Trekking to Machu Picchu | Lares Trek Days 1 & 2

10 August 2015

While preparing for my 4-day/3-night Lares Trek with Alpaca Expeditions, I really had no idea what to expect. We selected July 3, 2015 - July 6, 2015 as our trekking dates because we knew it would be winter in the Andes, which typically means less rain. Little did we know that Mama Pacha, or Mother Nature, had different plans in store for us!

TREKKING ORIENTATION

At 6:00pm the night before our trek, my four friends and I headed to Alpaca's offices for orientation. Here, we met our guide Cesar and our trekking companions, a lovely couple from London. Our guide gave us the low-down on what to expect in the Andes, and we were also given a few tips on what type of gear to pack, which had me stressing. I was counting on warmer weather for the trek, but the Andes are unpredictable. Immediately after the orientation was over, we rushed out to pick up a few last minute things, and I grabbed a knock-off waterproof, insulated The North Face jacket, which I would come to be extremely fond of in less than 48 hours.


RISE AND SHINE
Our first day kicked off with an early wake up call, and by 5AM, we were picked up from Ecopackers Hostel and headed out on our adventure! We first drove about an hour to a little village outside of Cusco where our chef picked up supplies to make our meals. After about 30 minutes, we were on our way again! 

We arrived at the trailhead around 7:30AM where we were introduced to our Green Machine team. For the journey, we would be accompanied by our tour guide, a chef and sous chef, a horseman and three porters. We were treated to a magnificent breakfast of scrambled eggs, bread and jam, and fruit salad topped with sweetened condensed milk. I was ecstatic to learn that a jar of chocolate Milo would be joining us on this adventure! My favorite foreign treat!



ATTACK OF THE WILD CANINES
We set out on a gradual climb for about 1.5 hours along a thick, flowing stream, hitting a couple of steep patches that were intense but doable. I was surprised at how thin the path was -- perhaps no wider than my two feet pressed next to each other. But the landscape was breathtaking, so I quickly forgot about it. About 2.5 hours into the day, I needed to take a pee break and patiently waited for my group to clear the hill above me so I could squat next to a row of stones. Just as I was finishing, I could hear a pack of wild dogs barking in the distance, the sound growing louder and louder. I careened around to see where the ruckus was coming from, and about five medium-sized dogs were sprinting down the hill toward me. I had hardly pulled up my pants before I grabbed my belongings and sprinted toward my group, the dogs snarling and growling at my ankles. Yikes! Luckily these pooches were all bark and no bite, but note to self: don't pee in someone else's territory. Lolz.

Not long after my run-in with the canines, we reached one of the most challenging parts of the day, ascending steep rocky terrain for about 35 minutes. After that, it was mostly downhill until we stopped at another small village where we met up with the rest of our team. They greeted us with wide smiles, holding trout in their hands and tricking us into thinking they caught our lunch bare handed from the nearby stream! So silly. They set up a tent and table for us, and to my surprise, we even had a westernized toilet! Lunch started off with mango ceviche and pumpkin soup, followed by a huge spread of lightly breaded trout, avocados with veggies, salad and more. I couldn't believe they could cook all sorts of gourmet style foods at a camp site. They totally spoiled us. We had a quick siesta with menthol tea that our guide picked from the trail and then headed off again. 




The last leg of the day was tough for me. We climbed steeply uphill for nearly two hours! Along the way, we trekked past a huge waterfall that reminded me of the ones I had seen in Iceland. Its size was magnificent, and it was quite beautiful to admire as we hiked up and up and up. 

MAKING CAMP FOR THE NIGHT
Finally, we reached our campsite! I grabbed my duffel bag and flopped face-first onto my sleeping bag, feeling proud of my accomplishments. After a short rest, we joined the group for a happy hour of tea and Milo with popcorn and wontons filled with cheese, followed by another huge dinner spread of veggie soup, chicken, pasta, jungle potatoes, and veggies! Yum! By 7:30PM, we were off to our tents for bedtime, and I was ready for it. The porters brought us hot water pads for our sleeping bags, and thanks to the thick alpaca blanket they laid out in our tent, we drifted off to sleep, toasty warm. What excellent service!


CHRISTMAS IN JULY
At about 6AM, we had our wake up call for what was to be the hardest day of our trek. Our amazing team of porters brought warm mugs of coca tea to our tents, and we dressed for breakfast. Not a bad way to start the day! I unzipped our tent and climbed out into some kind of winter wonderland. No kidding! I thought for a moment that perhaps I was still dreaming. To our astonishment, it had snowed heavily while we slept, with about three inches sticking. Happy Fourth of July, America!

Breakfast was a mouthwatering spread of quinoa porridge, pancakes with papaya and bread with jam. Unfortunately, I was surprised to find that I had completely lost my appetite. I couldn't even get a pancake down. We decided to dress as warmly as possible and head out on our trek. 

About 20 minutes into our hike, something felt off. The air was really thin, and I started to feel slightly dizzy. I called out to our guide just before succumbing to overwhelming light-headedness, and I could feel my body swaying without my control. My friends held me up while I took puffs from my inhaler, ate some chocolate and tried to catch my breath. I was feeling a little better, but still kind of wobbly. We pressed on through the snow. Eventually I had to take the emergency horse taxi on and off (how embarrassing), but the snow made it challenging for the horses to pass the steep, rocky terrain. Mama Pacha had planned a rough day for us.


A TOUGH CALL TO MAKE
We trekked for about 2.5 hours and made it halfway to Condor Pass, the highest point of the whole trek. If we could only keep this up for just another couple of hours, it would be all down hill. I was in pretty rough shape, but my guide Cesar was there helping me along the way, encouraging me to take a few steps and rest. At one point while I was resting, it suddenly felt like the air was ripped from my lungs! I keeled over, hyperventilating, and our chef and a porter had to hold me up and try to calm me down again. My vision went blurry, but I could feel a cold, rubber mask being pressed over my mouth and nose, and the chef made deep breathing noises, indicating for me to do the same. After about five minutes on the oxygen tank, I could feel the blood coming back to my cheeks. I know I should have been scared, but I was surprisingly calm. Perhaps it was the awesome crew with me, and that I knew they had my safety in mind. Perhaps I had mentally prepared for this challenge enough to not let it phase me.

Cesar said it was time to have a discussion about what would happen next. The porters that had run ahead of us had radioed back that the horses wouldn't be able to make it down past Condor Pass, and so we all had to turn back. 




What seemed to us to be a fluke snowstorm was actually quite grave for the people of the Andes. This amount of snow was to be expected in this region, but not for another three months. Cesar warned us of global warming and the danger the mountain people now faced due to the early arrival of snow. We were alarmed and deeply saddened to learn that their llamas and alpacas would likely die because they didn't have the proper amount of time to prepare. I can't imagine what it must be like to live so high in those mountains.

PRAYERS TO PACHA MAMA

Dismayed, we hiked back down toward our first campsite, but I was thankful that we had made the decision to go back. Who knows what would have happened had we kept trying to trek to Condor Pass. Along the way, we stopped at a small glacial lake to have a ceremony and make an offering to Mama Pacha, asking her for good health and better weather. We all stood in a line, linking arms, holding three coca leaves in our right hands with our eyes closed, trying our best to become one with the landscape around us. Cesar and Henry, the guide of the other group that was trekking alongside us, spoke a sort of prayer in Quechua, their native tongue, and then Cesar played a lovely song on his flute behind us. We opened our eyes and each wandered off to make our offering and wishes to Pacha Mama. I can't describe how humbled and wrought with emotion I felt. I was honored that Cesar and 

Henry had shared this intimate part of their culture with us. It was a moment I won't forget.  
We headed back to our lunch site from the day prior, passing our first campsite along the way. My stomach infection, the culprit of my loss of appetite, was setting in. I had eaten something that didn't sit well with me before the trek, and it was finally catching up to me, causing me to feel faint twice earlier that day. I felt like I had come down with the flu, but my only option was to keep walking. I mustered up all of the strength I could, and mentally focused on the overwhelming beauty of the Andes around me to push myself through. By the time I got to the lunch site, I collapsed on the tarp in the fetal position. I could hardly eat lunch while everyone else feasted. I was miserable, but I was determined to keep my spirits high. 


THE JOURNEY TO OUR NEXT CAMPSITE
Cesar told us that we would be making camp at the hot springs that we were originally supposed to visit on day three, but it was about a four hour hike away. We could either hike down to the main road for about 2 hours and take a taxi, or make the trip. Luckily for me, everyone agreed to try to hail a taxi, which I soon came to learn actually meant we would be hitch hiking. Can't say I'd ever hitch hiked in a foreign country before, but there's a first for everything! We set out again, and feeling sick, I started to lag behind. To my embarrassment, my team had missed a ride because it had taken too long for me to catch up with them. Thankfully, everyone was kind about it!

We pressed on, but I didn't have enough energy to keep up, and I started to get a little worried. I was so far behind the group that I wouldn't be able to let anyone know if I felt too sick to continue. I made up my mind that that wasn't an option for me, though looking back, I don't think I had any other choices. When we reached a clearing, I finally caught up with a few of my friends and asked them to shout to Cesar that I needed to go to the bathroom, as I had been holding it for about an hour for fear that I would lose everyone. When I came out of the bushes, Cesar told me that if we came across a car that couldn't take all of us, I could get in by myself to get to the hot springs. Um, no! There was no way I was getting into a car full of strangers who may or may not speak English, and then be sent off to find some destination that I'd never even know if it was correct. No chance that was happening. I told him I would do my best to keep up instead, and I tried to quicken my pace. 

Note: I reached out to Alpaca Expeditions after our trek to inform them of this part of my experience, and the owner of the company assured me that he felt a mistake had been made here. Addressing my concern, he had scheduled a conversation with all guides about making sure every traveler is in sight at all times, no matter the circumstances. I was impressed by his level of sincerity and appreciated the kind apology.

HITCH HIKING THROUGH PERU
We hiked along the road for another hour or so, and I worked hard to keep up with the group. We stopped to see a little tuk-tuk car approaching, and half-jokingly got on our knees to beg it to stop for us. To our surprise, it was our group of porters and horsemen heading to the hot springs! They chuckled as they zoomed past us, but who were we kidding. Eleven people wouldn't have fit on that tiny thing anyway! After another 2 hours of hitchhiking with no luck, Cesar pulled us together. The walk to the hot springs would be another hour, and half of it would be uphill. He had heard from our team back at the hot springs that a driver was on the way to get us, and he wanted to send me alone to go pick up the other group while everyone else walked on. Now I could see that Cesar sincerely was worried about me and really did have my best interests in mind, but I still didn't feel comfortable going it alone. Lucky for me, before I could even ask for a buddy, the driver showed up and said he would take all of us first! Whew!



Finally, we arrived at the campsite at the hot springs, which was a little more like a spa than natural springs, similar to the ones found in Costa Rica. I was disappointed to learn that in addition to the driver we just paid, we would also need to pay for our campsite out of pocket. Although not much, these were expenses we weren't accounting for on top of the already hefty price tag of the tour. Heed my advice and make sure to carry extra cash, just in case.

Unfortunately, I was too exhausted to take a dip with the rest of the group, but the hot springs did look incredibly appealing! Instead, I passed out in my tent until dinnertime. After our meal, Cesar brought out two bottles of Pisco, the traditional Peruvian liquor, and mixed it with some kind of fruit juice. I didn't try it due to my stomach being in knots, but my friends happily remarked that it tasted a bit like mulled wine and went down really smoothly. It was a lovely way to end the day, wishing each other good fortune. As soon as I could, I excused myself to go back to sleep. What a day we had!



Despite the challenges of day two, I went to bed feeling optimistic about the day ahead of me. And although we hit a few rough patches while hitch hiking, I felt very safe trekking with Alpaca Expeditions and was pleased with how the team handled having to come up with a quick Plan B in the face of unexpected weather.

Check back soon for Lares Trek Days 3 & 4, and read our guide on how to prepare for your trek to Machu Picchu.

Big thanks to Alpaca Expeditions for kindly covering the cost of my gear. As with all content on The Brave Little Cheesehead, all opinions remain honest and our own. If you have any questions about the tour companies we feature, please send us an email or comment below!

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