PERU – Lima, Cusco, Inca Trail & Machu Picchu

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I can’t quite explain why I chose Peru other than being inexplicably drawn there. It’s a bucket list kind of place. I packed my backpack with hiking gear, ready to fly there alone. The journey from Heathrow began with a few fails… namely forgetting to fill in the Esta form to pass through America, then setting off security alarms, oopsy! The next fail was being pounced on by a drugs doggy at Miami immigration, he smelled my smuggled contraband.. a rogue English apple which was confiscated immediately.. I’m such a rebel.

I admit that I was filled with apprehension about what I was getting myself into. I had done no training for the tough Inca Trail hike, the high altitude concerned me, being alone was ok but sharing a room and a tent with a stranger had potential to irritate me. However, the free flowing red wine on my two flights sorted me right out!

I’d booked with an adventure company and it certainly was the best option for me to feel safe, organised and to meet like minded people (other crazy people). It wasn’t exactly ‘wandering with abandon’ but it was the start of a change of mindset. I had already seen a lot of the world through holidays.. but this was true adventure!

The capital city Lima is a bustling sprawling hub set on the Pacific Coast. I stayed only a few hours before I flew over the heart stopping Andes mountain range. I kept thinking about that film ‘Alive’ where the plane crashes in the Andes and the passengers have to eat each other to survive! Just imagine!

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I touched down in beloved Cusco, the real gem of Peru. Bathed in history with stunning churches, cobbled streets, dogs roaming in packs, shops selling brightly coloured textiles, markets selling everything from coca leaf to octopus.

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Cusquenas carry their angel faced children in slings, all under the watchful eye of their proud statue of Jesus Christ gleaming white high over the town.

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Brightly adorned Chola women parade their prized llamas for tourist photos, just be prepared to pay if you want a picture with them.

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Peruvians are noble, proud people, hardworking and polite but they do not embrace tourists in the insincere way that other tourist nations do. This for me is refreshing. It’s viewing their culture as it truly exists, which in my opinion gives an undiluted travel experience. I soon found out that they really do have a fondness for roasted Guinea Pig as well as frog juice and Alpaca burgers!

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I had the good fortune of sharing my experience with a fantastic bunch of like minded (bonkers) people from all corners of the globe. This isn’t always guaranteed.. as I will attest to in my future blogs!

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We visited a weaving project where local women weave the most beautiful clothes and textiles from naturally dyed alpaca and llama wool. Seeing such artful craft makes you feel ashamed of the cheap mass produced clothes on your back. Our guide Fernando spoke both Spanish and English but was able to translate in the women’s indigenous Quechuan, the ancient language of the hill people.

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The journey to Ollantaytambo was long and winding (some pessimists might say bumpy and boring) but it gave me the head space to contemplate life, a trait of every true traveller. The Incan culture was evident everywhere in this tiny characterful town. The scenery whispered it’s secrets and this is where the real journey began.

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INCA TRAIL .. will break you or be the making of you. A four day trek traversing the ups and downs of the world famous sacred trail was both heaven and hell. My legs felt strong and easily carried me, but my heart and lungs strained under the pressure of high altitude. It was tiring but the views were wonderous, the air was fresh, the company was lively and the freedom was liberating. I was finally living my life on my own terms and it felt good.

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Going back to basics was actually fun.. no beds, no showers, no proper toilets, no creature comforts. No make up or nice clothes to hide behind. This was me stripped back with nothing but my wits to rely on. Evenings were spent drinking coca leaf tea to combat headaches, playing card games and sharing stories with new friends. Going to bed in the moonlight then rising at dawn was never easy but worth it for every step closer to Machu Picchu (Old Mountain or Old Penis depending on how you pronounce it, haha!)

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The guides warned that the third day climbing up to 4200m on ‘dead woman’s pass’ was going to be incredibly hard. I can confirm that it was indeed a real bitch of a day and many of my comrades cried with pain and frustration. I proudly never shed a tear, ’cause I’m a warrior. I just kept going with mental clarity and my trusted walking poles.. I praise the inventor of walking poles. It’s amazing the strength that you can find when you need it.

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The trail took us past stalls selling cold beers and sweets. Talk about supply and demand! On the way I happily petted dogs tickled a piggy and chatted with donkeys.

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The way down to camp was treacherously steep but my nimble feet kept me from falling. The chat turned to relationships, a standard universal topic discussed across the globe.

Then before we knew it, the superhuman porters greeted us into camp by applauding. Every day I wanted to applaud them for carrying all the tents, gas, food and water. To cool off I bathed in a freezing cold river, my body shook involuntarily but the icy splashes felt amazing. Every action and thought outside of my usual comfort zone roused me out of the sheltered zombie like life I had been living.

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Rising at 3am in the pitch black to queue at the Sun Gate was worth the tired eyes to see Machu Picchu below, shining in all its morning glory. The ancient city has a special quality and a serene vibe. Chinchillas chill out in the shadows away from the midday heat and tourists bask in the Incan architecture. It’s easy to imagine the scenes from days gone by.

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Note that you have to apply for a licence to gain admittance to MP and get your passport stamped. The Inca trail is also protected by capping numbers, that’s why it’s beneficial to do it through a travel company.

My mission was proudly accomplished, I achieved my goal and happily ticked it off my bucket list… I would advise some hill climbing beforehand though! The journey back signalled time for fun, a few cheeky rum cocktails and lethal Pisco spirits on the train back.

I was tremendously exhausted but nothing stops me from getting my kicks! I headed out in Cusco with my comrades and off duty Fernando took us to a live music venue where the locals rock out to pan pipes and drums. I chatted to people in English, they replied in Peruvian Spanish! Music and dance are international languages and I had the best night there, awesome.

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Saying goodbye to people and the place itself was hard after such an intense experience, but it’s the obvious downside of travelling. I dined like a local (on some roasted guinea pig!) then flew to Puerto Maldonado to experience the next chapter of my adventure in Peru.. the famous Amazon rainforest!

To be continued…

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