(Throwback Thursdays are a new feature here at asthejoeflies. They are stories from my travel experiences with zero regard to miles and points. Hopefully they inspire you, either to these destinations or beyond!)
My love for the television show An Idiot Abroad is well documented. The first episode I remember watching in full was actually the first series finale – where Karl Pilkington hikes the entire Inca Trail only to not enter Machu Pichhu (he couldn’t be bothered).
That episode made me really want to hike the Inca Trail, but by the time my family had gotten our stuff together it was too late – the Inca Trail is capacity controlled and we weren’t going to be able to hike it.
So in lieu of the Inca Trail, we opted to hike the Lares Trek – one of many different hikes through the Andes in and around Machu Picchu. Although we would not get the chance to see as many Incan ruins as we would have on the Inca Trail, the Lares Trek did have some positives: we weren’t as limited in the amount of baggage we could carry and our guide could vary the pace of the hike as necessary. Here are some memories from those memorable two days in the Andes.
Altitude sickness is real
We ended up booking a tour through Gap Adventures. There are cheaper tours out there and you can set things up even cheaper if you don’t set things up until you get in the country but we didn’t know any better in 2011.
We flew into Lima and stayed there a night (I wasn’t particularly impressed with the city though some love it). After that we spent two nights in Cusco before setting off on our hike. Cusco sits at an elevation of about 3400 m about sea level, which translates to a little bit more than two miles.
As soon as we got to Cusco we started feeling the results of the thinner air. I was fairly in shape at the time but I was completely out of breath after walking up two flights of stairs. Jess had it even worse – she either got sick or was so affected by the altitude that she almost didn’t make the hike.
There’s a lot of stuff to see and enjoy in Cusco, so if you’re planning on doing one of the many possible hikes, I’d recommend spending at least three days in Cusco so your body can acclimate to the lower oxygen levels.
There is an emergency ride if you can’t handle the hike
We did our hike over the course of two days and two nights in tents, reaching a peak altitude of 4,550 meters (2.8 miles). As you get to the higher altitudes, the lack of oxygen starts kicking in really hard. For reference, we hiked up 800 meters higher than we had at Mount Fuji.
Although the hiking itself isn’t difficult, the altitude sickness can have a major effect. It can start to feel really rough – luckily, Gap Adventures provided an “emergency donkey ride” for those who were really feeling it. One member of our tour group rode it. At some point near the summit, I saw some people looking at me like “that guy’s gonna need a ride next.”
“No way,” I said to myself. I powered through the end of the hike and was rewarded with an amazing view. Really the best parts of the hike were the amazing views, as I’ve said elsewhere, the Andes are truly spectacular. They made the altitude sickness completely worth it.
Sledding in the Andes is a lot of fun
After we summited we had a real treat. In what I found out was a fairly rare occurrence, the entire mountain was covered with snow as we were hiking up. That gave us the great opportunity to sled down the Andes! We all took our plastic ponchos and used them as makeshift sleds. It was a LOT of fun.
So fun, in fact, that I actually climbed back up to go down a second time. No emergency donkey necessary! It was just one of those chance events that happen when you travel that stick with you, one of the reasons I love traveling.
Camping in the Andes is unforgettable
One thing I wasn’t too sure about when we signed up for this trip was camping outside, something I had never experienced before. Gap Adventures provided all the tents and set them up, but I still wasn’t sure what it was going to be like sleeping outside. We also were hiking in July, aka the winter.
For starters, I was freezing that night. Did you know that most tents have two zippers – one to just close up and one for insulation? We were not aware and thus spent a super chilly night because of it.
Other than that little hiccup though, camping in the Andes was a wonderful experience. After eating a nicely prepared meal by the tour’s cooks (not quite glamping but we definitely weren’t roughing it), I just marveled at the beautiful stars with the Andes backdrop. Jess and I spent a few minutes in silence just taking it all in, it was truly breathtaking.
The next morning we woke up to a beautiful sunrise, again made more dramatic by the backdrop. The best thing about it all was how serene the whole experience was. Peaceful, quiet, beautiful. Truly magnificent.
In the end, hiking the Lares Trek felt just as rewarding as I imagine the Inca Trail would have been. This was partially due to the snow (rare), and also partially due to the fact that Machu Picchu had enough Incan ruins to satisfy my appetite. I wouldn’t go far as to say the Lares Trek is definitely as good, but I think it is definitely worth a try if you don’t get a spot on the Inca Trail.
We didn’t get the iconic walk through the Sun Door (we took a train to Aguas Calientes at the base of Machu Picchu before having one more adventure, possibly the subject of another post). In retrospect, I also feel the Salkantay Trek looks worthwhile.
Machu Picchu is wonderful in and of itself, but its the hikes that truly helped me appreciate the beauty of the Andes. The entire experience, from the difficult altitude, to sledding, to stargazing in the Andes, is one I will always cherish.
Previously on TBT…