Solo Backpacking Through Peru
After I came home from Nepal, everything changed. I went on this amazing yoga + hike adventure for 14 days in the heart of the Himalayas, and I came home to an apartment and a job that I didn't know what to do with. I remember talking on the phone with my friend who was in India at the time, and just confessing to him how miserable I felt at having come back to this idea of normalcy. I didn't want it! I was given a glimpse of pure adventure, and like an addict, I wanted more, and nothing less.
So, I decided to return to Peru. In 2015, I went to Peru for the first time, and that trip really started the adventure of travel for me. I had printed pictures of Machu Picchu and plastered them all over my cubicle at work. I wanted to so badly go alone and let this adventure mark the year that I embraced solo travel, but my parents were not happy about that idea at the time (that would later change), and so I recruited my badass, travel-loving cousin from Canada. We picked a date, arranged the travel accommodations, and booked our flights and packages. I remember circling the date of departure on my calendar at work and just staring at it for hours. I was never more prepared or confident that I was going to Peru than that year.
That trip made me fall in love with Peru in ways that I hadn't known before, so I knew that it was a matter of time before I was coming back. In 2018, I was turning 30 years old. I was entering a new decade, and one that I had heard such positive things about, that I wanted to mark it in a special way. What better way than solo backpacking through Peru! I knew that this time, I wanted to be alone, so I booked my flights and made my itinerary in a way that surprises me even to this day: it was so meticulous, detailed, and the best part? It worked exactly in the way that I planned it, which in travel, never happens!
I arrived to Cusco, the main city from where avid hikers begin their adventures; but right before that, I had a stop in Lima, where I met a handsome, hippy yogi who saw my yoga mat and approached me for a conversation. That would lead to an early morning dinner at the airport, to sleeping on the floor waiting for our flight, to practicing yoga on an overpass between the airport and a hotel, underneath a Full Moon. Together, we met a Shaman and a Professional Skydiver on their way to Arequipa for a week-long ayahuasca retreat. I am a firm believer that the people we meet on our travels are like gems, waiting to be smiled at for the simple act of existing and making our time out in the world that much more joyful. We all parted ways in Cusco, each going in their own direction of healing and self-discovery.
I was in Peru to hike and be in the mountains. That's what I did in Nepal, and the ability to be out in nature was so refreshing and healing for me that I wanted to embrace it in South America. I had two major milestones: climb Rainbow Mountain, and sleep in a hanging pod on the side of a cliff in Sacred Valley. You read that right.
But no trip to Cusco would be complete without exploring Cusco first. Standing in stark contrast to Lima, which is more city and seafood, Cusco is the landing spot for adventure. In its history, it marries its Inca roots with its Spanish conquistador rule. Proud Catholic churches stand tall next to centuries-old Inca rock formations, and the entire city is a piece of history waiting to be heard. I walked around, this time with more comfort and ease, as if I were walking through a street back home. The smells of street food and the sounds of honking cars, barks from stray dogs, and excited "hola's" filled the rhythm in the air with something lively to be remembered.
It's worthy to note that Cusco sits at an elevation of 11,152 feet. In order to truly enjoy the city and the surrounding beauty, it is best to get acclimated as soon as you arrive. I had trouble with this on my first trip to Peru back in 2015, because I was young, unprepared, and overzealous to see and go everywhere. But, life lessons are often learned the hard way, at least for me! This time, however, I did give myself the chance to rest, eat, and sleep plenty as soon as I arrived, so that I could enjoy my trip up to Rainbow Mountain the next morning.
The trek began at 4:30am, when the hiking group picked me up from my hotel. In a bus with a handful of other hikers, we drove in the morning dark out of the city and into the mountains, some 3+ hours outside of Cusco. Having the chance to sleep on the bus but not taking it, I was so excited to mark Rainbow Mountain off my list. Sitting at a peak of 17,060 feet, this would be the highest mountain I would summit. We stopped for breakfast in a small hut that was on the way to our meet-up spot; it was a simple breakfast with some lack of protein, in my opinion, considering that we were hiking a fairly large mountain that day. Knowing that altitude sickness was a very real possibility for me, I ensured I had enough water to last me the entire trek. I did not, however, pack enough food to use as fuel and energy. That was my first red flag. But I kept going.
The entirety of the trek was slated for approximately 2.5 hours. Thankfully, Rainbow Mountain is not a stack of switchbacks; it is a straight shot up and down, like the biggest hill you've ever been on. You have the option to take a horse up to the top if you're tired, but my stubborn ego dismissed that idea entirely. Over my dead body. Well, as it will turn out, that was almost the case. Hiking it is literally taking a step, stopping, breathing, and then taking another step. Even with acclimatization in Cusco, the altitude here, coupled with inclined hiking, will slow you down to a snail's pace. But I kept going. I was the last one of my group to arrive at the top, and when I did, I felt like I was on top of the world - at least in Peru.
The reason why Rainbow Mountain is given its name are the lines of alternating colors that come from the soil sediment. On a clear, sunny day, you can see it exaggerated throughout the peaks, but when it rains, the water washes the soil down and nothing can be seen. This is why the weather is an imperative factor when summiting this mountain.
I was feeling the effects of the altitude on the climb up, but I had enough water and the descent down was making me feel like the worst was over. To come down to the bottom, you can simply walk back down the way that you came up; or, you can take the Red Valley way down, which is descending the back of the mountain through a series of valleys that eventually lead us back to our bus. Guess which way we took...
The soil on Rainbow Mountain is soft, so much so that you can easily dip down when you step on it. This was the case on our descent down, which was pretty much a near-vertical drop that we needed to either sit on our butts and slide down, or very carefully maneuver with hands and/or trekking poles. While the hike was treacherous to say the least, the views were incredible! No one else but our group had taken this route, so in a moment of awareness, I realized it was just me with the most beautiful mountains lining the way forward. This was also the moment when I felt the altitude sickness creep in with a bang - intense headache, nausea, and zero energy to walk anymore. I remember teetering from one foot to the other, as if I were drunk walking, my vision getting slightly blurry and my breath getting ragged by the minute. Many people will suffer altitude sickness on the ascent, but it can also happen on the descent, as well. This was my second red flag, but I kept going.
We stopped at a small farm in the middle of this valley for a break. The owner was an older farmer, with a few horses and a house, but with the most amazing backdrop of mountain scenery for his backyard. Had I not felt like I was dying, I would have taken it in more and snapped a few pictures along the way. With nothing to eat to get my energy back up, I chugged my water and prayed that I would make it to the bus. It was at this point that I really became scared for my health. My vision was getting blurrier and I was turning pale, close to passing out. I knew I had nothing left in me to walk the rest of the way, which was another hour to the bus, so I asked the farmer to let me use his horse. Horses can be rented in these parts, as they're used to help trekkers complete their miles. I don't remember quite how I was able to muster the energy to get on the horse, but I knew it was my last chance to get out. There were no choppers here that would pull me out if I were too sick, so I got on the horse and held on for dear life as he began to step over the giant rocks paving the way on the dirt path. I felt like a rag doll on the horse, bobbing to the left and right as the animal carried me to the direction of the farmer. In that moment, from a clear blue sky, it began to rain and then snow. I pulled my jacket closer, trying to get my hood on over my hat to keep me somewhat dry. I felt like we had gone through every season in the span of that hour. At one point, the horses couldn't cross over a ravine that we had come across, so I had to get off and walk by foot. Somehow managing to get across to the other side, I climbed back up on the horse and resumed my trek, holding deeply to a little bit of water and prayer that we were close to the end. Thankfully, we were, and after thanking God for the farmer's well wishes, I got on the bus - wet, tired, and in the worst shape I've ever been in. This is when the headache became intolerable. I couldn't keep my eyes open, as any light coming in felt like daggers stabbing my brain to death. A young couple from France saw my deteriorating state and offered me some coca tea and a pain killer, something that looked like an Advil, perhaps. I didn't know what it was, but I took it and chugged it down with the tea, hoping it would give me some slight reprieve until we got back to Cusco. It didn't. We arrived at the same hut where we had breakfast, this time for lunch, but as hungry as my body was for nutrition, there was no way that I could have put anything in my mouth. I ended up running to the courtyard in the back and throwing up next to the outhouse. Our trek guide gave me some tea and an oxygen tank to sit down and breathe, while everyone else ate. Through this entire ordeal, the only moment that really stuck with me was sitting down on a crate in the middle of a muddy courtyard, in rain, with an oxygen tank in one hand and a cup of tea in the other, staring at a dog who was laying next to me with a look on his face like he felt sorry for me. And I shit you not, I couldn't help but laugh, because what else are you gonna do....?
When I finally did get back to my hotel and curled under the covers to the sound of my throbbing brain, I realized that this too was part of the adventure. No one said climbing up to 17,000 feet would be easy, and if I were to ever not take that seriously, I was going to have to answer to a higher mountain power.
The next morning, I would be picked up from my hotel again to head to Sacred Valley. This was en route to Machu Picchu, but much closer to Cusco. I was picked up in a similar bus, this time in the afternoon, with another couple and a solo backpacker in tow. The company I was going through was called Natura Vive, who operated a climbing and zip-lining adventure in Sacred Valley. I saw this advertised on Facebook right after I came home from Peru the first time, and I knew I was going to be doing it at some point. Even though I was still recovering from Rainbow Mountain, I managed to get enough energy for adventure #2. The plan was to make it to "basecamp," from where we would be outfitted with a harness and rope, and set to climb up a couple of thousand feet to a series of pods that would be our living and bedrooms for one night. I am an avid adventure freak when it comes to heights, so I am constantly looking for ways to get to the clouds. This was my ticket. We climbed for approximately 2 hours, clipping in each step we took on the rungs that were bolted into the rock. Each step took us higher and higher, sometimes near-vertical to slightly indented overhangs. I loved it. No, I inhaled it! The breeze on my face, the freedom of hanging on to a small ledge that gave me the sight of the world - all of it made me feel incredibly alive (what altitude sickness?). In the dark, we arrived to our living room pod, equipped with all of the essentials for dinner and breakfast the next morning. Our guides showed us the way to our individual bedroom pods right after, to which we needed to also climb in the dark, with our headlamps. Challenge accepted!
That night, sleeping in something that resembles a glorified hamster cage, I opened the windows, climbed into bed, and looked up at every single star shining down on the Sacred Valley. There are no words to describe the beauty of such an experience. I couldn't sleep, because to sleep would be to close my eyes away from the beauty that was at my fingertips. I didn't know that the morning would prove to be even more beautiful.
The above picture was captured by my fellow climber who also woke up to realize that, yes - this is real and not a dream. We climbed back to our living room pod, enjoyed the delicious breakfast prepared by our guides, and descended down by way of several ziplines.
Returning back down to the ground gave me the urge to want to just go right back up again. Not only do you get the best views of the Sacred Valley below, but you also get the pride of knowing that you did something incredibly unique and courageous. I realized that even though the mountains challenged me the day before, today - they were rewarding me. And so it goes in life, in our own peaks and valleys.
The next morning, I was back at my hotel, trying to explain to the receptionist that I am OK, and was not kidnapped in Cusco, but rather slept on the side of a cliff for the night. To her reaction, I might as well have gone with the kidnapping story. Adventure #3 was right around the corner, as I was preparing to head out to Lake Titicaca in Puno, Peru. Puno had been on my list for quite some time, and not having enough days to visit it on my first trip out to Peru, I knew I wanted to make this spot a priority on this trip. Lake Titicaca is the world's tallest navigable lake, meaning that it sits at an elevation of 12,507 feet and is enormous! Puno is quite a ways away from Cusco, and you can take the bus. However, there is a bit of a fancier way to get there, and that's by train - the Andean Explorer. This is an old-school train on the outside, and a fancy, old-school train on the inside. The distance between Puno and Cusco is about 10 hours via train, but that's mainly because the train stops along the way for you to experience the scenery between the different Peruvian towns. I climbed aboard, late (per usual), with my yoga mat, and took a seat by the window. I was all ready with my camera and phone to snap as many pictures as I humanely could of this adventure, only to find out that overnight, both of my camera and phone batteries had completely died, as well as the only phone charger I had with me.
There I was, in the beauty of the countryside, on this amazing train with gorgeous views, with absolutely nothing at my disposal to remember this moment. Instead of fighting it (and there were a few choice words that I repeated), I realized that there was nothing I could do but enjoy this moment without technology. For 2-3 hours of the entire trip, I sat there with my eyes peeled to the horizon for views of the most beautiful mountains I had seen in Peru yet. Everything else melted away - the worry about altitude, my charger, how I was going to make it around in Puno without my phone. It all evaporated into the mountain air, and I was dumped solo into this moment of pure bliss and awe at where I was, and how privileged I was to be here, on this journey. In that moment, I was approached by one of the staff who offered me his phone charger when he realized I couldn't use mine. Life blessing #57474 - you never know who is watching over you, but know that someone always is!
With the chance to commemorate these beautiful views, I snapped away. The train has a few cars, most of them with comfortable seating and a bar, but it also has an open car that is last in tow that offers you not only better views than what you get inside, but the chance to feel the breeze as the train speeds by on the tracks. I had my very own "Gone with the Wind" moment, standing at the rail and looking back onto the land that was just giving me life at the moment. Every once in a while, the train will stop in a little town, where you can get off and walk around to really get the feel for the land and the mountains. There are always locals nearby who are selling handcrafts that are very representative of Peruvian culture: most items are clothing or textiles made of alpaca fur. These items not only give you a slice of supporting local economy, but it puts you in touch with the people who live out here, and who depend and live on the financial support from passengers on these trains.
After 10 hours, we arrive in Puno. The elevation gain is not significant, so I don't feel anything when I disembark the train and start heading into town, toward my hostel. The vibe here is different than in Cusco: the streets are smaller, yet filled with more people, it seems; and you can feel the water nearby, like you're at the beach and just know that the air from the ocean is somehow affecting you in ways that you don't feel anywhere else. It was like that with Lake Titicaca close by - like we were feeding off of her presence. I couldn't wait to get close to her to experience this connection myself. But before I could nestle in for the night, I had to eat dinner and somehow find a charger to buy to get my phone back up to functionality. My meals in Peru mainly consisted of fish. Even though the seafood is better in Lima, since it's a city on the coast, you can't go wrong with ceviche in Cusco or Puno. I inhaled every meal, with its subtle hints of cilantro and lime. Every bite was refreshing! As I sat there overlooking yet another Plaza de San Juan (they're popular names), I rummaged my brain for a sentence in Spanish that would get me closer to where I could buy a phone charger. Up until this point, my conversations in Spanish were short: how are you? how much is it? can I get the bill? I never had to ask for directions, nor listen and then translate what the person would tell me, but time was running out on my phone battery, and I needed it the next morning to find my way to the port to get on my boat. With a sentence already rehearsed in my head, I asked my waitress - a small, frail woman who looked way too tired to be serving me (or anyone else there) any more food. She was still surprisingly pleasant and nice, and pointed me to the direction of the markets. Off I went.
I walked around from one salesperson to the next, pointing to my dead phone charger and asking where I could buy another. Like a ping-pong ball, I was pointed in different directions, all contradicting what the previous person had told me. At some point, I had walked off the tourist square and into side alleys that seemed to be further from where I had started. I couldn't see any more tourists, and I was getting worried that I would walk too far away from where I had started with no phone support, should I need it. But I pressed on. I remembered that life blessing on the train, where a helping hand supported me when I finally surrendered the need to cling onto my plans and preconceived notions. And in that moment, when I knew that even if I got lost, I would still be safe and sound and happy, in this place of majestic mountains and magical lakes, I turned around to find behind me the largest store of phone cases and chargers that I had seen yet. I almost hugged the salesperson as I asked, in Spanish, for a new charger. That night, I had a dream in Spanish. And I giggled and smiled.
The rest of my travels in Puno were comprised of seeing the small islands that surround Puno - Taquile and Amantani. On one of these islands, we would spend the night with a host family to get us more ingrained into the culture of these locals. I stayed with a husband and wife who shared their beautiful home with me and three other guests. I later learned that they gave us the nicest and warmest room in the house, while they slept in a room without heat. The money they made by being our hosts would help them build on an additional room in their house so they can accommodate more people. A day doesn't go by that I don't think of these people, sleeping in a cemented room, exposed to the gusting winds hitting the island at night, while we slept under cozy alpaca blankets in wind-proofed quarters. Had I only been able to tell them that I would be fine sleeping in the courtyard under the stars...
That night, we were invited to a community party put on by the locals. We would wear the traditional dress of their people, and dance the night away in celebration of their culture and us sharing in it. At first, I was put off by dancing by myself in a group of people I did not know, in a language that I barely hung onto. But a little voice in my head nudged me along - that same voice that guided me to surrender to being in the moment, and embrace Peru as my home in which I belonged. As it turns out, the party was exceptional, and we danced like we knew the songs by heart. Later that night, we walked back to our house under the light of the moon.
The remainder of my weekend in Puno consisted of visiting the floating Uros Islands. These are a series of connected reed beds on which families live, that we were able to visit and purchase locally handmade crafts. Apart from that, we were able to understand how they live on these floating islands, and just how connected they are to each other and to the Lake. Unfortunately, over the years, Lake Titicaca has seen an increase in pollution. The Peruvian government hasn't done enough to help clean the Lake and spread awareness of just how important this body of water is to the livelihood of the Uros people, as well as the locals living on the islands such as Tequile and Amantani. When you visit these beautiful places, you get the sense of its importance to the culture, as well as to the world. This planet would not be the same without Lake Titicaca, which is why it's important to help keep it clean and safe for generations to come. You can check out more ways to get involved and offer your support here.
As my time in Peru came to a close, I ended my trip back in Cusco at the San Pedro market. Stocking up on souvenirs and enjoying the fresh juices and ceviche made by hand right in front of you was the ideal way for me to wrap up this adventure. I sat back for a long time to take in everything that I had done there, and what it meant to me. I went back to Peru to be alone. I never told my parents that I was heading on a solo adventure, because I wasn't even sure that I could do it, but looking back on that week, I embraced such a strong sense of pride and freedom. Stumbling through Spanish and cities across Peru, I enjoyed my own company in ways that I don't think I could have done with another person. More importantly, I believed in the faith of good people of this world. I put my trust in the only fact that matters, and it's that I am never alone, and that I belong to the roots of the world that connect us all. I didn't grow up with a base that I could call a home for long. Being a refugee and moving around a lot, I didn't know how to grow roots or feel like a part of a place. When I started traveling, I found a freedom that helped me step out of the box of traditional thinking, and into a grand space of limitless possibilities. Instead of leaving home to find myself, I traveled throughout Peru to feel home everywhere I went, and I felt like I didn't leave anything at all in search of this self-discovery. Like Santiago in The Alchemist, I learned that home was in me all along.