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!

Ecuador highlands: Cotopaxi, Quilotoa, falling in love with alpacas

As mentioned in my previous post– altitude had not been my best friend. Regardless, I was determined to overcome it and enjoy the raw and wild nature the Ecuador highlands has to offer.

Having said so, spontaneously signing up to a tour to the volcanic region of Cotopaxi leaving on day 2 was probably also not quite the “taking it slow” recommended for altitude!

Secret Garden runs tours through their affiliate location in Cotopaxi, a super cute oasis in the middle of wildness and mountains, very much closed off from the world (no wifi or any network – except staff use and emergencies). Awareness goes a long way to be prepared to be cut off a few days! Which was not the case for me and my Swiss friend, but oh well. What do you do 🤷‍♀️.

The location was at least beautifully peaceful and our room “hobbit house” was super cute:

We ventured on our first activity, a waterfall hike. Here is where one realizes there’s a need to be super careful and look out for yourself on tours and activities in South America! Low cost tours are cheap for a reason, and safety standards are not always a given. And in the case of Secret Garden, the guides were young volunteers. Hiking in slightly dangerous slippery and wet conditions on rocks, and in inadequate gum boots provided, I managed to have a small accident aggravating an old shoulder injury. Luckily not overly serious but meant I would need to limit a bit activities the next couple weeks- and I resolved to myself to be more aware in future.

Here was that waterfall:

A few brave souls ventured in for a swim (or rather quick dip for a photo and run back out!!) in the 7 degree celsius water!!

Scaling the first waterfall:

The second day was more successful. Still feeling the effects of altitude, I decided to skip the volcano hike and opt instead for the more chilled out option (or at least I thought!) of horse riding through the Andean plains!

Spoiler alert. It was NOT relaxing! After a 5 minute crash course in horse riding we were off at a solid trotting pace set by the impatient and still young stallion of our Andean guide. My horse – a sweet stubborn thing, had a tendency to do the exact opposite of what I wanted it to do! Which made for an interesting ride of 2.5 hours, first half mostly consisting of me trying to not fall off, especially when he started galloping with me urgently saying “Whoa whoa! Despacio!”

Horses are amazing creatures with a mind of their own, they sense immediately your anxiousness and it makes them only more difficult to control. Eventually I managed to calm myself and him, and we got back on track. I certainly felt my whole body though for several days, from the effort to stay balanced and upright (surely odd given the horse was doing all the work ?!)

The scenery along the way was absolutely breathtaking! In my holding on for dear life, I could not get in too many shots, but did get a few along the way:

The stubborn one:

After we became friends, sort of!:

Quilotoa

My South America adventure was into full swing! After a night of rest back in Quito, I joined a tour to see and hike Quilotoa.

Quilotoa is often referred to as the most beautiful lake in Ecuador, formed by a volcanic eruption 800 years ago, the crater slowly started to fill with water, and the lake was born. The unique scenery is characterized by the turquoise shade of the water, due to minerals in the water.

The hike itself involves a downhill trek to the lake, where you can kayak or simply enjoy the scenery, then a 1-2 hour 2km climb back up the steep and sandy path. Our group moved a bit faster and made it up in 45-50 mins.

Here is where you end up:

This little doggy decided to adopt me and followed me for about a quarter of the way down! 😍

Pre- hike back up, enjoying the scene:

The huffing and puffing climbers we saw on the way down were not exaggerating! As we experienced ourselves!!

Almost back at the top:

This adorable pair were waiting for us at the top. The sweet faced alpaca and the slightly grumpy but still cute llama that let out a disgruntled spit when a little kid went to sit on him. The moment I fell in love with these adorably fluffy South America creatures!

Ecuador- the first days solo! Landing in Quito, first impressions and altitude sickness

Being on the road can make it challenging to find time to sit down and write. Looking back those first days in Ecuador flew by in an absolute (probably altitude affected) blur!

I had mixed feelings of excitement but also anxiousness about my first venture into South America and solo. Will I like it? What about safety? Though I was convinced the ominous warnings you read were exaggerated, still there must be some truth? Will I get by with my Spanish?

I landed in Quito – the high up mountainous capital of Ecuador. I had pre-arranged transportation via my hostel- Secret Garden, not yet being familiar with local taxi systems, and my driver was thankfully already waiting. 45 pleasant minutes of broken Spanish conversation later – about Mexico, Ecuador weather, culture, and his family … we pulled up in front of Secret Garden. I was told to make sure to only take official yellow taxis and that Uber was illegal (though noted- several travelers I met did use Uber in Quito to get around with no issues, and it’s significantly cheaper than regular taxis, but as a single female traveler, and given the low costs of taxis in general I certainly did not see any point in taking the risk!)

My intro to Quito was breathtaking- literally! Secret garden is a super charming and social hostel with private room options as well as dorms in different sizes. To get to the reception you first have to climb up 5 floors with enormous sets of stairs !! 😱 These are not tiny little regular hotel stairs but seriously high and steep stairs! Out of breath and slightly confused on why on earth a reception would be built in this way, I spun around at the top and realized why:

The friendly staff of Secret Garden are a mix of locals and volunteering travelers proudly wear T-Shirts displaying the altitude of the stunning terrace bar where the reception is.

After picking up dinner at the bar and feeling initially daunted by the crowd upstairs, whom all seemed to be already seated in distinctive groups, I started chatting with a French guy at the bar and joined him with a large group of solo travelers from about 15 different nations in the open area of the terrace. Over a beer I happily teamed up with another Australian and a Swiss German girl to ride up the Quito volcano Pinchacha the next morning by cable car “teleférico”.

For those landing the first time in Quito, or in fact any high altitude place without first having been acclimatized… be aware! The altitude hit me on that first day with a crash. Having been up the teleférico (4050m) and even hiked a little and feeling totally fine up there, it suddenly hit me after coming down. Luckily the symptoms were not too serious, albeit a bit scary (dizzy spells and seeing bright spots, with my right ear temporarily not hearing). It passed after a few minutes sitting down and some light food, and a lie down the rest of that afternoon (!!)

Either way, the view from the top of the teleférico was totally stunning and worth the ride.

Quito as a city itself is ok. It truthfully did not blow me away with charm but admittedly I also did not give it enough time. A group of 4 American friends I met in Galapagos (more on Galapagos coming!) had an amazing time in Quito, and the city gives me the impression that experiencing the real city might need a bit more time and some luck in being in the know on where to go! On the surface it felt a little cold and grey, with few people walking around that seemed to contradict the vibe you would expect from such a big city. The warnings on walking around solo by locals and fellow travelers also did not add to the vibe. First impressions not amazing, but I would give it another go, and it either way serves as an excellent base to explore the real beauty of Ecuador in its raw and wild nature and splendor.

I did manage to find some cute local streets and a food market (mercado central) where you could get some amazingly cheap almuerzo (3 course lunch) for $2.50-3.00 and sampled some great soups- probably what I would recommend the most of Ecuadorian cuisine, and climbed up to the top of the main cathedral, for more views of the city:

Cute streets to find almuerzo.

The next day my new Swiss German friend and I spontaneously booked a trip with our hostel to the volcanic region of Cotopaxi.

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