August 18 to 20 2011 Lares Trek

Today is not a good day. I went out for dinner last night and had a bad burrito. I was up most the night vomiting, and I know right now I'm disoriented and dehydrated. I'm taking my re-hydration powder, which tastes foul, and am trying to control my tumultuous stomach. My fellow travellers seem to think I look like a corpse, all sunken eyes and pale skin. Still, I am not going to let something like this stop me. I have all that I need to get me through the next few days – sheer willpower.

First off we need to gather our group. A bus ride around town finds us picking up 2 Australians, 3 British, and 2 Germans, joining all of our group except the Danes. We all chipped in some money to buy bread for the locals that we would meet on our journey. The bread is a gift to the peoples for crossing their land, and is something that is difficult for the locals to sustain in their diets, and it is better than giving sweets as these people do not have the access to dentists and do not practice oral hygiene as we do. The bus then takes us up the mountains to the start point of our trek. We then drove to Pata Cancha (3900m) to begin.

At Pata Cancha we met with our guide, chefs and porters. We shook hands and greeted each other. Anan, our guide, then introduced us to chewing coca leaves and the offering the Apas and Pachamama coca leaves along our trek. Then he handed out some snack bags and we began our ascent. We hadn't gone very far when Anan stopped and explained a little about the importance of the Apas to the people of this area.

Not long after we encounter another troop finishing the Lares where we began it.

When we continued onward, it was again steadily upward. In under an hour the group had already divided into the fast and the slow. I was in the lead group, even aching under the weight of my sickness. Up through the valley, the town slowly disappearing behind us, only small collections of habitations before us. The sun was mild but bright and the land radiated warmth, yellow and white stone interspersed with grasses and small trees gripping for all life.

Anan stopped us at a small village (5 houses and small farming area) and spoke to a local. He then took us to their home where we waited for the rest of the group to catch up. I lay back, using my pack as a pillow and my hat to shield my eyes. It took 15 minutes for the rest to rock up. We broke into two groups and went into the family's home. It was a single room, dirt floor, thatch roof abode. In the corner was the bed for the whole family covered with alpaca weavings. Across the floor scurried guinea pigs, chickens, and a cat. Outside was another cat that I had seen and two dogs. In another corner was a small wood stove for cooking. The room has a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling.

Anan spoke with the women of the house. She is 18 years old and before her stand her two children aged 3 and 1. Her husband, 23, is outside tending their small field. The animals, Anan says, are to deal with various pests in the area or provide a need:

  • The dogs deal with foxes
  • The Cats deal with Rats
  • The Chickens provide eggs
  • The Guinea Pigs provide an education for the children and later on food.

All the animals live in symbiosis, understanding their role and position in the household.

The family spends the majority of its time tending their small field, helping in the community and weaving textiles for sale. The husband comes in, places an arm around his wife and beams a smile so bright. He is very proud of his family and the life they live. The wife and Children also shine with smiles. These people are very poor by our standards but happier than most of the people I know or see in Australia.

We continue on our way up the valley. We need to make it to our lunch spot in good time. We are not walking for more than 20 more minutes when our cooks and porters overtake us. They are locals and are amazingly agile and swift at this altitude. It will be hours before we catch up to them and by then they will have set up the lunch tent, the cooking tent, a toilet, and have lunch prepared for us.

Onwards. Upwards. Bank left. Track Right. Crest.

Every 20 minutes it seems the land gets more beautiful. Each turn shows me something that takes my breath away. This land is raw, young and gorgeous. The striations across the hills lends the mind toward terracing, as though the land is informing the inhabitants of how best to live here. The rocks change hue, adding reds and pinks, browns and blacks. There are moments I feel in some mad special effect of what should be planet earth but the depth of field is wrong, the palette is off, It is intoxicating. I wonder how many people would choose such a place to die, in peace and beauty.

We arrive at a stream, steadily flowing and park ourselves once more to allow the group to merge once more. Pack = pillow, Hat = Face cover.

The group converge and the strain of altitude is showing on Nathan. It's been a hard walk for him.

A rest for everyone. The good thing about being upfront, is that the rest is longer. I'm feeling much better already with the thin mountain air. I can feel the strength returning. This land is a powerful one. Metaphysical people will say that the youth of the land and the pure air, the clean flowing stream allows for increased pure energy flow. The Quechua will tell you it is Pachamama. I say, that this planet has some incredibly beautiful places that no matter how jaded you are, or spoiled for beauty in your homeland, can't help but make you stop and appreciate the that very moment in space and time. Call it what you will, I call it powerful.

Up again and on (this will be a theme if you haven't guessed). More beauty, more valleys, more streams. The Lares takes you through small villages of no more than 5 families. Ahead we see the tents and it is time for lunch, or at least it will be when the others catch up. The lead porter gives a cold juice & water when we arrive and the lead team sits down and basks in the wonder of the area. We are at 4200m.

We eat a light lunch of chicken, rice and bread. Once we are all rested, off we go again, except for Nathan who unfortunately has to turn back. The altitude is taking too much of a toll on him, and for his health he must return to lower ground.

We have three hours of hiking to go to reach our camp-site and our porters will overtake us within the hour. I am completely recuperated, and lost in the wonder and beauty of the landscape. I'm not sure what people think of my silence, but I don't care. I've nothing to say, I am enamoured.

We reach the peak our days journey at 4450m and the vista is incredible. In the far distance clouds dance between the mountains, giant plumes of moisture twisting in the channels of air from the surrounding topography. I thought I had seen beauty in the first part of the day, but I was wrong. I knew now I would be seeing beauty all the way, some subtly different and others vastly so.

The rest of the walk was easy going, downhill to the 4100m we would be sleeping at. Down into the valley with the dancing clouds, then along a mountainside to our camp – completely made with smoke already rising from the cooking tent. We are settling on the side of a water catchment, not quite a swamp, but more than a marsh.

We eat and play cards into the night, fighting off the cold. Some go to bed early as they are not feeling well, the altitude affecting them. We didn't know it yet, but tonight it would drop to minus 8 degrees centigrade. Not the coldest I've ever been, but when it comes to that level of cold it's something you don't really get used to. Most people commented on the cold.

The next morning. we rose and got ready to start our day. The porters brought bowls of warm water to refresh ourselves. A breakfast of quinoa porridge and coca tea, then onwards again. Today is the big one where we reach the highest of our journey – 4600m.

It was relatively easy until we reached the major ascent. Each time we thought we were reaching the top, there was another peak. It seemed to take forever. I was in the lead group which consisted of myself, two other Australians (1 male, 1 female), and a British girl. When we reached the pass between two mountains that marked the highest peak of our trip the view was incredible. A glacial lake below, a sheet of ice on the mountainside directly next to us and a view behind that stretched for hours. It was incredible and more than made up for the stop starts on the way up the last 500m.

The remainder of the group joined us over the next 30 minutes and each had wonder in their face as they saw through the peak. When Anan arrived, he offered up his altimeter for use in photos – we had reached 4700m under our own steam.

The downhill segment to lunch, where we camped, was easy. The night was much like the previous one, cold, reaching only minus 6 degrees centigrade.

The following morning we trekked downhill to a kindergarten where we would eat lunch before taking the bus back to Ollantaytambo.

The Lares was an exhilarating walk, not actually all that difficult except for the lower atmosphere, but beautiful and rewarding. There are so many other trails throughout this area that I look forward to returning here and exploring some of them more.

At the bottom of the trek, we caught a bus and then a train to Aguis Callentes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu.

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August 16 to 17 2011 - Cuzco, Planeterra project, Pisac - Sacred Valley, Ollantaytambo

We flew to Cuzco via Lima as our original direct flight was cancelled. When we landed at Lima, we had 30 minutes to disembark and make our way through the terminal, past ticket control and security, to our plane. It was tight, and was quite hectic at one stage as the line-up at security was very long, probably 80 or more people. Ali our guide managed to wrangle security to let us cut the line. 5 minutes after we were on the plane we were taxiing.

Cuzco is a the cultural heart of Peru, the gateway to the Sacred Valley and thus to Machu Picchu (the most popular attraction in Peru, and the one that has captured my desires for a quarter century). Cuzco has all the standard requirements for a colonial city – central square with cathedral, museums, restaurants, statues, etcetera. It is a bustling metropolis and for today we had an afternoon to explore but first lunch. A popular dish in Peru is Roast Chicken. You can get a quarter chicken and chips with salad for around 10 Sols (AU$3.00).

After lunch, Ali took us to one of the local markets to see some of the food on offer. The market was a large tin shed filled with small booths of alpaca, wood, and stone souvenirs, Beyond the first layer comes the fun stuff, the food. The next two lanes are juice stores – think Boost juice but crazy, cheap and exceptionally good. Next came the grocers, fruits and vegetables galore all very fresh and very cheap. Bananas were the highlight for me, a bunch of them costing me 5 Sols (AU$1.50). Needless to say, I've been eating a lot of bananas to get myself caught up after months of not having them due to their expensive prices in Australia. Ali introduced us to a range of local fruits, some sweet, some sour, and one peculiar and difficult to describe.

Beyond the grocers came the butchers. The butchers area is an open market, not refrigerated, and everything is freshly slaughtered that morning. By mid-afternoon nothing will be left and by tomorrow all that was sold will be cooked and eaten. The Peruvians do not let anything go to waste so at the butcher you can buy everything from a fresh cut of your favourite meat to every organ and extremity. It's probably quite off-putting to a lot of westerners to see all this on display, but I find it refreshing that everything is used and that the Peruvians are not squeamish regarding their food. I hope they never lose that in their march toward modernity and westernisation.

Here at the markets I had a goal, a food to try that was apparently a local delicacy – Jugo De Rana, Frog juice. It took a while to find someone that would sell me a frog (2 Sols) but once I had it, I made my way to juice alley and gave it to the woman working there to blend with some orange, apple, papaya, and carrot juice. The result was a beautiful drink with an excellent protein supplement (4 Sols).

The markets are also home to the witches and you can purchase any manner of medicinal remedy or offering to the gods.

The rest of the day was wandering and eating. Most of my travelling companions seem to prefer the basic westernised foods such as pizza, pasta and sandwiches. Thankfully most restaurants offer those as well as some local dishes.

The following day...

I must admit to feeling some trepidation today as we begin the journey I have waited so long to achieve – The Sacred Valley of the Inca, then onto the Lares Trek leading me towards Machu Picchu. It's a weird feeling to stand on the threshold of a dream. I oft wondered what would happen when I achieved this. All know for sure is that my brain will liquefy and splat against my skull (figuratively, not literally, of course). But that is in the days to come, and first we must visit the Sacred Valley.

The way out of town takes us past the ruins of Sacsayhuaman, pronounced Saxy Woman. This was a major fortress that the Spaniards stripped for building supplies in Cuzco.

Our first stop is a Planeterra project run by GAP Adventures. It's a Women's Weaving Project at Caccacollo. This project is a sustainability project to help this community maintain their traditions and support themselves (see The women here use the traditional techniques to dye and weave the wool into scarves, jumpers, hats, gloves, bracelets, and women's ponchos.

One thing I find strange is that in school we were taught that the Inca never invented the wheel and yet I see it use everywhere in the communities. The Inca had the wheel, they just never used it the way we did in the west, and a quick look at the terrain and you can understand why. The wheel for carts wouldn't work with the llama over this terrain. Better just to load the animal and go. Here they use the wheel for spinning wool, crushing ochre, leaves and Cochin, running out and levelling their weave. It is an amazing thing to watch.

From here we travel the winding roads and stop in a village for a light snack of coca tea and traditional epinadas. Epinadas are a small pastry like a pasty with various fillings. The pastry is sweet and the fillings savoury, baked in a clay oven and makes for a satisfying snack.

All through these hills and valleys are the villages that were once ruled by the Inca from on high. The homes are mud brick, made locally from the surrounding mud and grasses. To we in the west it may seem like a poor building material, but it is cheap, effective and survives. All of these homes have electricity, and house at least one if not multiple generations tightly if not comfortably.

Our guide says something very interesting regarding the poverty we are seeing:

“These people are not poor, just poor in technology. They have ample food and water, shelter and community. If you have all that, how can you be poor?”

The agrarian Peruvians live for decades longer than the urban ones. It is not uncommon to see old men and women in their 80's and beyond out here in the countryside.

Our next stop was the Inca ruin of Pisac. The first thing that stands out is the terracing. This is the feature that most people know about the Inca – terraced mountains for their crops. The terracing makes excellent use of the terrain, allowing for maximum agricultural use of hill sides in what would otherwise be unforgiving terrain. The stonework is incredible. The Inca were able to move granite rocks, many tonnes in weight and put them together without mortar with seems so tight you cannot slide even a sheet of paper between them. The Inca built up on the hills for protection and power, to lord from on high, and with structures such as these it's not hard to see why the people deferred to them.

On our way from Pisac to Ollantaytambo, we came across a small town celebrating something in the town square, so we stopped to have a look. There were devils on the roof of the church and a range of people dancing. I'm not sure what reason it was today, but it really seems as though Peruvians need very little excuse to have a party.

Ollantaytambo is the final stop on our tour today. Here is another Inca ruin, looking over the town which is still in the original layout with Inca streets and water ways. The streets are thin with Inca stone forming the first half of the walls. It was a Spanish technique to demolish the top of the Inca buildings and keep the foundations. As such you have beautiful stone topped with plastered European style walls and roofing.

Ollantaytambo is an incomplete city, and is a treasure to behold. Majestically stepping up the mountain to the peak, terrace after terrace into the sky. The structures at the top are impressive, but more so is the pieces left unfinished. There are stones that weigh several tonnes that have been placed near their final location ready for finishing, half polished and smooth. Touching the stones, they are as smooth as glass. You can see from here, across the valley the road used to bring the stones from the quarry several kilometres away.

It is hard to stand here and not appreciate the majesty and wonder of these people and the land in which they lived.

Looking over the town from on top the ruin, there are Incan granaries and a walkway. It is a short journey to the walkway up the mountain, and it is here that I get my first taste of what is going to happen tomorrow on the Lares – the difficulty getting enough air when climbing these stairs to the Granary.

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August 13 to 15 2011 - Arequipa, Chivay, Colca Canyon, Arequipa

A night bus from Nazca takes us across the country to Arequipa. An interesting thing to note about Peru, it seems almost everywhere is 8-10 hours by bus, it's a geographical anomaly. The bus is a double-decker, quite comfortable with reclining seats and a toilet downstairs. The night goes easily and the next morning we are in Arequipa, the White City.

Arequipa is beautiful, with many building made from Sillar, a pearly volcanic rock local to the area. When we arrived the city was preparing itself for a celebration. It was to be 471st birthday of the city. A number of the schools marched around the town square. Every city in Peru is based around the town square with a cathedral(s), a small garden area with a lawn you can't sit on, and often times a small market grows throughout the day and at night food vendors make their appearance.

Arequipa is also home to Juanita, at the Universidad Catolica De Santa Maria. Juanita is a remarkably well preserved mummy of a girl between the age of 11 and 15 who was sacrificed to a volcano atop Mount Ampato in the late 15th Century. Juanita was discovered in 1995 by an American expedition led by Dr Johan Reinhard and Peruvian climber Miguel Zarate. Juanita was incredible well preserved having only been discovered by the retreat of the glacier. Over the following years two more bodies would be discovered in the area.

Juanita was killed by a blow to the temple, although through scans and tests archaeologists confirm that she was in good health at the time of her death. To the Inca, human sacrifice involved only the best and most beautiful. They did not choose at random, and they did not practice it arbitrarily. Juanita was raised specifically to be a sacrifice, kept well fed and cared for. On her journey to the mountain in cotton sandals, she would have been fed well and given Chicha to drink and coca leaves to chew as well at to drink in tea. Juanita's story can be read in great detail in the 2005 publication by the Dr Johan Reinhard, The Ice Maiden.

In the museum with Juanita are a range of artefacts beautifully preserved. Most of the ceramic pieces are in pairs, and a number of incredible fabrics were found on the mountain, their colours incredibly well preserved. Unfortunately they do not allow photographs to be taken, so look up Mummy Juanita and see some images from the museum.

An interesting fact: The Inca kept the umbilical cord and placenta for the child to eat during times of illness to cure them. Interesting in that we now bank the blood from these to be used for medical applications at a later date.

Our group wandered the town, gathering a feel for it. We wandered the markets, discovering all manner of souvenirs which would taint us for most of our journey. Almost every city in Peru has a large market filled with all the same kinds of souvenirs, in fact many have exactly the same. After 20 shops of the same it becomes easy to be jaded by markets. I searched them all for the one souvenir I wanted from my journey, a new deity to add to my collection. There were literally thousands of icons to choose from, and not a single one sang to me.

The next morning we journeyed toward the Colca Canyon. Before leaving Arequipa, we needed to get supplies so stopped at a small shop. From this shop I bought a bag of Coca leaves. Coca leaves is the natural source of cocaine (average 0.8% of the content of a leaf) but has been utilised in South America for millennia and my guide tells me it is one of the reasons the Inca and pre-Inca civilisations were capable of producing some of their massive structures and other super-human feats as running 40 kilometres at high altitudes faster than marathon runners. The leaf contains several alkaloids besides cocaine which can suppress hunger, thirst, pain and fatigue. It also apparently assists people with altitude sickness. The strange thing about this plant is that if Cocaine wasn't an issue it would most likely be the most widely distributed herbal medication on the planet, but is instead restricted because of the 0.8% Cocaine. Go figure. The purchase of the leaves was for me to chew, to brew and to offer the Apus, Inti and Pachamama along my journey for their blessing.

The drive through the countryside was beautiful, vast majestic plains with graceful mountains, some capped with snow, some with the threat of eruption.

We stopped here and there to take pictures of the Andes prized camels – Llama (pack animal), Alpaca (Meat & Wool), and Vicuña (the most expensive wool in the world). Then we stopped at a small tourist truck-stop café where we had Coca tea. I had the 'triple' of coca leaves and two local herbs. It was delicious. This was our halfway point to Chivay, the town we would spend the night before rising early to see the Andean Condor.

At Chivay we checked into a lush hotel, far better than I was expecting and settled in. On the other side of the hotel there was a small walk up to an old fortification. I wandered over and got to the stairs that led to it. Believing in my own invincibility and believing the stair runs at work could prepare me I began bounding up the stairs as fast as I could. I reached the top and my lungs were heaving, burning at the exertion of running up maybe 30 metres of stairs. Then I remembered, I'm at 3600m and the air is a little thinner here. So I sat and tried to control my breathing. Paul (22), one of the people I am travelling with came up behind me.

“Tried to run up the stairs, huh?”

“Yeah” I gasped.

“Me too. Almost killed me”


I was glad that someone else had suffered the same fate, it made me feel not so bad at having nearly torn my lungs free, especially one over a decade younger who has never smoked.

The fortification was excellent, and I took some great shots from the top. We then walked around and saw some stone domes similar to an igloo in shape. Then we wandered along the paths that led to the Colca river. We reached the cliffs edge and the sight was impressive. An Inca bridge spanning the sheer cliff, shattered boulders lining the river below. We then walked back up to our hotel to meet the group and head to the hot springs to relax.

The hot springs are located about 3km from the town, and it's a nice walk first along the cliff then along the river. The hot springs are fed from a mountain flow and in the pools the temperature is around 38 degrees centigrade. Staying near the inlet is the hottest, but the entire pool is warm enough that you would not consider it tepid. Cocktails are served to the patrons and I ordered a Colca Sour. This drink is like the Pisco sour except they use a local cactus fruit similar to kiwi fruit but very sour.

We went to dinner that night at a quaint tourist restaurant where they had a local band on. The band played traditional post-colonial music and there were a couple of dancers as well. Part way through the dinner, they gathered a few people from the crowd, one from each group to make an offering to Pachamama and drink some Chicha. I made the offering and drank the Chicha, which was very nice.

After dinner we walked to the town square where the Celebration of the Virgin Mary was starting up. There was a parade, The square was filled by people celebrating and the parade was unique. In each of the corners of the square was an altar. The parade was made up of a people in traditional dress and musicians followed by the priests and a large display of the virgin carried by a number of men dressed in black.

This struck me as being odd, here was Catholicism blended with traditional pagan iconography. Peru has managed to integrate both of its sides into one harmonious structure. By day the Peruvians are Catholic, by night Quechua.

People danced in the streets and drank copious amounts of alcohol. It was a good party.

In the morning, we rose early and drove to the Colca canyon. The Colca Canyon is the deepest surface canyon on the planet, reaching 4000m at its deepest, although the sides are not as steep as the Grand Canyon. At the section we arrived at, it was only 1km deep, but that's all you need for the Condor.

Walking down to the lowest viewing platform, I was struck by the same awe I felt when I arrived at Indian Peak in the Grand Canyon. It was stunning, the colours of the canyon seemed like a freshly painted backdrop more than reality. I gazed for about 5 minutes at the sight before I saw my first condor.

The Andean Condor is large, majestic and endangered. The Andean condor is of the new world vulture family, and is a carrion eater. At its largest, the wingspan is 3.2m making it the largest land bird capable of flight. One of the reasons for it being endangered is that each year a mature adult will lay a single egg. Another is habitat loss and tainted food supply. The condor is quite specific regarding food and as such it is easy for it to suffer secondary poisoning due to carcasses left by hunters. The condors design is a little strange in that its talons are largely straight and blunt, adapted for walking rather then gripping. This also leads towards its inability to gather carrion as it is unable to grip its food and take it to safety, rather it must eat where the food dies.

Over the course of the next hour, there were four condors in the sky, gracefully drifting on wind currents, seemingly for our benefit. A Quechua man was playing his flute, trying to summon them, and the music added an extra ambience to the sight. The beauty of seeing a condor in flight will stay with me for decades to come.

That afternoon, we returned to Arequipa, the sights lingering in our minds.

In Arequipa, we were forced to leave our bus early. It seemed that the city had erupted into full party mode, celebrating the 471st birthday of their city, and the street that our hotel was on was right in the middle of it. We struggled through 3 blocks of packed streets, with people dressed in all manner of costume – traditional Quechua, Inca, colonial, dance costumes, school uniforms, everything they could think of. It took around 30 minutes but we made it, checked in then went to the balcony to watch the spectacle.

A few of our crew decided to go for coffee but Paul and I opted to stay and watch from the balcony. Ten minutes later we thought to go join them and see this parade from the street. It was absolute chaos. Even without our packs it was hard going, and after making it to the first side street opted to go around to the corner where the coffee shop in question was located. The crowd was so dense it seemed impossible to cross into the parade let alone the crowd on the other side. After a few attempts, a local girl promised to get us in for a kiss on the cheek. I complied and found myself in the road. Trying to get out the other side was a different story. A couple of other local girls offered the same to get me through but failed to fulfil their end of the bargain once they had received their kiss on the cheek. It was then I noticed an arch guarded by a police officer who ushered us through. We then had only 3m to go to get to the store. It still took 15 minutes.

Inside we had coffee and waited for the others to arrive. They didn't so we thought we'd check out the extent of the parade. It was massive. The parade consumed the road of our hotel, then entire town square and another street stretching off into the distance. Most of the side streets had turned into mini-malls of food vendors and souvenir sales. Being we were now on the wrong side of the parade to return to our hotel, we began looking for a way to breach the crowd and get to other side again. It was like living a crazy joke. For around twenty blocks we tried and failed to cross. We could see the arches but couldn't reach them. Finally, we doubled back to the block closest to our hotel. After a few hours navigating the city we came to the intersection closest to our hotel. It took a bit of effort to get in the middle, this time no kissing, and we were in. Then straight up to our hotel and over the crowd.

We had made it back. So, we sought out the rest of our crew and could only find Nathan, then headed back out into the melee for dinner.

The party continued on until after midnight, with much the same enthusiasm if only slightly diminished crowds. Peru knows how to celebrate.

The next morning we flew out to Cuzco.




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