Hills, Hikes, and Hot Springs

I thought my trek to Machu Picchu deserved it’s own post.  It was such an incredible journey, and there’s so many things about it that are worth sharing, not just what I did, but what I wish I had brought, and what I wish I had left behind – things that a lot of trekkers and/or hikers might find useful for their own trip.

I arrived in Cusco from Puno, on the shores of Lake Titicaca.  Acclimatization is incredibly important, and if you’re flying from Lima (or for that matter, taking the bus), I would highly suggest a few days acclimatization in Cusco prior to doing a trek to Machu Picchu.  Your body will thank you for it.

Common symptoms that people experience are headaches, loss of appetite, and trouble sleeping.  I didn’t have headaches, but I did have trouble sleeping at higher altitudes, and during the trek, I didn’t have much of an appetite.  Pay attention to what your body is telling you – if the symptoms get worse, talk to your guide, or someone at your hotel prior to leaving.  High altitude sickness can seriously ruin your vacation if you don’t take the necessary precautions.

Having said all that – I had an amazing time.  There are several different treks into Machu Picchu, with the most famous being the Inca Trail.  If you have your heart set on doing the traditional trek into Machu Picchu, my biggest piece of advice is this:  book early.  And by book early I mean by months.  I waited until three months before, and all the permits were sold.  July and August and by far the most popular months, so book especially early for those months.

There are other trails available, and at alternate lengths.  There’s the Salkantay Trek, which can be done in 5 or 7 days variants, and the Lares Trek which is what I did.  I went with Llama Path – a local company in Cusco founded by a former porter on the Inca Trail.  It’s a sustainable tourism company that strives to pay it’s workers reasonable wages, and to provide them with housing and health care.  Most of the porters, chefs and guides come from Cusco or from the surrounding countryside, giving them inside knowledge of the terrain.  They provided sleeping bags, tents, blankets and food, as well as a mess tent, chairs, table and all utensils and plates.

The food was incredible – hearty and tasty.  They try to serve food that grows at each different altitude level, so it includes things like yarrow root (tastes like potato), lima bean porridge, and quinua.  We also had spaghetti, eggs, cake, fish, and popcorn.  They not only provide breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but snacks along the trek route, and a snack at the final campsite of the day.

One thing they offered us as a rental was a hiking pole.  I stupidly said I didn’t need one.  For the sake of your knees – use a hiking pole.  While I managed ok without it, at the higher altitudes (we reached 4758 metres above sea-level) I deeply wished I had one to lean on.

Another thing that they recommend is a roll of toilet paper.  They provide “toilets” (a hole in the ground, with a toilet seat chair, and tent surrounding it) but no toilet paper.  Definitely bring some.

I brought a small pillow, but found I didn’t really need it.  I used my bag as a pillow at night, and I was usually either so exhausted, or I had trouble sleeping, that I never noticed what my head was placed on.

I did notice what was on my head.  High altitudes are cold.  If you’re from a colder climate, like I am, it’s easy to dismiss people who say “Oh, it’s cold up there.”  Don’t.  It’s cold, and you feel it more when you’re tired and not getting enough oxygen.  Bring a good toque, and a pair of thin gloves at the very least.

I ended up wearing every layer I brought, at least on the day that we hit Pachacutec Pass.  The lower altitudes are a lot warmer, and a thin pair of pants or shorts, and a t-shirt and more than enough.  For shoes, I wore a pair of running shoes (actual running shoes, and not sneakers).  There was no technical climbing, and the path was well marked.  As I went in their winter, and so their dry season, there was no mud.  We did see snow on several occasions, but it was either off the path, or we could walk around it. 

We started at a small village Pumahuanca, outside of Cusco.  Our first day took us up through the forest, and along the Cancha Cancha river, past a small typical Andean village.  We camped the first night “in the wild” – at 3800 metres above sea level.  It was cold that night, so our guide, Roger, built us a fire for us

The yellow tent was our mess tent.

I was on the trek with three other people – Sonia, Eli and Eduardo from Spain, and Connor from Ireland.

We started incredibly early the next day, and hit Pachacutec Pass at 4758 metres above sea-level.  We spent a few minutes up there, admiring the view, and making a traditional Andean offering to Pacha Mama, the mother spirit.  We headed down, and ended our day in another small village – Quisuarani.  In Quisuarani we slept in the yard of the local school.

The next morning, we toured the school, gave small gifts (stickers, pencils) to the principal.  Afterwards, we hiked the last 8 km to Lares, where we got to enjoy the hot springs.

After the hot springs, and lunch, we caught our bus to Ollantaytambo.  We spent some time in Ollantaytambo before catching a train to Aguas Calientes.  We spent the night at a hotel there (Bliss!  A shower.) before waking up at 4:30 to catch the first bus up the switchback road into Machu Picchu.

You really do want to be on the first bus.  You get to Machu Picchu just as the sun is rising, and you get to watch it burn off the mist from the surrounding mountains.  It’s an incredible sight.  Not to mention the fact that there are fewer tourists at that hour than there are later on.  And it doesn’t take long for the tourist to show up and clog the site.

My camera broke that final morning, as we waited in line.  I have no photos of Machu Picchu, other than the one above that I took on my cellphone.  My lesson on this, as I plan for my trip to Africa, is to bring two cameras.  I don’t ever again want to be caught somewhere as unbelievable, with no way to document it.

I’d like to go back and do the Salkantay Trek.  I enjoyed the Lares Trek, and if you’re short on time it’s a great idea, at 4 days.  It’s also very remote feeling – we met no other tourist until we hit Machu Picchu.  We also got to interact with a few locals, which was fantastic.

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