The last 4 days might have been the best of my trip so far.
I did a trek through the Lares Valley through a tour company here in Cuzco. I originally thought about doing the classic Inca Trail, but I didn't reserve in time (they only give 400 permits a day for the trail, and it fills up fast) but I'm really glad it worked out this way. The Lares Valley is here in the Sacred Valley of the Inca, and is actually a longer trip (52K instead of 33K) and goes over higher passes. It is more of a cultural trek too, going through indigenous villages instead of just a trail. And while on the Inca trail you have to camp in designated spots with hundreds of other people, in Lares it was just our little group. Also, horses aren't allowed on the Inca Trail, but our porters could use them, meaning they could carry a lot and we didn't have to.
My group consisted of 5 New Zealand women, a couple from Holland, a British man who lives in Sydney, myself, and our guide Javier, who is fluent in English, Spanish, and Quechua. The first day we left Cuzco early and wound our way up into the valley by bus. At one point the road was so muddy that the bus couldn't pass, so we got out there and started walking to the trailhead. It was a steep, beautiful climb up the treeless hillside, definitely hard to breathe at over 11,000 feet. We got to a lake which was our lunch spot and rested while the cooks cooked. I was shocked when we rounded the corner and saw the table, tablecloth, and chairs set up for us in such a remote place. It was surreal. We drank coca tea and had a delicious meal of fried garlic bread, asparagus soup, veggie stir fry, avocado salad, beef, and rice. Another steep hike led us to a pass of 4,400 meters, or over 14,000 feet. Along the way we passed local kids, around 5-12 years old, many of whom were tending the family llamas, walking by themselves over these massive hills. Javier talked to them in Quechua, their first language, although they also speak Spanish from learning it in school. We gave them school supplies and candy, which they promptly tucked under their ponchos. To adults we passed we gave a handful of coca leaves, universally chewed and appreciated. When we got to camp, our tents, pads, and sleeping bags were already set up, as well as warm bowls of water by our tent to wash up with. The night cooled off quickly and they set up a dining tent, warm and light inside, and we drank hot chocolate and ate popcorn before dinner.
Our 5:30 wake up was a little easier with hot tea brought to the tents. Little details like that made the trip so luxious. We had some crazy temperature extremes, as seems to be the theme down here. By mid-morning it started pelting rain, and as we crossed the next pass, was snowing. But then by early afternoon it was hot and sunny again and at lunch we slathered on the sunscreen. We passed chinchilas, and I learned to tell the difference between llamas, alpacas, and vicuñas. We got to the highest point I've ever been, 14,800 feet. As we descended toward camp in the hot sun, we mentioned how nice a cold beer would be, but of course there are only stone huts, animals, and fields of high altitude potatos in these parts. Lo and behold, when we got to camp, the local women had set out their usual artisan wares on the grass, as well as bottles of beer next to the scarves. It was a funny place to find a bar, but we weren't complaining.
The 3rd day was a lot of walking in the hot sun, but mostly downhill as we headed to the town of Ollantaytambo. We had a feast of chicken noodle soup, fried eggplant, cheesey potatoes, beans, fried rice, chicken breast stuffed with cheese and roasted red peppers, and peaches for dessert. We said goodbye to the cooks and porters who had made this such a ridiculously comfortable trek. From there we caught the train to Aguas Calientes, or Machu Picchu city. We had dinner, took showers, and went to bed early.
We got up at 4:30 in order to get to Machu Picchu well before sunrise. We all wanted to climb Wayna Picchu, which is the big peak you see towering over the ruins. They only allow 400 people up there a day, and sometimes by 9am the trail has already met this quota. So we tromped up there early, climbing the steep, original Inca stone steps to the top where we had an Easter morning picnic. I think it's very symbolic of South America that we went to Machu Picchu on Easter- the combining of Christian with indigenous.
A little about the place... it was built by the Inca (really the Quechua people, Inca is just what the kings were called and so the Spanish started calling the people that too) in the 1400's. It was abandoned when the Spaniards came in the 1530's, perhaps even before. Local farmers knew of it, but it wasn't officially "rediscovered" until an American professor stumbled upon it in 1911. 70% of what we see now is original, the rest has been restored. The name Machu Picchu means Old Mountain, while neighboring Waynu Picchu means Young Mountain. Make sure to pronounce both cc's in Picchu, like Pikchu, otherwise you are really saying penis in Quechua. There are architectural designs that coincide with the light from both the summer and winter solstices. One of them is a sun dial that casts a shadow over the eyes of a stone puma on the winter solstice. Unfortunately, Cusqueño beer company filmed a commercial there a few years ago, and a camera fell on the sun dial and broke it. So now no more precise solstice shadow.