When you begin a new adventure you never know what will come your way, what challenges you will face, the helpers you will meet along the way and what lessons you yourself will take away from the adventure.
The Lares Trek, where Zoë and I have been hiking for the past few days has been a great adventure.
Before booking our trip to Peru, I had been looking at flights to Portugal to walk the Camino de Santiago from Portugal to Spain. But I kept meeting roadblocks that told me it wasn’t the right trip at that time. Everything however began to fall into place for us to come to Peru. And we were both called to do the Lares Trek so I knew this part of the trip would be important. And it has been.
We booked the trek through an organisation called Travel & Healing. The two of us joined five other women from Australia who were on a tour of Cusco and Lima for 19 days. The five women, all from the Sunshine Coast of Australia, had been traveling together for 5 days when we joined them. It could have been awkward, but it wasn’t. They welcomed us and made us feel like part of the group instantly. Ages ranged from 17 (Zoë) to 65 (Karen) and the rest of us fell in the middle somewhere.
We were briefed on Monday night by Angel, our trek leader who is a shaman-in-training. He explained we would have two other shamans with us on the journey and gave us all the practical details: what to pack in our duffel bags that would be carried by the horses, what to pack in our daypacks that each of us would carry, what to leave behind in our suitcases/backpacks. Our left behind things would be delivered to us back in Cusco after the trek. We were only allowed 7kgs (15lbs) in our duffel bags, including our sleeping bags and our camping mattress.
Angel asked to be notified of any health issues so after the briefing I told him that I had just been hit with gastroenteritis. He pleaded with me to not take gastro-stop. To let whatever was in me to come out. He assured me that it was my body’s way of preparing for the spiritual, emotional and physical journey that lay ahead.
I did as he asked. And by the time we left for the trek at 6.30am the next morning, I was spent. I had been up all night being sick. I had nothing left. I actually said to Zoë that I thought I shouldn’t go. I thought I wasn’t strong enough. But as we joined the group and met the two shamans, one, Manuel, took me aside and talked with me. He assured me I could do it and that if I couldn’t I could always ride the emergency horse. But he felt we should stop in the village at the pharmacy before starting the trek to get me some medical grade electrolyte.
So that’s what we did.
I started a climb of almost 2000m having eaten nothing for 18 hours, but stocked with three large bottles of electrolytes.
Before beginning the trek, Alejandro, our 69 year old shaman performed a ceremony to bless the Earth Mother, our trek and each of us on our own journeys. It was deeply spiritual and beautiful.
Then we started out. Our goal was the pass at the top of the mountain at 4610m where we planned to camp that evening. We were at 2900m (9514ft) as we departed.
Within an hour it was obvious this journey was one that was sent to test me. I was so weak I couldn’t even carry my own daypack. In fact, Manuel walked step for step with me, talking to me, encouraging me, carrying my pack and my electrolyte solution. Every few minutes he would make me stop and take a sip of solution. And then we would continue to put one foot in front of the other. Climbing ever higher, talking as we climbed.
It became obvious as we talked that there was a lot of stuff I had to let go. A lot of people in my life I need to forgive, starting with myself. A lot of stuff that I need to make peace with. A lot of acceptance. That the next stage of my own healing can’t happen until I let go and surrender even more.
We came to a mountain stream flowing over the path. Manuel had me stop by the side of the stream, hold my hands out over the stream and visualise throwing all of the stuff I have to surrender in the stream to let it go and be carried away by the water. I stood there for ages, releasing anger, fear, hurt. I let go of so much.
Eventually we continued on up the path. We were by far the last of the group. But I didn’t care. I was now determined I was going to do this trek. I knew I had to, for me.
Manuel was my emotional shaman that day. He was also my physical support, carrying my backpack and the electrolyte solution that was keeping me going. I have always had a hard time asking for help. Asking others to support me or to help me on my journey. I have seen it as a sign of weakness to ask for help. But as sick as I was on Tuesday, I came to see that I had no other choice. I had to accept help from others. And I had to accept it freely, knowing that I was so sick, there was no way I could have reciprocated and helped someone else at that moment. And that lesson is one I need to remember.
We kept climbing. The air was getting thinner.
(This video of Alejandro was taken by one of my fellow trekkers, Kateea Pullen. I wasn’t in any shape to be shooting video so I’m grateful she shared it with me.)
At one point I sat down in the shade next to the path to rest for a minute. Next thing I know, I was asleep. Being up all night the night before had taken a toll on my body too.
I had a micro nap and then had to keep going.
We trekked until 2pm when we reached a plateau near a river at 4100m (13,451ft). The horsemen and porters had set up the kitchen tent and an eating tent for us and Freddie the chef had lunch almost ready. Everyone had a delicious meal except for me. I stayed on my electrolyte solution, too scared to put any food in my body.
I wasn’t the only one struggling. Others were too and they weren’t battling gastro. So while we ate, the porters put up our tents and after lunch we were encouraged to have a rest. Angel and Manuel decided this would be our camping spot for the night and since the wind was blowing forcefully and it was so cold, we all had naps.
Sleeping was difficult with the wind howling and it was freezing. Zoë and I each put on every piece of clothing we had brought and we were still cold in our sleeping bags.
We had hot tea at 6, dinner was served at 7. Dinner looked amazing. Soup and garlic bread, followed by fresh trout for a main course. And then Freddie brought in flaming bananas! It was incredible what he could cook in a tiny tent in the middle of nowhere.
After dinner Angel (who speaks English, Spanish and Qeros) explained a bit more about Alejandro’s ancestors. Alejandro is Qeros and speaks primarily their language. The Qeros people are a pre-Inca indigenous people and shamanism is handed down through families. They believe in many of the same gods as the Incans. All are linked to Mother Earth and the Qeros believe their knowledge comes from the earth and water. Alejandro had been a constant smiling presence throughout the day. He led the climbing team all day, with Zoë close on his heels. In fact, for most of the day, Zoë and I didn’t see each other as she was the front of the pack and I was very much at the rear.
After dinner we went to bed early, knowing we were getting up at 5am to try to make the pass by 9am and thus avoiding the heat of the sun for as long as possible.
The sky was incredible. Snow capped mountains ringed us and the Milky Way shining so clearly above us. It was magical. But freezing. And it’s not fun visiting the toilet tent at 2am when it’s that cold!
We were up at 5am. Still dressed in all of our clothes. I had five or six layers on my top (including my down parka) and three layers on my bottom half and I was still freezing. The good thing about sleeping in that many clothes is that when you get up, you don’t have to get changed. You are already dressed for the day!placeholder://
After breakfast (more electrolyte solution for me), we headed to the top. We were on the trail by 6am. I was feeling sufficiently better that I could even carry my own daypack. We climbed steadily for the next three hours. We took a break just before the last push that would get us over the mountain. There was a beautiful lake in the early morning sunshine, the sun was glinting on the snow. We were at 4470m (14,665ft). No one wanted to move, but move we did. Onwards and upwards, through the snow and ice covered path.
Every step was painful for me. Luckily, the electrolytes were doing their job. I didn’t need real food. My muscles had what they needed, even though they screamed and ached and resisted.
The last 250m of elevation were the hardest. I could barely put one foot in front of the other. I had to keep stopping to catch my breath. I knew Zoë had reached the top and as each new team member achieved their goal, they would let out a shout of delight. But for me and one other team member, we struggled. It took every bit of everything I had. I dug deep. Literally, putting one foot in front of the other. The way I had tackled the whole mountain. Just one step at a time. Realising that’s how I’ve had to tackle so many things in my life lately; just one step at a time. Even when the end point or goal has been out of sight (as it was on the mountain), I just have to keep believing in myself, take one step after another and believe that I will reach the goal. It doesn’t matter how long it takes me. Or if other people get there first. I have my own journey.
And step by step, I reached the top. 4640m. (15,220ft). Hugs all around. Then an offering to Mother Earth for helping us get there. An offering to the mountains, to the sun god, to the wind, and to all of nature. It was a wonderful time. One to savour and enjoy.
And then…the long hike down.
We started hiking down at 11.30am and reached the village where we had lunch at 2.30. After being at the back of the pack the entire trek up the mountain, I now led the way most of the afternoon. I hiked by myself, processing what I had learned about myself on the mountain, as well as what I had learned from this group of people and from these shamans. My only companions as I walked were the alpacas grazing by the side of the trail.
Just before lunch, Zoë caught up with me and we hiked a bit of the way together which was lovely. It was the first chance we’d had to walk together and it was nice to do so now that I was feeling better.
We reached a village around 2.30pm where the chef and horsemen had set up camp in a friend’s house. This is where we had lunch. As we entered the village, children materialised out of nowhere to see us. We had brought colouring books, textas, crayons and other things for the kids and were able to give some of them away. A couple of women spread their wares out on blankets for us buy things that they had made.
After lunch we piled into the back of a truck with all of our gear to be taken to the Lares Hot Springs where we camped for the night. The hot springs were perfect after two long days of hiking to soothe our muscles. And they were at 2800m so it was just warmer in general.
Tuesday night’s dinner became a bit of a party. Freddie made a strawberry mousse in a heart shape for all of us. We all stood around singing each country’s national anthems to each other (the camp staff did a great rendition of the Peruvian one). It put our Australian one to shame. Zoë even sang the Italian one since she knew it. Then we gave the staff their tips and thanked them for their amazing service. Carlos the horseman, Freddie the chef, Albert the chef assistant and the porter who I forgot his name, were all wonderful to us and we were very grateful for their help.
Tuesday night after dinner, I had my coca leaves read by Alejandro. He was spot on about everything that he could see and told me. We talked about the blocks in my life and how I can remove them. He offered me a blessing ceremony at sunrise the next morning and I accepted gratefully.
So Wednesday morning we put together an offering to bless me, my parents, my brother, my daughters, my ancestors, those who come after me. We blessed all those who love me and have ever loved me. We called on the forces of nature and created a beautiful offering. Then Alejandro used this offering to bless me outside, in the early morning sun. It was magical and the ceremony was full of love.
By the time my ceremony was finished, most people were finished with breakfast. Suddenly, I was hungry. Freddie made me gluten free pancakes that were delicious!
We packed our bags and said goodbye to Freddie and the rest of the support team. I also had to say goodbye to Alejandro and Angel, which was so difficult. Angel and I talked about how we can work together and we’ve got an idea for me to put together a tour there with him. It was hard to leave both of them, but I know, if I’m meant to see them again, I will.
It’s said that when the student is ready, the teacher appears. I have been working with a shaman for the past two years in Canberra and have recently felt like I had learned all I could from her and that my next teacher would appear when I was ready. Over the past three days, three teachers showed up. All of them have taught me different things. And I’m grateful for the part each of them played.
Zoë and I took the tour bus with the rest of the group down from Lares to Calca, where a car was waiting to take us to Pisac for the market and then on to Cusco. It was sad saying goodbye to our new Aussie friends in Calca but we’ll all be in touch to swap photos and stories once we get home. Their next stop was Machu Picchu.
And then it was the two of us again. It seemed funny being on our own. We wandered around Pisac market. I was still processing the past three days and felt out of it but Zoë had fun shopping and bought a fabulous new hat.
We arrived back in Cusco, exhausted. This time we’re staying in a boutique hotel in San Blas. It’s fabulous! Our room has two, yes two Super King sized beds. One is in a loft upstairs so we each have our own room. We arrived and slept for two hours. Our bags hadn’t been delivered yet that had all of our clean clothes so sleeping was our best option. When we got up, I had a shower and then we went shopping. Zoë had a few things she wanted to get here in Cusco before we left. By 4.30 our bags still hadn’t arrived so we did the only other thing we could think of: had massages. It was heaven after hiking. Finally our bags arrived at 6. Clean clothes! Also heaven. Then an early dinner and early to bed.
Our Cusco adventures are coming to an end. We fly to Puerto Maldonado this afternoon (Thursday) and will begin a new adventure in the Amazon jungle. But I leave Cusco a different person than the one who arrived. And I leave, knowing the next step in my spiritual journey will be shown to me at the right time.