The road to ruins. Lares to Machu Picchu, Peru
There are a handful of moments on this trip that I know I will remember forever. Walking the Great Wall of China; taking my first breath underwater; watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat; and trying to decipher the curve of the earth in Salar de Uyuni for start. Now I have another snapshot to add to my gallery – struggling uphill to a crumbling ancient tower and stopping to catch my breath only to have it stolen away again by my first complete view of Machu Picchu, ‘The Lost City of the Incas.’ Like our Great Wall of China visit, the first hour of our visit to Machu Picchu had been swallowed by a thick mist, making a joke out of our guide’s best attempts at a tour (“if you just look at that mountain over there…”)
Bit by bit, stone by stone we uncovered the city behind the fog. First a manicured terrace used for planting crops, then a small house, a temple built to honour the sun and a dozen seemingly throwaway stones placed with precision to catch the summer and winter solstace and reflect the light in a basin of water. Slowly we were realising that in this ancient city – built 500 years ago by people that searched high and low for the perfect stones and soil, carrying them hundreds of kilometers from the lowlands and jungle with only a few llamas for help – there was no such thing as a throwaway stone.
In Machu Picchu everything had its purpose be it to tell the seasons, please the Gods or enhance the community. Sound from the top terrace was magnified by the mountains so that the layfold could hear the words of their leaders and priests from their living rooms. This is not a city built by amateurs or ‘uncivilised’ folk as was the presumption of Bingham, the American who ‘discovered’ the ‘lost’ city while it was inhabited by three families and after it had been visited by two Europeans. No wonder Bingham bashing is such a popular sport among tour guides and visitors to these parts.
By the time the fog lifted our guide Paul had showed us the city’s every nook and cranny, somehow finding spare time to deliver a full history of Peru from pre-Incan times to present day. We thought that we were finished but how wrong we turned out to be. To be truly appreciated Machu Picchu has to be seen from a distance – admired as a whole. So we climbed up to the tower and gasped and sighed and then filled ourselves up with sugar in preparation for the climb up Huayno Picchu, a very steep neighbouring mountain.
Mark, Gary and I had been up queuing since 2am in the hope of securing three of the limited tickets handed out daily to scale the peak and gaze upon the ruins. In hindsight this may not have been such a great idea because (warning: controversial statement to follow) while the view may be worth climbing the steep, backbreaking steps for it probably wasn’t worth the early morning and lingering exhaustion. In my opinion the view from the tower is better although it is rather nice to perch on top of a rock at the top of a mountain looking down on one of the world’s wonders, marvelling over how it can be so very intact after sitting uninhabited at the top of a mountain for so long. Have they really done so little renovation work on it?
Getting to the ancient city was no walk in the park either. Over the past three days we had hiked 42km up back-breaking hills and down into tumbling valleys. We had huffed and puffed as we reached the crest of a mountain only to realise that we were just half way to the top. We had threatened to vomit from altitude sickness and taken long breaks in an attempt stave off dizzy spells. Katie had fallen over at least a dozen times and I once when karma kicked me in the face for laughing at her.
We had zig-zagged our way up, down and across so many different landscapes that it seemed impossible we were still on the same trail. Occasionally a horizon once dominated by a record-breaking, snow-capped mountain melted into a hazy afternoon image of horses grazing by a ribbon of freshwater lakes. We walked for hour upon hour without meeting a single person only to find a lively village where schoolchildren chattered on their way home and indigenous women laid out blankets laid with Coca-Cola and alpaca wool hats for us to buy.
Our biggest challenge came with our highest peak. At almost 4,700 metres above sea level the Lares Trek topped the Inca Trail for height and just about killed us. That said it was never as hard as Colca Canyon and knowing what real misery felt like made it that bit easier. Getting to the top on our second day to realise that the worst of it was behind us and to chow down on chocolate bars almost made the whole exercise worthwhile too. No pain no gain right?
It wasn’t all sweat, complaints and tears though. Mostly the Lares Trek was a lot of fun. For every uphill there was a downhill which Gary, Mark, Katie and I invariably took at full speed, arms outstretched belting out tunes like The Elephant Love Medoly from Moulin Rouge and the entire Sound of Music and Sister Act soundtracks (much to Paul and the nearby llama’s pleasure.) Then there was the food – the wonderful, delicious, wholesome food that our genius chefs Mario and Mario somehow managed to whip up three times a day in a small tent in the middle of nowhere using only an oven made of stones and a bit of creativity. We ate stuffed avocado salads, chicken satay, omlettes, chips, steak, soups, vegetable rice, fried potatoe salads…. Quite frankly the best food we had eaten since leaving Sucre and that posh French restaurant to be honest. On top of that the SAS staff laid out a basin of warm water and soap for each person, set up our tents, packed away our sleeping bags and roll mats and even carried a portable toilet for three days just to make us more comfortable. We were really slumming it.
Unlike the Inca Trail, Lares was pretty people and culture-focused. Some days it seemed like we were stopping every five minutes to chat with locals, stick out our tongues at grubby faced children and offer a handful of coca leaves to farmers on their way to and from work. Not to mention our first evening when Paul (an absolutely flawless guide and a barrel of laughs) brought us to meet a local family in their homes. There he introduced us to their way of life – from weaving blankets to cooking dinner in an iron pot over a fire and planting and harvesting potatoes and coca plants depending on the season. We saw their farm equipment, the many hats that made up the womens’ daily traditional attire and much to our surprise, the hundred or so guinea pigs that ran freely around the house and shed. Life in the rural valleys of Peru was unquestionably hard but brightened by a strong sense of community and some 100 watt smiles. And to be honest, the thatched roofs and simple but seemingly happy way of life didn’t look a world away from the Ireland of old that we had so often heard lamented.
By the end of our trek we felt like we had really experienced a slice of Peru that few people get to see. We herded hundreds of bleating sheep, llamas and alpacas over a mountain. We watched a full moon rise over the mountains while we sipped macho tea (tea spiked with rum) by a camp fire. We slept soundly in the great outdoors. Plus we had made some fantastic new friends.
As the train trundled its away from Machu Picchu and back down to Cusco we were restless at the thought of leaving our new friends and having to resume our normal life again – well as normal as our lives could be considered. How would we survive without Paul showing us where to go, what not to sit on and how to appease Pachamama (mother nature) before drinking a mug of home-brewed chicha? And how could the rest of South America ever hope to compare to the ‘Lost City of the Incas’?
There are more pictures from the Lares Trek and Machu Picchu available in the gallery