By 4:15am I was up showered, and rearing to go. By 5am I was on a coach with 4 other trekkers, our porters, and guide, winding up towards the Pumawanka Valley – the starting point of our Lares Trek. Over breakfast we interrogated our guide with “What happens if…?” and “Have you ever had to..?” questions, and after hearing some near-death horror stories, suddenly it felt like a anvil was strapped to my chest. “Shit” I thought, “what if I’m not fit enough for this?” I pondered, but it was faaaar too late to turn back, and little did I know my fitness levels were the last thing I needed to worry about…
So onwards and upwards we went; we started at 2,800m and wouldn’t be heading down until we reached a wopping 4,780m the next day. The first day wasn’t easy, and I was feeling very weak, but overall felt pretty good. On our way to lunch we passed a fish farm, some waterfalls, the rural village of Puyoc, and some pre-Incan ruins. As the path got dustier the ascent got harder, and by lunch time (some 4 hours later), we were all absolutely knackered. After a one and half hour lunch break (which consisted of eating a 3 course meal, and a well deserved nap), longing for our beds we marched on for a few more hours before reaching camp, and we did it in really good time as well! We feasted on another 3 course meal, played some card, and listened to a few more stories from our guide Elvis. Before we sat down to dine I could hear a horn being blown in the distance repeatedly, so naturally I asked Elvis what was going on, who kindly informed me we might be in for a visit from some Pumas…. yes, PUMAS. Apparently the whole Incas worshipping the Puma thing didn’t quite click with me before this; I didn’t realise Pumas actually lived in the PUMAwanka valley I was camping in that night. “It’s okay” he said, “that’s why we have the dogs, they will protect us” he said.
As tranquil as the setting was (how often do you get to camp next to a waterfall?) I didn’t sleep very well that night, especially seeing as the two canines seemed to get very, very angry and something right by my tent in the early hours of the morning…
Anyway, I survived my night in Puma territory and awoke feeling rotten. I couldn’t stomach breakfast and ended up with my guide making me smell some alcohol solution to get me to throw up, and I wasn’t the only one. Me and one other trekker had fallen ill, and there was only one emergency mule to help us out. So I trooped on, but after an hour the air was thin and I was shaking and weak. So, yes, I had no choice but to do the final stretch on a mule. I was angry at myself, but with a virus in my tummy and a visit from mother nature I didn’t have much choice, and I certainly wasn’t about to turn back when the finish line was in sight. I felt much better after some rest (albeit on the back of a mule), and the view from the Sicclakasa pass was worth it all. On one side was the luscious green Scared Valley, and on the other was pure jagged rock and scattered blue lakes, all wedged between snow capped mountains, including Salkantay “The Savage”. We rested for short while, took many many photos, and had our guide tell us about the history of the pass (which included child sacrifices). The next leg of the trek followed a steep path down into the Lares Valley. It was a long while before we started to see life again, as not much can survive for long and well at that altitude. The first critter I saw was a Viscachas, a rabbit like chinchilla, scurrying through the rocks by one of the many many lakes. We passed Andean shepherdesses, children and their Mothers herding alpacas, llamas, and sheep. They stared at us, smiled, and wished us good day. As excited as they seemed to be about our visit, I couldn’t help but feel guilty for being an intruder in their otherwise secluded existence.
Since we were making good time and out guide deemed us to be speedy enough for the challenge, we decided that we would walk all the way to the Hot Springs instead of camping at Cucani that evening. Having to go through nearly 3 hours of your guide telling you “We’re nearly there” and “not long now”, before concluding with “we would have got there in that time, but you guys are tired and are slowing down” was torture, especially seeing as by this point I was was having to pull my legs up hills because my hip flexes had ceased to work. We may have had to spend the last half an hour hiking through woodland, downhill, in the dark with cows standing in our way, but boy oh boy was the pain worth it. Our final night in the valley was spent camped by the Lares Hot Springs. Not only did this mean heating for the night, but also a long awaited morning dip in 40 degree spring water. Our muscles were soothed and we all felt miles better for it. After breakfast we packed up our things, generously tipped our wonderful porters, and jumped in the mini van and made our way down
deadly windy roads to Aguas Calientes.
My final verdict? Before you ever consider signing up to it, don’t be fooled: you really do need to be in pretty good shape, and you must allow yourself plenty of time to acclimatise before you dare attempt it. I had been in Cusco for nearly 3 weeks and I could still feel the altitude take its toll. Had I gone on my first weekend, I probably would have collapsed almost immediately, which is a pretty dangerous risk considering there are no hospitals or medical professionals near, and you literally are putting your life in the hands of a guide with a first aid kit and a mule to carry you up the pass. It was painful and exhausting, but was nevertheless a thrilling and beautiful experience. I was unlucky to have caught a virus, but given the chance would I re-live the whole experience again, virus and all? Hell yeah!
Finally, GO WITH A SUSTAINABLE AND ETHICAL AGENCY. The maltreatment of porters is far too widespread in Peru, and there are many many tour providers that are able to offer cheap treks precisely because of this. Your porters carry a lot your equipment, your food, set up your tents, and a chef cooks you delicious meals 3 times a day. I went with Llama Path, a sustainable tourism operator set up by an ex porter and guide, and I would certainly recommend them! Even before I flew out to Peru they were very helpful, promptly answering all of my many many questions, and I felt safe the whole time. And well, our guide put up with two sick girls and did very well to take care of us, and I feel very bad for putting him through that (thanks again Elvis!).
* Turns out I was actually suffering from undiagnosed chronic anaemia the entire time. With pretty low haemoglobin, and chronically low iron levels (2 to be precise, I’d almost run dry!), at an altitude where oxygen feels scarce, my doctor was shocked I even attempted the trek at all. Only now I’m taking iron do I realise just how low my energy levels had dropped over the past few months… Woopsie!