On booking our trek, we were a little late to the party – missing out on the famous Inca Trail. The other members of our original small group were lucky enough to get bookings in time (we didn’t tell them we got the whole trip at half price though). We were offered an alternative trail – the Lares. This was a more rural journey, taking us high over mountain passes and meeting with local farmers before joining with the others in Machu Picchu – the lost city of the Incan Empire.
En route to our starting point near Ollantaytambo, we had the opportunity to climb high up into the terraces of the Urubamba Valley. Here, the Incas employed their mastery of civil engineering to produce vast quantities of grains. They were highly skilled horticulturists and used to great effect, the various climes and soils to produce great varieties in harvests. Methodically diversifying their crops for yield.
Ollantaytambo town is a massive network of temples hewn into the cliff faces where two valleys met. Large monoliths of stone jutted out into the setting sun creating an impressive backdrop. We climbed up to the main altar, then back to the other side of the valley to the storehouses. Here we met our chief guide for the Lares Trek, also named Luis (Big Luis), our cook and our porters. We had a diverse mix of Australians, Americans, a German, an Argentine and an Irish journalist in the group.
The first day of the Lares Trek trail saw us ascend quite quickly. Over rugged terrain and up to almost 4,000m – about 1 km of climb. We had several dogs join us for parts of the journey. They knew where to get food – our own personal escorts.
Our first camp was lovingly prepared for us by the porters. We didn’t have to prepare a single thing. Just walked straight into the main tent and huddled around a table to play cards and sip camomile tea. The cook prepared a meal and as it got cooler, we jumped in our sleeping bags and meandered back to our own tent. In the morning, we did the same in reverse. The porters stayed behind to pack up the tent and they would later rush past us to set up the next site. We felt like “real” colonial explorers…
Climbing above the snow line, Tam succumbed to a short bout of altitude sickness. She had stopped taking the tablets since leaving Bolivia. The sudden rise back to altitude caused her to feel a bit off colour. She was offered a ride on the alpaca, but persisted on to the pass. One dog stayed the whole course with us and by now its coat was frozen together in small clumps – the dog got by on his subsistence of stale charity bread and by lapping up Tam’s sick. On the crest of the mountain pass we encountered one intrepid mountain biker. He wasn’t in much of a mood to stop and talk and sped past, down the zig-zag slopes, back to warmer climes. We weren’t to far behind and settled for our next camp.
This time we were located on the edge of a swamp. Shrouded in mist. The cries of a llama pierced the air from the other side. On inspection, we found it caught in a bog – up to its neck. A team effort ensued and we managed to drag it out using a rope and a solid push, back to it’s herd.
Waking in the morning we saw a young girl set up shop. On a blanket she sat in traditional dress with bottles of Coca-Cola and crackers – ready to sell. Her feet were blacked with wear and her cheeks pink from the cold. It felt bad watching her outside the tent door. We took quite a bit of pity on the poor girl and gave her some money for her photo and for her efforts.
We walked a few kilometres to a farmers house. Here we were greeted with the stench of a freshly killed and gutted llama. The farmer told us that a puma had killed it, probably just to put us on edge. Was it the same llama we had just saved?
These Aymara lived in the highlands as they have done for centuries, without modern concepts of private property. Their simple thatched roof cottage was tarred black with soot inside and guinea pigs warbled their way over the cold dirt floor. This place could have been built in a day, but it had been lived in for decades.
Descending down the valley back to Ollantaytambo, we stopped off at a small orphanage for boys. We all played around a bit and had a small game of soccer. These kids were pretty good. But what we didn’t realise was that the main event was about to start. There was a game, a rivalry, between Big Luis and Little Luis. The two guides started to boil to a head. The porters and cook were all too keen to play as well. It became quite a heated and vicious game – lucky we had an Argentine striker on our side. After a lot of pushing and shoving it ended up a draw.
Exhausted from the heated tensions we trained to Aguas Calientes, the tourist town at the base of Machu Picchu. A Japanese film crew was in the same carriage and taking up a lot of space – really entertaining. The rainforest surrounded the train and the greenery was like something out of an Indiana Jones movie, wrapping around structures young and old -wet in the heavy rain.
The temple city of Machu Picchu was originally built in 1450. During the fall of the Incan Empire, the Spanish Conquistadors plundered many artifacts in their gold fever. Sickness such as smallpox was also decimating the indigenous population. It was thought that this city was abandoned in 1572 to spare it from the same fate. Although never completely forgotten, it was allegedly “discovered” again in 1911 by Hiram Bingham who brought back ceremonial sacrifice daggers and other totems that had not been looted. Ever since, Machu Picchu has been a hot spot for tourists, many eager to trek to the “Lost City”. More recently they have built a switchback for buses to drive to the top. For all it’s mystique and isolation, it is now wheelchair accessible.
An early morning rise for the first bus up saw us jostle with a few people queuing to get a glimpse of the sun rise. Many more intrepid souls scowled in anger at the buses started beating them up the hillside as they scaled the steep jungle.
There it was. The sight before us was just spectacular. The cloud rising in the morning heat had not yet shrouded the city. In a few moments it would move over us and expose all, naked to the world in new light. For now it was unspoiled by tourists in their bright jackets climbing all over the stonework. On the opposite spire, Huyana Picchu, the Temple of the Moon overlooked the same city, our position and behind us, the Sun Gate.
The masonry at the city was beyond anything we had ever seen before. Polished smooth boulders, interlocking with each other to form clean walls and lines. Monuments remained to the Incan trilogy of Snake, Puma and the Condor.
Not wanting to miss an opportunity for a run, we took off in our jandals to the Sun Gate. Leaving perplexed tourists in our wake, we made it in the limited time we had and rushed back to our bus down. At the exit there was a stamp for your passport. We waited patiently as a couple took about 5 minutes to make sure the ink evenly coated the rubber of the stamp and carefully press it onto the paper. In our haste, we pushed in front of the next dottery stamp artist – bang, bang! Stamp done! Now leaving the Lost City of the Inca.