Brisbane Photographer | A life changing experience trekking to Machu Picchu…

Nicole | Personal | Machu Picchu, Peru | 18th September 2013

Wow! I can’t believe that it has almost been two weeks since I embarked on my journey to Machu Picchu. It only seems like yesterday that I was running around making sure I had everything I needed to go trekking. It has taken me a couple of days since I got back on Monday to catch up on some much needed sleep, but to also gather my thoughts about the trip. I’ve been pondering about how I could accurately describe the journey that I have just experienced. It is such a hard thing to put into words, how do I write down how life changing it has been for me, how do I describe the sights that I have walked through when the photos don’t even do it justice, and how do I describe the most amazing kind generous people that I had the privilege of spending 11 days with… So here it goes… here is a little insight into my journey of trekking to Machu Picchu for Youngcare Australia.

But before I embark on my personal thoughts about the trip, I want to just mention again the amazing work that Youngcare do for young Australians with disabilities in this country. The support that they provide to young Australians not only through building age appropriate houses, creating ongoing support with their call centre – Youngcare Connect and providing home grants to help young Aussies stay at home with their families is just amazing. I was fortunate enough to be trekking alongside the CEO of Youngcare and a couple of the girls who work for the charity and I must say their enthusiasm and passion for wanting to give young Australians with high care needs the respect and dignity they deserve is truly inspiration. I only hope I can contribute and be as inspirational as they all are and I look forward to developing an ongoing relationship with Youngcare Australia.

A big THANK YOU to everyone who has donated and supported me on this amazing journey. I am so grateful to each and everyone of you. And if you haven’t yet donated and would like to continue helping me to raise $8000 (I have until the 15th October) then here is the link to donate:

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www.youngcaresupporters.com.au/nicole_barralet

As I only decided to join in on this trek a few weeks out, I still have a few things in the pipeline to help raise more funds for Youngcare. Currently Kara at Ella Bache Ipswich is running a raffle for a $200 gift voucher in the salon. Raffle tickets are $2 and all proceeds with be donated (with the salon matching whatever is raised) to Youngcare. I will also be co-hosting a charity night at All for Mary hairdressing salon in Yeronga on the 11th October to celebrate the launch of the salon and to raise some additional funds for Youngcare. We will have goodie bags, raffles and a print auction of some of the snaps I have taken throughout my adventures. And last but not least, I will be creating a gallery of limited edition fine art prints that you can purchase with 100% of the cost going to Youngcare. Bring on reaching $8000!!!!

So the trip. Firstly I must say a big thank you to Mark, Sherrin, Leanne, Bronwyn, Sami, Craig, Laura, Cherie, Max, Natalie, Jess and Amanda for all their support along the way. I have never met a group of people who are more inspiring, compassionate, kind and supportive than I did on this trek. There were no dummy spits, no princess moments and no one wanting to give up, even when the altitude or the terrain got too hard to bare. Everyone was there supporting and offering a hand to help the next person get through the challenging part and succeed in reaching the end destination of Machu Picchu. When travelling, this is incredibly rare and I feel so blessed to have met every one of you.

Getting to Cusco…

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After a good 30 hours of travelling from Brisbane to Cusco via Auckland, Santiago and Lima, we finally arrived in Cusco. The flights didn’t seem to take as long as I expected as I think we were all excited about the adventure that laid ahead. We arrived in Cusco after spending a couple of hours asleep overnight in Lima very early in the morning. I think we were all a little anxious arriving into Cusco, as we weren’t sure how the altitude was going to effect us. Cusco sits around 3,400m above sea level and the lack of oxygen is noticeable as soon as you step off the plane. Lucky for us, we met our amazing guide Bobby from Exodus at the airport and once we had checked into our hotel, we were able to grab a few hours of sleep before he took us out to lunch at a local restaurant (serving only local food) and on a street tour of Cusco. Lunch was amazing. We all had variations of meat (except for the vegos) with rice and potatoes, which is a staple in Peru life. Peruvians tend to eat large breakfasts and lunches, followed by a small dinner and hot drink to aid in digestion. It is amazing the effects that being in a higher altitude has on the body – not only with breathing but also with digestion. Cusco is such a quaint little town – filled with cobblestone roads, beautiful architecture and the most amazing kind community focused people. The one thing that completely surprised me about Cusco, was firstly the size of the town (it was much bigger than I expected) but also how kind and beautiful the people were. They might not have much, but they are pure of heart. All in all we spent two days in and around Cusco, getting used to the altitude (thank you Diamox) and experiencing the local food, culture and of course shopping… If you love wool products then you will love Peru!

Starting the Trek…

So after two days exploring Cusco and getting to know the team, it was time to head off on our trek. We embarked on the Moonstone Trek, which isn’t your typical trek to Machu Picchu (that’s the Inca Trail). The Moonstone Trek is a more challenging than the Inca Trail as it goes higher  to 4,800m and has a longer distance to cover than the traditional Inca Trail with the terrain being a little more challenging to trek than the Inca. We started off the day in a mini bus and headed out to visit the Moonstone Inca ruins that the trek is named after. It was probably around 20mins out from the start of the trail, but it was well worth the visit. It gave us our first real taste of walking up hill in the altitude and viewing the Moonstone was magical. The one thing that I really learnt while visiting many Inca ruins was that the Inca’s were incredibly smart people. Instead of just running into towns, conquering and killing the locals, they entered new towns, over took them but gained and gathered all the local knowledge to make them the most powerful people. They were very in-tune with Mother Nature and used her resources to the best of their abilities.

After a quick trip to the Moonstone, and back into the village to pick up our chefs (who were out purchasing supplies) we headed to the trailhead. We were accompanied on the trail by two chefs, a team of horsemen and an assistant guide Freddy. The start of the trail was in a dusty valley and was incredibly hot. We ascended steeply in the first hour around 100-150m. This was where I got struck down with altitude sickness almost straight away. I think my body went into shock. I was hot, sweaty and struggling to breathe. My body was shaky and I wasn’t sure I could go on. A big thank you to Mark who carried my day pack for part of the way and gave me the inspiration to keep putting one foot in front of the other. After getting really shaking and feeling like I wanted to throw up, I resigned to the fact that I would need a horse ride to get me up the mountain to our lunch spot to conserve my energy for the afternoon and the following day (which was the most difficult day of trekking). I didn’t really want to get on the horse, but I knew if I didn’t I wouldn’t of made it through the trek. I am not sure that getting on the horse was the easy way out… riding a horse on a thin gravelly path up a mountain with sheer embankments down one side wasn’t for the faint of heart (especially when I was trying really hard not to pass out) but I hung on, and made it up the hill to our lunch spot. Our lunch spot was 4,000m above sea level (we climbed about 600m that morning) at the pre-Inca fortress of Wata. When our guide pointed out to the ruins at the top of the mountain when we first started the trail, we never would of imagined that we would actually make it to the top for lunch.

Lunch was amazing. I don’t know how our chef created such amazing meals along the trek. Pity I didn’t have more of an appetite (another altitude sickness symptom). I was lucky enough to have a good half an hour sitting at the top of the mountain, getting used to the altitude and breathing (if anyone is thinking about going, you should totally do Yoga to learn how to breathe deeply, this is the only way that you can get through being in high altitude, your fitness level doesn’t matter, it’s all about breathing) while the rest of the group walked up the mountain. The views were amazing. In the scale of the mountains and where we had come from, I felt so insignificant sitting on top of that mountain. I was just one tiny piece in this world, it really puts things into perspective.

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After lunch and a bit of a rest, it was time to head back down the mountain through a green valley to the tiny village of Chillipawa where we camped for the night at 3750m. We were so thankful to our horseman who had arrived at camp early, pitched out tents and were there waiting with a warm bucket of water for us to wash off in before tea time. It was quite chilly in the camp when they sun went down and we had never been so excited to eat and head off to bed as we did at the end of night one. I was lucky enough to bunk with the amazing Laura from Sydney. We got to know each other really well throughout the trek and she was amazing to camp with!

Trekking Day Two…

After a few hours of broken sleep… jet lag and adjusting to the higher altitude we were up at sunrise and ready to take on the biggest most challenging day of the trek. We were leaving camp at 3750 and walking up to the Accoccosa Pass at 4800m. This was the day that altitude sickness became most prevalent. It took around 4-5 hours to get to our lunch destination just below the pass with many rest stops and support for each other adapting to the high altitude. I learnt on the way that I had to take the walking slow and steady, stopping to breathe deeply after a few steps. I was determined on day two not to have to take a horse and that I would make it to the top of the hill without any assistance. I also upped my dose of Diamox to help with the absorption of oxygen into my blood stream. After around 4-5hours of a slow and steady climb and a few bumps along the way, we finally made it to lunch. The most exciting thing about this was, for the last say 100m climb, we were walking as the snow was falling so very lightly around us. I had never seen snow fall before, so this was an amazing new experience for me and one that gave me the last boost to get up to lunch.

Again, lunch was amazing with hot soup and meat, rice and potatoes to give us the energy that we needed to get up the last 150m or so up to the top of the Accoccosa Pass. The last part of the trail was steep and on loose red scree (easy to stack it) but the moment that you got to the top and peered over the pass, was a moment that I will never ever forget. The sight of Mt Veronica surrounded by the Huayanay and Urubamba ranges was the most spectacular view I have ever seen in my life. We even were lucky enough to see a Condor fly over head while traversing up the mountain. It was freezing and incredibly windy at the top of the pass, and as the snow fluttered around us, we had a group photo and added to a tradition of stacking a group of rocks together (each person places a rock and makes a wish) and leaves for the next group of people to find. We then headed down into the valley where we camped at Chancachuco at 4300m.

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This night was freezing! With the snow falling at the pass at lunchtime we knew that it was going to be a cold night, but one that we didn’t expect. It got down to -5 and I think I had every single item of clothing that I bought with me to ensure that I didn’t freeze my bum off! We even had our metal water bottles filled with boiling water to use as a hot water bottle to keep us warm. We got into camp quite early around 3pm and after a quick nap, we all got up for tea time (coca tea and popcorn) before a crazy Andean storm battered down on us. I have never experienced anything like it – crazy lightning and thunder, heavy rain and sleet/snow. Luckily the rain eased just before dinner time and when we got out of our tents, we found them covered in snow and ice. An incredible experience. Another incredible experience of the night, was dinner… We all decided to have lamb cooked the local way by the chef… The lamb was incredibly fresh… as in.. the chef when to the farm just on the hill and paid and grabbed a sheep and bought it back to cook… The cooking process was done in hot stones and even though it was crazy storming, dinner was amazing (even if the lamb was a little tough.. needed to be slow cooked).

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Trekking Day Three…

Day three of trekking was the highlight for me. After another restless night of sleep (and waking up with a really dry mouth) we had an amazing breakfast before heading off really early. The walking on day three was the most diverse – we walked through rolling green fields, through a rainforest canyon into a cloud forest, up steep tracks on the side of a mountain and onto a plateau that felt like you were trekking somewhere out of a scene from the Lord of the Rings. The canyon was amazing. We were walking through creeks, over large rocks and trying really hard not to stack it (which I inevitably did!. We got to see the rare polylepis trees and into a small grove before we started walking in the cloud forest. If you don’t know what a cloud forest is, well it is walking through the clouds. The mountains were high enough that as far as the eye could see, was just mountain sides covered by clouds. It was spectacular. We stopped for morning tea on this amazing cliff side (not good if you have vertigo) before we had a steep climb of 200m up to the top of the mountain. The views over the valley between us and the Huayanay Mountains was the most spectacular thing I have ever seen. All of the trails that we hiked were Inca trails where they used to carry water and supplies to their villages. It is hard to believe that the terrain used to be a daily walk for the Incas.

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Just before lunch, we made it to the Sungate, another Inca ruin with amazing views of snowy Mt Veronica. It was spectacular. We then headed down the mountain to our lunch spot overlooking the Scared Valley with views of the amazing Urubamba range. It was incredibly windy throughout lunch and after a warm pot of soup and some meat and potatoes, we had around a half an hour walk down to our campsite at Canchiqata Quarry at 3500m. We arrived into camp around 3pm with a couple of hours just to chill out, have a cup of baileys and watch the sun set. This was our final night of camping at the Quarry. The quarry was where the Incan’s used to carve and bring down the stones into Ollantaytambo. It was pretty epic to see how big they rocks were that they used to drag down the mountain side. Again another fabulous meal from our chef and we all collapsed into our tents early after another amazing day of trekking.

Trekking Day Four…

After our final night camping and of course the best night’s sleep. Up with the sun, we had the most spectacular sunrise (another 30 by 30 ticked off) over the campsite and the mountains. It was spectacular and Mt Veronica had come out from behind the clouds just for the sunrise. After packing up for the final time, we headed up the mountain a little to explore the quarry, before heading down the mountain into the Valley of Ollantaytambo. We had lunch at our horseman’s father’s place and had a few hours to explore the town before we boarded to train to Aguas Calientes the gateway town to Machu Picchu. The train was amazing. We had glass top to explore the views and the scenery as we slowly descended down into Aguas Calientes.

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We all opted to stay in a hotel that night – the call of a hot shower after 4 days of trekking was too great… although most of us had forgotten to bring shampoo (and me fresh undies). So we headed out to buy our supplies… buying undies in spanish is quite an interesting task! lol But we got there in the end, after a hot shower (or luke warm by the end) we headed out to a local restaurant where our chef met us and cooked us a fabulous last meal. We had a wonderful dinner and the excitement was building for discovering Machu Picchu the next day!!

Machu Picchu – Day Five

After a few wines the night before, it didn’t take long for us to all pass out and have a good night’s sleep. We woke at the crack of dawn to no power in Aguas Calientes and therefore no breakfast before we lined up to board the bus up to Machu Picchu. I had an allergic reaction to something I ate the night before, so I had a fat lip, but after I quick antihistamine (thanks Sammi) I was ready to go! It was amazing to see how many people where lined up for the bus at 5:30am! After a short bus ride to Machu Picchu, we had arrived. It was so surreal. There was so many tourists even at the early time of day being bused in from town. 5000 people visit Machu Picchu every day and I must admit while the sights of Machu Picchu were amazing, spectacular and awe inspiring, the fact that there was sooo many people and we had to rush around with our tour from Bobby, I must admit took a little bit of the magic away from it. I feel incredibly privileged that I was able to walk around the area, as in the future due to the amount of tourists, you may not be able to walk around in 5 years time due to it sinking.

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The sight of Machu Picchu built up on the mountain top, surrounded by the cloud forest is incredibly spectacular. It is amazing to think how they made such an amazing place, so clever, with all of its little houses, agriculture and waterways. Apparently what you see is only around 40% of the actual site and that 60% is below the ground. It was a spectacular place to visit. After our tour with Bobby and hearing him speak so passionately about his country, the Incans and the journey that we had embarked on, we had some free time to explore the ruins. We headed out to a little Incan bridge which was built in a cliff face, saw a rare wild black bear, before heading back into town to meet Bobby for lunch. We then had a little bit of time for shopping before we headed back down to Ollantaytambo by train (and a crazy game of snap along the way) then bus back into Cusco. It was an amazing day!!

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Then it was time to celebrate in Cusco! We headed to the Museum di Pisco for a night of Pisco tasting and deadly cocktails in celebration of what we had acheived. It was a great night of fabulous cocktails, food and celebrating.

Last Day in Cusco – Day Six

Our last day in Cusco and our trip had arrived. Most of the team headed out to the Sacred Valley for a day trip, but I hung back in Cusco for a day of shopping and relaxing! It was a wonderful way to spend the final day in Cusco unwinding, shopping and working out how I was going to get everything back to Australia. Then another early rise the following day and we on our way home. After 36 hours of travelling, a few delays and a massive layover, we finally arrived back in Brisbane on Monday morning.

Wow. What an adventure.

Highlights and Lowlights…

There are so many highlights of the trip that I will remember for the rest of my life:

• Getting through the altitude sickness and reaching the top of the mountain at 4800m and seeing the snow fall
• Listening to Max play his flute bought in Cusco while walking through some of the most amazing scenery I have ever seen
• Digging deep and pushing through my own mental barriers to finish the trek. I think a piece of the mountain will always stay with me and anytime I am in a hard situation I can ponder this and know that I have the strength, courage and determination to get through any situation life throws at me.
• Meeting a fantastic bunch of people who all had smiles on their faces and determination to succeed no matter how crappy they were feeling who all had the common goal of raising money and awareness for Youngcare
• Seeing Peru and meeting the most amazing kind, community orientated people. Our culture could certainly learn a lot from how society interacts within Peru. We could all be a little more community minded and focused. The Incan cross certainly sums it up – Each step represents something – The Condor, The Puma, The Sneak, The Upper World, The Lower World and the Current World, Love, Knowledge and Work and Do not lie, Steal or be lazy. Pretty profound if you ask me.

There really was only one lowlight for me and that was suffering from altitude sickness, but I guess without this suffering, the victory of completing the trek wouldn’t of been as sweet. I am so thankful for this journey – the good times, the tough times, the moments where I felt like I was the only person in the world on the side of the mountain pondering life, seeing one of the new wonders of the world and meeting an amazing bunch of people!

So over the next couple of days, I will be blogging some more photos of my adventures, but to start with here are a few Instagrams from my time away.

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