By: Clara Mastronardi, Unsettled’s Experience Leader
“It's incredible what my body is capable of doing,” Bill exclaimed. After a seven-hour hike, we achieved the 4,800 meter summit of the most breathtaking landscape we’d ever seen. Breathtaking. Literally. Left speechless to the majestic power of the valley we climbed. And, breathless from thin-air and exhaustion. When the rest of the Unsettlers met us at the summit, we let out a triumphant cheer from an accomplishment collectively earned.
Perhaps, the valley’s sacred energy had been playing tricks on us for days prior… challenging us to truly embrace the unknown. After a hectic weekend of cancelled flights due to bad weather, we stayed in Lima two extra days.
The transition from Lima’s buzzing city life to the Sacred Valley’s wide-open peaks was physically and spiritually uplifting. Upon landing in Cusco, two things made a huge impact on my body: altitude and time. 3,400 meters above sea level, light headaches and fatigue are expected. But the conditions reminded our group to slow down. Sometimes, circumstance forces you to press pause and let your surroundings take the lead.
Summiting Señor de Huanca Pilgrimage
Our first stop was Urubamba, a small town in the valley, an hour and a half from Cusco. Surrounded by Peruvian Andes, we embraced our new routine. Rest, get acclimated, enjoy lazy family dinners, and gaze at endless stars dancing in the rhythm of the southern hemisphere sky. We visited the nearby Inca archeological site of Moray, defined by concentric terraces. We rode horseback to the Maras Salt Mines, hundreds of hillside salt pools dating back to Inca times. We journeyed to Chincheros, home to the famous Peruvian weaving. On day three, we hiked along the Andes to the Señor de Huanca Pilgrimage. This pilgrimage is done on the same day every year - September 14 - where thousands of people, pushed by their faith, hike through the mountains in the middle of the night to reach Huanca, the sanctuary located 48 km from Cusco, by the “Pachatusan” mountain (in quechua: "that which holds the world") hoping to be blessed.
Patrick, my fellow Experience Leader who led the same experience in January 2018, had done this hike at the start of the year. He insisted that if we sought a real taste of the Sacred Valley, this hike was not to be missed. However, he had also warned that its level of difficulty was an 8 out of 10. Perhaps it wasn’t something for everyone. But between Lala (Unsettled’s Head of Experience as my partner-in-crime for this trip) and me, we knew this was an adventure we would be grateful for, so we offered the group the chance to join us on this journey. They leapt at the opportunity without a wink.
Our two guides, Johan and Elmer, were our champions all along — taking care of us, entertaining us, explaining the richness of the Inca civilization and how much of it still resonated with the modern way of living. This hike made us realize we were walking on the same trail that the Incas did hundreds of years ago…
After three weeks of coworking in Lima, getting outside of our routine and challenging ourselves physically showed the bond we created. Encouraging each other to carry on… or take a needed rest. Exploring new paths that did not readily appear on our Google map. Carrying each others’ bags. Sucking on coca leaves to help with the fogginess of altitude. Sharing the day with the local birds, dogs, alpacas and llamas. Or, just laying quietly watching mountain clouds sail by. When energy was low, Elmer played notes on his flute. With every echoing melody, it felt as though the entire valley was unfolding itself for us.
Finally, we reached the summit. Being there, together, as a family was powerful, earned through the strength and support of the tight-knit community built over a month together.
And now, Machu Picchu
To get to our next part of the adventure, Machu Picchu, we took a bus to Ollantaytambo, a train to Aguas Calientes, queue for a couple of hours and take another bus to get to the sanctuary. Seemed hectic when listed out, but when you arrive and look at the Inca ruins, you’re rushed with that same overwhelming feeling. In 2010, I had tried to reach Machu Picchu but the weather conditions didn’t allow me. Nature, again! So this time around, with the bonus of being surrounded by 22 adventurous souls, my Machu Picchu adventure was extra special.
It was amazing to think that just a day prior, we were hiking part of the Inca Trail, and today we were in this citadel built in the 15th century, abandoned a century later and re-discovered in 1911. Each one of us tried to capture the experience at our own pace. One part of the group decided to hike to the Sun Gate. Others decided to stay at Machu Picchu to absorb that magical sight.
5:30 pm. The sun began to hide behind the mountains and we started to head back to Aguas Calientes to continue the last part of our adventure week: Cusco, where we had our farewell dinner, reflected upon the month lived together, and hugged each other “see you soon”… (There are no goodbyes at Unsettled!).
Our adventure week started and ended in Cusco - in quechua qosqo, the navel of the world - and will always remain as the star where all of our paths moved forward; a place that nurtured our journey of self discovery; and an incubator for cultural learning and growth. A journey where we learnt so much about our strengths, our weaknesses, the different perspectives and ways of living a purposeful life.