I never got the chance to travel when I was growing up – my parent’s money stretched as far as dinner on the table and the occasional interstate trip to the Sunshine state. International travel existed only in reblogged Tumblr posts and faded photos of UNESCO heritage sites in high school history textbooks.
From airplanes to currency exchange, all the intricacies involved with travel are incredibly new to me – I’m the biggest n00b when it comes to hotel checkout times, bartering etiquette and not being robbed blind by locals. For me, what defined my South America trip stretched from from the sweltering chatter of wildlife in the Amazon to the stunning 4000m Andean mountain views…but also the three hours waiting in line under harsh sunlight while trying to cross the Bolivian-Peruvian border by land (and the crafty old grannies moving through the crowd and eyeing our back pockets), the bout of food poisoning while hiking the Inca Trail (and the lack of toilets that accompanied this pleasure), and the dizzying lack of oxygen and short of breath that defined any physical movement I attempted.
What proved to be way more physically challenging that I thought would be, but also way more rewarding, was The Inca Trail, which ended up being the highlight of my trip. My normally OK fitness level was reduced to a pitiful wheezing as I crawled up the mountain at a pace that would lose to a lump of rock in a race. I spent most of the trek staring daggers in envy at the llamas who had made the mountainside their home, chewing the grass with a lazy contentment. I
We had a team of 21 porters whose perseverance and spirit stumped us every time we arrived at a campsite, gasping for air as they applauded us for our arrival, even though they had already run, ahead of us, with 25kg strapped to their backs to ensure that we camped in comfort — and when I say comfort, I’m talking three course meals, hot chocolate snacks and blow up air mattresses – it was insane. I remember sitting in the mess tent for breakfast one day and all of us thinking that we would be totally fine with a slice of stale bread and jam, and they brought in omelets. They even had hot chocolate and powdered milk, and one of the porters woke us up every day at the ass crack of dawn with a friendly smile and hot mugs of coca tea.
If you ever head to do the Inca trail, I highly recommend one thing if you’re a female: a pee cup. My most bizarre Amazon purchase served me well throughout the three days of consuming 5L of water a day (the altitude and physical exercise means you have to water yourself like a dying rat in a desert) and coping with a severe lack of toilets.
We got to see Machu Picchu on the third day in the afternoon (usually people camp and see it on the fourth day in the morning), which gave us the rare treat of the famous Inca site spread out devoid of tourists and sitting postcard-perfect before us. It was surreal, and I remember being so overcome when we finally got to the Sun Gate, laying eyes on it sitting in the distance like no big deal. It wasn’t so much that it was beautiful, because it undoubtedly is, but it was the accumulation of emotion built up over four days of hiking in high altitudes, through sickness and with a group of strangers, something I had never done before, in a country I never thought I’d be in.
We had the most amazing guides, Bruce and Darwin, and one of my favorite memories is Bruce talking us through the history of an Incan ruin, our hushed group sitting on the ground as he lectured us on how life is like the trek. I can’t give that speech or its delivery justice but the general gist of it was: Life is hard, but you push through at your own pace and enjoy the ride along the way. His sincerity and passion for what he did affected me in so many ways – when we got to the Sun Gate he shook our hands and gave us big hugs and told each of us, “I don’t know if you know this, but you did something sacred.”There was also a brief stint in the Amazon – my favorite moment was during our night walk through the jungle with our flashlights barely cutting the darkness and gumboots wading through thick mud, and stopping for a moment to turn off the lights and silence our voices, the thick air filled with the deafening sound of the insects and wildlife hidden in the depths of the blackness. We also saw a sleepy Sloth, and I was bitten 14 times more than anyone else in the group – Amazonian mosquitoes don’t play around.
A big component of the trip was the incredible Intrepid travel group that my boyfriend and I were a part of. I didn’t expect to have such a great time with a tour group, but I would recommend to anyone to join an Intrepid adventure – the people we met were genuine, fun and the most eclectic group of unlikely friends.There was Phil, a Swiss human machine who ran marathons for fun and willingly went for runs at 3600m above sea level when we had free time, Ronan and Damo, a hilarious Irish duo with wisecrack comment and nuggets of wisdom at every turn, Jordyn, another 21 year old from New Zealand who was essentially a copy of myself and Matt, her boyfriend, a warm and intelligent 24 year old who worked in mining. There was Amy and Alex, a couple from Brisbane with the meanest dance moves and the best attitudes; Zayd, a friend of my boyfriend’s from high school, and his fiancee Christina, both fresh from an enviable jaunt in the Galapagos Islands. Delyth, a mother from the UK, who had left her husband and children at home to embark on a South American adventure by herself, Daniel, an Australian airforce electrician with great Tinder luck and a curiosity and openness for anything that was thrown his way, and Jamie, an ambitious realtor from Brisbane who shared some real concerns about gender bias in her profession. We were led by a Peruvian guide called Lupe, whose warmth, local knowledge and ability to go above and beyond her role to make sure that our trip was the best that we could possibly have proved to be a warm, charismatic and reassuring presence that everything would be all right as long as we had Lupe about to tell the cab driver how much we were to pay everytime we hailed a taxi. Part 2 coming soon because this is waaaay too much to fit into one blog post!