I’ve recently completed a memorable trek through Peru as part of a nine-day Charity Challenge expedition with a group of inspirational hikers from the United Kingdom.
The adventure saw us get dropped right into the cradle of the Inca Empire in Cusco, trek through the vast Andean landscape of the Lares Valley before visiting one of the world’s true wonders, Machu Picchu.
Between the sights, sounds, hardship and encounters with locals, there was no shortage of experiences to write home about.
Read on to get a first-hand account through my journal entries for Metro Canada. The music below was given to me by a band in Cusco on my final day, and will help to set the scene.
Generacion Andina — Pachamama
July 27 – Vancouver to Lima
I have yet to visit anywhere above sea level when I learn my first lesson in high-altitude travel.
In preparation for my trip, I was prescribed pills meant to offset the likely effects of altitude sickness — landing 3,400 metres above sea level in Cusco, Peru is quite jarring for someone used to life by the ocean in Vancouver.
I started my half-a-pill, twice-a-day regimen one day prior to takeoff and was well into it by the time I arrived in Houston for my connecting flight to Lima. With three hours to kill between flights, I ducked into an airport restaurant and ordered a beer.
To my revulsion, the Heineken in front of me was the vilest liquid ever to have assaulted my lips. Putrid, metallic, completely flat… each sip was an act of sheer will. No wonder Americans stick to the likes of Bud Light.
Suddenly, memories of my brief visit to the Vancouver travel clinic flooded back. Lost in the motor-mouthed rundown of various vaccinations and drugs I would have to take for my trip, the doctor offered an odd warning:
Carbonated beverages may taste “off” and flat as a result of the altitude pills.
The rancid beer wasn’t actually rancid at all, it was just my body reacting to the medication.
Bummer. At least the waitress in Houston can breathe a sigh of relief.
July 28 – Lima to Cusco
After an awkward “Are you looking me?” moment at the international gate in Lima, I’ve connected with the rest of the Charity Challenge team.
At first glance, and to my relief, it’s a very ordinary group. Nine everyday people with a good mix of ages and personalities. In fact, I probably stand out the most with my distinct lack of a British accent (more like my distinct North American accent to them). The only notable thing about the group’s composition is that I’m one of just three men on the trip.
Despite all being strangers (except for married couple Lindsay and Steve), the group is already getting along well. It helps that their common background – being British – also happens to correspond with the biggest sporting event in the world. The group left London just as the Olympics opening ceremony was getting underway and many only caught a brief glimpse of the production before heading for South America. The verdict was unanimous: “Bizarre” and “random.” I guess that’s what you get when the Queen jumps out of a helicopter with James Bond.
The group is tired from the long cross-Atlantic flight but I’m already starting to get a bit of insight into their motivations for taking up a challenge in Peru as I overhear talk of losing family members to heart disease and training for the gruelling hike by climbing every staircase possible on the way to work.
July 28 – Cusco
If there was ever any doubt that being at a high altitude takes its toll on the unprepared body, it disappeared at the hotel. Disappeared, literally, into thin air.
I’m used to stairs. I hardly ever take the elevator in my apartment building, choosing to walk up to my pad instead. I even tackled the Grouse Grind – North Vancouver’s natural stair master – to help prepare for the expedition.
So walking up a set of stairs to my fourth-storey hotel room in Cusco is a piece of cake, right?
I was desperately sucking in air by the time I reached the third floor. One more flight of stairs… Don’t. Pass. Out. Being on pills may alleviate the headaches and nausea that come with altitude sickness, but some effects just can’t be prevented until the body adjusts.
The city itself has a charming colonial town square, but doesn’t truly come alive until you walk a few blocks in any direction. You’re immediately transported into another world.
Seemingly hundreds of wires converge on electricity poles like a tangle of angry serpents, scruffy nomadic pooches rules the streets and ceaseless honking seems to be the only rule of the road as cars – sometimes five wide on narrow roads – race through bends with reckless abandon for pedestrian safety.
It’s equal parts madness and wonder. Invigorating and nerve-racking at once.
July 29 – Pikillaqta
Until our bodies get used to being 3,400 metres above sea level, we’re in no shape to tackle the Lares Valley and trek at even greater altitudes through the Andes.
Local guide Ian Lewis (who we later learn is nicknamed “White Condor” because his parents are of British descent – how cool is that?) takes us just outside Cusco’s city limits for an acclimatization hike.
We visit the pre-Inca ruins at Pikillaqta and get our first taste of the region’s incredible landscape.
While a massive stone wall and the remains of ancient settlements on the hillside are fascinating, I’m absolutely taken aback by our surroundings. Cacti, tall dried-out grass and other signs of life dot the arid, dusty ground as earth-toned mountains rise above the horizon in virtually every direction.
I know we’re in South America, but my mind clings to what’s familiar as I get my bearings. A harmonica starts playing in my head. I turn to my roommate Olly (AKA Oliver Lewis).
“All I need now is a poncho and a stogie,” I tell him, sounding nothing at all like a steely Clint Eastwood.
I’m smack dab in the middle of my own spaghetti Western – except the sheer scope and size of everything around me dwarfs any of the imagery in Sergio Leone’s films.
If I had any breath to lose, this would have taken it away. Thanks to the wretched thin air, that won’t be a problem.
July 30 – Calca
We board an early morning bus and wave Cusco and all of its gritty, bustling flair goodbye.
It’s a scenic, comfy ride to the heart of the Calca province, one of 13 in the Cusco region. Its biggest village shares the province’s name and will be the last major urban centre we visit before starting a three-day Lares Valley trek.
That calls for shopping.
A sprawling public market is littered with locals and tourists stocking up on daily needs in row upon row of kiosks and food stands. Colourful vendors sell fresh produce, recently decapitated poultry and all sorts of knock-off designer goods.
This reporter managed to haggle an eight-gigabyte memory card for his camera for the Canadian equivalent of $7. Others were more adventurous and open to trying local cuisine. Some were shocked to see tall North Irishman Steve emerge from the chaotic market with a bag full of cooked pig’s head and assorted nuts. There was almost as much shock to learn later he survived with no ill effects.
Everyone else used the opportunity to stock up on coca leaves (traditionally used in teas or chewed raw for energy, and more notoriously fermented in staggering quantities along with petrol to produce cocaine) and school supplies to be donated to children in the more remote villages we come across over the next few days.
July 30 – Lares Hot Springs
We shed our jackets for swimsuits and a dip in the Lares hot springs.
Surrounded by lush mountains, it’s an ideal spot to relax, although the natural water flowing from the springs is an unappealing brown accompanied by a distinct sulfuric, rotten egg smell.
Speaking of eggs, our guide Max says you could hard-boil an egg in the water in a matter of minutes. Our bodies last slightly longer as we start thinking about our upcoming trek. More to the point, many agree the hot springs would have been the perfect end point for our three-day, two-night adventure rather than the beginning.
Once everyone has showered, had a quick lunch and has climbed back into their hiking boots and all-season clothing, the trek begins.
In my head, I was expecting another shuttle bus to drop us off at some other location where a big sign read “TREK STARTS HERE.” Instead, we cross a small pedestrian bridge at the hot springs and head straight for the hills – after the group bids farewell to Sarah, who has come down with a throat infection and will spend the first day of the trek with the support crew.
Hugs are exchanged, walking poles are tightly clenched and this band of travellers set off into the unknown on a proper adventure.
Dark clouds loom ominously overhead.
July 30 – Lares Valley to Cucani
We had barely taken the first steps on our trek when the rain started to fall.
Although we’re in the midst of the dry season, we’re told the weather in the Andes can change in an instant. What began as a splendid day without a cloud in the sky has morphed into something dark, wet and gloomy. To think we came from Vancouver and the U.K., of all places, to get away from this kind of weather.
Undeterred, but soggy nonetheless, we crack on (I picked up some English slang during the first two days).
The conditions do little to hide the beauty of this place. Our first true glimpse of the Lares Valley is a far cry from the Wild West landscape we had experienced a day ago. Fifty shades of brown give way to lush greens, while wide-open expanses have been replaced with steep, narrow peaks and valleys. The storm only makes the transformation more dramatic as clouds crash against the mountain peaks and swirl above the valley.
Though we’re getting used to the altitude now, the terrain itself makes catching your breath difficult. We traverse up and down the hillsides along the valley, stopping occasionally to rest or to take shelter from the downpour beneath steel-roofed huts. During one of these intermissions, our guide gives us the distinction of braving the hardest rain he’s seen on a trek during the so-called dry season. Towards the last stretch of the four-hour hike, the rain finally subsides as we walk along a mountain road bordered by farmland.
A little girl sees us coming from a distance and greets us by the path. Steve hands her an apple and her face lights up. She accepts the gift and slowly walks back up the steep hillside (with ease, I should jealously add) to rejoin her family. As she does, the girl continuously stares back at our group below, genuinely grinning from ear to ear because of Steve’s small token of generosity.
That smile would stick with us for the rest of the trip.
In the meantime, it makes us forget about our water-logged clothing, which is blissful comfort in itself. We arrive at camp, nestled among a couple of farms in the tiny village of Cuncani, just before the sun sets. Thanks to our support crew, everything is already set up for us and hot meals await. The skies have once again cleared up, but we’re soaked and the temperatures are quickly dropping towards freezing.
It’s going to be a long night.
July 31 – Lares Valley, Cucani to Huacahuas
We wake up at the crack of dawn with stiff muscles that leave us no less eager to continue our journey. It’s cold. More than anything, I just want to get back on the trail to get my body moving again.
My camera, which endured intense rain yesterday and near-freezing temperatures throughout the night, doesn’t agree. It would rather curl up and stay in bed. It briefly flickers to life when I turn it on but a flicker is all I get. No use, I’ll have to start the day without taking photos and hope the blazing sun can revive my gear during today’s eight-hour hike.
Another day, another vastly different world.
After a gruelling climb up a mountainside to start the day, we enter pure Andean country. At this altitude (now above 4,000 metres), no trees or tall vegetation grow. Instead it feels like the rocky surface of Mars has been carpeted by intrusive moss and spiny grass. The ground is undulating, never on a constant plane.
“There’s no such thing as flat in Peru,” Ian declares.
All around me, towering glacial peaks threaten collapse on top of up the rolling valley. Every now and then, the group stops to take in the sights.
“Wow” becomes the most uttered word on the trip, but mostly all you hear while trekking through this colossal plane is the sound of your own breath and the crunching of rocks underneath your boot. Here I am with nine other hikers, three guides, a doctor and porters carrying our equipment by horse, yet I’ve never felt so small and isolated in my life.
Amazing. I guess this is what people call “finding one’s place in the world.”
Luckily, my camera seems to have also found itself so I can take a more permanent, though nowhere near as visceral, reminder.
July 31 – Lares Valley, Huacahuasi
After descending down a monstrous slope we reach another tiny village, this time setting up camp along the river in Huacahuasi.
The isolation and serenity of the day’s trek is shattered by the excitement of local schoolchildren feverishly trying to get a peek at these strange travellers and eventually by festival music blaring through the village’s loudspeakers and reverberating throughout the valley (for what seems like all night and into the early morning hours as we wake up the next day).
Before that, we get a close look at the children of the Andes. Dozens of them wait anxiously as school supplies are gathered. Underneath the stunningly bright and vibrant ponchos and hats, they wear clothing donated from the West. Their faces sport leathery, rosy cheeks and their exposed feet are black from the cold and dirt. Enduring the mountainous terrain and climate in sandals has taken their toll but it seems the tough, indigenous Quechuan people are born to adapt.
The children don’t seem to mind, especially once the pencils, notebooks and toys start being handed out. There are heart-warming smiles all around with a dash of playful excitement as the kids compare their respective hauls and try to figure out how rubber balloons work. Such supplies are extremely rare to come by in remote communities, we’re told, and even the smallest of notebooks can last for several school years.
Before the day is done, we’re given the opportunity to visit a local family’s home. The grandmother handweaves another signature crimson Andean poncho from alpaca wool outside the hut.
Inside, a small, darkened solitary room serves as kitchen, bedroom, guinea pig pen, and living room for the family.
For most, it’s a real eye-opener.
The trek hasn’t been without its challenges. The terrain, while spectacular, is difficult to hike at times. Gut-busting vertical climbs up hillsides have been particularly draining. We get plenty of rest from our guides, though, and we’ve been able to trudge along at a comfortable pace.
The biggest issue seems to be altitude sickness.
Many people have not taken pills to help acclimatize and migraines have become increasingly common throughout the camp.
Two women spent a half-hour before bed in the doctor’s tent hooked up to oxygen masks to alleviate the symptoms.
Aug. 1 – Lares Valley to Ollantaytambo
The day begins amid hushed chaos and resentment in the camp.
Several of the hikers over the past few days have been forced to abandon part of the trek due to illness but eventually rejoined with the group at camp. This morning, we leave another behind for an entirely different reason.
Jo, who celebrated her 63rd birthday with the group during the trek, suffers from arthritis but hasn’t let that stop her from hiking. While slower than much of the group, she has admirably carried on with steadfast determination – proving any doubters wrong along the way.
Her spirit and positive energy are infectious, but this morning she’s quiet and reserved. As we set out to start our longest hike of the trek (nine hours through the rugged Andean terrain), Jo unexpectedly says goodbye and good luck. She’ll be awaiting us at the bus at the end of the hike, we learn.
Apparently the guides and doctor feel the upcoming stretch is too difficult for Jo and have told her to stay behind at camp with the support crew. The decision was taken out of her hands and it has stunned the group. Perhaps the experts are right, but there’s a lingering air of injustice about the whole episode. Jo, more than anyone in the group, has used the challenge as a way to casting aside misconceptions and overcome barriers associated with her condition. We’ve seen her bravely succeed in that regard already, but not being allowed to continue today and for tomorrow’s climb up to Machu Picchu has been a bitter pill to swallow.
I have no doubt Jo would have persevered. She’s become one of my big inspirations within the group and – as I’d later learn – she can mix one hell of a Pisco Sour (a traditional Peruvian drink) to boot.
As usual, Jo just sucked it up and eventually came back with a smile on her face.
The rest of us continue on, once again becoming immersed in the wilderness and enchanted by the farmlands, with their llamas and alpacas, throughout the valley.
A poignant moment comes as we clear the highest pass of the entire trek midday.
At 4,425 metres above sea level, we each pick up a rock and take a turn building a miniature stone marker to commemorate the achievement. Who knows how long the marker will stand or how long before another group comes along and constructs a greater memento?
It doesn’t matter. Part of us will remain in this valley forever, among this immortal South American mountain range.
When we finally reach the bus at the end of our three-day journey, an incredible sense of accomplishment and satisfaction overcomes the group.
Machu Picchu awaits.
Aug. 2 – Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu
We board the train to Aguas Calientes, a tourist town built at the foot of the mountains hiding Machu Picchu.
The environment has once again turned. We’re well below 3,000 metres and the barren Andean landscape is gone.
In its place is a tropical jungle (cloud rainforest to be exact) with sweltering heat and humidity. Winter jackets are packed away in favour of T-shirts, shorts and bug spray.
While our destination – the lost Inca city – is the same, the path we’ll take to get there are different. Jo and I (I couldn’t get an Inca Pass on two weeks notice) will take the train into town and join thousands of tourists being shuttled up to the UNESCO heritage site by bus.
The rest of the group hops off the train at Kilometre 104, join up with the classic Inca trail and climb a seemingly endless set of stone steps up through the rainforest to the Sun Gate overlooking Machu Picchu.
Needless to say, I beat them to the top.
Even after strolling up to the Sun Gate from Machu Picchu, I have a few hours to myself before the group reaches their final destination. Up close, this Wonder of the World is a busy, bustling tourist destination.
Intricate stonework, mystic temples and gravity-defying terraces are trampled by a constant herd of snap-happy visitors. Get above it all (either by finding your own quiet patch of grass on one of the higher terraces or by hiking up to the Sun Gate) and it’s easy to spend an eternity marvelling in awe at one of the best-preserved treasures of the Inca Empire.
After all, it was literally all but forgotten – except by the immediate local population –from the 1500s to the time American explorer Hiram Bingham “re-discovered” it in 1911.
What a find that must have been.
What a sight it still is today.
It’s almost inconceivable to believe any civilization could construct such a city precariously sitting on a knife-edge between two mountain spires. Even in it’s current state, everything about it is postcard picture-perfect.
Except in pictures you can’t feel the air, experience the depth of the surrounding range or watch light and shadow change the city’s complexion as the sun passes overhead. It must be seen in person, contemplated even, to fully appreciate it.
That was confirmed as the group finally reached the Sun Gate, rounded the corner and saw the lost city for the first time. Some of the strongest and most convincing “wows” of the trip were uttered then. Tired souls were instantly reinvigorated by Machu Picchu’s mix of natural spectacle and human ingenuity.
Hikers are prohibited from venturing into the city with walking sticks and large daypacks, but the entire group would return tomorrow to join the fray as full-on tourists on a guided tour.
At last (but with some regret) the days of trekking are over.
Aug. 3 – Machu Picchu to Cusco
After days of trekking through the chilly Andes and sweltering jungle, we returned to Cusco where pan flutes and Pisco Sours helped sooth our tired souls. Generacion Andina entertained our table with upbeat Peruvian jams to cap off our trip.
For the most part, emotions during the trip had been kept in check – stiff upper lips and all. But that all changed during our final dinner together when everyone went around the table and shared their story.
A young nephew suffering through leukemia, a father taken away too soon by heart disease, a twin sister diagnosed with cancer. Nearly all of the participants struggled to tell their story without breaking down in tears.
To a man, and woman, the hikers sought out adventure not just for themselves but for loved ones and others who couldn’t do it for themselves.
There are no more strangers here. Through their shared journey and hardships, the group now shares a bond that will last a lifetime.
Bring on the Pisco Sours, it’s time to celebrate as friends.
It would be a memorable night. I think…
Read more on Matt’s charity challenge to Peru
A special thanks to the following organizations that have made this feature possible: Charity Challenge, UNICEF, the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, Flight Centre, Mountain Equipment Co-op, and the Costa Del Sol Ramada hotel.