciously by a bunch of guinea pigs. For those of you who don’t know, they eat guinea pigs in Peru. We were wondering if they got to live in the kitchen so that one could be grabbed and roasted at random when hungry? Manuel grabbed one, and handed it to TJ saying ‘Look, this one is friendly’. The guinea pigs looked rather horrified, and TJ wasn’t quite sure what he was supposed to do with the poor thing.
We each took a Diamox for altitude sickness before bed, just in case. I slept really well, opposed to the first night in Cusco where I woke up gasping for air.
The next day the real fun began. Before we took off Manuel announced a team meeting. We all stood in a circle, feeling slightly awkward, and he had the guys introduce themselves to us. TJ then introduced us to them in Spanish. They didn’t speak any English. They seemed to appreciate that. I have the sinking feeling that not everyone makes an effort to connect with members of their team aside from the guide.
We started our ascend to Condor Pass after breakfast around 7 am. Within 3 hours we hiked from just over 4000 meters to 4680. It was steep and challenging, and I loved every minute of it. It wouldn’t be fun without at least a little bit of suffering now would it?
The scenery was stunning. The weather not so much. We had everything from rain to snow and hail and finally a little bit of sunshine revealed some stunning glaciers.
At about 4500 meters I started to feel my fingers going numb, then my arm, my cheeks. I suppose that was due to altitude sickness, too.
On the summit we were joined by the Canadian family and their team (the teams included one master chef, one assistant chef, one porter and the guide). We celebrated with hot coca tea and an assisted head stand.
On the descend we all walked at our own pace, and we spend some time with the Canadians which was nice. After another 3 hours we arrived at our camp site. We were all pretty tired.
After a short rest Manuel took us into the village to say hello to the villagers. We brought gifts and were well received everywhere. It was interesting to see how the people live there. Its’ a very simple life. In the first village Manuel told us they had gotten electricity just 3 years prior. Meaning they have light in the evenings, but they were still cooking on a fire.
During that night I woke up because it was raining. I was somewhat distraught because I didn’t want to have to hike in the rain the next day. But in the morning it was still raining. We were, however, greeted by a fine white dusting on the surrounding mountains which was beautiful.
The rain conveniently stopped right after breakfast. Breakfast that morning started with a cake. Not any cake, no, a seriously fancy cake that Adolfo, our fine master chef, had just spent 2 hours cooking on a camping stove. I was impressed. That was a serious piece of art, that cake.
With a very full belly we took off for the last stretch. Manuel must have figured we had graduated from hiking school for beginners and moved right along. The weather was inconsistent and we had some rain, but never for long and not too much. The 3 hour hike down to the end point was interesting. The change in vegetation and landscape was rapid. I learned that Peru has 80 micro climate zones!
We got to the site of our last meal with the team before the team arrived. We were all proud of ourselves and decided that meant we were finally acclimatized. Since we had been too fast and had some time to kill Manuel wanted to take us for a walk. Right around the corner we bumped into our mini van which was just arriving. Instead of a walk we went for a ride.
It was shocking to be back in civilization. I had relished the quiet time in the mountains. I really enjoyed being around the team, too. Everybody was just so easy going and relaxed. I made sure I figured out how to say to Adolfo in Spanish that I was extremely impressed by his superior cooking skills, too. The food was always good and there were tons of it. We had a nagging suspicion that they made extra large amounts to be able to give the leftovers away to the village people, but really, that made us love them even more.
Our first stop in civilization was a little fruit stand by the side of the road. We sampled some strange fruit I’ve never had before. Never even heard of before! Also some strange looking pink drink which was quite tasty. Manuel insisted on us standing behind the fruit stand to take a picture of us. The fruit stand lady was highly amused.
Then we went to an Inka museum, which was interesting, well, if you like museums.
Then we rushed back to the camp site to not be late for Adolfo’s lunch.
I don’t think we ate any guinea pig, by the way. At least I hope not.
After lunch we climbed back into the mini van, off to see the salt panes. When we got close the gentleman at the entrance informed us that it would indeed be a very bad idea to drive down the muddy hill after all that rain. Manuel decided we could take ‘a little walk’. To take a short cut he had us climb down a hill side that was so steep that I thought one wrong step and I’d fall down the hill and be dead. TJ laughed at me when I told him, but it was pretty steep.
The salt panes were way cool. We bought some souvenirs, got a quick tour and then, keeping the pattern, got to take the back entrance which meant balancing on the edge of the salt panes (‘just stretch your hands out, no problemo’, Manuel said). We walked by some locals that looked us up and down, laughed and told Manuel we wouldn’t be able to make it. I’m happy to report that we did indeed make it, without any major incident. Or minor ones, as a matter of fact.
After the ‘little’ 45 minute walk to the salt panes we then got to go on another ‘little’ walk down to the village where our trusty mini van was waiting. No complaints, but we were definitely a bit sore from the day before.
The mini van took us to Ollantaytambo. We took a nice break at a restaurant with hot food and free wifi (gasp) and then hopped on the train to Aguas Calientes.
That was one hell of a train. If you have ever taken a train in Germany, you will understand why I was impressed with this one. First of all, there were ticket and passport controls at the door to the train car. There was assigned seating (at no extra charge). Once we got going we got free drinks and cookies! Never mind the fact that the train was on time, unlike the German ones half the time…
We got to Aguas Calientes late, walked to the hotel, took a real shower and passed out. The next morning we had to get up super early and meet Manuel in the lobby with all our stuff, which we would leave with the hotel for safe keeping. We had a quick breakfast while Manuel told us if we got to the bus station at 5 am we would most likely be at Machu Pichhu woth the first 1000 people. Yep, really. 1000. Horrible.
After the time in the mountains the crowd at Machu Picchu was overwhelming. Manuel gave us a two hour tour, then we were free to roam around for a while, and meet him for lunch back in Aguas Calientes.
What can I say. It was cool, but the grand part of this trip, the amazing, wonderful, ass-kicking, overwhelming one was the day when we hiked up to Condor Pass.
I can see many more mountains in my future.