This story was created in partnership with: Intrepid Travel
Recently, it feels like all my travel articles begin with an anecdote about using a washroom. My first note for this story? “Ugh, just peed outside for the first time at an elevation of 3700m.” I suppose the breathtaking heights that come courtesy of high-altitude adventures will make you wax lyrical about anything and everything.
You wouldn’t be wrong for thinking that at these elevations stories come easily. For me and so many others, the belief is that the closer you get to the heavens, the more beautiful the world becomes. This jaw-dropping valley in the Peruvian Highlands no less. So far this experience had left me — and rather worryingly I might add — speechless!
In February of 2019, TourRadar teamed up with Intrepid Travel to find two people willing to put their lives on hold to be part of Tour the World. For fifty days, two lucky travellers would go on an adventure of a lifetime to five different countries in five different continents, with just one catch: they would be doing it with a total stranger. Thousands applied but in the end, there could only be two winners: Jessica Husson and Joan Alemany. The first leg of this epic journey kicked off in Peru with me in tow.
So there I was on the side of an Andes’ mountain. In the distance, Alemany was playing his ukelele amid the chatter and laughter of our tour group. I could hear William Quico, the tour leader, talking to the porters in Quechua; the native tongue of people that live in the highlands of the Peruvian Andes. The smell of our afternoon snack –buttery popcorn — stuck to the damp air. Husson stood guard over me as I crouched down in the bushes and mentally noted all these details, my heart racing, and my body craving more oxygen.
It had only been a few hours since our tour group had driven from the Spanish colonial village of Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley — a region of the Peruvian Andes — towards Rafq’a to meet the horsemen that would be accompanying us on the Inca Quarry Trail. As we began our adventure on these old-world trails, I kept my eyes and ears peeled for the whisper of a story somewhere in the valley.
This would be my first group tour, my first time camping, my first time at altitude, my first time travelling with people I didn’t really know… There were a lot of firsts occurring on this trip. For the first time, words were evading me. But then again most adjectives pale in comparison to voluptuous carpets of clouds drifting across the tops of moss-green peaks that were once home to the Incan people.
Intrepid Travel calls the Inca Quarry Trail the other route to Machu Picchu. There are many kilometres of Inca trails — roughly 36,000km in total — but the Inca Trail which leads to the citadel of Machu Picchu is the most renowned. Despite the limited quantity of permits issued by the Peruvian government for the classic route, it’s still bustling with droves of travellers.
The Inca Quarry Trail is the one to choose when you want to go off-the-beaten-path to enjoy the solitude of being in the mountains. There were only a handful of tour groups and travellers during our time there. For the most part, it’s just you, your thoughts and open stretches of steep grassy plains leading towards views beyond comprehension. You still visit Machu Picchu at the end of it by taking a train from Ollantaytambo to Agua Calientes (a thermal bath town in the Urubamba River Valley), from where you can catch a bus to the ancient citadel.
In total, the Inca Quarry Trail is a four-day trip on which travellers get to thoroughly experience the highs and lows of trekking mountain trails in the Peruvian Andes. Along with the given: a deep dive into nature, watching the sunrise and camping below the stars, trekkers will also come across lesser-known ruins with a panoramic view of some of the most mind-blowing scenery in South America. In my case, this experience also included trying and failing to channel Jon Krakauer.
The 26-kilometre Inca Quarry Trail has countless highlights. The first of many is on day one, beginning with the Perolniyoc Waterfall, an aquatic cascade that cuts through a jagged red bluff. It flows from a crevice that looks as though the source lies deep within the heart of the cliff. After this, we continued to the Q’orimarca ruins – a checkpoint and place to pause during Incan times and now in the present day. The soft patches of grass are a welcome sight for burning legs. Quico tells us to rest for a while and checks in to see how we’re feeling after several hours of hiking at an incline. Thankfully our next stop is camp for the first night.
The following day, we were woken up with coca leaf tea or mate de coca. It’s considered an altitude remedy, one that’s made from the leaves of a plant native to South America, called the coca. Bleary-eyed we sipped on the hot elixir, and while oxygen, sleep and words don’t come easily here, living in the moment does. You can feel everything. The cold mountain air on your face, the length of your aching body, the endorphins coursing through your nervous system, the wild rhythm of your beating heart and the promise of thinking of nothing but putting one foot in front of the other.
After breakfast and several gruelling hours of walking, one by one we all made it to our final elevation at the Kuychicassa Pass (4450m). The experience of standing there with a vista overlooking the sprawling valley below and condors flying above is hard to describe. Alemany used his two favourite words: ‘wow’ and ‘amazing’ while Husson was left breathless by it all. As for me, only minutes ago I was exhausted but suddenly I was energised by awe, wonder, disbelief, astonishment, and just like that all my adjectives came back to me.
As we continued along more rolling hills towards our final point; the archaeological site of Inti Punku — one of many Sun Gates built by the Incan people throughout the Andes to honour the deity Inti — rain began falling. After some time, the sun came out and a rainbow the length of the valley arched its way across the sky. Our tour leader Quico told us it was an auspicious sign from Mother Nature.
Whether you believe in a higher power or not, up there at 4500m, it doesn’t matter. As you see the snowcapped mountain of Veronica through an ancient doorway that defies time and is made possible by the Incas, words like sacred and divine take on a whole new meaning.
After this view, coming back down to earth is not easy. The steep incline pounded the backs of my calves and the balls of my feet as we made our way to camp. Our final meal in the darkness and starlight of the mountains was bitter-sweet; at this slightly lower altitude, everyone was a little high thanks to the elevated levels of oxygen in our blood cells, but the inevitability of sea level was not something to look forward to anymore.
The next morning, as we emerged from our tents a blanket of clouds had descended from the skies, draping everything in unworldly beauty. Everything above the clouds from the mountains, the horses, the trees, the grass, and even we were bathed in the morning light. As my mind etched this parting memory into my brain, I needn’t have worried. The truth is that in the Peruvian Andes there is no need for words, stories write themselves.
Where in the world are Husson and Alemany now? Stream the latest episode of Tour the World now! Head over to TourRadar to follow along!