I’m not sure where the idea came from, but I always dreamt that one day I would go backpacking around South America with an old school Polaroid camera. Each day would be a lazy jaunt around a new city, chatting to the locals, learning their culture and sharing my photos and journey with them equally.
When the chance to visit Peru this year came up, I jumped at the opportunity to explore the magical region. The Lares Trek, with its lack of electricity and simple life, allowed the perfect opportunity to take off with an instant camera. Nothing beats the feeling of being able to give someone a photo on your travels rather than just taking them; it also opens up more conversations, smiles and laughter.
Learning about the Inca empire and modern day life in the Peru Andes was all part of this magical adventure.
The Inca civilisation was perhaps the largest in the world during the 1500’s and had the stronghold across modern-day Peru from 1438 through to 1533. Before this, the location had been called the Kingdom of Cusco.
One of the most mind blowing facts about the Inca civilisation, which wasn’t just limited to Peru, is around forty thousand people had the control of over nine million subjects. As with much of history, this wasn’t the happiest of empires with violence being a regular occurrence to keep control.
The natives of the Andes are called, and speak, Quechua, the native tongue that was around before the Inca empire. It’s believed around 8 million people in South America still speak Quechua even though Spanish became the default language after the colonisation.
The now traditional Coca leaf which is chewed for medicinal purposes and to alleviate altitude in the Andes had a sordid use in the past.
As the base ingredient for cocaine, samples of hair from preserved Mummys have shown that it was used to drug sacrifices made to the gods. The afterlife was a firm belief of the Incas, and the children who were sacrificed (used due to being ‘pure’) would create the effect of a better world.
How it all ended
In the 16th century, it wasn’t just the Spanish invasion that led to the end of the Inca empire.
A string of diseases from Europe is predicted to have killed over 60% of the population, some estimates putting this figure nearer to 90%. The outbreaks, coupled with the colonisation of the country led to the downfall of one of histories most influential empires.
It wasn’t quick, but over 40 years the Spanish continued to take ground across the continent, and in 1572 they rained victoriously.
With this, the traditional lifestyle of the Quechua people shifted. As European products were farmed and the locals enslaved to the Spanish, life dramatically changed.
The Lares Trek
While many people think of the Inca Trail as the epitome of exploring the Inca empire, I was on assignment with G Adventures during my time in Peru.
Taking the lesser explored Lares Trek allows for a much more authentic chance to see life in the Andes. As the path is far less well trodden and weaves around small local communities and schools, the opportunity to see true Quecheca day to day life in the mountains, as well as the unbelievably untouched landscape, is exceptional. All the Inca sites listed in this post were also visited during the tour.
A seven-day The Lares Trek trip with G Adventures is priced from £749pp. This includes all accommodation (four nights in hotels and two nights camping), most main meals (allow US$170pp for meals not included), all transport once joining the tour, and a dedicated specialist Lares Trek chief experience officer throughout. Travellers will also experience three ‘G Adventures for Good’ projects on this tour. Prices do not include flights. For more information or to book, please visit www.gadventures.co.uk.
Modern day life
It wasn’t until the 19th century that the Spanish rule over the country came to an end. The impact on the local communities, however, was ongoing.
Around 44% of the population of Peru is Quechua, with a timeline dating back to a believed date of 2600 BC.
Nowadays, many of the Quechua live in the remote Andes, and the Lares Trek provided a perfect opportunity to meet those still tending to the farms and living the simplistic life without electricity or modern farming tools.
In a small house we stopped at, a family of six lived in bunk beds as Guinea Pigs ran freely around the floor. A luxury dish in Peru, known as Cuy, breeding them is more of an investment than for a new pet.
Before women and man can marry, the lady must be able to perform certain tasks including preparing the animal for eating. With a mix of Roman Catholic and native beliefs in play, by turning a hat upside down for women or a change of clothing for men you can tell who is single, or married.
Farming and handicrafts are the main sources of income in the Andean Mountains. At one of the G Adventures community projects, set up to support remote communities, we marvelled at how a mix of berries and plants are used to boil dye wool from Alpacas or other animals. It’s from the natural colourings the famous colours of Peruvian Ponchos are achieved traditionally.
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The city of Cusco
Cusco, or Cuzco, is the main tourist gateway to the region with a small airport, cobbled streets with street sellers and grand architecture adorning the plazas.
The hub of the Inca Empire, with a population of around 140,000, it was a mix of gold covered palaces and temples. Sitting on top of an ancient Glacier and surrounded by mountains, at an altitude of 3400 metres it was an ideal place to base the empire from thanks to its rivers allowing for harvesting.
It’s believed the location was first built on around 400 BC, although it wasn’t until the Inca rule that it started to take shape as the grand city it is today.
The Sacred Valley
The Sacred Valley garnered to its name as it was the property of the Emperor. Again, thanks to the rivers and mountains surrounding the Valley it was seen as some of the best lands to construct Inca sites and farm.
Nowadays nearly all visitors to Cusco, even if not visiting Machu Picchu, will take a trip out to at least one of the villages in The Sacred Valley, each containing their own Inca archaeological sites.
The village of Písac
One of the most famous sites in the Valley is that of Písac.
The small village sits next to the Willkanuta River and welcomes a hefty amount of tourists to the now famous market and to visit the fortress towering above the village.
At the entrance to the valley, you find the Inca Ruins; this was one of the most crowded sites I visited and was more stressful to venture around than Machu Picchu.
Containing an impressive collection of agricultural terraces which are still used today, you can’t help but be amazed at how they managed to construct the terraces all those years ago by moving the topsoil lower down the mountain.
My favourite village we visited is believed to have defended the Sacred Valley from the north.
Ollantaytambo is now a buzzing tourist village with tiny cobbled streets lined with quaint bars and souvenir shops. It’s from here the popular Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu train services winds it way along the river to the most famous of Inca sites or those on foot head to the Inca Trail.
Towering around the village are various slices of Inca history. The main attraction being the terraces with their temple and fortress. Set into mountains are rock houses that a hike will take you to, as well as the impressive image of Viracocha, creator god of local mythology.
Over the Inca rule, this was home to the Emperor Pachacuti. When the Spanish arrived, it was one of the best defence points during the Inca resistance. If you aren’t able to visit Machu Picchu for whatever reason, I highly recommend you do head to Ollantaytambo for a couple of nights even if it is just to enjoy the laid-back vibe.
If you have time on your side you could easily spend weeks exploring some of the more hidden archaeological sites in Peru. While most visitors will just visit the most popular, even nowadays some of these incredible ruins are still being dug out.
Without a doubt, the most famous and visited Inca site, nearly a million people a year flock to see the ‘lost city’. But why?
While no one is entirely sure the purpose of Machu Picchu, it’s considered to have been either a religious site or royal estate. Exploring these vast ruins was mind blowing, and between temples, compasses and windows you could see just how important the structure is for telling time and seasons.
The reason Machu Picchu is so unique is during the colonisation by the Spanish it is believed they never made it to here. Hidden in dense jungle and over growth, only the locals in the region knew about the secret citadel.
It wasn’t until the now famous black and white imagery of Machu Picchu came into existence, after a lengthy battle for funding by an archaeologist name Hiram, that the world became aware of what is now on the seven wonders of the modern world list.
Amazingly, it was abandoned around 100 years after it was built. Again, no one is quite sure why it was left to hide away amongst the mountains. Thanks to the lack of damage or adaptation the Spanish did to many of the other sites it’s believed they never arrived here. The crippling disease that gripped the region is commonly thought to be the reason for its desertion.
One thing I think we can all agree on though is just how impressive it is and yes, it’s a must visit!
Want to know more about The Lares Trek? Check out this Lares Trek day to day itinerary and video.
*As stated at the top of this post, I was on assignment with Lonely Planet Pathfinders (click here to learn how you can be part of the community) and G Adventures on this tour. All opinions are my own :)