It’s hard to believe Peru has already arrived. A few months ago the great adventure of this bountiful country seemed so distant. To have made it this far fills me with pride. Our first stop in Peru was the lovely little town of Puno, home to the famed reed islands of Lake Titicaca. These impressive islands are made solely of reed and mud, keeping afloat houses and families. The Uru people have lost language and tradition over the centuries; today’s display largely for tourists. Nethertheless, these islands of Titicaca are amazing and interesting. The president of one island dug into the dry reeds at our feet, pulling wet mud and reed. A larger island contained a mini lake in the centre of the isle. Ignoring the arrogant tourists, one can appreciate the impressive feats of humans, and the serene atmosphere of living on a lake. A beautiful young mother danced around barefoot, showing people her home and selling her crafts. The islands felt like a trampoline underfoot, springing up and down. The dark set in, glittering Puno city lights flickering across the water. I was warned against going to these islands due to the intense commercialisation. Indeed it was overly touristy, but it’s an incredible site to see!
Now we were on our way to Cusco, rocketing toward the Inka Trail. We stopped by the archaeological site of Tipon on our way, admiring the grande Inka terraces and plumbing. A place for the worship of water, I was able to absorb energy I would need in the next few days. With the sun, water and Pachamama on my side, I anticipated the adventures of Cusco and beyond.
It was heaven to my ears when I heard my flight home includes two checked in bags. Two whole bags to fill with as many treasures from my travels as I could possibly fit. Cusco couldn’t wait for my business. At first the city struck me as dirty and loud, taxis constantly honking at foreigners like myself. Children filled the square, marching in a militaristic parade.
To escape the misty rain, we opted for museums. Although incredibly wealthy with information and artefacts, I quickly grew tired of the multiple museums that surrounded the main square. Burned out, it was an early afternoon and quiet night back at our little hotel.
My last day in Cusco before the Inka Trail was much nicer, convincing me the city is also lovely and interesting as it is dirty and loud. Taking part in my first free walking tour, I got to taste alpaca (yum!) and get an inside view into the Inka capital city and Peru. Our guide pointed out the flaws in Peru’s education, the strict militarism an unfortunately dominant part. We saw the Spanish churches, built over Inka temples, the large stone foundations still visible. A proud Andean, dressed as a traditional Inka, played a beautiful melody using traditional instruments such as bone flutes, pipes, animal hide drums, rain sticks and a condor feather. We learnt how to make the popular Peruvian dish of ceviche. It was fresh fish, cooked in lime and served with corn, sweet potato, lettuce and onion. Not too wild with my food exploration, I was pleasantly surprised and happy that I tried the sour yet fresh tasting meal. Cusco continued to treat me as I explored the San Pedro markets. I’ve definitely been here for a while when I admit I wasn’t as daunted or confused by the hectic South American style market. Crammed under a large tin roof, at least a hundred stalls filled the space leaving only tight streets in between. One half overflowed with touristy goods, fabrics galore and so much more! To the other side was food, open air and unrefrigerated meat, cheeses, seafood and produce. Adventurous friends tried the bargain food, cooked in the small metre square stalls, consisting of delicious heaps of rice and vegetables. Considering the upcoming feat, I played it safe and stuck to the supermarket.
To top off my day, I found the souvenir I have been admiring since I was a young kid in the Mary Street, Grafton home. A gift to me, I excitedly purchased a large alpaca wool rug. The beautiful work of art is round, featuring llamas and arrowheads in an Inti sun god motif. Throughout my trek I would think about lying on this rug in the future. I am so thankful for that second checked in bag!
It was time! Starting our pilgrimage to the sacred Inka site, an uncomfortable van drove us through the Sacred Valley. Unfortunately the day started with a rather large hiccup – the guides trying to take us on a different tour. Glad for the persuasive people in our group, the day soon straightened out. The ruins of Sacsayhuaman just outside of Cusco were fantastic, dwarfing us as we wondered past monstrous stones. The tour driver drove like an idiot and I got incredibly motion sick, so when it came time to explore the ancient ruins of Pisac I could barely make it up the hill. Even without the guided exploration of the fascinating site, I enjoyed simply watching the clouds cast shadows over the grassy green terraces.
Lunch had me feeling better, loading my plate with wonderfully fresh vegetables. I know, I’ve changed… I actually loaded my plate with undercooked, beautifully crunchy broccoli and savoured every bite.
Making it to Ollyantaytambo, we explored the towering terraces and sun temple before retiring to our last shower and bed for a few days. Stressed out by the awful organisation of the tour (our trekking guides were not at the hotel, leaving us no information about the following day) there were many tears and more than one call to home. Thankfully I have so many beautiful people in my life, and the support of my group and family calmed me enough to go on. I bought my walking poles and fell asleep relatively easily. Tomorrow was the day.
All anxiety quickly turned to excitement as we were transported out of town to kilometre eighty-two of the Inka Trail. A large group of men quickly appeared, packing huge amounts of gear, including all of our packs, into oversized backpacks. These incredibly hard working men would be our porters for the next forty kilometres. I grabbed a sneaky Snickers from the last store before we set off. From the beginning of the trek I filmed a video diary, one which records the sites, adventures and moods along the way. I hope it will be almost as entertaining as it was capturing.
The first day had me wondering if we were even on the Inka Trail. Cacti and long, dry grass lined our path. We passed small farms along the mighty Urubamba river. Walking along the dusty, relatively flat ground we admired a few ruins but mostly the mountains on either side of the valley. Our first lunch blew us away as we sat on chairs inside a large tent at a table with a table cloth! We were served an entree of guacamole, a warm soup and a main of beef, rice and chips! Not only was the meal incredibly fulfilling, I could not believe the porters had carried all of it, including unnecessary luxuries such as table cloths.The men were small, some young and another over sixty years old. The bags were at least two thirds of their body length, many bent over from years of the job. As I struggled up the hills with only my day pack, these strong men bounced past me with ten times my load.
The day was long but not too hard, the first few hills testing my body which had gone so long without exercise. After those hills I quickly snapped back into the trek routine, marching on and puffing heartily. Towards the end of the day I suffered sharp cramps, leading to what every girl would dread when on a four day hike. Alas determination would prevail, nothing stopping me from reaching my goal.
At camp one we were greeted with small bowls of warm water to wash ourselves. Provided with a delicious dinner and warm enough tent, I slept well. The infamous Dead Woman’s pass loomed.
The climb of day two was endless. Up never seemed to end. The scenery started looking more like Inka Trail – humid, sub-tropical cloud forest with slippery, ancient stone steps. Many people climbed at different paces, the foreigners pushing along as light footed porters overtook on the way towards the lunch camp. My lungs ached with fire, the cool air feeling like sharp shards of ice with each breath. My group was always far ahead but for once I was not bothered. I would get there, and that was all that mattered. Along my way I met many people. I passed incredibly loud Americans who liked to shout ‘fuck’ a lot. I met their lovely guide, Freddie, who encouraged me constantly over the next two days whenever he saw me. Lunch today brought rain, my group huddling in the tent with dread of walking in the wet. As we filled our bellies, Dead Woman’s Pass was visible up above, and just was frightening as I imagined. I fell behind quite quickly after lunch, the exercise after a three course meal not helping. One foot in front of the other! I screamed in my head as the rain numbed my face and froze my hands to my walking poles. My legs ached with fatigue, my body damp with sweat and rain. The voices of my friends called down to me as they waited at the top of the pass. Desperate to be in the group photo about to be taken, I pushed up the steep steps. Swearing with joy, all the drained energy quickly returned. I had made it to the top of Dead Woman’s Pass, and I was quite sure I had all of my toenails intact. Now it was time to descend into the heavy mist that concealed our camp for the night. The steps were incredibly slippery, many having falls. I, on the other hand, raced down, practically skipping. There were a few near misses, but nothing would deter me. I was ahead of the group, plowing my way to camp whilst also enjoying the mystical scenery. It was here where the truthful dichotomy emerges, up-hill Kate and down-hill Kate. Up-hill Kate hates walking, claiming she’ll never trek again. Down-hill Kate loves life, and reckons she could do it all again. I hope a balance between the two may one day be found.
Desperate to go in the middle of the night, and so, so cold at the nearly four thousand metre campsite, I awoke the next morning fatigued. Even the delicious pancakes for breakfast didn’t help the dread of this day. Nestled between two peaks, the second awaited my sweat and tears. Our beautiful lead guide, Fernando, insisted on taking my bag when he noticed my unhappy face. Now it was up to me. The group set off, quickly disappearing up the steep slope as I pushed up each step. Caught between the need to vomit and the danger of fainting, I took it slow and steady. Only using natural medicines, I was given a strong smelling oil to breathe in three times. It helped steady my light head, but the nausea persisted. I kept up well enough with the group considering, perhaps only ten minutes behind. This last up was cruel, having multiple levels so each one seemed like the top of the pass, until you climbed high enough to see the next rise. Collapsing when the top of the pass finally came, I forced some awful drinking salts down. The temporary rest helped before I embarked after my group down the Gringo Killer steps. This gringo was in no way deterred; down-hill Kate emerging over my mysterious illness. I caught up to my group and even overtook a few, desperate to get to lunch and have a siesta. One beautiful archaeological site overlooking the valley had one hundred steps leading up to it, which I bravely took on. Freddie appeared again, and with Fernando they encouraged me on. The majority of people on the trail were kind and supportive, creating an empowering atmosphere.
Lunch accompanied the passing of my burden, allowing me to regain the strength and energy that had deserted me this morning. Taking back my pack, and downing a coca tea with three sugars, I found a third trekking Kate. Despite the rain and the long, gradual up, I marched up the mountain side, storming along the original Inka path tirelessly. Coca tea with three sugars… this special, magic juice gave me unlimited power! And did I need it, sixteen long kilometres along the mountain side, passing beautiful archaeological sites, very recent landslides and dense cloud forest. A single llama appeared out of the mist at a lonely, stone site, happily munching on the wet grass. Walking ahead of the group I spotted an interesting mountain, which turned out to be Machu Picchu. The excitement welled again, and spilled into immense joy when we reached the site of Wiñay Wayna. Sun breaking through the dissipating mist, the huge stone terraces gazed upon glowing mountains of green and cloud. A soft rainbow sat in the nook of a valley, fluffy clouds curling and spiralling along the rolling mountain side. I can only do so much to describe the beauty. The Inkas believe the mountains are alive, and from this moment, so did I. Across the valley, the mountain of Machu Picchu beckoned me, soft whispers singing in the cooling afternoon air.
All my clothes stunk, an awful mixture of dampness, sweat and dirt. We were rewarded with a cake on our last dinner in the tent, adding to the perfection of the day. Despite its exhausting length, it was my favourite day of the pilgrimage to the new wonder of the world.
The three am wake up left me less than impressed, but a quick coca tea with three sugars had me bouncing and ready to go. Rushed from my tent and wolfing down a piece of bread with jam, I was ready to sprint all the way to Machu Picchu! Instead we got to join the line of one and a half hours wait for the check point to open. When that time finally came we set off at a brisk pace, the adrenalin, joy, and coca sugar tea powering me on. We overtook slow groups on the narrow path, not stopping for a second. It was slippery and I rolled my ankle. The pain was quickly forgotten as I remembered my goal. Pushing harder than I had ever pushed, I marched on. My legs screamed, my lungs burned, my head began to feel faint. A hearty laugh mixed with a cry of terror escaped my lips when I saw the steep steps towards the Sun Gate. Dropping low, recalling days of loping up my Gram and Poppy’s stairs on all fours, I clambered deftly up.
And there it was. I couldn’t help but giggle when I thought it was much smaller than I imagined. From the Sun Gate, Machu Picchu was a small cluster of rocks. Inti had looked on me kindly, blessing our long journey with a clear view of the breathtaking site. Although clouds concealed the mornings first rays of light, the beauty was just as spectacular. I wanted to scream from the bottom of my lungs, pour song from my chest and dance like I was water or air. I could have melted into the Earth, exhausted, proud, purely happy.
I thundered along the stone path that led to Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate after many moments of admiration from afar. Some arrogant American tourists whom dared to take up the whole path almost got speared with my walking pole. I would not miss a second of the glorious day! My grin did not leave my face. Even as hoards of tourists polluted the sacred site, I only saw the wonders of the lost Inka city before me. Rain began to fall lightly at the end of our guided tour, again reminding me to appreciate the elements. I was not disappointed by the weather, contented by Machu Picchu in both cloud, heavy mist and rain. Like clockwork, the thick mist twirled up from the sides of the mountain and flowed into the site, a soft and eerily calm tidal wave. In minutes it would clear again, each second the elements presenting different views of the magical place.
Early afternoon the rain began to pour, the line for the buses to Aguas Calientes over a hundred metres long. Soaking wet and exhausted from four days trekking, it was a sleepy afternoon waiting for the train to Cusco. Sitting at the back of a nice restaurant, overlooking the torrents of water gushing down the Urubamba and the steady rain falling in the grey light. From what I saw of Aguas Calientes, it was lovely as well as touristy. I wondered the maze of the markets for a while, apathy weighing heavily with my exhaustion. I ended up back in the restaurant, enjoying a deliciously warm Alfredo pasta while chatting happily to home with Spanish dubbed Sense and Sensibility tinkering the background on tv. Hours later it was finally time for the train, a surprisingly beautiful carriage and seat with an included drink and snack. The nut mix and almond tea sent me off to sleep, only for me to awake too soon to climb onto the van for another long journey.
It was late at night by the time we arrived back at the hotel. It had been over twenty hours since I’d woken up for the day. Having a much needed shower, taking my time to scrub and wash, I packed my bags and fell into a beautiful, warm sleep.
I trekked with those who had dreamed of this for years. Some called me adorable for my young age on such a journey. In my mind, I couldn’t understand the wait. There are always obstacles; education, work, finance, family. But life is finite, and it must be lived. If there is something I truly want to do, I’d like to believe nothing would stand in my way. My life would’ve been so much easier if I had gone straight to Uni, held onto my years of dedicated savings and aspired for a solid future. Instead I followed my dreams, exploring the world around me. I will return home broke, and will have likely lost motivation to work and study. I will also return home a better me, happier than I’ve been in a long while. I cannot imagine life without this trip, without learning the values of home, endurance and peace. Machu Picchu was so much more than a hike to a beautiful place. It was proof that I can do anything if I put one foot in front of the other. It was proof that it doesn’t have to take a lot to turn dreams into reality. I’m sure the motivational speech seems like a broken record. If someone had said this to me a year ago I may have rolled my eyes. Yet I am so blessed to have understood this so early. Strive for what makes your heart soar and settles your soul. What is life if it is not filled with moments of pure joy? It can come disguised, or it can be pursued. But it must be sought. Having the courage to make a change is the best thing one can hope to do. Do not be caught in life’s clock, ticking slowly away at what is expected. Grab time by the throat, live the glorious moments or sleep away the hurtful ones. My simple message is do not wait, just do.
I am eighteen years old, I have been away from my home county, language and family for over three months now. I’ve travelled through South America, from the sticky Pantanal of Brasil to the frozen Antarctic of Ushuaia. It’s not the most amazing feat ever accomplished by someone my age. I am not alone, and I am not winging it. But I have learnt so much about myself and the world, and there is nothing more I could’ve hoped for. For me, this is what it took to open my eyes. For others it could take a simple change of job, scenery or attitude.
My pilgrimage to Machu Picchu was all I imagined and more. I feel the power of the Inkas; the peace of the mountains, the strength of the sun, the lightness of the air. I feel the life, flowing through my veins and beating in my heart. I am alive. I can do it.