It's been 4 weeks today since we all said our goodbyes in a cozy Bed & Breakfast in the heart of Cusco, marking the end of ten days of soul bonding adventure in one of the most spiritually charged places on earth. To say our Peru retreat was transformative both physically & mentally for everyone involved would be a major understatement. In case we haven't mentioned, a big part of our retreats is experiencing the adventure & breathtaking beauty that Mother Earth has on offer all around the world. And we always prefer to take the long route.
Willka T'ika Essential Wellness
To do any of the longer treks to Machu Picchu, it's highly recommended if not required to acclimate to the altitude for at least 48 hours before setting off. We opted to spend 5 nights, 4 days at a wellness center called Willka T'ika in the Sacred Valley at around 10,000 feet for a quintessential yoga retreat before embarking on one of the most challenging experiences of our lives, the Salkantay Trail to Machu Picchu.
There are not enough good things to say about Willka T'ika Essential Wellness. The property itself is stunning, set on a massive garden dedicated to the 7 chakras, nuzzled in a little valley in the Andes. Every guest room has insane mountain or garden views and is named for the Andean medicinal plant grown on its doorstep.
The gardens are so beautifully constructed and cared for, with amazing flowers, plants and crystals. One can't help but feel their intrinsic connection to Pachamama immediately upon stepping foot in the Willka T'ika's gates. There's even outdoor baths carved into the earth for solar baths under the stars.
Aside from the amazing natural beauty, the people at Willka T'ika really made the experience. Carol Cumes is an absolute legend. Originally from South Africa, she fell in love with the Sacred Valley and Peruvian culture about 25 years ago and created a sustainable wellness center in the heart of it. She is the sweetest, most down to earth and kind woman. And she's so well traveled, it makes for endlessly interesting conversation. We enjoyed getting to know her over the course of our almost week there.
Our friends Roxana and Livio were there to accommodate anything our group needed with the most genuine heart warming smiles. We really adored them and it was the hardest goodbye when we set off for our trek! They took such great care of us. From the coffee and tea set ups early every morning with the most beautiful fresh herbs to helping us find the best places to go in the local area, they were so proud to make our experience in their country and in their space seamless and unforgettable.
Our group arrived on a Friday, and took an hour long transport to get to Willka T'ika. Most were pretty wiped after traveling and arriving to Cusco at 11,500 feet (from sea level!), so we officially started our retreat with a welcome dinner, followed by a meet & greet circle and meditation to help us arrive mentally, drop our expectations, and commit to embracing the flow of whatever was to come.
Our first morning meant our first early wake up call and our first group experience in the charming yoga studio, adorned with hardwood and stone. Some powerful moments happened in that studio. Deep release, deep gratitude, deep connection body mind and universe. And maybe a dance party to the Machu Picchu song. But that wasn't til day 4.
During our time at Willka T'ika, we had a sweaty, physical focused vinyasa practice at 6:30am every morning, followed by a delicious fresh breakfast spread, and then either an activity or free time. We had four full days before embarking on the trek, so we offered activities for 3 of the days that were included in the retreat, but totally optional. Our first day, our retreaters enjoyed horseback riding through the Sacred Valley with Hacienda De Chalan. The second day was a day trip to the nearby Pisac Market and Cochahuasi Animal Sanctuary. Day 3 took us white water rafting with Aumayo and bridge jumping in the Urubamba River. Day 4 was a "chill" day. Although some chose to venture to Cusco for the day, and some chose to go in search of a salt mine, that we may or may not have ever found. Most who stayed at Willka T'ika opted for a treatment from the spa, ranging from full body massage to crystal light therapy. Every night, we ended our days with a slower paced yoga & meditation class, ranging from yin / yang on more tame adventure days, to restorative and yin after playing hard all day.
Dinners at Willka T'ika were something we all started looking forward to right after lunch. They always included fresh bread, a creative and colorful soup (Peruvians love their soup.... and so did we), two different salads with veggies and herbs from the gardens on site, and a main vegetarian dish. Carol has a cookbook for everything her kitchen team makes, and needless to say Nazli bought it. It's not the same without Livio & Roxana telling us about the dish, but bringing back the flavors of Peru was a necessary choice.
Oh yeah, and epic desserts every night.
Overnight Trekking to Machu Picchu
Excuse the language / for lack of better terms... but shit got real on day 4, when we had our trek company come to Willka' T'ika to brief us on the four days of relentless but life changing adventure to come.
First of all, there's so many ways you can get to Machu Picchu. To reiterate, we like to take the long route ;) So we narrowed our search to multiday hikes that would take us to see as much of the area as we could and include camping in the wild of the Andes. We also wanted to create the most intimate experience with this sacred land as we could for our retreaters, which can be challenging with the current popularity of the area. We landed on the 4 day, 3 night Salkantay Trek.
This was the first overnight hiking trip for our entire group, which made it really special and bonded us all immediately, even before we got to our trailhead. We left our briefing with our guide feeling excited and prepared. We got out all of our questions about everything from how frequent bathrooms were available to what happens if the altitude gets the better of us or our bodies need help. The good thing about Machu Picchu becoming a lot more touristy in the last 10-15 years is that it has more help along the way, making it more accessible to more people. There are different points where hikers can opt to take a horse for extra soles (Peruvian currency). There are places to buy bottled water if your stomach isn't wanting to try river water with purifying tablets. The camp sites are protected from the cold and wind and have bathrooms with running water.
We had a private guide for our trip and 3 assistants who arranged for our camping and cooking equipment to be transported via horse and prepared for us before we arrived to each campsite. This was endlessly helpful, as after hiking 13-25 miles, you are ready for warm food and tea and to put your head on a pillow and legs up your tent wall.
Day 1 of our hike meant our earliest wake up call yet. We got picked up at 4am, drove about 3 hours to our breakfast spot in Mollepata, and then continued on to our trailhead at 11,000 ft. We hiked around 9 miles up to our campsite for our first night that sat at 12,500 ft in Soraypampa. It was a relatively easy day, with a taste of the views that were to come. Our campsite was adorable, and we got there by 2pm if I'm remembering correctly. We had lunch waiting for us in a protected structure, and there we had the option to relax for the rest of the day and mentally decompress / prepare for the big day ahead where we would reach our highest altitude for the hike before lunch. There was also the option to hike around 5 miles round trip to Humantay Lake. It was a steep incline, and you could see it from our campsite. The lake sat at 14,200 ft. If you've ever been in serious altitude, you know that you can feel the impact of every single step, a 15 lb pack feels like it weighs 50 lbs, etc. The majority of us chose to go see the lake. And boy was it worth it!! We felt empowered to take on 15,200 ft the next day, went up into the clouds for the first time, hiked among wild horses and cows. It was epic.
We enjoyed dinner and an early night. If you got up in the middle of the night to use nature's bathroom because your Diamox (altitude meds) had you peeing constantly, you know how unreal the stars in the sky were that night.
Team morale was high in the morning. We were woken up at 5:30 with hot tea in our tents, ate breakfast, and set off by 7 for the day. Before lunch, we hiked around 5 miles and climbed 2,700 ft to the Salkantay Pass, the highest point on our trek. Everyone that set out for it made it. We were definitely happy we had practiced various breathing techniques and empowering meditations in the week leading up to this invigorating day.
We hiked another 7 miles to our lunch spot, all a super steep decline. This was really eye opening for a lot of us, as going down was a whole new challenge than climbing in altitude. And most of us felt it in our knees.
After lunch the decline was less intense, and we were taken from snowy glacier views, through sprawling green fields with stones resembling Ireland almost or Stonehenge. Then all the sudden we were in the Amazon Jungle. It was mind blowing to experience all of this nature in one day. The Andes do not disappoint. Always take the long way ;)
Day 3 was long but mellow as far as the altitude and difficulty. We hiked 18 miles through the jungle all the way to Aguas Calientes, aka Machu Picchu Pueblo. The last several miles were along train tracks, and we hiked into nightfall. Arriving to the lights of Machu Picchu with our headlamps on was something out of a movie. OMG! Civilization! It felt like the Vegas of the Amazon with some super boujee looking restaurants and stairs and fancy firefly lights and wooden flutes playing. Getting to town and seeing our hostel and beds and getting a warm showers really gave the group an adrenaline pump for a dinner out on the town. We enjoyed a round of celebratory cocktails for our nearly 40 miles conquered in the past 3 days only to be promptly reminded about our 3:30am wake up call to go into Machu Picchu.
It was foggy and rainy, and we felt pretty damn accomplished, so the entire group decided to take the bus 2 miles to the site of Machu Picchu. It opens at 6 am, with buses leaving at 5am, but the bus line starts at 4am. We just went with the advice of our guides, and it was well worth the super early wake up, as we were among the first 50 people let into Machu Picchu that day.
Machu Picchu & Huayna Picchu
A few times it had been discussed that actually being in Machu Picchu could potentially be anti climatic after everything we had experienced in the 3 days prior, and the perfection that was Willka T'ika. But walking into the silent sacred space at 6am, we instantly felt the magic of the land, and it was the opposite of anti climatic. Chills shot through my body as my jaw actually dropped. The only noise was the chirp of birds, otherwise the most profound deep silence I have ever experienced. We were staring at clouds, and the sun was still an hour away from rising over the mountains. That hour of dawn and free roaming the different temples while learning about how they were built in relation to the stars & God was truly unforgettable.
By 8am, it was much more crowded, and the once field of just lush green and stone was filled in with different colored jackets and hundreds of people trying to get their shot of the site. We set off for Huayna Picchu. Aka the stairway to heaven. This is the spot where all of the famous pictures of Machu Picchu are taken. You walk up thousands of stairs that range from tiny to massive, and really no in between. Half the time you're side stepping using a rail or rope, or testing the strength of your quads with 3 ft tall stone steps. It took us about an hour or so to get up to the top. And we were quite literally hiking in the clouds for the majority of it. Once our entire group arrived to a good spot to gather, Nazli began guiding us through a meditation in which we started breathing into our lungs, our whole bodies, the clouds, the universe. We opened our eyes to be IN the clouds. It was pure magic. We continued to the tippy top, went down the opposite side, and by then it was full on raining. Still eager to learn, we spent another 2 hours or so back at Machu Picchu, before saying goodbye too our guides and hanging out for the day in Aguas Calientes.
In Aguas Calientes, we had a team lunch where we got to listen to local live music and enjoy basking in the satisfaction that comes from putting your body and mind to the test and spending quality time in mother nature. The tone started to change as we realized we would soon have to say goodbye. Such beautiful friendships had been built over moments that can only be experienced not explained. When you spend that much time in such a vulnerable state with complete strangers, you learn a lot about yourself and how you relate to the world around you. You learn a lot about other people, and compassion for all living things. We were all thrust out of our comfort zone. Some more than others. And for totally different reasons. It was wonderful to experience people being there for each other, encouraging each other and being so open with their hearts.
We arrived in Cusco around 10pm that evening to Tecte Guest House and got right to sleep. We had put our bodies through the ringer, but we woke up for our restorative yoga practice and final meal together grateful and full of life. Together as a newly formed familia we faced some of the most intense physical and mental tests of our lives. We are forever bonded by the memories and experiences that unfolded in those 10 days. So many inside jokes, such unexpected connection that can only result from wide open hearts, such hard work, sweat, plenty of tears. Allllll the vibes.
Readjusting to life back in the States after such an eye and heart opening trip has had its challenges. The simplicity of living and the compassionate, kind people in Peru reeled us all in, immediately and then slowly more and more. Peru is an amazingly beautiful land full of adventure and begging to reconnect you to your highest most authentic self. You can see it in our eyes. Raw happiness, bliss from nature and testing ourselves to be open hearted warriors. Damn. More tears. Gotta go.