There’s more to Peru than Machu Picchu

Back in October I made an arguably somewhat rash decision to raise £2400 for the charity Action Against Hunger and do a sponsored trek up Machu Picchu in Peru. It’s now September, the money is raised and the trek completed. Where on earth do I start?

Image: Jodie Sheehan

The thing that most concerned me was the altitude; even some of the lowest-lying areas in Peru are much higher than any location we have in the UK, but to my fortunate surprise I was one of the lucky trekkers who avoided altitude’s particularly negative effects. Other than some breathlessness, I found myself able to push through the entire trek without resorting to taking a horse or car at any point – possibly my proudest achievement since a number of people had to.

The highest point we reached on the trek was not actually Machu Picchu itself, but the Humantay Glacier. At 4200m above sea level, this stunning lake was situated at the top of a particularly difficult section of the mountains. But evidently the hardest climb results in the best views; in my opinion, this glacier was the highlight of the trek, surpassing even Machu Picchu. This is a very bold statement I am willing to make, because as well as being utterly breath-taking (because of its beauty not just the lack of oxygen), it is completely untouched by mankind. Struggling up those last few feet of the mountain and then suddenly reaching the peak and being confronted by a colossal expanse of multi-coloured water opening out in front of us, framed by pure white-tipped mountain ranges against a blue sky, is an experience and a visual impact that simply cannot be replicated by humanity. This entirely natural quality made it feel as though our group was the first to ever discover the glacier, emphasised further by the fact it was impossibly serene. It was not in any way cheapened by the touch of tourism like so many places, unfortunately Machu Picchu included.

Image: Scott Baker

It was certainly the most rewarding section of trekking. The climb was incredibly steep, each little stretch going up into increasingly high altitude meaning we were robbed of oxygen just when we needed it most. Each time we stopped to normalise our breathing, bodies struggling hard, I felt like I had conquered another mountain already. Once I had caught my breath after a few minutes of being static, I felt like my lungs could take in a million times as much air as they normally could: I felt invincible.

After 6 days of hard-core trekking, we finally reached our goal, Machu Picchu. Despite the touristic quality of Machu Picchu, it is still certainly deserving of its status as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, especially because of the magnificent story that comes with it. The history of the Incas is thrilling, and learning about their demise and the lengths they went to in order to preserve their sacred city, built so high in order to be close to the gods, was incredible, especially since I was standing exactly where they once had. In addition, the sense of achievement at arriving at this sacred site that was purposely made so inaccessible is unrivalled.

Image: Scott Baker

Learning about the history of the Incas while in their home was definitely something special. To further this culturally enriching experience, our guides led us through a traditional Andean ritual. It was a truly magical experience to learn about a culture first hand from someone who lives it. The ritual comprised of our guide, José, drawing out the Andean Cross in the dust and asking us each to put a piece of our jewellery or something of value in its centre. He then explained the incredibly complex meanings of the Andean Cross, before handing us each 3 coca leaves. We were to blow them three times, first facing north, then east, then south, then west, and finally make a wish before releasing the leaves into the wind. It was an incomparable way to learn about such a sacred ritual, actually taking part in it in a sacred environment, and being taught by our guide, someone who knows and lives the culture every single day.

The whole experience would have been nothing like it was had it not been for our guides, José and Edu. They looked after us brilliantly: they noticed signs of altitude sickness with impeccable shrewdness; they kept the morale high even when we were trudging along in the pouring rain; they made us laugh incessantly; they made the experience what it was. Without them, the early mornings, wet tents, headaches and fatigue may well have gotten the better of us. Yet we were able to plough on through the mountains, and thoroughly enjoyed it.

The experience has been unique and incredible, but not in the ways I expected. The fact that for me, the highlight of the trip was not Machu Picchu itself, but a glacier I did not even know we were visiting on our way, was a great surprise. I discovered it really wasn’t about the destination, but the journey. Along the way I’ve made some amazing friends, unforgettable memories, and not to mention raised thousands of pounds for a worthy charity. I’d recommend this experience to anyone.

For more information about Action Against Hunger, visit: https://www.actionagainsthunger.org.uk/

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