Mind Over Matter: My Lares Trek

Let the record show that I have never really been disciplined, especially with regards to physical pursuits. I quit the Track & Field team in Secondary 1 to join Debate, not because “I talk faster than I run”, like I told everyone, but because I hated the 10km warm-ups in the Botanic Gardens. I cried all the way to the top of some mountain in Tauranga, New Zealand in 2008, an experience everyone else on the trip seemed to find “so easy.” More recently, in 2012, I stepped into the gym just six times. (My last gym experience of the year involved me running at a speed of 9.6 miles/hour — for 2 minutes, after which I swear I thought my heart was going to cave in.)

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At Pachacutec Pass, the highest point of our trek at 4,758 meters

The last lesson I learned in 2012, a simple one often found in motivational books but that stuck with me this time, is: YOU ARE STRONGER THAN YOU THINK YOU ARE. In 3 days, I trekked over 40km (or 25 miles) in steep, shaky, cowpat-laden terrain. At times the weather was blazing hot, at others, freezing cold. I got altitude sickness, sunstroke, and I sprained my ankle. But I did it. I can’t think of a better way to have ended the year.

The trek brought us through the Lares Valley, a picturesque, undulating journey along the Andean range. Our guide, Hever, told us the day before we started that we’d experience “four seasons in one day.” At that time, I thought it was just some tour guide covering his ass for inclement weather and disappointed spirits. Well, we got rain, sun and even snow all within the first four hours of our hike. That made the trek tough, but the route compensates by taking you through beautiful rock formations, peaceful flowing rivers, and operating farms and villages.

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As proud as I am of myself for completing the trek, I must clarify that we lived rather luxuriously. The seven of us (6 in our group + an Australian) had four porters to carry our backpacks, as well as a horsemen who led horses who carried more things. At every evening’s checkpoint, we’d arrive to a campsite with all our tents (lined with foam mattresses) set up and, get this, a private “bathroom”: a dug hole covered by a tent with just enough standing room. Did I mention we had a chef as well?

You didn't think we'd be eating tinned food, did you?

You didn’t think we’d be eating tinned food, did you? Or roasting pig over a fire?

But luxury or not, it’s your own two feet that has to get you up to the top. By the end of the trek, I was grateful we weren’t early enough to opt for the approximately 88 km-long Inca Trail, the original routes that the Incans used to make their way to and out of Cusco (which also leads to Machu Picchu). From the get-go, Hever said that the most important thing to have on the trip was a positive mind. I mean, this was the guy who was telling me that “altitude sickness is imaginary” as I was puking my guts out. (Lest you think he was a callous man… He was not. And while I did want to glare at him when he told me that, I liked the idea of thinking I had total responsibility over my mental and physical well-being — so essential to the trip.)

Picture taken by Sherlyn Chen; Hever offering me some gross smelling salts after a dizzy spell

Picture taken by Sherlyn Chen; Hever offering me some gross smelling salts after a dizzy spell

Most of Day 1 was effortless, fun even, for me until I got altitude sickness — when the wave of nausea hit, my legs felt like lead and I started to snap at Alan, wondering where the hell how campsite was. You have no idea how relieved I was to see the pink ‘roof’ of our giant tent after what really felt like an eternity. Poor Alan had to endure my grumpy, sullen face and motivate me while suffering from “soroche” himself! (Not sure if it’s age or what, but none of the 20-year-olds felt the nausea and headaches to the extent we did.)

Not our Day 1 checkpoint, but just to show you a picture of the giant tent kitchen-cum-dining room

Not our Day 1 checkpoint, but just to show you a picture of the giant tent kitchen-cum-dining room

Thankfully, miraculously, after flopping down onto our foam mattress and sleeping bag and just giving into a 15-minute nap (although it felt like an hour), I felt much better. I didn’t know at the time that the migrane-y feelings would come rushing back the next day, but the respite gave me the peace to just appreciate the amount of climbing, and more importantly, the out-of-this-world scenery that I had seen that day.

It was cool, because we had gone from this scene — something not too spectacular, just greenery that you could probably find in Macritchie Park…

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To finding ourselves at these tambos — old Incan rest-stops set amidst high Andean slopes…

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To ethereal scenes from Prometheus or something: smooth, black, looming rocks and misty The Hobbit landscapes:

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But I think everyone’s favorite interaction of the day was with the llama / alpaca, a camwhoring creature if I ever saw one — it kept turning around to angle its head in certain directions, not unlike kawaii-inspired poses.

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Still, when Day 2 rolled around, I was exhausted. The hills were already steep, and we had to venture another 600 meters in height. Even though I had a relatively good sleep (can’t say the same for Alan, who woke up thrice cos of various bodily responses to the altitude, or Matt, whose sleeping bag got soaked by the rain), I found it difficult to lift my head… That made it easier for me to notice that the ground had turned from a wet green to a white, snow-crusted path. It didn’t make it any less laborious getting from A to B — but sometimes the trick is to just take step by step, and eventually you’ll get there. (Now I just need to apply this lesson to School and Work.)

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Climbing this stretch lined with gnarly, burnt-looking trees reminded us of the Lord of the Rings

Getting to the summit was tough. Everytime Hever pointed out a landmark that would demarcate where we were (that waterfall is the halfway mark, etc), I groaned at how far away they were. My breaths became shallow but I had to remind myself to breathe in through the nose so I’d get my oxygen. The worse stretch was climbing a rocky, seemingly vertical path. We could see the top — it looked light years away. Sure, there were beautiful aquamarine lakes for us to take pictures by, but I must admit I felt defeated. Two of our party had to take the horse, and I pity the animal, because the “road” was slippery!

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Alan’s altitude sickness got so bad we insisted he take the horse

Meanwhile, Julia and I watched as our athletic friends Matt and Jo bounced ahead. We two were determined Not to Take the Horse… And we trudged. Wah. It was tough. Everytime we thought we were nearing the End, there’d be a bend revealing more road, more steps we would have to lift our knees 90 degrees to in order to take (of course we didn’t know that in a few days, Machu Picchu Mountain would all test our patience and determination, but that’s another story). It was nice to have her around, both of us trying to encourage each other and keep our spirits up. And then the people at the top (mostly the ridiculously fast, scampering porters), who seemed tiny way at the bottom when we started, got bigger and bigger. Finally, we reached Pachacutec Pass (4,758 meters) — tired, unfabulous, but accomplished.

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I think the total number of times both of us went to the gym last year still amounts to less than 10

From then on, the journey would take us down. You’d think that’d be easier but instead, I suddenly got overwhelmed by painful headaches and nausea. So did Alan. We suspect it was the sudden drop of altitude (you can’t win). But I felt better after Hever gave me this bottle of blue Powerade to drink (the isotonic concoction had such a miraculous effect on my body that for the rest of the trip I’d buy it as soon as I saw it). The new lease on life, however, was short-lived. Just less than 800 meters away from our campsite, I landed on the side of my ankle and sprained it. After that, it was game over: one of the poor porters had to carry me on his back , climbing down jagged rocks. Post-lunch, I sat atop a horse — which wasn’t as fun as I thought it’d be.

Photo by Sherlyn Chen

Photo by Sherlyn Chen

For one, there were no reins. For two, we’d going down these super inclined slopes that didn’t seem to have any traction in sight. Every trot I thought I was going to slide into my death. So while, yes, I skipped out on two to three more hours of hiking, I spent an hour trembling in fear. I was immensely grateful to reach our campsite, where I was just gobsmacked to see that our porters, who left waaaaaay later than all of us to dismantle everything at our lunch stop, had set up most of our things already.

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I attempted to be helpful and tried folding paper napkins for the chef. He asked me if I knew how to make cranes, and I just gave him this O.O face. Then he tried to teach me some patterns to make the napkin resemble a tent or something. Suffice to say, I did the bare minimum, and I think we all regretted my offering of help. Instead, I tried to do what I was good at, like talk to kids or something.

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Finally, everyone arrived. This was the day that we had a “real toilet” — inasmuch as you could call it one. It was a concrete hole somewhere off our campsite. Still no flush but hey. Except one step into that area is like, I don’t know, probably what hell smells like or something. Plus somebody pooped on the spot where you were supposed to put your feet (WHO AH?? OWN UP!). I have dealt with so many poop issues this whole trip that I think I’m immune to all potentially self-conscious situations — previously I used to be the kind of girl who’d leave the shower running (sorry not very eco-friendly) if I had to “use the bathroom”  (I wish I have one of those Japanese ambient music playing in the background or something).

By Day 3, the worst was over. No more steep ascents or inclining descents. Surrounded by lush Andean mountains, set in some misty fog, Alan thought it reminded him of scenes from the Land before Time or something.

Original pterodactyl from Club Penguin

Original pterodactyl from Club Penguin

The views we saw that day were relaxing… Jo, Julia and I shared funny stories about our parents and secondary school days. The boys were ahead with Hever. Gloria and Sherlyn were all the way back, taking pictures of llamas, goats and donkeys. We were also given a quick lesson about the chakana, or the Inca Cross. What I found most interesting were the three affirmations that the Incans lived by: ama sua, ama llulla, ama quella (don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t be lazy). Hever said that’s how the Spaniards got their gold when they came. The Incans were, allegedly, asked/told: Where’s the gold? You work for me. Don’t take my gold.

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The rest of the trip proceeded fairly well — eventually the horseman caught up with us, and Hever told me to “get on the horse” to let me ankle rest for the big climb to Machu Picchu the next day. I passed by Andean villages, admiring the two-storey houses and clay pens the farmers built for their pigs and lambs. I especially loved it when the roar of the rushing river suddenly became muted whenever you walked through a thick bramble of bushes. Finally we reached the hot springs, and though the water was dubiously murky, I dived in — regretting it almost immediately, having swallowed some of it by accident. When I emerged, I again felt super light-headed and proceeded to throw up (sigh — while sitting on the horse, I failed to realize how strong the UV rays there were… and I had no sunblock on). 

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It was Boxing Day when we reached, and Hever whipped out these Christmas hats for a belated celebration

We bid farewell to our horseman (who lived in the area). We then made our way to Ollaytaytambo, where we’d have to take another train to Aguas Calientes, the place from which we would begin our actual Machu Picchu climb. But that’s a story for another post.

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Hever said this lady, and others like her, were on the way to a market. In her hand is a spool of wool.

RACHEL’S LARES LOWDOWN

  • GO WITH: Llama Path, a Peruvian-run (as opposed to Australian or British) company that came recommended by two different groups of Singaporean friends. We made $525 (with student discount but a holiday period surcharge) for our 4D3N tour. Ask for Hever (guide) and Sebastian (chef).

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