Let’s cut to the chase – deep down, I am in love in with Peru and have been since 2008 when I first travelled with hubby Ian and new-found friends Steve and Samara. The culture, the people, the history, the diverse landscapes. I loved all of it. To me, it was Adventure with a capital A.
I knew this destination would be the perfect fit for challenging people on a physical and emotional level with the added benefit of offering connections to people and culture while opening our minds and hearts. Not long after I started Big Heart Adventures in 2015, I decided that the Big Heart “Challenge Trek” for 2017 would visit Peru, welcoming both men and women to the team. So in September, 11 of us made the LONG journey across the Pacific starting our adventure in Lima.
As part of our Give Back initiative I had chosen a charity to give added meaning to our trekking experience so the MS Society of SA and NT would benefit from fundraising totalling $17,000 from collective efforts of our group – something I am so proud of. Our trekkers ranged in age from mid 30’s to early 60’s and most had done some walking or training to get physically ready for the trek – the biggest unknown was the altitude.
So given that only 500 people a day can obtain permits to trek the Inca Trail (including guides, porters, cooks and crew), we had booked our permits early (like 10 months early!) and for our departure date in September, they had sold out pretty quickly.
Prior to starting our trek on the Inca Trail our awesome team had spent a day in Lima, doing a culinary experience making traditional dishes and drinks (yep we got to make a Pisco Sour) followed by 3 days in the amazon jungle with one of the most passionate jungle guides I have ever met – Leao. Vibes were high and possibly altitude affected after a quick overnight stay in Cusco before touring the Sacred Valley for a full day with Roady – a knowledgeable and passionate guide who painted a historical Andean picture in Pisac and Ollantaytambo. All this before staying in Urubumba for the night pre-trek.
There were a few packing errors: hiking pants left in Cusco (that was me) and a socks and undies bag that was left behind by another traveller (no names mentioned) that meant a last minute dash to the shops before closing time to get those necessities. And we had a team member who had some acclimatisation issues and spent most of the Sacred Valley tour very unwell. Miraculously she woke up peachy keen and ready to trek the next day. Phew! We would all start the trek together!
Before we set off from the official start point, KM82, our G Adventures CEO Andrés delivered a pep talk that I wish I had recorded – breaking up our trail over the 4 days with Andean culture – the snake, the puma and the condor – it had a few members of our team in tears and boy at the conclusion of his briefing, were we ready to trek!!
We were introduced to our Trail Guides, Daniel and Rosberg who looked after us from KM82 all the way to Machu Picchu. With so many regulations in place now to protect not just the environment but also the porters, all bags were weighed and our permits checked before we set off. Our duffel bags carried by the porters had to be under 6kg. They would carry up to 3 of these bags plus their own gear. Weights were heavily monitored by the authorities and for our 11 trekkers we had 21 crew members plus guides.
After a short wait at the control gate, permits were handed out and passports checked. Suddenly, all the waiting and build up over the past 18 months was over – we were walking on the Inca Trail!!
Luckily the first day is physically one of the easier ones and only about 10km. The key is to find your own pace. With 11 of us varying in ages and fitness levels, our paces varied but with plenty of rest breaks on the first day we found ourselves mostly together on that first section.
The first day is also a busyish one as we passed through properties/small villages where drinks and snacks can be purchased and a flushing loo (baňos) too (good to keep the 1 Sol coins handy for this!). Plus the porters are keen to get ahead of the groups to set up camp/lunch spots.
These first few hours of walking make you feel tiny in the mountainous valley – it’s hard to get a sense of where you are. Before lunch though we came across the first open views of significant ruins – Llactapata. Again, a pinch me moment as we stared down in to the valley looking at these amazing ruins. Just mind blowing. Within hours of starting the trail we were hearing about the beliefs and interpretations of
Peruvian history according to Andean and Inca culture and the mistakes made by those who first told it. The best thing is hearing and learning about Inca times through the eyes of descendants of the Inca’s themselves who continue to believe and share their knowledge of culture and their ongoing relationship with Pachamama (Mother Earth). Our experienced guides shared their knowledge with such passion. We were hanging on to every word!
At this point, as the gradual climb uphill allows, we were stopping alot to catch our breath and this meant we could look back to see how far you have come. The valley we started in, the trail itself dotted with trekkers, the Urubumba river snaking through the gap and the views were simply stunning. It almost looked like a two-dimensional image or a postcard – surreal.
I felt as though the mountains were taking us under their wing. I felt like an ant, but protected and cared for by these huge mountains. It was a comforting feeling.
Our G Adventures crew (team 14) had set up a mess tent and the smells of lunch met us long before we found our camp on the banks of the Urubumba River. This gorgeous body of water has rapids (which can be rafted) and listening to the rush of water over a 2 course lunch was a chance to acknowledge the nature connection time we had on our first day. We met our amazing crew for the first time (cooks and porters) who clapped us in (!) to camp – we felt it should be the other way around! They had carried everything!
After lunch and a full belly it was a bit hard to get going again – most of us ended our meal with an acclimatiser – coca tea. The leaves are chewed by porters and helps with acclimatising to the higher altitudes. I carried the leaves to give out to our porters and stashed lollies to share among our trekkers. The coca leaf is a staple in Peru.
We started straight into an uphill section and breathlessly we continued as our porters practically ran past us carrying the gear. The fitness of these people is astounding. We discovered that the annual Ultra Marathon event that attracts international elite trail runners from around the world was taken out by a local porter who ran the 46km in a cool 3 hours 30 minutes! Hats off all round.
So when we reached our campsite at Huayllabamba, the tents were already set up, our duffel bags were inside the tents and a hot bowl of water was given to each person for a wash up. Talk about the VIP treatment. After our first time of unpacking and comments like “have you seen this?” and “where did I put that?” you realise how easy it is to lose your few belongings in your own tent. Lots of laughs as tent buddies took in turns washing up and changing in to their camp wear. This is the moment when I realised a pair of long pants of mine didn’t make the journey. It’s not a fashion parade I kept telling the others (its a bit of a mantra of mine), but then I realised I would be leading the parade with my rainbow thermals. Hehehe! Time to eat my own words….!
After a huge hearty 2 course dinner, we were in bed early after our briefing for the following day. It would be an early start and rest was the key plus it took most of us an hour to pack up our bedding and get everything back into bags again the next morning. With beautiful mountain hospitality we were offered coca tea in our tents before packing up our gear. Anxiety was rife among some of our trekkers about the challenges of Day 2 so it was a sleepless night for some – the resident donkey and rooster may have added to this – ear plugs and coca tea in the morning were a necessity.
Dead Woman’s Pass sits at 4200m and there is lots of uphill walking to get there on Day 2. Our guides carefully crafted the day ahead by breaking it down into 4 stages – 3 stages to the Pass and the final stage downhill into lunch and our campsite. This worked brilliantly because each section was completed in chunks and the key was not to think too far ahead. The air would be thinner, we would be working harder and it was our last chance to grab last minute snacks, chocolate bars and electrolyte drinks along the way because after Stage 2, there are no more villages or vendors to purchase from until Machu Picchu.
Climb climb climb – slowly slowly slowly. Breathing deep, taking rests often, drinking water and keeping the sugar levels up. Lots to think about when there is not enough oxygen to think straight. I am not really sure if my brain functioned much on Day 2 – I checked in on everyone when I saw them – the team were travelling well. There might have been some funny conversations on the way up if only I could remember them!
We completed the first 2 stages in good spirits – everyone was staying positive and with a quick chance to selfie with some roaming alpacas by the loos then the real business end of the day started. Aptly named Dead Woman’s Pass, from a distance the Pass looks like a nipple and you can actually see the boob from the moment you leave camp on Day 2. It seems so far away then and you can’t quantify the height of the climb either. With walkers ahead of you, it’s obvious where the trail is going and the magnitude of continual uphill walking to get there. Sometimes it’s best not to look up. Walkers pass you as you step aside to get your breath back with long deep breaths. 5 minutes later you pass those same people breathing deeply, doing the same. You are all in it together. There’s encouragement, motivating comments and times where you remind someone who is really battling that they are achieving things their friends and family can only dream of, and to think of how proud they will be when they hear you made it to Machu Picchu on foot.
Seeing members of our team make it to Dead Woman’s Pass after a long slog was emotional, humbling and amazing to experience. There were tears, hugs, celebration – the highest point of our trek was reached – and all of us made it in one piece! There were declarations of “never again”, chocolate bars shared and a few laughs while we acknowledged some of the most challenging trekking and “outside comfort zone” experiences for many members of our team.
We were so lucky to have clearish skies – a bit of drizzle about and our ponchos came out a few times but from Dead Woman’s Pass the views were pretty specky! The downhill section from Dead Woman’s Pass is steep and after so much uphill, some bodies (my knees in particular) found the downhill harder than uphill. This is where the walking poles were a golden addition to the packing list and I could weight bear on the better knee using the poles for stability. Plus the compression bandaging made a good strapping. Also it got slippery after it rained just before we reached our campsite so extra care was needed on the rocky paths. I did see one girl stack it and lucky she was unhurt but it made us all walk more carefully on the slippery stones.
Arriving into camp (again to applause – um let us applaud the crew… please!!) we were met with a HUGE 3 course lunch and more desserts than a Sizzler buffet. The meal ended with the freshest mint tea I have ever tasted. No wonder we needed to nap after that. We woke to another meal (dinner) after just a few hours. Stress levels were high at the table that night as no-one wanted to offend the cook if people could not fit dinner in. Thankfully it was a light meal and delicious. The food prepared on this trek was nothing short of mind blowing. The meals were restaurant quality and we were camping with no electricity or tap water. All water was boiled for us to drink. The quantity of food was huge, dietary requirements well catered for and no-one went hungry.
So recovering from the overwhelming physical and emotional day of climbing Dead Woman’s Pass, a few members of our group were feeling the effects of altitude with tummy upsets and lots of toilet talk. This is where probiotics and antibiotics are hugely valuable should things turn messy.
Day 3 is another BIG day of hiking – upwards of 11 hours depending on group pace. A longer distance than Day 2 and with a pass or two thrown in (just not as high as Dead Woman’s Pass) this is also the most interesting day as you come across many different ruins with fascinating history lessons that go with it. This breaks the day into beautiful pieces so we found we rested often and recovered between sections. We had a clear day mostly so the sun shone on these sites giving us gorgeous photo opportunities and looking back at Dead Woman’s Pass you could see the profile of a woman laying down (not just her breast!) and with a deep sense of achievement you can see the path and what you conquered.
It was also on day 3 that Daniel our guide encouraged us to pick up a small rock from one of the streams to make an offering before we got to Machu Picchu. This would be an offering to Pachamama (mother earth) as part of our journey on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. It was a such a diverse day of landscapes with little streams, rainforests, exposed rocky passes and even a cave to walk through. Lots of nature moments and opportunities to select the perfect rock.
As we had started to see down into the valley of the town of Machu Picchu (Aguas Calientes) I felt a huge earthly connection to what I was doing. A butterfly hopped onto my shoulder and joined me for the walk. I had a little hitchhiker. At this stage too, I found myself walking alone, contemplating how awesome this whole experience had been (and we hadn’t made it to Machu Picchu yet), I nearly cried. I realised that to steal a moment alone to really acknowledge that this whole experience felt incredible, I was able to feel that earthy connection not just with myself and the people I was trekking with, but the mountains around me. I went into a ridiculously reflective state. The emphasis on the journey rather than the destination hit home once again. Sharing this experience with the most amazing team of Big Heart Adventurers added gratitude and more love to the bonds and connections made. Feeling truly blessed to be on the Trail, I walked into the lunch camp processing that moment.
Given that Day 3 is such a huge day, our crew set up a lunch stop with the mess tent at Phuyupatamarka campsite and the cooks prepared a feast like no other. They even baked us a cake! The views at this lunch stop were just incredible.
After a mammoth lunch effort and cake PLUS dessert we had some fabulous group pictures with all our crew members, who we were getting to know a little better thanks to our guides who introduced each porter and cook and told us a bit about themselves via Daniel’s translation. Those shy smiles were now turning into grins and some basic Spanish or Quechaun exchanges – we had learned some greetings and thankyou’s which helped us with trying to speak with our new friends.
We headed downhill to more ruins and with more glimpses of the ruins behind Machu Picchu when the clouds cleared, the excitement levels in our group increased once again. Just 1 more sleep and we would be walking to the ruins of Machu Picchu!
Our afternoon walk to camp took a few hours as we mastered the downhill bits slowly. Lots of chatting, laughing and again some alone time. Our campsite was just below Intipata ruins and wow, the views here were insane. A gorgeous terraced site with views all the way down the valley to the Urubumba river. Signs of civilisation returned as we passed huge connector power lines. Our time on the trail was coming to an end. Tomorrow we would face 8000 other tourists vying to experience Machu Picchu – reality was setting in. And again the feeling of gratitude for the 4 day trek hit home.
Tonight though, the focus would be on thanking our amazing crew of porters and cooks. They did an outstanding job to look after us as well as carry our belongings and the entire camp site (even a toilet tent, but yep I won’t go there). We presented our collective team tips to the cooks and porters before an early night once again because we had to be up at 3am to get packed up and ready to head to the control point just below camp. The control point opened at 5.30am and the queue would be long. Our porters and cooks would head down the mountain on a different trail though to catch a train at 5.30am back to Ollantaytambo. Missing that train meant walking back to KM82.
So we packed up super fast as soon as the alarm went off. The tents were coming down around us as we stepped out of them. We made sure we were ready early and ate the quickest of breakfasts standing up so the table, stools and mess tent could come down too. Saying goodbye to our crew the night before was a good move.
With trekkers ready to rock and roll, it was time to bond a little longer in the queue at the control point. Last minute toilet dashes, meeting other trekkers from other teams and final strapping of knees ready for a quick 6km meant that the queue time actually went really fast. With everyone keen to get to the Sun Gate and be first to Machu Picchu, the pace would be insane after getting through the checkpoint. The trail was a bit crowded to begin with as we all pushed for the finish line. The altitude dictated that we could only go so fast though. The fun bit was climbing the “monkey steps” before reaching the Sun Gate soon after. Again the worries for some of our trekkers about this section were quickly put at rest once completed.
Reaching the Sun Gate set many of us off into tearful hugs and a feeling of disbelief. Below us, was our first proper view of Machu Picchu. Everyone was itching to get there.
We made our descent in high spirits after group photos and with our rock offering in our pocket we stopped at a place that was like a tall arch like rock. It was terraced and felt special – holy almost. Daniel our guide said it might have been a place of worship back in the day. With a few more tears, I made my offering and placed 2 rocks – one for me and one for hubby who didn’t make it onto this trip. It’s amazing what you process on a walk and let go of if the opportunity is there. It seemed a fitting place to leave what didn’t serve us anymore, make an offering and thanks to Pachamama and continue to walk on and enjoy Machu Picchu.
Once at Machu Picchu it became a photo frenzy when we got to the view point, it was hilarious! Landscape, portrait, selfies, couples, groups and well, just the views without people. So many happy happy faces – with smiles bigger than I had seen on the whole trip. It was just awesome to see and share. A moment I will treasure.
When you get to Machu Picchu you technically have to exit and re-enter with a ticket, so we exited, left our backpacks, poles, visited the toilets and grabbed a cool drink before heading back in with a few essentials. It was almost 30 degrees and the sun shone with intensity that we hadn’t felt on the trek. We watched day trippers struggle to acclimatise with the stairs and climbs around us. Not that we fared much better – our bodies were tired and zapped of energy – it simply reminded us that the non-trekker struggles with altitude too!
Our guided tour with Daniel was so informative and covered really only a small part of the HUGE site that Machu Picchu is. With just under an hour to ourselves, everyone headed in different directions to explore as widely as possible. Some tried to make it to the Inca bridge, others wanted to check out the different temples and some just wanted to find a piece of zen to truly take it in. Myself and a fellow trekker wanted to find a quiet place in the shade to meditate. We were so lucky to get 60 seconds of silence before visitors came to share the piece of grass we had found. We sat silently for 5 minutes – the energy was incredible. Within seconds I found myself in a deep state of relaxation (one I would normally take 10 minutes to achieve in my yoga class at home!) and inner peace. It was such a beautiful way to finish the trek and the experience of Machu Picchu. We reunited with our team back outside the exit point, collected our things and made our way to Aguas Calientes for a long celebration lunch. We had a birthday girl to toast pisco sours with and a scenic train journey and bus waiting take us back to Cusco.
What a trek. What a journey. What a team of people to share it with! I felt so proud of each and every member of Team Big Heart. The trail was not without it’s challenges for most of our team but everyone faced the adventure with one key thing that our Guide Daniel mentioned at the beginning – PMA – positive mental attitude. The nature of travelling as a team and sharing a trek like this one is the friendships, laughs and connections made. Team Big Heart: Kevin, Christine, Janine, Sue, Craig, Liz, Sim, Sujata, Yvonne and Peter – in my opinion you truly rocked the Trail. Thanks guys.
So while my knees will welcome the recovery time ahead, I can’t wait to return to do it all over again in 2019!
Who’s with me?