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Trekking in Lares Valley and Machu Picchu

October 23, 2009

Monday morning began our four day adventure to Machu Picchu. Our Q’ente guide, Whilder, and crew picked us up early in the morning for our few hours drive to Lares, where we would have lunch and a soak in the hot springs.

Lunch was delicious (our chef Jorge was amazing!) and the hot springs were actually HOT, much better than the ones I visited on my trip to Colca Canyon. Then it was time to begin our trek. The first day was easy, only supposed to take about four hours. It was also a little bit boring. The start of the trek was along a road and we were right behind another group. It was a monotonous first hour, and soon we were starting to hear thunder and see the sky growing dark around us.

Local kids seeking candy

Local kids seeking candy

It started to sprinkle on and off as we got off the road and onto a slightly more interesting path into the valley. Little kids were constantly running up to us shouting “Hola!” and “Buenos dias!” (the only Spanish they know, as they speak Quechua) in hopes of receiving some candy or other little gift, which our group generally provided.

Our group was all North Americans — a couple from Canada and a couple from New York (there was supposed to be another couple from New York as well, but the guy had food poisoning and they ended up having to skip the trek and just meet us for the end at Machu Picchu), and we all got along well enough although we weren’t actually together that often. Dad and I being the fast walkers we are, were almost always well ahead of the rest of the group (Dad impressing everyone, who thought for sure he was going to be slow, tired, and/or sick from the altitude since he’d just arrived the day before).

Dad bundled up in the mummy sleeping bag in our tent

Dad bundled up in the mummy sleeping bag in our tent

The trek ended up taking us only about 2 1/2 hours instead of four, so we were surprised to find ourselves at our campsite, with all the tents set up and ready for us to settle in. Just after we crawled into our tents to set up our sleeping bags and relax for a bit, the sky opened up and it began to pour. This was the first of our many lucky escapes from trekking in the rain.

We finished the day off with another delicious meal and another early night. Sleeping is really your best option when it’s cold and rainy and you’re out camping!

I’m not sure any of us slept that well the first night. Our “mattresses” were thin and hard, and the night was extremely cold. But we were all up and ready for breakfast early the next morning.

Near the top of the climb

Near the top of the climb

Usually the second day, while still the “hardest,” is pretty easy and not overly exciting (one of the reasons Dad and I hadn’t really wanted to book with Q’ente). Lucky for us, some unforeseen circumstances forced Whilder to change our route. So our second day was a 6-7 hour walk, the first 4 or so hours climbing way up out of the valley to a 4,500m mountain pass.

We made it!

We made it!

The climb was definitely a bit of a challenge (though again Dad and I were always far ahead of the rest of the group) but not as terrible as it seemed every time we stared up at the high mountains we were supposed to climb through! The hike was well worth it, though, and it was a great feeling finally reaching the top and looking over to see a beautiful lagoon down below.

The lagoon

The lagoon

Dad and I climbed quickly down to the lagoon, enjoying the views, the strange but beautiful hue of the water, and also taking in the great views we had of a nearby glacier (I really wanted to climb to it!)

Then it was back off on another hour and a half-ish trek down to our campsite. Again Dad and I were leading the way, far far ahead of everyone else, and we actually even lost the path a couple of times! It was definitely a much more adventurous route, requiring crossing a river, over a waterfall, and down some very steep and slipper rocky slopes. We watched our surroundings change as we descended, suddenly surrounded by these incredible trees, rivers and waterfalls, and eventually reaching another lagoon.

The entire hike was great, and we pretty much never saw another person the entire way, save a couple of locals. It was definitely nice to have the hike and the campsites all to ourselves.



Again it started to rain (and hail) a bit at various times at our hike, but we managed to make it to camp before the downpour. Dad and I got first pick of tents, with the rest of the group arriving 30-45 minutes after us! Our first night our campsite had been full of dogs, chickens, llamas, and other animals. The second campsite was similar, adding some big hairy pigs and sheep into the mix. The surrounding area was a spectacular place to camp. Again we had a great view of a glacier way up in the mountain above us. There was a small river and a couple spread out stone houses and stone walls. The area was also littered with absolutely gigantic rocks that had obviously fallen down from the mountain above in earthquakes or landslides.

After lunch everyone quickly went to nap, but Dad and I took some time to explore the area and climb among the rocks before it started to rain again.

Swollen foot (right) before it got really bad

Swollen foot (right) before it got really bad

I also need to rest a bit, as I haven’t mentioned the one hiccup we encountered in our trek. Our first night camping I got a mosquito bite on my ankle. Anyone who knows me fairly well knows that as it is I tend to swell up pretty bad when I get bit. Add onto this 6-7 hours of walking up, up, up and down, down, down with my shoe rubbing against the bit nonstop the whole time, and my foot was not a pretty sight.

After some napping, we had another wonderful dinner, including a full cake for one of our fellow hiker’s birthday! We were all completely baffled as to how Jorge managed to whip up a cake out at that campsite! We then spent the rest of the evening around the campfire, keeping warm and avoiding the bugs, before calling it another early night.

The group at our last campsite

The group at our last campsite

By the next morning, my entire foot was totally swollen, even up to my toes. Whilder wrapped my ankle up in an ace bandage, which helped a bit, and we set out hiking again. The last day was only three hours of hiking, all downhill. The path was easy in some parts but very steep and rocky in other parts. Heeding Whilder’s advice, I did my best to take it easy and walk slowly and lightly on my right foot. But an hour and a half or two hours into the hike, I could feel how tight the bandage had gotten on my foot. We unwrapped it and saw that my foot had gotten way too swollen, barely able to even fit in my shoe anymore.

Getting on the emergency horse

Getting on the emergency horse

It was decided that if I wanted to be able to even walk in Machu Picchu the next day, let alone climb Wayna Picchu, I was going to have to stop walking and take the emergency horse the rest of the way down. This was not an appealing option at all for me, but I knew I didn’t want to miss out on Machu Picchu because I was stubborn and insisted on walking. We met up with the emergency horse and I climbed on.

The emergency horse would have been a total nightmare in a real emergency. The saddle was hard as rock and had no stirrups or reins or anything. Basically I had to hold on as tight as I could, one hand on the front of the saddle and the other clinging to the back. Going downhill on a horse is not fun in any circumstances, but it turned out the rest of the trail was an absolutely miserable one for riding a horse down! Often we were going down very steep paths or down very, very tall and steep stone stairs. The horse would stop every time we reached one of these, and Jorge would have to whistle and pull to get it to keep moving. And I would have to brace myself and hold on for dear life, as I flew up off the saddle every time! I definitely had visions of either my getting completely thrown off the horse, or the horse (who seemed very unhappy to have me on it) losing its footing and hurtling us both off a cliff.

Finally, after about 45 miserable minutes, we reached our final destination. My butt still hurts when I sit down! All our crew quickly rolled out a tarp and a mattress and insisted that I rest. I tried to elevate my foot the best I could with a couple packs and waited for the rest of the group to arrive. Eventually they did, and we enjoyed our last Jorge-cooked meal.

Then we were back in the van and on our way to Ollantaytambo to catch the train to Aguas Calientes/Machu Picchu Town/Pueblo for our most anticipated part of the trip: a shower! Oh yeah, and Machu Picchu. Hehe. A couple hours later we were at our hotel, enjoying scalding/freezing (but still appreciated) showers and then off to a lovely dinner with some pizza and wine. Again we called it a very early night, as we had a 3-4am wakeup the next morning.

By four the next morning we were out at the bus station in line to get one of the first buses to Machu Picchu. By 5:30am we were on the second bus (TIP: two buses pull up and load at the same time, the best place you can be is the front seat of the second bus, as this one actually pulls up closer to the entrance to Machu Picchu). We had Whilder looking out for us, and Dad and I were in the front seat ready to sprint for the entrance. We were the first non-hikers (you can walk 2 hours up to Machu Picchu from town on your own if you want to — no thanks!) to the entrance and the first to have our tickets stamped with our number to climb Wayna Picchu (they only allow 400 people to climb it a day, at either 7-8am or 10-11am).

Sunrise at Machu Picchu

Sunrise at Machu Picchu

At 6am the entrance opened and we got to stamp our passports with a special Machu Picchu stamp (again because Whilder is so on the ball, a minute later they took it away because you are supposed to wait until after you go through the site to get the stamp!) Then we were in the ruins, basically almost the first people inside. Whilder insisted “Quick take pictures now, while there is no one in them!” so we snapped away at the beautiful sight of the sun rising and lighting up the ruins and the Wayna Picchu mountain.

Beautiful Machu Picchu

Beautiful Machu Picchu

For about an hour and a half Whilder gave us a tour of the ruins and explained various things to us. It really is an incredibly amazing place. And the Incas really knew what they were doing! All the original Inca ruins are built with stones with absolutely nothing holding them together. When restorers have tried to rebuild parts of the ruins, they couldn’t figure it out and usually had to use other materials to hold the stones in place. It is so unbelievably obvious what is original and what isn’t. The original walls are seamless, all the stones perfectly fit together, while the restorations look messy and don’t fit well together at all.

The Incas also built everything at an angle (I think 13 degrees?) that made it so everything wouldn’t fall down in earthquakes. And the entire city was supported by all these incredible terraces all around the mountain. It was absolutely amazing.

Climbing up Wayna Picchu

Climbing up Wayna Picchu

Then it was time for us to climb Wayna Picchu. Again, this is the mountain that you always see in the classic pictures of Machu Picchu. The climb was supposed to take 45 minutes to an hour, though it took Dad and I a little less. The mountain is really intimidating though! It’s a steep mountain, and it’s all steps all the way up. I would love (now) to know how many! And they’re not just regular steps, they’re often so steep and narrow that you have to use these ropes and cables to help yourself climb up them. We were a bit skeptical, but we decided to take on the challenge!

And in the end we were so glad we did! The climb seemed less difficult than we’d expected, and we really only had to stop a few times to catch our breath. I think it would have somehow seemed ten times harder if we had climbed the same thing with regular flights of stairs, instead of the crazy varying stone steps of the mountain.

Dad climbing through the tunnel

Dad climbing through the tunnel

Finally we reached the beginning of the end, where the ruins at the top begin. Here is where I started to get really intimidated, starting to really worry about the climb down! The steps were unbelievably steep and narrow here, and we even at one point had to climb up through this tiny tunnel and up a little wooden ladder at the end. Luckily we found out later that there was a separate way down, as there was no way you could feasibly make it down that way, let alone if you were meeting people coming up along the way!

View from the top of Wayna Picchu

View from the top of Wayna Picchu

The views from the top were incredible. The ruins seemed so far away and tiny down below us. And we could see all around us in the valley. Jungle and the river way, way down below, huge lush mountains on all sides. It was amazing.

We hung out and explored up there for a while, then took the long climb down (I think actually less pleasant than the climb up!) and took off to explore the rest of the ruins. We explored what was left of the ruins that we hadn’t visited on our tour earlier, and then headed to the beginning.

Hanging out in an Inca window

Hanging out in an Inca window

I guess we are gluttons for punishment, because before we knew it we were climbing up and up to the top of the other side of the ruins, for the classic picture/view of Machu Picchu. And even then we still kept climbing. We only stopped short of visiting the Sun Gate, which was just a bit too much for us to handle in one day.

Up at the terraces at the top there were llamas wandering and just amazing views of Machu Picchu and Wayna Picchu. We picked a terrace and sat and relaxed for a bit. Before we knew it it was almost noon, six hours in the ruins, and we went to catch the bus back to town. Again our timing was perfect, and as we boarded the bus it started to rain.  We got back to town and had a nice lunch of alpaca before heading to the train station to get the train back to Ollantaytambo.

Llamas at the top of the ruins

Llamas at the top of the ruins

The train ride was long, and Dad and I ended up having seats in separate carriages. After trading seats three times to allow various couples to sit together (apparently PeruRail has trouble seating people together!) I ended up on the opposite side of the train from the rest of the group, but next to a nice French guy on a RTW trip who gave me some tips on Ecuador.

Back in Ollantaytambo (or rather, the next station after because the center of Ollanta and the connecting road were closed for restoration — lucky I went on my Sacred Valley tour when I did!) we got back in the van and returned to Cusco.

Machu Picchu!

Machu Picchu!

Dad and I were pretty exhausted from the day, but still managed to make it to the Plaza de Armas for a nice dinner and a bottle of wine! Again we tried to get to bed at a decent hour so we could get up early for breakfast the next morning.

Which brings my long tale to its end. Today we had a nice (insanely huge) breakfast at Jack’s Cafe. We relaxed in the courtyard of our hotel for a bit, and then it was time to say goodbye. The past five days seemed to have flown by, but at the same time Monday seems like ages ago! It was a really great trip though, and I was really sad to see Dad go.

I’m back at my original hostel again, but of course it’s all different people now and things are never quite the same. Today was just relaxing and healing from the trek, and tomorrow will be laundry and last minute sightseeing. Sunday night I will be off to Nazca or Huacachina to see the Nazca Lines, maybe do some sandboarding, and just relax at this desert oasis for a bit.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Mark Taft permalink
    October 25, 2009 1:03 pm

    Not sure how you remembered all those details! Off to Germany now. I had a great time!! It was just tooooooo short!

    Keep in touch as you move on.


  2. November 6, 2009 8:12 pm

    Rachael and Mark:

    I am a friend of Diane Price, who sent me the link to your website. I enjoyed reading your experience to Machu Picchu tremendously. I have personally made the trip there twice, first 40 years ago and most recently about 8 years ago. I used to live in Lima until ’71 when I married and came to live in Ohio, but my whole family is still there.

    I did not get do the Inca Trail – instead we took the train both times and it was a wonderful experience as well for the scenery is fantastic.

    Rachael, you definitely have a gift for writing. I could almost feel myself there with you and your Dad reading your script.

    Thanks to Diane for sharing this with me. Regards,

    Anita Ischay

  3. December 27, 2010 4:19 am

    I’ve been enjoying reading through your S. America posts this morning. We are planning our trip for late 2011, and your descriptions and photos are such fun. So great that your dad was able to join you on the trek. Thanks very much for all of your fabulous info.

  4. Peter Prisegem permalink
    November 17, 2012 9:39 pm

    How did you train for this hike?

    • November 21, 2012 3:24 pm


      I personally didn’t do a lot to prepare for this hike, but I had been traveling and doing a lot of walking for about a month beforehand and had completed a strenuous hike a week or so before this one.

      My dad, on the other hand, worked out pretty rigorously (above and beyond his usual exercise routine) the whole month leading up to the trek.

      Many of the others in our group had done a number of practice hikes in the months leading up to it.

      One of the keys to preparing is arriving at least a day or two before your hike to adjust to the altitude, and bring altitude sickness pills with you just in case. We didn’t experience any problems with this, but it can be a big problem for some people.

      Of course also be sure to have a good pair of shoes (hiking boots are preferred so you don’t roll your ankle on loose rocks, but I did it in sneakers) and the proper clothing to deal being cold, sweaty or rained on.

  5. Frankie permalink
    May 8, 2013 11:42 am

    First of all, I must quote Anita Ischay “Rachael, you definitely have a gift for writing. I could almost feel myself there with you and your Dad reading your script.” I’m from Peru but I couldn’t visit Machu Picchu until this year, it is a fantastic experience. I couldn’t afford to buy tickets to climb Wayna Picchu but we will do it in the future that’s what my mom promisd to us (my sister and I). There’s only one thing I didn’t like about being in Machu Picchu is that I walked for almost 30 minutes to see an “amazing” Inca’s bridge which it wasn’t amazing at all, I wonder if you take that way too.

    Thx for this post, I’m sorry for my english if there’s any mistake, greetings.


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