Inca trail, Cusco, and those travel moments of humility

Machu Picchu

There have been several humbling moments so far during my trip: being tossed like a cork in the crazy pacific “ferry” ride in Galapagos, feeling the significant non-invincibility of altitude sickness, food sickness, and 4 days of Inca trail definitely rates high on the list. One thing is for sure, one does not “do” South America, South America “does” you! Just take the precautions and enjoy the ride.

On this point, there’s nothing like facing off with steep wall after wall of gigantic mountains steps with the only way being forward (up) to make you realise how insignificant and small you are.

Though Inca trail in hindsight was more about endurance vs fitness (which btw after a month of traveling and tacos, neither were exactly for me very high 🙈), it remains not for the faint hearted! Regardless, go slow as you need, keep going and the views and experience I promise, are absolutely worth it.

How on earth the incans pulled giant rocks from surrounding Rocky Mountains 600 years ago, cut them and dragged them up there is a complete mystery. In my mind incans have become the size and strength of Hercules.

But I’m getting ahead… let’s go back. Freshly landed from Lima, enamored and well fed by Lima’s amazing food scene I was excited to see what Cusco city had to offer. Having learnt my lesson from Ecuador I took it super easy the first 2 days, chilling close to the hotel, drinking coca tea and wandering around the town.

At a last minute, I joined a walking tour in the city run by Wild Free Walking tours, getting under the skin of some intense history! Cusco, named as the belly button and capital of the Incan empire once spanned across large parts of Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Chile. After the conquistadores took over the empire, most structures were destroyed with the most sacred used as a foundation for new colonial and religious buildings. In fact, the 14 cathedrals in the City were built atop exactly 14 Incan palaces (of 14 Incan kings). Certainly made one view entering a cathedral in a different light.

Back to those mountains…

I went with Alpaca Expeditions after much research, and our adventure started easy enough. We had a briefing the previous evening going through blow by blow, what we will be doing (enduring – but with beautiful views!) from the point of our hotel pickup, which would be between 3:30-4am the next morning! 😱

That wakeup time, I would learn, would become a normality over the next days to maximize on daylight.

Day 1 started us easy. After a windy mountain drive, we made it to entrance of the Inca trail by around 9am.

Our team of 19 porters and 2 chefs prepared an impressive breakfast setup out in the middle of nowhere, and suddenly Inca trail was not feeling so daunting! Yet..

Our breakfast

After being equipped with our hiking sticks, repacking duffel bags to include our sleeping bags, we were off.

here’s a snap of me happily swinging away with my walking sticks before the real work began..

We hit our first climb after the first 2 hours, passing ancient Inca sites along the way. Sudden changes in incline apparent through increased huffing and puffing and decreased conversation. We worked our way uphill for a further 2 hours to our first lunch stop, where our amazingly speedy porters had already prepared a spread.

I will forever remain in awe of how our chefs and cooks managed over the next days to prepare considerably gourmet breakfasts , lunches, dinners in mountain conditions… here’s a selection:

Yes, that is a cake 😱!

First day ended with a final 3 hours uphill to our first campsite. Hot, tired, sweaty, but happy, we were grateful for our little basins of about a liter of hot water to wash up in our tents before dinner.

That… was training day.

Day 2 was the killer… two big peaks, starting with a 4am wakeup with hot coca tea. Still rubbing our eyes and after breakfast we were off. Our first climb of 4 hours to the infamous Dead Woman’s Pass (named for its shape vs anything morbid… though certainly there were many half dead women and men that day!!!) was tough . Our up until then relatively cohesive group began to break up into the fast group, middle-slow and slow as we made our way up the gruelingly steep terrain, half hanging on our walking sticks.

The scenery due to the high altitude changes (up to 4215m) on this day were particularly stunning. Moments of exhaustion were forgotten as we stared around each time in amazement and awe at the surrounding scenery, which kept changing as we climbed higher, breaking through rainforest, cloud forests and cloud lines.

Either way, despite not feeling it possible, as a group we all successfully made it to base camp 2, well on time at just before 5pm on the dot. Our guide entertained us that evening of a story of a group he once had, where the porters finally had to come to Dead woman’s pass with torches to carry exhausted trekkers the rest of the way, to finally make it to camp by 7pm!

Still early in the day:

Barely visible glaciers through the mists.

A backwards view…

the next couple days were really a blur. Legs and knees in pain from the intense climbs and downhills the last 2 days, we stumbled through the final “trek” day before stargazing (3 shooting stars! 🌠 ) and going to bed way too late for our early 3am start the next day to Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu day was beautiful, sunny, hot and blue skies. But the day and the site itself seemed overshadowed by the intense experiences the last few days. Truly , the journey was the destination. We enjoyed the last views after a final hike of 2 hours to the site, before saying goodbye to the mountains and making our way on the train back to Cusco.

The last ones standing of our group finished the night with alpaca steaks and drinks out in town

Cusco

Cusco itself, is a city of charm. By far most stunning at night, especially as surrounding mountain barrios frame the city with glittery lights in the night.

I highly recommend the walking tours I mentioned earlier, as well as Calle Loreto to get up and personal with adorable alpacas, wandering San Blas as well as the Limbusbar for some excellent pisco and amazing views.

The Machu Picchu museum is also a short fascinating visit, before or after visiting the site itself.

I also had probably some of the best food in Cusco, though given this is where I also ended with food poisoning on my last day, it can be a little touch and go. Words of advice to avoid fish at the market, in fact, maybe avoid fish totally! Fellow travelers later reflected that fish probably wasn’t all too fresh in the middle of the mountains…. yep, all makes sense in hindsight!

Regardless, I survived the ordeal and with a few days delay and filled with drugs prescribed by a Lima clinic, I was off on a hop on/off bus lima enroute towards south of Peru & Bolivia and ready for the next leg of my adventure!

Road trip part 2 – Oaxaca, day of the dead, Mazunte beach

Oh my, what to say about these two amazing places… Oaxaca and Mazunte. Easily the two biggest highlights of my Mexico trip and tour with my Spanish group.

Our intro to Oaxaca was not great, a late arrival after a long long drive to an obscure guesthouse in the middle of nowhere. We were tired, dusty, hungry and in need of a good bed. A frog (!!!) decided to latch itself to my bag upon the pitch dark arrival, which only served to exacerbate the situation more! As we found out… given the popularity of Oaxaca during day of the dead season, accommodations are booked up fast and this was one of the only ones left. Definitely aim to stay in the City center if you go!! It’s an amazing city with great nightlife and you will get out so much more.

The morning wake up view at least cheered us up.

Our first day started with a cooking class, learning how to make traditional Oaxaca cuisine from scratch- from boiling the corn together with chalk to soften and grind, knead and flatten into corn tortillas, to making the “mucho pica” 🌶🌶🌶 salsas verde and rojo. Lots of fun, and we also got a proper lesson on Mexican mezcal! For which I have since developed a probably not too healthy obsession for 🙈!

The real highlight of Oaxaca though is its City center… absolutely stunning and came even more alive with day of the dead decorations and festivities.

We had an afternoon free so used it to explore the little streets, cute jewelry shops and markets, before getting our faces painted for the procession that evening.

At around 7, we started to make our way to the main church square where the procession would be taking place. The previously quiet little square had drastically transformed and was by now packed with people, fireworks, music and spectacular processions. Not even the sudden pouring rain (which happens like clockwork in Mexico!) could dampen the mood of this crowd!

Our final evening led to my roomie and I stumbling across a grand procession of bicycles! Hundreds and hundreds of them cycling to the beat of pumping Latin music from a loudspeaker on the back of the lead rider’s tricycle, and apparently a tradition in the City. We went on a brief adventure following them, through the rainy Oaxaca streets. Soaking wet but having so much fun.

Mazunte 😍

Love love LOVE this place. Never wanted to leave!! Due to a small glitch in our previously arranged accommodation, we had to be moved to an alternative hotel on the beach. It was a trade off of either stunning views from the top of the sea, or having the sea at our doorstep. We happily chose for the latter!

After the once again long drive from Oaxaca to Mazunte, exhausting the limited playlists we were able to download in advance with patchy mountain WiFi, we were happy to freshen up and move a few meters to settle on the beachfront, with margaritas, cervezas and cerviche… need I say more!

St Augustine beach is small, relaxed and stunning, with once again the friendliest locals more than willing to help should you look lost (difficult given the size of the small strip) or otherwise confused. The best time to enjoy the beach is in the early morning.. before it gets busy.

We decided to skip the turtle sanctuary tour the second afternoon and instead make the most of our time on the beach… including my first attempt surfing! Even though I could only stay standing a few seconds, it felt huge given my fear of the sea since an accident involving a massive wave in Tahiti 2 years ago!

I definitely recommend the surf schools here and the teachers are excellent in helping you lose your fears.

🙌🙌🙌

The rest of the town Mazunte is small but quaint, there is a Santander ATM machine and some little shops selling clothes, swimwear, local souvenirs. Apparently it was quieter due to the low rainy season and more lively with bars and parties happening during the dry seasons.

After two wonderful nights, we said goodbye to the beautiful paradise before returning to Mexico City for our onward flights and travel plans.

Next… adventures in Ecuador..

Road trip part 1 – Mexico City & Puebla and – two cities, culture immersion, bohemian arts and dog lovers

I’ve been a bit delayed in the writing of this post. Result of a hectic on the road schedule and overwhelming amounts of information to absorb.

Mexico I can truly say has been a destination of wonder, surprise and thanks to the 3 excellent guides we had from Exxi Mexico (shout to Carlos, Fede, Ivan) allowed us to get to a deeper understanding of the cultural roots and pre-Hispanic history that defines the underlying identity of the country and it’s people.

I’ve broken this post up into 2 parts to properly do justice.

Below are a few of the highlights from the trip as well as tips for fellow travelers planning a visit.

Mexico City (CDMX)

The area we stayed was the hip and bohemian Condesa, bordering the equally cool district of La Roma. Known for its tree-lined streets, safe neighborhoods, designer boutiques, cafes and restaurants… and a LOT of dogs. This is a city that takes its pets seriously! From mobile dog washes in minivans to dog schools in the lush Parque España and Parque México. Having very little real knowledge of Mexico asides from the news and films, I was properly charmed.

The shot above is of Parque México, during an early morning workout, with plenty of early morning dog walkers and curious dogs watching on.

Day 1 was one of exploration. Knowing the next next 10 days would be intensive touring with my Spanish language group (Battersea Spanish) I was happy to wander on my own to get a feel for the City.

Condesa and La Roma are both dotted with varieties of street art, brought back by urbanized returning Mexicans from graffiti scenes of the US in the 90s and developed it’s own style from there.

In terms of the activities to do, our tour covered a massive amount of cultural immersion. Highlights were

• Lucha libre… which was hilarious and reminded me of 80s style video games (Mexican free fighting where the fighters wear colorful masks and costumes).

• Frida house and the Diego Rivera museum Anahuacalli. Honestly I found the characters of who they were much more interesting than their actual art- but still worth a visit to somewhat get a view into the minds of two fascinating artists. Photos are not allowed at the museum unless you pay a permit fee of 30 pesos.. about $1.4.

• For history buffs, the national anthropology museum and the sun and moon pyramids of Teotihuacán (pyramide del sol y pyramide de la Luna) are well worth a visit. It is worth to get a guide at both as you really get to the richness of the stories behind these ancient civilizations of Olmecas, Mayans, Incas – such as the ancient game of Juego de Pelotas, involving bouncing a 3kg ball with their hip, and where any wrong move could result in a human sacrifice (perceived as an honour in the times)!! 😱 Needless to say these pre-hispanic civilizations had a very different relationship to death compared to what we have now!

The sun and moon pyramids are worth the climb up. We only ended up doing the bigger sun pyramid, and after the steep flight of tiny stairs up and down, we were pretty much done.

I would skip Plaza Garibaldi unless you enjoy the sound of 5 different mariachi bands blasting next to your ear during dinner.

Food wise….Mexican is not a vegetarian friendly cuisine! Unless salsa, guacamole and beans count. Those you will find at almost every meal!

I discovered on the first day a charming little book shop cafe- El Pendulo on the Avenue Nuevo León where I had my mind-blowing intro to Mexican breakfasts 😍

There will be no limit of Taquerias and you will find these on every street. I came across this newly opened one, where the owner upon finding out it’s my first day in Mexico, warmly introduced me to every item on the menu including sample tasters ! Taqueria La Nación

Having said all of this though… I must say, my best meals in Mexico were late at night and on the street … where vendors sell deliciously stuffed tacos for 8 pesos a piece!!! Look out if the street stall is busy with people… and as advised by our Mexican guides, follow the smells!

Overall, I was overwhelmed by the incredible friendliness and eagerness to help (including patience with my terribly broken Spanish) of Mexico City. Which gave me an intro towards the days to come…

Puebla

This part of the post is short as we ended up only staying overnight in this adorable little city. We arrived in Puebla after an exhausting day of museums and a long drive… and after dumping our bags at the hotel, my roomie and I decided to head out and explore the surroundings.

Those that are familiar with the Day of the Dead (día de los muertos) will know that this is serious business in Mexico! And the celebration lasts for several days. Our trip to Puebla coincided with the children’s night, where kids dress up and go trick or treating with little pumpkin shaped buckets. Super cute… and wish I had more than a single chocolate bar in my bag! But the plaza in Puebla was stunning, and came alive at night with lights, people dressed in costumes and a lot of day of the dead artworks on display!

Overall, we had heard that Puebla is well known as a foodie city in Mexico, wish we could have stayed for longer… read on for the next stop Oaxaca and Mazunte!

24 hours / what to pack for 3 months

The days leading up to my departure were hectic. Preparations and farewells, along with a few birthday celebrations (including mine!) thrown in, made me thankful for the packing and preparation lists I had made months ago during quieter days!

My well traveled best friends reminded me daily I should be “practice packing”. Which I did, sort of:

I was told this is what it looks like unpacked, not packed.

I will be graceful enough to admit that as I was shoving everything into my 65L backpack in the morning.. that a round of practice packing probably would have been wise… nevertheless, it all fit in!

For those contemplating a similar trip, here is what I packed for 3 months:

Clothes

  • 1 pair travel pants
  • 1 shorts
  • 2 leggings
  • 1 jeans
  • 5 shirts (1 dressy, 2 breathable, 2 t-shirts)
  • 3 dresses
  • 1 fleece (layers)
  • 1 light coverup (more layers!)
  • Winter jacket
  • Wool hat
  • Northface windbreaker rain jacket (super lightweight)
  • Ultralight down jacket (Uniqlo)
  • Sun hat
  • Warm / hiking socks

Shoes

  • Water shoes
  • Hiking shoes
  • Flip flops
  • Comfortable day shoes
  • Dressier sandals
  • Walking sandals

Other

  • Powerpack
  • Universal adapter
  • Sports sunglasses
  • Water bottle
  • Laundry detergent sheets
  • Water purifier
  • Wet wipes
  • Torch
  • Rain gear for wet season trekking

Check back soon for my first days in Mexico!

The Journey Begins

It all starts with an idea.

Though I did not know it at the time – sitting in that small intimate space underneath a buzzing brunch cafe, flipping through paper magazines and cutting out a single particular image, the exact below – it was about to be the start of an epic journey.

Surrounded by a lively group of young aspiring women, I was participating in a good friend’s first business/career coaching workshop to set our goals and “purposeful desires”. It was the start of process that would see me picking up my life to move to London around 6 months later, survive a whirlwind year and kick off a plan to my next adventure- taking a career “pause” to embark on my South America solo trip in less than 2 months from now. Yes! I am slightly terrified!

This blog is for my dear friends, family, and fellow aspirational travellers, to let you follow my adventure and hopefully inspire you along the way.

cropped-adventureinwonderland1.jpg
Paper cutting, The Global Style Issue, date unknown