Hiking in Colombia’s Los Nevados National Park

About a month ago, I went hiking with a group of friends and my cousin, Carlos, in Los Nevados National Park. It was Semana Santa (Holy Week) so we had a week off teaching to relax and travel! We thus decided to do a four-day trek through the nearby national park.

Where is Los Nevados?

Los Nevados is located in the Central Mountain Range of the Colombian Andes (the highest range out of 3 branches of the Andes). It is pretty close to Manizales, where I’m living, and as you may have read in previous posts, I can usually see it from my bedroom window, like here:

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Volcanoes!!

 The park features many volcanoes, mostly dormant, and three of which still have their glaciers: the Ruiz, the Santa Isabel, and the Tolima. The highest one, the Ruiz, is closest to Manizales and is still active– Manizaleños can often see it smoking on a clear day.

A relatively recent eruption in 1985 caused Colombia’s worst-ever natural disaster. The lahar (residue/debris that races down a volcano) erased a small town called Armero in its path – leaving only a quarter of its 28,700 residents alive.

The Ruiz, then, is a truly sublime force – it’s beautiful to look at it, but it also inspires fear and reverence at the powerful force of nature.

Not just that, but it also serves as evidence of the incredible diversity on this planet. May I remind you that I am currently in Colombia – a country very close to the equator known for its hot temperatures and beautiful beaches and jungles in many parts of the country. But somehow in spite of all this, there is a park with glaciers in it!? That’s right. Colombia is AWESOME.

OK – let’s hike this thing.

Our decision to go on the trek was ultimately pretty last-minute. We managed to get enough people on board just in time so the night before the trek, we all met at Juan Valdez (basically the Starbucks of Colombia) to discuss logistics and the game plan for the next day.

At 5AM the next morning, the final group of eight of us met our jeep driver with all our gear and giddily hopped into the jeep to start our journey.

Here’s a rough outline of our itinerary:

Day One: Hiking up to the Santa Isabel Glacier. 6km. Night at Potosí Finca
Day Two: Potosí Finca to Berlín Finca. ~17km. Highlights: Laguna del Otún, forests of frailéjones in the paramo.
Day Three: Berlín Finca to Primavera Finca. ~14km Highlights: more paramo, marshlands.
Day Four: Primavera Finca to Cocora Valley, and a jeep to Salento! ~15 km  Highlights: slipping and sliding in the mud all day; getting to our final destination!

Day One: Reaching High Altitudes on the Santa Isabel Glacier

After our jeep picked us up in Manizales, we had a ride of about 2 hours ahead of us to get to the park. We had a few stops on the way though to start acclimatizing. The first was in the neighbouring town of Villamaria to pick up some of our equipment and to grab a quick coffee or coca tea.

We then stopped for breakfast at a beautiful countryside finca – hot chocolate with bread, arepas, and eggs. This was roughly the same breakfast we would eat every morning of the hike.

Our last stop before arriving at the park was a quick stop to admire this incredible waterfall: 20170412_073828

The whole ride was breathtaking, really. Getting to the park entrance (below), we looked up at the heavy cloud cover, hoping it wouldn’t start to rain. Also feeling the cold nip at our skin when we got out of the jeep, I started hoping my cheap dollar store gloves would be enough to get me through the next four days! 

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Soon after arriving and doing a quick assessment of what we needed to bring up to the peak with us, we started on our way. The ‘paramo’ (a high-altitude tropical tundra climate) was amazing to see.

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Nearing the top, a bit of altitude sickness started to hit. My head started to pound and my breathing was shallow. But step by step, we kept moving forward.

I was grateful for the numbers of layers I had brought up! Sweating one minute while the sun was out, and then shivering for the wind, they were definitely necessary.
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Before we knew it, we had made it!

The glacier was incredible – rocky and barren, no more paramo plants in sight. We could also walk on it up to a certain point, but not too far for risk of falling through without the proper gear. It was especially cool to see where there were some cracks in the ice; you could look through to amazing crystal water. My cousin and I took advantage of the ice to make some ‘ice’ angels…. *brrr*

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What’s sad is that the glacier probably won’t last much longer – ten years at most, according to scientists. It’s been receding rapidly over the past few years. There’s even a marker on a rock that says “2003,” marking where the glacier went up to 14 years ago, and it’s shockingly far back from where  the glacier starts now.

It was awesome, though, to be able to take in this sight knowing that it won’t be like this much longer. Oh the ephemerality of it all!

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The hike, though pretty short at just 6km total, drained us completely. Once we got to the finca, the owners gave us some agua de panela and lunch, and then we went straight to bed – at about 3 p.m!

Despite our sleeping bags and the cozy blankets that the owners gave us, many of us were freezing. I tried to stay absolutely still because moving just a bit made me feel cold. Around 7, they called us for dinner, but I could hardly muster the energy to get up and eat. Only the idea of a warm soup finally lured me out from under the covers.

It was crazy to see how the day’s climb and the altitude had exhausted us so much physically and mentally. While some didn’t seem too affected by it, most of us had headaches, or felt nauseous, or were just really tired. It felt like nature’s hangover. Only one thing to do – sleep it off. We went to bed super early to be fresh for the next day.

Day Two: We have to walk up THAT?

Day two was a LONG day. We started bright and early after having a quick and yummy breakfast at the finca. The Nevado del Ruiz was amazingly clear that morning, and we were able to see it smoking impressively as we started on our way.

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It was then roughly a 7km gradual uphill walk to get to the Laguna del Otun – a big beautiful lake in the middle of the park. We were fortunate to have the sun peeking out of the clouds just in time when we got there. My cousin and I couldn’t resist the perfect moment for a photo.


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We then descended into a green and pretty canyon, where we caught our first glimpses of frailejón forests in this well-maintained one called “Bosque de Eden” (Forest of Eden). The mountains in the distance made for a beautiful backdrop.

Around this time, I also successfully miscalculated the depth of a mud puddle and got one leg well stuck. Thankfully my cousin was nearby and was able to help pull me out!
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Shortly after, it started to hail a bit, and there was thunder and lightning. Still far off from our destination, we all picked up the pace to try and avoid getting stuck in a storm.

As soon as we made it to a finca where we were going to have a break, it started to rain really hard. Just in time! We warmed up with some agua de panela, played with some baby chicks (aww) and then headed back out on our way – a few more kilometres to go.

The sun came out and we were able to take off our layers as we walked through the lush countryside. I said hola to every cow and every horse, of course. 
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Our guide then casually mentioned that we had to then climb up the mountain that was directly in front of us. I’m sorry, what!? Totally unexpected, this was going to be a challenge after already walking about 15km that day!

We started the climb, stopping frequently for a breather, and admiring the countryside view which got smaller and smaller as we climbed.
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Alexis and I started invoking the name of inspirational women to get us through. For Oprah! For Emma Watson! For Ellen DeGeneres!

In the end, we all made it. Exhausted but in awe of the beautiful view.

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There was then just about a kilometre more until we arrived at Berlín Finca, our home for the night. As there were no rooms available, we had to camp that night outside the house.

We set up our tents as soon as we arrived and then went to huddle around the stove in the kitchen where we stayed chatting and relaxing as the owner made us agua de panela, and then dinner. We were starving and ate as if we hadn’t eaten in ten days and soon after got into our tents to pass out.

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Day Three: Wet and Wonderful 

Day three was wet. Very wet. It started raining while we were taking down our tents and continued raining on and off the whole day. Those crappy dollar store gloves I mentioned earlier? Yeah, they weren’t much help this day. We got absolutely soaked.

But – the day was also wonderful! We passed through amazing dense paramo forests, filled with frailéjones.

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Not just that, though. We also passed through an incredible marshy area that in Spanish is called a “pantano.” It’s basically a swamp with very strong, spongy green plants that you can step on. Trying to jump from one to the other and making sure to only step on the truly strong ones felt like a video game. It was so fun!
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I was not always successful, though.

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And, despite the rain, we were able to catch a foggy glimpse of the Paramillo of Quindío sitting near the marsh. (“Paramillo” is the term used for the volcanoes that no longer have their glaciers) Wonderful!

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At Primavera finca that night, we strung out some rope all over our dorm room and hung everything on it with the naive hope that it would dry a bit. But, with the cold? No such luck. We had to suck it up and put on our wet boots and some wet clothes the next day, yum!

Day Four: Slipping and sliding down to the Cocora Valley

Our final day woke up beautiful, with a bright sun and a view of the Nevado of Tolima in the distance. It didn’t stay that way long though. As we started the last day’s hike, it got foggy and gloomy once more.

Luckily there was no rain, but the ground was still very wet from the downpour the day before. Nearly the whole day consisted of trudging in the mud on our descent into the Cocora Valley.

Most of us fell at least a few times. It was tricky but very, very amusing. Check out all that mud!
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After a bit of walking, we got to an extremely windy ridge. The guide explained that it was where two winds from separate mountain chains meet, making it a perpetual windy crossroads.

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At the top, we stopped to take pictures and revel in the wind! My hands started going numb… those damn gloves were still too wet to be any use. We didn’t stay up there too long, anyway. It was time to descend down into the valley!

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Getting into the valley, it warmed up a lot, and we were greeted by beautiful rolling hills all around us.

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After a lot of walking and trying not to fall that day, we reached a section of the path with lots of river crossings. The majority of the bridges were pretty dodgy, some missing parts or looking pretty worn out, but hey we survived!

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Soon after, we arrived at our destination: Cocora Valley! The sun was shining bright and hot, so all the lush green hills around looked incredible. The tall waxy palm trees soon came into sight as well – they are some of the tallest in the world!


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It was an amazing end to an amazing hike.


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From the valley, we took a jeep into the nearby town of Salento. There were more of us than could fit sitting so I and three others hung onto the back! It was such a cool feeling to have the wind blow in our hair and to be driving after having walked so long.

Some in our group headed back to Manizales right away but Carlos, Alexis, and I stayed in Salento for the night. It’s a beautiful, colourful town and since we were there during Easter, it was packed! That’s for another post though! Keep your eyes out for it. 🙂

Til then,

L

2016: It Kinda Sucked, But It Also Kinda Didn’t

Well it’s the last day of 2016. It sure has been a turbulent year for the world, what with Brexit, Colombia initially voting no to peace, Trump elected as president, the migrant crisis leaving millions without a home, not to mention all the hate crimes and terrorism reports that fill our news channels.

It’s easy to pay attention to all these negative news and reports and forget that there actually are lots of good things happening in the world as well! I was definitely guilty of falling into a black hole of despair when contemplating all the negative things that have happened. But when you think about it, there are still lots of reasons to have hope.

For example, Colombia managed to renegotiate a peace deal that was more accepted, a fierce effort of perseverance to put an end to 50 years of war. Canadian PM Trudeau held his word to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada, and the country pulled together to make it happen, hosting families, donating goods, and all around making them feel as welcome as possible in their new home. Sri Lanka eradicated Malaria. The gene that is linked to ALS was discovered. The protestors at the Dakota Access Oil Pipeline met with victory after a lot of resilience and commitment.

These are just some of the good big things that happened, but there were a lot more small victories all around.

It also made me reflect on my own personal victories that I’ve achieved this year. I decided to make a list of 16 things I’m grateful for that happened in 2016. Here it goes:

1. I welcomed in the new year with a Mexican family I didn’t know, and it was amazing.

I used couchsurfing to gain contacts in Mexico, and one of the people I got in touch with, Christian, showed me around his city the day after I arrived. We got along well so he invited me to spend New Year’s Eve with him and his sister. I thought we’d be going out to dance and see fireworks right away, but it ended up being a dinner in his house with his whole family. They were all really welcoming and kind, even despite the slight language barrier.

Afterwards, I did end up going to dance – not with just him and his sister, but the whole family! It was probably one of the most random nights of my life, but for that reason, it was really special. It was an awesome way to start the new year.

2. I got to explore New York with one of my best friends.

Between tough final-year courses and two jobs, I was a bit stressed out in my final semester. I didn’t have much time to socialize and spent a lot of my time reading and writing frantically. Taking a mini vacation to New York with my also-stressed-out friend, Agatha, was much-needed and was the push we needed to keep going until graduation. 

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Top of The Rock, getting a nice view!

 

 3. I fell in love with Mexico, twice.

My trip to Cancun was my first time in Mexico, and I absolutely loved it. I raved about it to my mom and told her how lots of people had told me how cool Mexico City was, so the day after my final exam, we got on a plane and went! The people were right – Mexico City is fascinating. My mom and I loved it! I definitely want to return sometime soon to get to know it more in depth.

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My mom and I at the house of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera

4. I graduated university!

After four years of hard work at U of T, I finally got to make the walk from University College to Convocation Hall to walk on stage and receive my diploma! It was one of the happiest days of the year. I loved studying at U of T and I’m proud of how much I learned there, but by the end I was more than ready to move on to the next chapter of my life. Convocation was a great way to say Thank you, and goodbye.

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Literally couldn’t have been happier!

 

5. I went on my first multi-day hiking trip, loved it, and went on a bunch more.

In June, I took a trip with one of my best friends, Andrew, to Algonquin Park. We had never done a multi-day hiking trip but both wanted to do one, so we planned it out and went! Besides being in high mosquito-season, and being slightly petrified of coming across bears, it was amazing. It was 3 days and 2 nights, the perfect amount of time for beginners like us. It gave me the confidence and desire to do a lot more hiking, and I went on to do some amazing treks in Hawaii, British Columbia, and Peru. I can’t wait to do some more this year, in Colombia! 

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Peninsula campsite on the Highland Trail in Algonquin

 

 6. I set foot in the Pacific for the first time. 

One of my good friends, Megan, who I met while studying abroad in England, is from Hawaii and invited me to visit her. She had visited me in Toronto, so I jumped at the chance and booked a flight early to get a good deal to go see her. I had never been to the Pacific before; it was amazing to go to such an exotic location to experience it! I had a great time with her in Honolulu before flying to Maui for a solo adventure.

 

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Visiting the beautiful Makapu’u

 

7. I learned to hitchhike and to have faith in the good of humanity.

In Maui, I took my chances and agreed to go on a roadtrip with someone who’d responded to a post I made on couchsurfing. We got along really well and it was an amazing time! I was so glad I’d decided to go for it, because I got to see a part of the island that I wouldn’t have on my own.

I used these ‘trusting’ skills more in BC. Where I was living in Squamish, it was a bit of a challenge to get around without a car or bike. I relied on hitchhiking a lot of the time to get me up and down the highway to where I wanted to go. Besides one odd character on my way to Whistler with a friend, everyone was really friendly and just wanted to help out.  

8. I worked in a hostel.

Ever since I studied abroad and stayed in lots of hostels, I thought it would be really fun to work in one for a while. Then I found out about workaway.com., a site that connects you with a bunch of places looking for volunteers. I only sent out one message, to the Squamish Adventure Inn, and got accepted to work for stay there for about six weeks. It was a really cool experience – I did odd jobs, housekeeping, reception, and led a few social events, so I learned a lot of new skill sets!

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The hostel’s patio, overlooking The Chief – not a bad view!!

9. I learned to rock climb outdoors.

Squamish is also a place renowned for its amazing rock climbing. Working in the hostel and living in the town surrounded me with people from all over who had come to climb. It was inevitable that I learn, and I absolutely loved it. I’ve gained a new hobby that keeps me fit, and entertained. Since, I’ve been pacifying my craving to climb by practicing at indoors gyms, but I can’t wait to eventually improve my outdoor skills some more.

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Near the top of my first outdoor climb.

 

10. I learned to surf in Tofino.

Tofino was my first stop on a roadtrip around Vancouver Island.  I had always wanted to try surfing, but didn’t end up having the chance to do so in Hawaii. Tofino was finally the place to do it. Although it was raining and the water was cold, the first time I successfully managed to stand up on the board, albeit for a short time, got me super excited about the sport. I hope to keep practicing sometime soon!

11. I saw dolphins, sea turtles, stingrays, whales, sea lions, otters, penguins, and llamas in their natural habitats.

From the sea turtles, stingrays, and iguanas in Mexico, to the dolphins in Hawaii, to the sea lions, otters and whale (yes, just one) in BC, to the penguins in Peru, it was awesome for an animal-lover like me to see so many different animals in their natural habitats. “Awwws” all around! 🙂


12. I raced my first Tough Mudder.

I went with my good friend, Andrew, to the race in St. Louis Moonstone, Ontario. It was defintiely muddy. And it was definitely tough. But it was a blast.

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13.  I moved to Colombia, and now my Spanish is improving everyday.

Knowing I had a job lined up in Colombia for January, I decided to come a bit early to live with family and practice my Spanish. It was a bit tough at first, and I still struggle to understand when people talk really fast, but I’m learning. Right now, I’m about 100-pages in to my very first ever Spanish novel, and I’m amazed at how casually I’m able to read it! 

14. I got to explore Peru with two of my cousins.

From sandboarding in the desert, to hiking the Inca Trail, to 20 hour bus trips, exploring Peru with my cousins was unforgettable. I couldn’t have asked for better company. 🙂

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15. I got my TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certification. 

During my first weeks in Colombia, my free time was spent doing an online TEFL course. I don’t technically need it for my upcoming job but I thought it may be useful, and it opens doors for the future! I’m definitely glad I took the course. 

16.  I got paid for writing an article and got inspired to write more, starting this blog!
Starting a blog wasn’t something I expected to do, but here we are, and I’m really enjoying it. It’s given me a lot of opportunities to practice my writing, as well as to share my adventures with family and friends (you!). I’m hoping it may lead to future writing opportunities, but for now, it’s just good fun. Thanks for supporting me and reading my posts! 🙂 

I am beyond excited for what awaits in the new year. In upcoming days, I’m looking forward to exploring more of Cartagena, and Santa Marta. Then I have my big move to a city called Manizales, where I’ll live for the rest of the year teaching English. I’ll get to experience looking for my own apartment, teaching in a real classroom, and getting to discover more and more of this beautiful country.

Further than that, who knows what’s to come! I’m filled with hope and excitement.

I encourage you to look back on your own year and maybe even make your own list. Perhaps there are some sad events, or some things that made you really upset, or experiences that scared you. But I’ll bet that there were some good things there too. The new year is the perfect time to reflect on the past: learning from rough times, appreciating the good times, and preparing to better ourselves for the year to come. I know I have a lot of things to work on, but hey – everyday is a new day, and tomorrow, it’s a new year!

I hope you have an amazing New Year’s celebration, and I wish everyone health, happiness, and love for 2017! 🙂

Cheers,

L

Lessons from the Inca Trail: Part Two – The Trek

In my last post I wrote mainly about our arrival to Machu Picchu. It was the culmination of our four-day trek along the Inca trail, a journey that was decidedly more exciting than just visiting the ruins. It offered amazing views, it passed lots of other Incan ruins, and for me, the over-thinker, it offered up a lot more life lessons!

Beautiful Views

The trek is 45km long, and follows what is largely the original trail that was used by pilgrims on their way to Machu Picchu. It was a sacred, ceremonial route more than anything. Meandering up and down various mountain passes, it enabled pilgrims to admire the mountains that surrounded them and to perform ceremonies and rituals to honour them.

The landscapes themselves are proof of why the Incans believed what they did. A mountain range of snow-capped peaks melts into the lush, green mountains of the rainforest – creating an impressive clash of sceneries. The peaks protrude powerfully around you as you walk, inspiring awe and reverence at their beauty.

However, like I mentioned in part one, we unfortunately did not have the best weather for a lot of the walk. There was a lot of fog, so we couldn’t always see the mountains around us, but when they did appear, they took our breath away. This leads to life lesson numero cinco, continued from part one:

Not all beauty is visible right away.

Walking along the path, unable to really see what was around us was, at times, a bit of a bummer. When it cleared though, and our surroundings were revealed, it was incredible to discover what had been there the whole time, hiding.

It made me think about how many things in life are just like that, particularly with getting to know people. It’s so easy to make quick judgments against those who do not conform to our notion of how one should live, or dress, or act, or believe, but this is a type of social fog. It blinds us from seeing the beauty that hides behind every person. If we just remain patient (remember lesson numero dos?), and wait for the fog of our ignorance to clear, we will often find a person’s essential beauty: something that had been there the whole time, just that we had not been able to see it. Let’s always keep our minds open, and look for the mountains beyond the fog!

Incredible Ruins

The other amazing thing about the trail is that you come across a lot of ruins that are incredible, but that have more novelty for being much less known than Machu Picchu. A lot of them are seemingly carved into the mountains, or perched atop high lookout points, accessible by steep stairs. There are full-blown temples, agricultural platforms, messenger stations, even just simple storage facilities. All are amazing, welcome surprises. As you turn a corner, bam! there they are, sitting patiently still after hundreds of years.

Here are some photos and descriptions of the ones that impacted me the most:


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These are the very first ruins we came across, on day one. Walking along, I noticed those who were ahead gathered at the edge of a cliff with Mario, our guide. Approaching to see what they were looking at, I was overwhelmed with how cool this was, appearing out of the blue! The site is called “Llactapata,” and was an agricultural town. Crops would be grown on the different levels – a farming style found at Machu Picchu as well.

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These ruins were right nearby, overlooking the ones above. They served as a watchtower to look over the town below. It is called “Willcarakay.” Our group excitedly explored the ruins, overwhelmed by the awesomeness of having these ruins all to ourselves, and the beauty of the scenery all around.

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These was the next big site we came across, on day three. Known as “Sayaqmarka,” the ruins are those of a well preserved Inca town. To access it, we needed to climb a set of steep stairs that looked over a cliff. While climbing, I hit my head on the wall while contemplating how easy it would be to fall off. Classic. Luckily, nobody actually fell off! We just explored and learned about the site from Mario.

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For example, he gave us a demonstration to show us how this rock wasn’t just a rock, but actually had an image on it! See it?

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After walking a bit more, and getting over the third and final mountain pass, we found this site at the bottom of a long set of stairs. Called “Phuyupatamarka,” it is a well-preserved site that has a long series of Inca baths. There were a few llamas grazing around the baths area, so that distracted us a bit from the site itself, but turning the corner to this view snapped us back to reality – it was immense!

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About an hour later, after walking through the rainforest on the beautiful winding stone path, the foliage cleared for a view of this incredible site, “Intipata.” I still remember the feeling of total awe that struck me, and how I yelled out in excitement. As I was just slightly ahead of my cousins and another group member, I turned to looked at them wide-eyed – you guys are going to love this painted across my face.

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Not only were the ruins incredible, but the fog cleared just in time for us to get this view, overlooking the Urubambu River.

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Carlos smiles after walking down the steep stairs of the site. Not only were these some of the coolest ruins we’d seen, but we also had a view of our campsite after about 15km of walking that day. Almost there!

Of course, the final ruins we saw were those of Machu Picchu. Like I mentioned in part one, they were spectacular. But as you can see from the photos above, the novelty of these lesser known, wilder, less commercialized ruins seen along the Inca trail were unbeatable. Bringing us to life lesson numero seis:

Getting off the beaten track has its benefits.

This is a bit ironic, since the whole point of the Inca trail trek is to walk the beaten track: one walked hundreds of years ago as a pilgrimage, and one walked today by 500 visitors per day, plus guides and porters. But even for the Incas, the trail was the lesser-travelled. There was a much easier, more straightforward route to the sacred city used for commercial and practical purposes. The Inca trail was strictly ceremonial, an intentional meandering path to honour the mountains. In the modern-day pilgrimage, while not ceremonial, it certainly feels more reflective than just taking the train. My cousins and I were so glad we decided to do the trail because we were able to see these awesome ruins and views that the majority of visitors to Machu Picchu are not able to appreciate.

Taking the path less travelled in anything – whether it’s taking a different route to work or school, or whether it’s making less common life choices – allows for a change of air. It offers time to reflect on yourself, and your place in the universe without getting swept away with the multitudes.

Altitude

One element that makes this trek especially challenging is the altitude. We had felt its effects in Cusco, which sits at 3400m. Each of us got a bit of a headache and got winded just walking up stairs in the city. We were thus a bit worried about the trek since the highest point on the climb was 4200m, significantly more than Cusco. And indeed, the altitude was a big factor of the challenge, particularly on day two.

The day consisted of walking just 11km, but was made extra difficult as we got higher and higher to that First Pass. It felt like we were walking in slow motion the whole time. We had to take frequent breaks just to catch some air. It was like walking with someone sitting on your chest! At one point, we were overjoyed to see the first pass; it looked like it was really close, that we were almost there. And it was close – but at that height, it took us over half an hour just to get there, climbing up the steep stairs, fighting against wind, rain, and even hail, not to mention our own lungs.

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Happy but FREEZING cousins at the first pass!

It made me think about life lesson numero siete:

Don’t take anything for granted.

Just like getting a paper cut makes you realize just how much you use your thumb, climbing at high altitude made us realize how hard it was to do something that normally comes so naturally. Just to breathe, to live, is an amazing gift. The way the world is made, the way that human bodies adapt to enable survival in different conditions is incredible. Who knows how many planets out there in the universe would allow us to do that – not many I’d bet. Shout out to the Earth for letting us humans chill here for the past 200,000 years! Let’s not take advantage of this beautiful place – just like us, it won’t be here forever. Let’s take care of it!

Porters 

The Inca trail hike is unique in that it is not possible to do it solo. To access the trail, you must join a guided group (we used the group Inca Point and I definitely recommend them if you’re interested).  Everything is well-organized: you do not have to set up camp, or cook, or clean at all – it is all taken care of by the group’s porters. You don’t even have to carry the tents, and if you hire an extra porter, they can carry up to 15kg of your own stuff for you.

This initially was odd for me – during previous hikes, I’d always done it all on my own, stuffing tent, food, sleeping bag, clothes, etc. into my bag, but I’ve got to say it was all pretty useful. At the high altitude, with the insane number of stairs – up and down – carrying everything without much experience would be a massive challenge. Unless you’re a porter, of course.

These guys never failed to impress. We’d be huffing and puffing getting up a set of stairs and they would breeze by, with 3x our load and wearing measly sandals or converse. The food as well, cooked by the chef, was incredible. Each meal was certainly better than anything I’d ever made while camping! These guys would also get up before us, and go to bed after us each day, and still manage to fly through the trail. Of course, many chew the coca leaf, a light stimulant, to help them through it.
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Two porters walking ahead of us near the beginning of the trek with their large loads.

They made me think about life lesson numero ocho:

Accept help. 

My initial reaction when finding out that you need to be with a group to hike the Inca trail was disappointing. I’ve always been pretty independent and I like a good challenge. Having a bunch of people carry my stuff for me just didn’t seem right. Not putting up my own tent or making my own food was an unwanted intrusion into my notion of adventure. But man, was I ever humbled.

My cousins and I had hired one extra porter to share between the three of us, and we still had somewhat heavy packs to carry ourselves. Without the extra help I’m not sure what we would have done! And if we had had to set up our own camp in the relentless rain of day two, I think everyone would have been pretty grumpy. The porters thus make the impossible possible, allowing relatively inexperienced hikers like me to enjoy the trek more comfortably.

This leaks into everyday life as well. I know I personally am not afraid to ask for help, but sometimes I think I can do more by myself than I actually can. I know that for lots of people it’s the same. But we are social creatures, and not meant to do it all on our own. Never hesitate to ask someone for help if you feel you need it!

A Parting Tale: The Cactus and the Pig

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Anyone who knows me knows that I love animals. You may even know that I love pigs and hope to have one as a pet one day. So when on day one, just about one hour into the trek, Elena told me there was a pig nearby our rest stop, I couldn’t help but run over to say hi and give it a pat. The poor thing seemed a bit distressed however and didn’t seem all too into the idea of visitors. It was tied to a post with a rope just a bit beyond my reach. I leaned in closer to see what was the matter, wondering if it was lack of water. As I decided that I’d better not bother it any longer, I felt a prickly sensation on my shoulder. Hence my final lesson learned from the Inca Trail:

 Cactus needles are hard to get out of your skin, and harder to get out of clothing. 

I had been leaning on a cactus the whole time! Thankfully I’d been wearing two layers underneath so most of the damage was done to my sweater, but I had a fair share of thorns in my shoulder as well. As people helped get them out of my back, I laughed at the silliness of it all. Mario emphatically suggested that I never ever wear the sweater again, that I throw it out, or even burn it. A bit dramatic, perhaps, but I certainly didn’t put it back on again that trip! I also carried around a pair of tweezers in my pocket for the rest of the trip for whenever I would find small thorns in my hands. I think they’re all gone now!

My sweater however is still sitting quarantined in a plastic bag under my bed awaiting de-cactusification! If anyone has any tips on how to remove them, do let me know! For now, I’m thinking tape? We’ll see.

Well that’s all for now about the Inca Trail! I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about it. If you’re thinking of doing it yourself and have questions, feel free to comment below or send me an email through the “Contact Me” button. Also remember to SUBSCRIBE to my posts if you’re interested! You can do so below by clicking “Notify me of new posts by email,” or by using the sidebar. 🙂

Thanks for reading, and happy Christmas preparations!

L

Lessons From the Inca Trail: Part One – Machu Picchu

Around 6:30 A.M. on the fourth and last day of the Inca Trail, the trekking group my cousins and I were with made it to Inti Punku, “Sun Gate” – the ruins of a guarded fortress of Machu Picchu that also served as a control gate for those who had come from Cusco. For modern-day trekkers, it offers the first glimpse of Machu Picchu after days of walking, and also a view of the sunrise if conditions are good. Note the if. Hiking in rainy season, we had taken our chances with the weather.

We had woken up at 3:30 in the morning to quickly pack up our bags and get out of our tents so that our group’s porters could pack up camp and head off walking to pick up their pay and get home. There was then about an hour’s wait ahead of us in line at the entry checkpoint to the last leg of the hike, waiting behind other groups until it opened at 5:30. We sat in the dark and watched the sky slowly get lighter. Some were chatty, loud, and excited but me personally not being a great morning-person, I was half-asleep and groggy, leaning on a wall huddled, trying to stay warm. When 5:30 hit though, and the groups started moving, excitement rose for our last stretch of walking to Machu Picchu.

The terrain to Inti Punku is easy compared to the earlier days’ walking, so we breezed through it, excited at what lay ahead. We even conquered the Matagringos – the “Gringo killer” stairs, which consisted of 50 steep steps, without much fuss. We really wanted to see Machu Picchu. Rushing through the gate of Inti Punku, we found other groups already gathered.

I quickly analyzed the ruins, thinking cool, but then realized the disappointment that was thick in the air; our beautiful view and first peek at Machu Picchu was covered with the densest, greyest fog we had seen the whole trip. Being a bit naïve of where I was, I questioned: “are we supposed to see Machu Picchu?” to the response of a group member, “Yup, you’re looking at it!” Oh.

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Somewhere beyond that fog lies Machu Picchu….

This is the point where I realized what I’ll call life lesson numero uno, one of many learned along the trail:

There is so much in life that is beyond our control, but how we react is crucial.

Disappointment was evident among visitors lingering around Inti Punku: we had paid a lot of money for the trek, we had walked so long, we had taken our chances with the rainy season and lost. But, there was also a clear attempt to overcome the disappointment. People took photos with the fog, ironic smiles and false excitement leading to genuine amusement. Our group joked that this was the best fog we had ever seen, that it had all the perfect shades of grey. We lingered at the ruins, buoyed by one guide’s affirmation that fog was volatile and could clear within minutes. Every hazy mountain peak we could catch a glimpse of gave us hope. We were disappointed, but accepted what was given to us and made it fun.

Come on fog!
Come on fog! Pleeeeease clear.

Our guide, Mario, finally told us to continue on; the fog just wasn’t showing signs of really clearing up. We continued walking down the switchbacks on the way to Machu Picchu. As we walked, the clouds indeed started to part – more and more became visible and we were giddy with excitement. Mario pointed out to us, off in the distance, “There it is Machu Picchu!” We screamed in joy, jumping to look at it and take pictures, even though really it was just a small spot on the camera lens. Which leads to life lesson numero dos, borrowed from The Karate Kid:

Patience, young grasshopper.  

Sometimes things will go your way eventually, all it takes is a bit of patience and perseverance. It is so easy to expect instant gratification these days with technology right at our fingertips, but there are still lots of things that only come with patience. Learning an instrument. Building relationships. Saving money for a car, or a house, or a trip. These things are no 3-minute spaghetti noodles, but when what you’re waiting for does work out, it’s incredibly rewarding.

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First peek at Machu Picchu – that little brown patch at the centre! (Perhaps it’s time for a better camera?)

Actually arriving at Machu Picchu was incredible – descending the path, we could see it in a misty haze getting closer and closer, until there it was – we were standing right in front of it. The famous mountain in the back of all the Machu Picchu pictures wasn’t yet visible, but the ruins were there, all lying quietly in front of us. It looked eerie in the fog, ancient and still. We spent almost an hour at that spot, taking pictures at every different angle possible and reveling at its immensity. The fog came and went, sometimes so thick we couldn’t see the ruins even though they were right there. During one foggy period, Elena saw her opportunity for a nap, never missing a chance for one when it arises!

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Eerie, beautiful Machu Picchu

After a group photo, we followed Mario to the official entrance of the ruins, where he would start giving us a tour of the site. It was amazing to walk among the ancient sacred city walls. We walked around various temples, the Sacred Plaza, the pyramid of Intiwuatana, the quarry, and other sites as Mario explained to us various facts about the construction, history, and functions of the site.

Built in the mid-1400s and only inhabited for a bit over 100 years, it was interesting to learn the world famous site lasted for so little, and was built relatively recently in history. A lot of the rocks are especially impressive for their size – how on earth did the Incans get them over there without the wheel!? Since there are so few preserved written documents from this time period, there are so many mysteries still surrounding the Incan civilization. Which leads us to (kind of heavy) life lesson numero tres:

Life is ephemeral, fragile, beautiful.  

Loads of Incans dedicated their whole life to building this incredible city, and in the end it was left for rot and forgotten until rediscovered in 1911 and presented to the world by the American, Hiram Bingham. So many of us desire to make our lives mean something important, to be remembered. We write stories, sing songs, create buildings, paint pictures, take photographs, run for political offices, have children, hoping to prove to the world we were here, look, look at what we created, look at what we did. And usually we are forgotten anyway — such if life. But maybe, just maybe, someone will discover what we were, what we did. Whether it’s just one person, or 2500 people per day like at Machu Picchu, I think that makes it all worthwhile – it serves as a reminder to give it all you’ve got, always; you never know what will become of your time on earth. The possibilities are endless!

After our guided tour, we huddled under a awning as the sky quickly relieved itself onto the sacred site. We said bye to those who were heading off to hike some more, going up the Huayna Picchu mountain, and my cousins and I headed off to explore a bit more on our own. We walked around, hung out with llamas, and admired the views. Having woken up so early, we spent just about an hour more at the site since we were pretty tired. However, noticing the clouds really clearing for a clear view over the whole site, we decided to climb back up to the higher point of the ruins to get a proper look at the whole site before leaving. We were so happy we did! We got some wicked photos, and could appreciate it as it was meant to be seen – surrounded by lush, green mountains, the river flowing far below, everything clearly visible. It was absolutely beautiful. Here’s a photo we managed to take just before the fog returned:

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Funnily enough, though, arriving at Machu Picchu, the highlight and final destination of the Inca Trail, was not necessarily the climax of the journey. It was beautiful and fascinating, as I’ve been explaining, but we had seen so many other cool ruins along the trail, that were less known, less appreciated, more out of the blue, that it made our arrival at Machu Picchu slightly less climactic than we’d expected (although still very exciting – don’t get me wrong!). I think it was a reflection of life lesson numero cuatro, one that I’ve explored before on my blog here:

It’s about the journey, not the destination.

If we had just wanted to see Machu Picchu, we could’ve done it in a day, taking the train from Cusco directly to Aguas Calientes. But, having the physical fitness and enough time to do so, we chose to take the longer route – the famous four-day trek. Our choice in itself reflects this ideology – we wanted the experience of walking along the same trail the Incans themselves used on their way to the sacred city. We felt the terrain on our feet, the altitude in our lungs, the challenge in our muscles.

It was an emotional, physical experience that I wouldn’t have traded for anything. It made our arrival at Machu Picchu that much sweeter, but also slightly less important; we had walked up and down so many stairs, we had slept in damp sleeping bags, we had used more than unpleasant latrines, we’d danced under the stars to Shakira to keep warm, and we’d gotten more excited everyday over popcorn than ever in our lives.
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Exploring ruins along the trail.

That was all worth so much more than just getting to Machu Picchu. In our day-to-day experiences, too, this is so important. It’s awesome to have goals and to work toward them, but the journey towards attaining them, working day-in and day-out to afford something we really want, for example, can be appreciated as well. There is beauty in the mundane, the simple art of life as it’s being lived day-to-day.

There’s so much more to write about the trek but this is getting pretty long, so I’m going to keep this as Part One. Make sure to subscribe to my posts so that you can get an email notification when part two is up, as well as other future posts!

For now,

L 🙂

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A llama posing for me (read, ignoring me) near the Temple of the Three Windows