There is so much to say I really wasn’t sure where to start with this! In summary, I have been trekking in Peru, suffered from high altitude sickness, camped in remote isolated mountains in the Andes, tasted fruit and veg I'd never even heard of before, nearly got run over by Llamas, had hairy scary bus rides on roads closed due to landslides, experienced the several thousand steps on the old Inca trail, reached Machu Picchu, wondered at the magical mysteriousness of it all, tasted the best chocolate in the world, and celebrated with too many Pisco sours (*takes deep breath*)!
I'm going to be writing more detail about different aspects of the experience over the next week or so, as there’s too much to put in one post, but here are some of my highlights.
It was definitely a once in a lifetime experience - though some things, like being in hospital on the first night due to altitude sickness - I will be happy to never repeat! We climbed to heights of over 4,500 metres and I really felt the effects of the altitude on the three days we were trekking at that kind of level. It's like nothing I've ever experienced before, you are forced to walk much more slowly than a normal pace (frustrating for someone like me who likes to march onwards!) and even then have to stop every few minutes. 'Breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth' become one of our medically approved mantras!
It was amazing trekking through these isolated, quite barren but breathtakingly beautiful mountains – and we’d often see a spot of bright red on the horizon. As it got closer we would see it was a person dressed in the colourful traditional clothes, often women and children, who’d be walking along – seeming to appear out of thin air and be heading absolutely nowhere. Women would always be carrying something on their back - firewood, fruit, vegetables or cloth to sell, or often a child. They would scuttle past us half our size and twice as fast.
Even in these most remote, hostile areas there is life, unchanged for probably centuries, small patches where crops or vegetables are grown, everything maintained by hand, stone built thatched roofed houses with families of three generations all crammed into one room, a fire in the middle for cooking and heating - no chimney - the smoke filling and bellowing out of the house. The local mountain people we met mostly don't even speak Spanish, they speak their traditional language of Quechua. We were on a little used trail and visitors are rare - so goodness knows what they must have thought of us with all our equipment, huffing and puffing up their mountains. They were quiet, shy, very dignified people. At one point a few of us had fallen behind (we’d had a toilet stop – with no bushes or rocks to go behind you just had to wait for others to get past then squat!) and had even lost sight of the guide in front of us. A little lady appeared and walked with us, at a slight distance and without saying anything, just giving an occasional smile. She would wait until we were all safely across a boggy bit or a stream then carry on walking with us. She accompanied us for miles and I am sure she was making sure we were all right and safe until we caught up with the rest of the group. When we did she just disappeared.
Camping was not my favourite thing (never has been, never will be), everything got damp and the sun disappeared very suddenly so it became very cold very quickly. But the guides and crew we had, all local men, looked after us wonderfully well. They would wake us up with a cup of tea and bowl of water, with a cooked breakfast on the go – which made us forgive them for the 5am starts. When we set off for the day’s trek, the crew would stay behind, take everything down, clear away, then set off, overtake us and by the time we got to the lunch stop or that evening's camp they'd have all our tents up, the dining tent set up, toilets dug, and would be cooking up a meal and greet us with tea and cake. We were amazingly well fed, with three cooks rustling up cooked breakfasts, lunches and always a three course dinner. They catered for two vegetarians, one gluten free diet and someone who couldn't eat onions! Our local guides Tony and Paco who were with us all week took great care of us, they were also so passionate and informative about the area, and incredibly good humoured - essential for them to survive a week with a group of 15 females!
My favourite trek day was the fourth day when we were due to reach Machu Picchu itself. We had come down from the very high levels we'd been at and joined the old Inca Trail. This is literally a stone path clinging to the side of the mountains, so you always have a sheer drop at one side of you. But as it was much lower altitude I could breathe! Instead of quite barren mountains with no insects or birds, they were green, lush and rich with plants, flowers and trees. We saw huge butterflies, poisonous millipedes, humming birds and wandering llamas. After a day of walking through spectacular waterfalls, Inca ruins and the humid jungle feel on this part of the trek we finally passed through the sun gate and got our first sight of Machu Picchu. Well - we would have if it hadn't been covered by clouds! The clouds made it all the more mystical and when they did go – there is was - the classic sight of the ancient city that you see on all of the pictures and programmes. It isn't until we walked down towards it I really become aware of the size and complexity of the ruins - which actually are in an unfeasibly good state.
We celebrated that night in a colourful lively restaurant in Aguas Calientes, the town near to Machu Picchu. After several days of not being very hungry (a positive of high altitude) we tucked in like we'd never seen food before - I had the most marvellous melon starter - a whole melon scooped out into balls and the inside filled with an Andean liquer (I don't know what - only that it was red and very very delicious!). I also had the best beer ever - freezing cold liquid gold - just what the doctor ordered (or should've done) after the week we'd had.
The day after, our final full day, our trekking was over and we were just tourists. We went back to Machu Picchu and Paco who used to work at the site led us round on a really informative tour. We were then taken to lunch, grabbed a bit of shopping in the markets, and had a train and bus ride back to Cusco.
Our final night was party night in Cusco at a local restaurant - with the meat eaters trying the traditional dish of guinea pig (verdicts included: salty/ gamey/ like nothing else ever tasted/ yuck). After several Pisco sours and bottles of celebratory wine we took over the restaurant and ended up dancing until the early hours.
The next day we had a few hours to spend in Cusco before setting off for the long long journey home. Slightly worse for wear, I managed to make it to the Chocolate Museum which had been on my ‘must do’ list for ages. This is the most gorgeous smelling museum I have ever been to, the scent wafted through the air on the approach to it, and this is where you can get the best chocolate I (and others) have ever tasted. So our final last hour was spent chilling (the first opportunity we'd had!) in the sunshine with coffee and chocolates on a colonial style balcony watching the world go by in the main square below.
This was a much anticipated experience, and a real adventure into the unknown - it's like nothing I've ever done before. I booked it a year ago, spent 12 months fundraising, faced last minute plane cancellations and then spent the first night ill in hospital in Cusco wondering if I was actually going to be given the ok to do the trek. But it was all worth it. For me personally it's been a real adventure and achievement, I’ve got some amazing memories and made some friends for life. And of course what got me into this in the first place, is that the charity and other women facing breast cancer will benefit. Between us our Peru posse raised over £50,000 for Breast Cancer Care.