This spring I finally met Machu Picchu. Through cold nights, vibrant story-telling and the trek of a lifetime, Alex and I adventured through the Lares Valley on a 4-day private trek to Machu Picchu with an excellent tour guide from Valencia Travel Cusco.
Alex, our guide, grew up in one of the nearby valleys. And though human connection always proves strongest, we were surprised at not only how quickly we got along, but how powerfully we bonded. Alex showed a deep love and appreciation for his people and the history of the land. It was a quality that I could never forget.
Valencia Travel Cusco is a locally owned and employed travel company that provides comprehensive services with professional, English-speaking guides and a true dedication to customer service. Upon arrival, we were provided with two nights at a three-star hotel, complimentary walking tour of Cusco, and pre-trek briefing.
Alex (the guide) came prepared with our duffle bags and pre-ordered sleeping bags, as well as tips and words of encouragement for our upcoming journey. We went to sleep early, after eating a good meal, and woke up at 5:00 the next morning ready to embark on a world of history in the Andes Mountains.
View my photo review below for an insider's scoop on the trek and hear my final recommendation!
After what seemed like too short of a drive to our starting point, I sleepily bundled my jacked, packed candies into my pocket for energy, and took a sip of water. We hiked up an easy-level path and reached Patacancha, a protected archeological zone. This is where Alex began the storytelling. What was beautiful about his method of guiding was his emphasis on knowing and understanding the story as you embark on the challenging journey. Instead of cramming information at Machu Picchu and hiking in silence, he aimed to introduce us to the land that was to become our stomping grounds and home for the next few days.
As we began to acclimate to our surroundings and feel the slow burn of our fresh hike, we couldn't help but giggle at the strong porters zooming past us. These locals were to be our team for the trip and helped load the horses to carry our goods, port-a-potty, food, and camping gear.
We were quite impressed with their skill and couldn't help but feel briefly inferior! I guess that's the beauty of the trek right? To realize how amazing the people of this valley are, and the powerful, strong ancestors they hail from.
The trek began with smiles but smiles began to fade as I realized how quickly the weather could change. Don't get me wrong, Alex and Valencia Travel were all too adamant about weather forewarning, I just didn't realize it'd be so sudden!
And just like that, with every turn came a different season. I experienced sunshine and heat, cold rain, and hail all within 20 minutes of each other! And as I struggled toggling between my folded poncho, gloves, and hat, I observed the occasional wild dog or local woman going about their day.
What I loved the most, though, were those clouds. The fog that creeped up on us unknowingly. The clouds that embraced our shivers and cleared just when we began to feel lost without clear sight of what lies ahead. The power of nature!
No matter the weather, it always seemed to clear up just in time for meal break! Everyday we stopped halfway through our journey for lunch and ended our hike just in time for dinner. Our first lunch caught me by surprise! I didn't realize how glamorous Valencia Travel would set up the campsite. It was truly "glamping"!
I'll admit I initially felt as if I was cheating. I was used to minimalist camping and though seeing a food/kitchen tent set up was nice, the port-a-potty tent completely threw me for a loop! Whoa. I had never seen a bathroom tent before. I was too busy scouting a rock to squat behind when Alex pointed out the bathroom tent. Okay, I thought - I can squat in the tent. Nope. There was an actual potty in there too!
Let's just say I got used to this upscale camping very quickly. I realized that Valencia Travel truly wants everyone to enjoy their treks and puts a big effort into making it worth every penny.
Then there was our chef, Freddy. His culniary skills were magical and he could whip up a feast from scraps if he needed to! Once he found out I loved avocado, it was over. Extra avocado for me at. all. times.
The amount of food was more than enough and there were times I felt it was actually too much! After every lunch I just wanted to nap... forever... and not go back on the hike. We were lucky that Alex was extremely accommodating and allow us to rest for 30 minutes before going on.
Once rested, the team pack up our belongings as quickly as they set it up and we continued our journey to get to the highest point of the trek at nearly 15,000 feet. I was glad we were able to arrive in Cusco 3 days beforehand and acclimate a bit to the altitude. Even with acclimation, we struggled!
Once at the peak, we began to make our descent, as we fought the approaching nightfall. We made it to the campsite in time to eat dinner and used our inflatable lantern we brought from home to keep our kitchen tent brightly lit.
Our first night was unbearably freezing. With three layers of socks and clothing on, and a full-body winter sleeping bag, I could barely sleep more than three hours at a time. I found it uncomfortable to be zipped in the sleeping bag while it encompassed my whole body. Although I knew it was better for heat retention, I felt trapped inside! Sleep finally came and I woke to a knock at our tent offering hot tea and breakfast. As I unzipped our tent, drops of water from the night's frost fell in front of me and I was grateful to see the morning sun and blue sky!
We were grateful for our team and the effort they continuously made to make us feel comfortable. Nevertheless, I didn't know we would fall in love with their children too!
Before the trek we were told to purchase candies, coca, and medicine to share with the locals we pass by along the way. Giving all that candy to children bothered me a bit, as I wondered how much nutrition were they really getting in the mountains? Perhaps it is not my place to wonder these things, but I couldn't help it. There are thousands of different potatoes harvested so no shortage of that, but what else? Fruits and vegetables surely aren't easy to procure or harvest, are they?
So instead of only giving candy, I provided apples and bananas to two very cute children. As I befriended them and taught them how to take selfies, because I'm a tourist - duh, I learned that one of the porters was their father!
Isabel, the daughter, spoke Spanish well (Quechua is their first language) and told me how much she liked the banana and my phone. She also told me she lived in a big house with her grandmother and family. I am not sure how accurate the translation or facts were but it was good enough.
She pointed to the mound of earth ahead of us and indicated the house was right around the mountain. In my head: oh right around the block. Like a NYC block.
Nope, nope, nope.
Alex told us to follow her so we could see the house. Next thing I knew, she was walking faster than a speeding bullet and only giggled at my requests to walk slower. She was excited to show us her home and the altitude and incline of the mountain was a walk in the park for her.
So we followed. And huffed. And puffed. But got there.
A suddenly, just like that - after being greeted by protective wild dogs - we had friends in the high andes.
Isabel's grandmother taught us weaving as Isabel sat beside her, proudly watching. We entered their low ceilinged home, to meet her grandfather: a man with many guinea pigs! He showed us his tools and small furniture, proudly. We left them with cold medicines, coca leaves, and candies, thanking them for their hospitality and for sharing their culture with us.
There was something special about our walks now. Something that reminded me why I chose the Lares Trek instead of the Inca Trail.
It was the cultural immersion. The experience. The ability to walk through the highlands and see people in their natural daily routine without putting on a tourist show. It was beautiful and raw and I felt like I took a step back in time disguised as a fly on the wall observing long standing traditions and ways of life (even beyond the Inca) that I could only stand and admire.
I began to feel as if I was cherishing the trek more than the anticipation to arrive at Machu Picchu. At one point I no longer even cared about Machu Picchu. I just wanted to BE. To take in the cold. The rain. The hail. The warmth. The smells. The sights. I felt so free.
And then reality hit. And I felt cold. And tired. And my toes began to really hurt.
All in time for the Lares hot springs!
Instead of heading to the overcrowded, touristy Aguas Calientes baths, Valencia Travel arranges its treks to experience local hot springs in Lares. We camped inside the grounds and had 24 hour access to 6 large, soothing hot baths (with a smell of sulfur) at various degrees of heat. We started off in the coolest one and worked our way to the second hottest. The first was too hot for me!
It was interesting to observe locals strip down to their underwear for a dip and get back dressed to go about their day. At first I felt like I was intruding, as a tourist, but they seem to not even notice me. So I slipped in and relaxed my limbs.
After a relaxing night camping at the hot springs, we packed our camp one last time for our last trek before heading to Machu Picchu. This day's trek was the easiest, as it was almost all downhill and a lot warmer weather. I felt like a pro!
We finally arrived at Aguas Calientes for a night's stay before our trip after a smooth train ride into town. Dinner in town was included with our package, so we met up with Alex for a bite and briefing.
The next day, we got on the long line for the buses that take you up the mountain and after a long awaited journey, finally saw the highly acclaimed Machu Picchu!
My report? It's exactly like it looks in the pictures. No doctoring needed for this beauty.
With our package, we were provided with a 2-hour tour of Machu Picchu. We walked through one half of the site (the other half is not allowed for full tours) as Alex made the connections between the stories he shared during our trek and the archeological wonder before our eyes. He described what certain rooms were for, and the traditional reasons and purposes for every stone, height, and window.
His insight was beyond impressive and we were able to easily visualize the stories and facts he shared.
After our tour, we were given a few hours to explore the other side of the site on our own. I must say, we missed having him there! Instead we tried to piece together the history, just as he taught us, on our own.
It was still a bit shocking that we were there in the first place!
Overall, this tour to Machu Picchu surpassed my expectations. Well, because it's Machu Picchu. But here's my real review:
- The Tour Company: I enjoyed using Valencia Travel Cusco. Every staff member was professional and my needs were always met immediately. Though the tour company may be a bit pricier than other companies listed, you will be sure that you receive superior service, delicious meals, quality camping gear, and a top notch guide. That is a huge deal. Many of the other companies do not guarantee all of this. I also love that Valencia Travel is a 100% local company. Not only that, but every employee that I encountered seemed extremely happy with their job and their managers, and that is quite reflective of the company. Support good, local businesses.
- The Lares Trek: everyone has their preference, but if you are interested in true cultural immersion and want to stay far from large crowds and bustling trails, the Lares Trek is the one to choose. I couldn't believe how much of the trek we had solely to ourselves! On our last day we past a small group and I felt angry and selfish that they would dare share my trail! :-) Having a peaceful four days away from other tourists made the experience even more worthwhile!
- The Guide: I can't imagine anyone other than Alex leading a group through the Lares Valley. This is his HOME! He is totally in his element and if, God forbid, anything bad was to happen on the trek, I would fully and wholeheartedly trust that he could take care of it. Also, you can count on Alex to teach you some Quechua!
I hope this snippet into my journey helped! Stay tuned for more Machu Picchu tips and opinions in the coming months! Also, if you're feeling completely lost, check out my checklist for things you should know before your South America trip.
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