Back in 2013 over a few campfire beers after a Tough Mudder the idea of a once in a lifetime trip came about. It didn’t get much past the talking phase that night. But in the following weeks a few ideas were thrown around. With all the ideas floating around we kept coming back to Peru and the Inca Trail.
So there it was, we were going to lay down some footprints in South America. After some conversations with Sheila, our lovely travel rep and also an awesome client, we were pointed towards G-Adventures. They had some amazing trips, but we will have to save those for another day. We had set our sights on the Inca Discovery trip.
With some planning and coaxing we were able to rustle up nine amazing folks from Aspire to come out for a 4-day hike in South America. We were all eager to get on our way to the southern hemisphere. With the help of Wilderness Supply we all looked the part, with some great shoes, great bags, and some really cool gear. If looking good was half the battle we had that half of the hike in the bag already.
It seemed like we blinked and the day to leave was upon us. I showed up at the airport and then shortly after Jenn, and then the fedora-toting Kristen showed up. The three of us were flying out together and would meet the rest of the crew in Lima, Peru. Off to Toronto we went. With our eyes barely open, we landed at Pearson and stumbled to our next flight–this time to sunny Miami. Now slightly awake, the flight seemed to go so slow as we were all excited to get to Lima and see the rest of our crew. Miami airport is like any other airport, except for one thing–it is in Florida, and according to our pilot Florida has some pretty amazing storms. So there we were hanging out on the tarmac as rain came down not in drops but in a constant stream. As the plane rocked back and forth from the high winds you could see little waves forming on the runway. This is where I found out Jenn is not an awesome flyer. Good thing at this point we were more boat than we were plane.
Now having gone back into plane mode we were on our way to Lima! Grab a quick cab to the hotel. As we entered the hotel we hear some quick feet coming down the stairs, like a dog who hasn’t seen anybody in months Jeff emerges from the stairs. Eager to talk to anyone who will listen as McKenzie had put herself to bed a few hours prior. Everyone started pouring in, so after dropping some bags off in our rooms we hit the streets of Miraflores (suburb of Lima). We didn’t have to go far to find a local watering hole. Like any good trip our first priority was to indulge in a local beer, Cusqueña did the trick. It is amazing how 12+ hours of travel can be brushed off by a few beers and laughs with friends.
Day 1 – Lima | July 4, 2015
After a good night sleep we were up and about walking the streets of Lima, checking out all the sights. Now for those who haven’t been keeping up with my Facebook feed you should know that I have discovered the “Selfie Stick”. My experience had been limited to local photos of myself and my dog. I was excited to see how it handled the other half of the globe. It did amazing as can be seen by the photos. So there we were nine tourists making our way to the ocean and around all the shops. As we neared empty on our proverbial fuel tanks we were rescued by Lima’s famous ceviche. Then we discovered Pisco Sours. If you’re not familiar with taste, it’s like sucking a lemon then chasing it with egg whites and whiskey. It wasn’t for me, but some of these folks enjoyed a few. Fun fact about the Spanish language when looking for the identifying letters on the bathroom doors, “M” doesn’t mean male as it does here but actually means “Mujer” or women en español. Richard discovered this in the most Richard-sort-of-way possible.
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We’re just past our lunch of our first full day and the laughs had yet to stop. Let’s keep walking. It wasn’t long after lunch that it was time for another Cusqueña. We seemed to have landed ourselves in a great spot to watch Futbol and drink beers. So like any good tourist that’s what we did. Well some of us at least, half the group went on to explore more of Lima and take in the culture. And the rest of us decided that culture can be observed at a pub. We did some good observing that night. Even ended up going to a club that was not flip flop friendly. Now dancing with one flip flop on and the other tucked in my back pocket we continued to observe the culture, turns out alcohol and loud music is a commonality between Canada and Peru.
Day 2 – Lima | July 5, 2015
The next day came way too quickly, but we were up and McKenzie had insisted we go to Dunkin Donuts. Now bouncing off the walls with sugar we went surfing. I have had experience surfing but I won’t lie, my last experience resulted in me getting a dozen stitches in a Dominican hospital. I was a little nervous to get in the water. But as I had surfed before, I put on a brave face thankful that the wetsuit hid any accidental urination. So with some less than amazing instruction from “Doc” we were on our way into the Pacific Ocean ready to conquer the mighty waves. Almost instantly we lost Jeff. So there I was with McKenzie, Jenn and Kristen trying to figure out the surfing thing while trying to find Jeff. Soon after our start we lost Kristen to motion sickness… and then there were three. Oh wait, there’s a frustrated Jeff paddling his poorly-sized board toward us. And we’re four again. Now the problem with the instruction, at least from my point-of-view, is that Jeff and me being male didn’t interest the instructors. Luckily they made up for our lack of attention by exclusively giving McKenzie and Jenn lessons. After about an hour and about 5 litres of sea water swallowed we headed back. I’m happy to say I survived this surf session and didn’t get any additional war wounds.
Day 3 – Cusco/Ollantaytambo | July 6, 2015
The next day we were off to Cusco (or Couscous depending on the dialect you choose to use). This was our first time at altitude, when I looked at my altimeter we were just shy of 10,000 feet–which for those who don’t know is a lot of feets. We were all taking our time loading our bags into the van which was to take us to our hotel. It seemed that this whole “less oxygen” thing was true. Nevertheless we had a hike to get to, so we made our way to our hotel. In the lobby we were greeted by oxygen tanks and leaves. I guess we really are at altitude. It was still early in the day and left us a lot of time to go explore Cusco. We explored a wonderful little market, filled with stores that would be right at home in an Indiana Jones movie. If you’ve never had the pleasure of cruising through an open air market you should check it out. You will see things you never thought existed. My favourite of the day; watching someone divide a sheep’s head. The whole market left some a little queasy, myself included. Next stop dinner.
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A wonderful thing happened during our last dinner before we started the hike. There was guitar hanging on the wall of the restaurant. After a little coaxing Kristen started playing for us. I have seen her play before so it wasn’t a surprise she was in fact very good at singing, but the rest of the group wasn’t expecting it. As Kristen strummed away the kitchen staff made their way out to listen. By the end of her little jam all the staff were out watching/listening. I tip my fedora to you Kristen.
Day 4 – Ollantaytambo/Wayllabamba Camp | July 7, 2015
After a night of great food, great tunes and lots of laughs we were off to Ollantaytambo. The day started with some touring of Cuzco as we made our way to Ccaccaccollo where G-Adventures (through the Planeterra Project) has helped set up a weaving village. Here we met Nancy and her adorable child. There was a lot of speculation that McKenzie would end up taking the young girl home with us as they seemed to form an instant bond. We had an incredible demonstration of how the women of the village weave and create amazing alpaca scarves, mitts, and other great items. It was also here that I found out that the “alpaca” socks I bought in Cuzco, probably weren’t actual alpaca. Oh well, live and learn.
Now draped in the finest alpaca garments we were off to Pisaq. This would be our first test. Our guide Cho Cho had set the goal of getting up and down a small example of the trail in under 20mins. Immediately after he had put forth the challenge McKenzie was looking for a stop watch. And off we went. I believe the round trip took us 9 minutes, McKenzie will have the official time. We all left feeling excited and nervous about what the next four days would bring. Turns out the test wasn’t over. As we continued forward we had a stop ahead of us. When we got there we saw what looked like all the stairs in Peru (I was later corrected). Here we hiked up approximately 5 billion stairs to get to an incredible view and a brief “school” lesson from our very knowledgeable guide Cho Cho. After hiking down another 5 billion stairs we were back to the van, but Cho Cho had a surprise up his sleeve. He was going to take us to a local watering hole. The local beer is a corn-based beer which might not be for everyone. The most incredible moment of this stop was the discovery of a new bar game “sapo”. Think beer pong but with metal coins and a frog’s mouth. Tons of fun. Men versus women, and with a little bit of cheating the women emerged victorious. Now we were off to our home for the evening, an incredibly beautiful resort like camp. Surrounded by Mother Nature we headed to the bar to play some cards. For those who like card games that require no strategy you may enjoy Dutch Blitz. 😉
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Day 5 – Wayllabamba Camp/Paqaymayo Camp | July 8, 2015
Time to start the hard stuff, the day started with us meeting up with our porters and handing off our 6kgs of gear each. It’s worth noting that these porters carry about 20kgs of gear. That’s a lot on flat ground. That’s a crazy amount when you consider just how hard the trail is. We also met our other guide for the trip a smiley Daniel. When you’d ask Daniel just how hard the hike is and all he would do is smile and laugh, you knew you were in for a treat. Now 6kgs lighter we made our way to km 82 where we would be starting our hike. A stamp of the passport and we were off. Cho Cho had mentioned that day 1 wasn’t very hard. By comparison to the subsequent days he was right, but at that point he was very wrong. I remember one stretch that seemed to be 45 degrees upwards. Aspire’s tag line is “Hard Work Generates Results.” In the case of this hike, hard work generates breathtaking views. I remember mentioning to Cho Cho that his country is beautiful, he humbly responded, “You haven’t seen anything yet”. Throughout the trek Cho Cho always mentioned we would arrive smelly champions. And all the tourists who smell good at the end were losers. I thought this was just him being silly. My thoughts would change 72 hours later.
After a day of hiking we got to camp, we were greeted by our team of porters with a round of applause. This is incredible considering they had gotten there before us with enough time to set up camp, including all our tents, the dining tent and kitchen tent. The applause should be directed at them. It’s hard to believe that we’d eat well on a trail with nothing but a camp stove, but this team of porters and cooks know how to put on a meal. No canned beans here. We ate great food all the time.
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Day 6 – Paqaymayo Camp/Wiñaywayna | July 9, 2015
Morning came quickly as we were on the trail as the sun rose. As we got on our way and left our tents to the porters, Cho Cho and Daniel told us that there was a marathon going on that day. And to be sure to give runners enough room to pass. The idea of running the 40+ kms seemed impossible. While hiking you would hear the echo of hikers yelling “porters” this was our cue to move over and let the super humans pass. We were told that day 2 was the challenge, if you can survive day 2 you will survive the rest. This is also where we crossed the 10,000 foot mark. Our goal was Dead Women’s Pass, the highest summit of the trip at 4,215m above sea level (13,830ft). But we had a lot of hiking to do before we could say we had the Pass behind us. This day was hard.
I know for me if it wasn’t for the breathtaking views (pun intended) I would rank this as the hardest thing I’ve ever done. When you’re surrounded by some of the most beautiful mountains on the planet it’s hard to complain. I had talked to some people who had been at altitude before and they said 20 steps would be a struggle. I didn’t believe them. As we neared Dead Women’s Pass I was proven wrong. Every step felt as though someone was squeezing every bit of oxygen out of my lungs. As we neared the top, 20 steps was all I could muster. I remember looking up as I approached and saw the members of our team who were already there, cheering us on. It’s hard not to be moved when you see a whole group of people cheering on the rest of their team. Now 50 feet from the top, Daniel our silent guide decided to be a funny guy and sprint up the rest. Well… now I guess I needed to try. In what felt like the fastest I’ve ever run (not really) I got to the top and was greeted with a view that can’t be captured in a photo or recreated with words.
You had to sit up there and appreciate the view. I could have stayed there all day, looking down on clouds is quite the sight. But we did have to press on as we had dinner waiting for us. Fun fact: It took us about 4 hours to get to the summit, in that time our porters had gotten to our camp and were already busy setting up. A couple of them had even made their way back to carry some gear for us. You’d think downhill would the easy part, granted it was easier but not by much. I feel that the Inca people had some incredibly long legs that allowed them to conquer the tallest steps. As we crept down toward camp spirits were high as we knew we accomplished something amazing. As we moved along, camp came into view, it was a bittersweet view as on the other side of camp we could see the trail and what we were in store for the next morning. As Cho Cho would say, “Just a little 300m climb.” We rolled into camp again greeted by that incredible sound of applause from our team of porters. Tonight we would camp in a valley protected by the tall mountains all around us. If nature called in the middle of the night you’d be forced to throw on a head lamp and make your way to a bush or outhouse. This might seem like a nuisance until you looked up and saw the stars. With no light around you and no pollution you can see the millions of stars above. I remember sitting down on the ground at 3am and just looking up. Day 2 was filled with views that left you speechless.
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Day 7 – Wiñaywayna/Cusco | July 10, 2015
Morning started the same way it had the previous 2 mornings, with a warm cup of cocoa tea placed in your tent. Muscles were sore, bodies were cold and we knew we had a hard start to our day. Sitting quietly eating we mustered up the energy and drive to throw our backpacks on and start our trek forward “a little 300m climb”. It was hard. Going right into that first thing in the morning is a cruel trick to play on your legs. I think my legs finally loosened up at about 295m. We were slower on day 2 than Cho Cho and Daniel had thought so we had to start earlier than planned, but as soon as we crossed that summit we were motoring. I think some of us were ready to be done. And our speed was just a product of the desire to get to the end. There was a moment as we hiked on Day 3 that we came to a clearing in the trees where no matter where you looked you were engulfed in beauty. I remember just stopping and looking around. No longer did my muscles hurt, my lungs burn, or my feet throb. At that moment I felt that of the billions of people on earth I had the best view out of all of them. It may have been the combination of emotion and fatigue that lead to this experience, but it was one of my favourite moments of the hike. As I write this I now think Cho Cho and Daniel hung back so that we could have that moment to ourselves. Maybe we weren’t as speedy as I had thought, maybe our guides knew what was ahead. Rejuvenated by the sights around us, we continued towards Machu Picchu. I noticed after we had that photo-op we had a little more jump in our steps, laughs came a little quicker and smiles were just a bit bigger. Soon after we heard the familiar sound of applause we had made it to lunch. This was a special lunch, the cooks treated us to a cake to mark our accomplishment. Yes, you read that correctly—they made a cake in a campsite. These people are incredible.
I can’t imagine I will ever have the opportunity to eat lunch in such a beautiful place again. Sitting down and eating lunch in the middle of the Andes is a memory I hope I get to keep for the rest of my life. As I sat there after lunch I’m surrounded by some of my favourite people, in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. That was a good day!
The hike down felt like a victory lap, we knew we had finished the hardest part of the hike. And now we were working our way to the finish line. Every step closer to sea level felt like another breath of air in our lungs. As we worked our way down we started a fun game of “movie quotes”, say one of your favourite quotes from a movie and we had to guess it. Seems like a fun game that everyone can enjoy. There were a few obscure references from Jenn… I’ve personally never seen the movie Casper, but Jenn had the entire script memorized. It was such a Jenn thing to do. I remember this vividly, as we were hiking down I heard the train. I hadn’t realized that for 3 days I hadn’t heard the sounds of a modern society. And as we continued I heard a plane, I guess we were getting close to the end of our hike. It was a bitter sweet moment. I didn’t notice how much I liked not hearing those modern technologies.
We made it to camp and we had some visitors a whole fleet(I assume that’s what they’re called) of alpacas. It was a neat experience as we slept on the side of a cliff wild alpacas were stumbling around. The night was filled with giggles and laughs coming from everyone’s tents. We knew we were just a couple of hours away from the ruins. I know I had a few good laughs while Richard read us a bedtime story about alien abductions. Now the downside of the third camp is that the toilets are horrible, and they feels more like 50 meters further below the actual site. Three A.M. bathroom breaks were horrible, made worse when you drop your roll of TP on the dirty floor. That was not my best sleep.
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Day 8 – Cusco | July 11, 2015
The morning came very early, I believe we were up and moving at 4:30 a.m. so that our porters could catch their train back to Cuzco. Head lamps on we started our hike to the Sun Gate. An out of this world view of the Machu Picchu Ruins. There we pushed forward to see the sunrise over the ancient ruins. That truly marked the pinnacle of our hike, we could see the finish line and it was downhill from where we were. I think we spent about an hour at the Sun Gate admiring the view. I know for myself I took the time to appreciate everyone who had been part of this amazing experience. We had gone through 3 and a half days of hard work to get to this point and earn the right to walk down to Machu Picchu as champions. Cho Cho was right we earned that feeling. It could never be replicated, it could only be earned. As we walked through the ruins to the front gate heaps of “Clean Losers” parted the way to allow us to walk through. And for the last time I took my backpack off and sat down, took a deep breath and then looked for the nearest “running water” washroom. We did it. Each member of our team had their own struggles and their own successes. We had come together to achieve something few people have done.
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Reflecting on the trip
We had a few more days in Peru before we made our way back. Some of us were sticking around to continue their adventure. Jeff and McKenzie carried on south toward Brasil. Kristen made her way to the Amazon Jungle. I remember boarding the plane to head back home and just thinking about how amazing the last 9 days had been. A group of very different people, connected by a gym, traveled to another continent to challenge themselves. I know everyone will remember the trip differently than I do but I know everyone will share some form of connection with the mountains where we hiked over 4 days. We will all share memories of our guides showing us some fun new card games. Or Sheila putting on the “mask” and taking a swig of Fireball Whiskey. Or Gord craving a bottle of Coke after the hike. Or Richard adding “o” to every word and believing it was then a Spanish word. Or Julie somehow fitting every medication one might need in her bag. Or McKenzie falling on the trail for no apparent reason. Or Kristen and me going for the final cup in “musical cups”. Or Jeff finding out he truly hates cilantro. Or Jenn being scared of Cho Cho’s scary stories.
I can say with a great level of confidence that this was a great trip for everyone. I know I look forward to flipping through these photos when I’m old and grey and remembering all the great times we had, but more importantly all the amazing people with whom I was lucky enough to be alongside. Till the next adventure!
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