After waving off Reggie, Phoebe and Ellie, 4 hours sleep later it was a 3am taxi ride to Rio airport and time to head to Lima, Peru. The 5 hour flight made up for the lack of sleep, then it was a 45min taxi to the hotel in Lima for a breakfast, laundry, check in, blog update, walk around the city and then meet the new tour group – Tyler, Kat, Gab, Scott, Susan, Laura (Canadian), James (English), Paul (English, living in Australia), Rene (Australian), Dana (American), Edith (German, living in America) and Dani (German).
Lima coastline – yes that is a battleship
Our guide Javier took us all to a Peruvian restaurant – had unreal mixed seafood with rice, veg and hot sauce; went down a treat. Lima immediately had a totally different vibe about it to the other big cities I’ve hit in South America – the driving isn’t any better and last minute dashes across a couple of lanes of traffic are standard. But the people seemed a bit more chilled, and really friendly – definitely got the Irish banter too. Also, Peruvian coffee is epic. Bed.
A 6.00am start, breakfast and out the door to the airport for the short flight to Cusco. Unfortunately, Paul took sick on landing and spent the day in hospital getting sorted with Tyler keeping him company, but thankfully he got discharged in the evening and hopefully good to go for the rest of the trip. We swapped guides to meet Washington (aka Washi) in Cusco, our guide for the Inca Trail. It was a quick bus to the hotel, and up a single flight of stairs for a quick chat – we were busted.
The altitude of Cusco at 3400m above sea level had everyone a bit spaced out; I felt liked I’d had a few pints, bit clumsy on the feet, few extra seconds to find any words, and it took a while to settle.
Totally puffed on the shortest walks too. After some cocoa tea to settle the jitters, we headed out into Cusco with Washi to see the main plazas and familiarise ourselves with the city before getting another awesome Peruvian meal – I had Alpaca steak, 👌 then great ice cream in a nearby parlour.
Hummus, followed by Alpaca steak – only the start of some epic Peruvian food
Took a walk around the city centre and it was heaving with people – locals, vendors selling and offering all sorts, tourists from all over – but also a very cool place to spend some time. Back at the hotel we met the last members of the group, Jaimal and Rheena, a super couple from England doing a bit of an epic South American tour.
That afternoon I got the very sad news of Paul McKeever passing away – Paul was my football coach at U14 and U16, and ran our local mechanic and car sales business with his father, Sean. We’ve always been more than looked after by the McKeevers over the years; things were never a hassle and on more than one occasion Paul and Sean dropped everything to help us out. Paul was also very generous, always sponsoring me for the Aware NI fundraisers, always took time to ask about them and was interested in why I did them. He remembered everything and everyone. A good friend moved to Berlin earlier this year and Paul sorted his car sale, and after the move took the time to contact and check how things were going after the move. Paul is the inspiration for me adding Macmillan to my fundraiser this time – the Inca Trail will be dedicated to him. I managed to scour Cusco and find a yellow and black hat – the colours of Paul’s beloved Roger Casements GAC, and I’ll wear it every day of the trail. I couldn’t find a Liverpool jersey anywhere, Paul’s other team, but as a Man United fan, I reckon Paul would know that’d be asking a bit much of me…. The rest of the day in Cusco was insignificant after this news. RIP Paul.
Up at 7am for breakfast and onto the bus for a tour of the Sacred Valley – it started with panoramic views of Cusco from their version of Christ the Redeemer in Saqsaywama Park, the site of an Inca quarry.
The view from the top
The city has a bit of a twisted history with Communism in power up until the 80’s. Then on to the next valley, C’oroa, where they grow 1300 odd types of spuds. Irish man heaven.
We stopped in a community where we learned about how llama, sheep and alpaca wool is processed, cleaned, spun and dyed, watching some of the weaving processes – it was like Aunt Una’s craft class on steroids.
Who’s your mate?
Then it was sales time – and the women of the village know how to sell! The shawls, scarves, jumpers, hats, gloves, socks, throws – all made in the village, all beautiful. We learned that each village has their own traditional dress, and that here, an upturned hat means the wearer is married – I left still a single man. Each village also has its own speciality – be it weaving, pottery, farming – and it’s all traded amongst villages. They are hard working folks – no machinery for the farming, hands and feet the tools.
Then a quick stop for an epic view across Pisaq valley with cloud covered glacier in the distance, and corn growing below. The soil doesn’t need fertiliser here – landslides due to the rain carry down all the nutrients needed from the mountains. Pisaq Mountain.
We stopped at another village where we had empanadas, then had a shell horn welcome and blessing with flower leaves dropped on our heads at the next stop, Vicuña – this stop was about making mud and straw blocks, and pottery.
Tyler is free for any labouring jobs
Tyler got the feet dirty making a block – a team of 5 locals can make 300 odd 40x30x15cm blocks a day. They take 1 month to dry. It takes approx 2000 blocks to make a house approx 7x4m. The community all chip in together to make the blocks, and families help make each other’s houses. This comes from the 3 standards of … The roofing of the house finishes with the ceremonial 2 bulls and a cross – bulls a sign of strength and fertility, the cross religion. The pottery demo was great – some of the crew chipped in to make beads, and we were shown some of the ornamental pieces they make, with different painted decorations.
Some of the lads making beads
The sales pitch from this village wasn’t as hardcore, but the pieces were amazing – they shifted a lot of chess sets, the equivalent of £6-20 each depending on the size, but the craft and detail was unreal. Then it was on the bus to head for lunch, with a quick stop for a starter – a taste of guinea pig, actual guinea pig.
After… it was rotten
Box ticked, won’t be chasing after that again. Then it was an amazing lunch in Parwa, proper 5 star standard stuff; been spoiled with food in Peru so far.
We headed to our hotel in Ollyantaytambo to drop off the bags, don the hiking boots and head for a short trek up to the old food storage houses in the mountains, to warm us up for the lending Inca Trail, and another stunning view – over Ollyantaytambo.
Hat down, single??
Hotel view – Incan food storage houses
During Incan times food was stored in this section of the mountains due to the wind and ventilation, with not as much corn grown here due to the climate and soil. Then it was back to the hotel for a chill, and sorting our 2.5kg clothing allowance for the trail, before meeting at The Station for another epic meal, a beer, and bed.
Here we go lads…
The Trek begins. Up for breakfast, a quick final message home and then on the bus to head further up the dusty road along Sacred Valley, beside Urubamba River to km 82 and our first few km of the Inca Trail. We met our second guide, Royer – man of few words but full of mischief. It was a 1 hour drive, then an hour to get our gear and pass into the park to begin the days 11km to camp. Washi wanted us to name the team – Guinea Picchu’s won, but dependent on accent that became Guinea Bitches, Guinea Pig Juice or Guinea Pig Shoes.
All the lads, ready to go – the Guinea Picchu’s
We stopped at a few Inca settlements and epic viewpoints on the way up – one outdated Machu Picchu and is thought to have been a the base for the builders of MP.
Incan settlement, with the standard farming terraces – amazing viewsIts only day 1, calm the jets Ronan🙄
Lunch was more amazing Peruvian food courtesy of our chef for the trip, Wilbert. Then a quick football match, 2 all in an epic Peru (Washi and Roger) versus international select from Ireland and Canada (Tyler and me) – 2 notes to self, football at altitude is a bad idea and Peruvians play dirty.
Day 1, lunch 1 – still smiling
We made our way further up the valley and finally got to base camp for set up, met the porters and cooks who were slogging our stuff up the mountain, then dinner. We had day bags with the necessities – water, sun cream and snacks; the porters each carry 25kg rucksacks – full of our clothes, tents, food etc. And feck can they shift. They’re all super humble folks too, mostly from farming backgrounds, and getting about £65 for their 4 days work on the trail. The oldest porter was 63 and was in his first year on the trail – amazing men, but their postures with the 25kg rucksacks had the physio in me twitching. By the time we reached camp all was set up – our tents were ready, the cooking was in full go and all we had to do was roll out a sleeping bag, we were spoiled by that team.
The hardest working men, humble to a fault
Was a restless sleep, but enough to rest up for the big hike tomorrow – the highest point in the trail at 4200m above sea level, Dead Woman’s Pass.
Up at 5am to get breakfast and break the back of the highest point of the trail. It was tough – the first section was a gradual building incline, Part 2 was a relentless set of steps, the final go to the top a breathless, steep push, the altitude kicking my ass the whole way. But we did it.
A badly needed break – the summit was the saddle in the distance
I got a bit emotional thinking about my reasons for doing the trail and this trip – as one of the travellers in another group said, it’s mad the stuff that goes through your head during the trek – had Paul, family, friends, my issues with depression and loads more in my head on the way up – all sorts. I cried at the top, 15mins of solid tears; it was overwhelming getting to that point. But one by one, we did it. For Paul, for Aware, for Macmillan; thanks for all the sponsorship folks, it helped.
The view from the topMade it – the highest hat We ALL made it 👌
Had a bit of time to go over the day too. The climb today was tough, physically and mentally – my main motivation for this 6 month career break is to clear my head and understand and learn a bit more about looking after my mental health. Having mental strength is great, and I’ve improved, but it’s nothing on its own. It only gets me so far – being aware of what sets me off on a bad way of thinking has helped me nip things a lot quicker, but things still get shit, and having people to talk to and things to work towards make the world of difference and definitely round things out for me. I was exhausted at about 3/4 of the way up that ascent today – but I had plenty to drive me on.
The descent was 1.5hrs and steep, finally getting to camp at 2pm for lunch, then a few hours kip, dinner, Uno and a bit of group craic, and early bed.
Early start – 4.50am wake up call with the morning ritual call of “agua calientes” (basin of warm water) and a cocoa tea, then a 5.30 breakfast, and a 6am start on the trail – we passed up and over the mountain and descended to the Sayaqmarka Inca Village.
Quick toilet break then a nice relatively flat march to lunch by 11.15, in the clouds – the views were epic the whole way with massive mountains, glaciers, lagoons and a descent into rainforest.
A hard earned rest for the porters
Machu Picchu Mountain, finally
The lunch stop was pretty cloudy but we got spoiled with another great meal, and by the time we had finished, all had cleared up to reveal our first look at Machu Picchu mountain – it was amazing. We made our way down another steep staircase to a terrace that overlooked the valley with the Urubamba river and train track to Machu Picchu town below.
Rene blazing the trail
A laze in the sun, a group pic and then a hack on to camp for our final night.
A picture of me taking a picture
We took a short dander to Winaywayna, an amazing Inca village built in a steep terrace in a gorge, only found in 1956.
It was stunning, set into the mountain side with a waterfall behind and the farming terraces dropping below it.
Then it was time for a much needed dinner and a surprise chocolate and orange sponge cake courtesy of Wilbert and his team, and a massive thanks and cheerio to them and our team of porters who hogged the 25kg bags every single day of the trek, having camp ready, meals ready and clapping us on every arrival to camp.
That group of humble men who just got on with things and had us wanting for nothing really did make the trip.
3.30am, up and at it for Day 4 and the final march to Machu Picchu – we had a quick breakfast before heading to the checkpoint to get into Machu Picchu, then it was a 2 hour trek to the final destination.
Waiting for the final haul
And rain, lots of rain. We’ve been spoiled with ridiculous sunshine this past 3 days but this morning made up for it with the downpour. But hey, poncho on and head down.
We’re happy campers
There wasn’t much of a view as we reached the Sungate and bumped into the first of the travellers who took the easy way (the train from Ollyantaytambo) – needless to say they got a few dirty looks….
We made the last descent and finally, there it was – the mist cleared and the rain stopped to reveal Machu Picchu.
Misty Machu Picchu
No words here, just pictures and memories of an amazing, beautiful place.
I thought a lot about my reasons for the trip again, and the new meaning this trek took with Paul McKeever passing away. But as opposed to the tears that came at the highest point of our journey on Day 2, I felt content. We headed out of the city for a quick coffee, then back in for a tour thanks to Washi and his passion for this place.
Washi and Royer, the happy couple
Washington-and-on-and-on – loved the sound of his own voice…
3 hours flew in and then it was bus down to the town for a lunch, a much needed beer and a celebration.
I took a dander up to the market for a nosey around and despite feeling exhausted, I had a smile. We said cheerio to the eejit that is Royer – thanks for all the craic buddy – behave now.
This is Royer – do not trust Royer
We got the train back to Ollyantaytambo, jumped on the bus to Cusco and made it back for 7pm.
A picture of innocence, spoiled by Rhenna
It was a long day, but what a day. The Inca Trail box had been ticked. We said our goodbyes and thanks to Washi – if you’re as good a dad as you are a guide you’ll have one happy son, all the best for February buddy!
Washi front right – tour guide extraordinare
Paul and Edith also said their goodbyes, here’s to you both. Some of us headed out for a pizza and then a shower, an actual warm shower, and bed, an actual bed. We might not have had WiFi, hot showers or toilets over the past 4 days, but it wasn’t the worst. And we coped the best. But the fun wasn’t to stop there….
4am, up and at it all over again. This time it was the Rainbow Mountain Trail with Tyler, Kat, James, Gab, Laura and Dani. Was a 1.5hr bus ride to breakfast, then another hour along a winding single track road to our start point – thanks to Ugo our driver we avoided crashing/falling to our deaths. The trek itself was fairly easy going to start with, starting at 4600m above sea level, up through the beautiful valley towards Rainbow Mountain – sun cream on, off we went.
Horses for the cheats
At the foot of the mountain the trail took a nice upward incline making for a hard shift to the top but it was well well worth the effort – the views were incredible at 5400m. There was Rainbow Mountain in the middle, with 2 stunning valleys either side.
Then the cold started, then a spit of rain, then all hell broke loose, with hail, thunder, lightning and snow. Ponchos on, suncream packed away. We’d opted for the trek through the Red Valley on the way back which was stunning too, like walking on Mars with the red sandy surface.
But it was heads down for the 2 hour trek back – snow everywhere, a barely visible path, only odd porter to direct us back. It was surreal but stunning too. I was in shorts, legs frozen and feet wet, but plenty don’t get the chance to do something like this – it was amazing, and I was smiling.
We made the bus, thawed out, stopped for a buffet lunch then it was hotel and crash. I was completely knackered, but it was worth the effort – a quick check if he JustGiving pages proved that. After a few hours kip we headed to Papachos for a savage last supper feed of alpaca burgers, a beer, a chat over the last few days and everyone’s favourite parts, then bed – exhausted, full, and again, content.
And that was it – a final breakfast and a cheerio to Tyler, Kat, Gab, Dani, Susan, Laura and Scott. They’re all off to the Amazon for a few days, I might’ve been jealous if I wasn’t so knackered! But have a ball folks.
Clooney band, Cusco
I headed for pancakes and coffee in Jack’s cafe then it was phone home, update the blog and add the Grouse Grind to the fundraising efforts, next stop Vancouver… Met James, Rheena and J for a bite to eat and a beer to say cheerio – James have a blast in Buenos Aires and enjoy New Order; J and Rheena, hope you both have a ball for the rest of your South American adventure wherever it takes you! Then it was taxi time, airport time and here I am, in Cusco airport waiting on the first of 3 flights to make my way north to Vancouver.
Safe to say South America has been amazing – from the dodgy stomach start in Buenos Aires, through Uruguay, Iguazu Falls, beaches and burns in Brazil, to the amazing scenery, food and folks of Peru. If I had to pick, Peru has been the highlight, but there’s so much more to see and discover in South America, there’s always room for more – thanks to the all the folks I’ve met along the way, hope to keep In touch, you lot made the trip for me as much as anything else. Here’s to the next and final adventure for now – Canada here I come.