We decided on our first full day in Peru that we should put new sensors in. I’ve always been a bit rubbish at testing my blood. The inconvenience, the need for five hands when trying to test on the go, and the guilt or frustration that always accompanies a bad number had made me consciously and subconsciously avoid them when growing up.. So the first day I started on a sensor, I had a little cry. It wasn’t really until that moment that I realised just how much I hate testing my blood, and the chance to have this nifty little scanner tell me what my blood sugar is filled me with optimism about my future diabetes control.
Needless to say, that optimism was short lived and the sensors have been one big frustration/disappointment/expense for me. They have been consistently inaccurate, giving me readings that are miles off from the truth, failing unexpectedly or just falling off. I wanted so badly for this sensor in Peru to work, mainly because of the Machu Picchu trek that we have coming up. The short of the story. The sensor didn’t work. It tells me I’m at 3.8mmols when my blood kit says I’m at 10.0, it tells me I’m LO (below 2mmols – I’d be on the floor) when I’m at 6.0. It is dangerously inaccurate and it’s made me really quite annoyed because the company are just useless. So anyway, I injected a sensor into my arm for it to fail. Again. When I get home I’m not buying any more because as much as I love the idea of them. The reality is crap.
We only had one full day in Lima before flying to Cuzco to start our trek, so decided to visit the old side of the city. There was a huge police presence everywhere we turned, with the main square closed and guarded by armed police. I got a picture with one, because you’re not a proper tourist until you’ve had a picture with a police officer! But we still have no idea what was kicking off, if anything. We decided to visit the catacombs in the city centre, an amazing historical site where there’s an estimated 25,000 people buried in open graves. Totally creepy, walking through the underground of a church with hundreds of bones surrounding you. I was glad to get into street level for some air afterwards. We had a guided tour around the building and it was fascinating. The history of this place is so rich and the surroundings are so beautiful.
Peru was always about Machu Picchu, and I feel like we pretty much based our whole South America trip around getting to the great Incan ruins. We booked the Lares Trek as an alternative to the Inca Trail because we weren’t fast enough to get permits for the Inca (we tried to book 6+ months in advance. If you wanna do the Inca trail you’ve got to be ridiculously organised, or just lucky). The trek itself is three days of crazy inclines and altitude, two nights of camping at 3800m and a huge mental and physical undertaking. All described nicely by G Adventures as ‘not a technically difficult hike’…. Right. There are lots of options for alternatives to the Inca trail. Whichever you choose, you’re going to be surrounded by stunning scenery and history.
We met with our group, along with some of the guys doing the Inca trail in Lima. Had a team briefing and then Alex and I went to bed. I was so anxious it made me feel sick. I am my own worst enemy and I always have been. All of the doubts were circling in my mind and the overwhelming feeling was that I was not going to be able to complete this hike.
The following morning we set off for our flight to Cusco/Cuzco. The city is at 3400m and the trip we’d booked allowed for a day or so to acclimatise to the altitude (HA!). After arriving at the hotel, we went for lunch as a group. Alex and I tried alpaca for the first time (verdict – so good!) and we got to know some of our trekkers a bit better. Turned out that a couple of the girls went to Loughborough uni, big up the home town! After lunch we ventured out with a couple of others from our group (the Loughborough ones, obvs, keeping it local) and saw lots of very cute kids dressed up as various things (my faves being alpacas) and dancing in the streets. The festival of the sun had already begun and the atmosphere was electric.
We left Cusco the next day, heading to a few sightseeing spots, including the lookout over the city and the sacred valley. We visited a beautiful little community, supported by G Adventures, where we learnt about weaving, knitting and cooking in the highlands of Peru. The ingenuity of these indigenous people absolutely blew my mind, they are incredible. We also met some pretty cute alpacas. We stopped in a town called Pisac and visited some Incan ruins much older than Machu Picchu. Our guide told us that the climb to the top was the test, and Alex and I seemed to choose the long way round by accident. Either way, the ruins were impressive. The Incas were geniuses! After huffing and puffing our way back down, we had another drive to our lunch spot, stopping to buy some Cuy, which all of us were curious to try. Cuy is roasted guinea pig and is a popular dish, particularly in celebrations, throughout South America. It was disgusting. Just how you’d imagine a rodent to taste. After lunch we headed to Ollantaytambo – another town steeped in history – visited another ruin, where I proceeded to have a wobble (it was a steep climb and I was freaking out about wrecking my knees on the way down, so I stayed at the bottom and had a history lesson with a bunch of Canadian school kids).
We went out separately for dinner, before settling down for the last night in a bed for a few nights. I slept awfully. I was so wound up about this trek. I was so worried about being the slowest, the least fit, the worst. When we got up the next morning for the ‘provided’ breakfast, I couldn’t eat for feeling sick (hindsight, probably altitude sickness). The hilarity was, our provided breakfast was in fact stale bread and one cup of coffee. If you wanted anything else you had to pay extra. Cheers G! Way to set us up for a three day trek.
The Lares trek hits altitudes much higher than the Inca trail, and it also hikes through local communities of people still living like their ancestors did hundreds of years ago. You’re given the opportunity to gift toys to the kids who live in these tiny isolated communities. Whether it’s a plastic dinosaur or some colouring pencils, it was a much needed sweetness in an otherwise tough few days. The Lares trek was the hardest thing I have ever done. It made Tongariro look like a walk to the shops. We peaked at 5000m above sea level and the altitude hit me like a truck over the three days. The breathlessness, the nausea, the dizziness were all things I have never experienced to this extreme before and there was no way to escape it. We just had to keep going. I feel so lucky that we were part of a really supportive and diverse group of people. Pretty much all of us were hit to some extent, some worse than others. But we bonded over toilet habits, dogs and trying not to vomit on one another and without that I think I would’ve taken the emergency donkey half way through day two. So, if any of you are reading this, thank you! Thank you for the coca candy, the chewing gum, the bad jokes, the comfortable silences, the encouragement and for making this experience so much more positive than it might have been otherwise.
Looking back, you start to think you’ve imagined how hard it really was, and whether you were just being a wimp, but I have video evidence. Altitude sucks. Our diabetes behaved surprisingly well throughout the days we were hiking. On the first day I reduced my background insulin to 50% after the lessons learnt throughout this trip so far. It seemed to work a treat and I stayed within range the whole day, which I was so grateful for as I wasn’t really eating much because of the overwhelming urge to vomit every five minutes. The second day (known as challenge day) I did the same, it didn’t work so well this time. I assumed because day two was mostly uphill and mostly horrendous that if anything, my sugars would be running a little lower. Nope. Have I learnt nothing about diabetes in 15 years?! Never. Assume. Anything. I ran a little higher than target (target is 4-8mmols). I averaged at 10mmols, so carefully corrected and increased my background to 70% instead. The last thing I wanted to contend with on top of altitude sickness and climbing a mountain was low blood sugars, so as long as I stayed below 13mmols I was happy. I think everything slows down when you’re up so high, so that might have been something to do with the difference in sugars from day 1 to day 2.
On day two, we summited at 5000m above sea level, and we all managed to half heartedly celebrate whilst trying not to cry and vomit. It was like Mordor up there, and it was bloody freezing, but we’d done it! It was all downhill from there and it felt amazing. We started the long road down to our second camp site, and it turned out to be much longer than we’d been made to believe. We ended up walking in the pitch black, on the side of a mountain, after one of our guides decided to abandon us and went straight to the campsite. Had it not been for our other guide running to the front we would’ve carried on along the wrong path and ended up god knows where. I was pretty angry by the time we arrived at our tent, and refused to high five the guide when we walked into the site. I didn’t go for dinner that night, I was exhausted and still felt pretty rough, so opted to try and have as much sleep as possible. I had a mini snickers and settled down for the night, hoping that the last day would be more tolerable.
I woke the next morning and thought I was going to vomit inside the tent. I got up and tried to get some air but it made no difference. I was fighting back tears as I sat down for breakfast and as soon as they brought food out I had to run for the nearest rock. Why wasn’t this getting any easier?! I genuinely doubted my ability to get down the mountain and end the trek and I think if I’d have been offered the emergency horse I would’ve taken it. For the first time I cried, whilst everyone else in the group just knew not to try and make me feel better. We started walking, I went to the front to avoid making conversation, but amazingly, as soon as I started walking, the sun came out and I started to feel slightly human again. The three hours absolutely flew by, and before we knew it we had finished! Pure elation at making it without passing out or dying. We got on a bus that was waiting for us and went to a lunch spot where for the first time in days, the whole group ate together. It was glorious. After lunch, we jumped back on the bus, which took us to the train station, where I got some pringles which tasted like the food of god, we then got on a really posh train that took us to the town of Aguas Calientes. The town of Machu Picchu! We all showered in amazing warm showers and then went out for dinner together to have disappointing Mexican.
At lunch earlier, our guide had given us our options for Machu Picchu. We had bus tickets included in the tour package, and we were told that the queue for the bus starts at about 3am. He told us that if we got there for 5.30am then we’d be good and get up to Machu Picchu at a reasonable time. We all seemed a little deflated at the thought of hiking for three days and then getting a bus up to our final destination, so we asked if there were any other options. Our guide, Nick, told us there was one other option. To hike up to Machu Picchu. It would mean a 4am start, and an 1.5hr climb uphill but we decided to do it. Drawn in by the romantic idea of hiking up to watch the sunrise and feeling accomplished because we’d chosen not to be bus wankers. The fantasy is always different to the reality. Always take the bus. Always be a bus wanker.
Nick had told us 1.5hr total, so when half an hour had passed and we were at the first check point I was quietly optimistic. Unfortunately, one of our group had forgotten her passport, so they had to run back to the hotel to collect it whilst all of us started the climb. About 10 minutes in I realised what a horrible mistake we’d made. The climb was horrific. It was never ending and it took much longer than an hour. We were in full on cloud forest, so it was humid and you couldn’t see the surroundings. I stopped many times and said, ‘fuck this I’m just gonna google Machu Picchu and photoshop us in’. I heard numerous buses drive past us, and we were still no closer to the top when it was light. There was no visible sunrise because of the dense cloud and I was way past being annoyed. We were drenched in sweat, shattered and breathless by the time we reached the entry gate, and to top it off, my sensor decided to literally fall out as I climbed the last step. The crowds had formed and I hated them all. Not the romantic climb to Machu Picchu I’d imagined. We should’ve been bus wankers, but at least I will forever have the satisfaction of saying, we hiked to Machu Picchu.
We couldn’t see the famous ruins to start, due to the dense cloud, so we had our guided tour around the important parts of the ruins, praying that the cloud would clear so we could see what we’d all hoped to see. The guide was fascinating. Again, the Inca history is amazing, their knowledge and architectural skills are mind-blowing, and despite the cloud, the ruins are undeniably breathtaking. After our tour we went out of the ruins to eat (you’re not allowed to eat inside Machu Picchu). I had a cheeseburger at 9am and I’m not even the slightest bit sorry. When we went back in, the clouds had begun to clear and oh my god, it was stunning. We headed up to the ‘Instagram’ spot and got numerous photos, in numerous poses, whilst laughing at other people pulling equally ridiculous poses. I got an alpaca selfie with an alpaca who was only interested in whether I had any food. Suddenly it was all worth it. I felt overwhelmingly emotional at the accomplishment. Like I’ve said, it was the hardest thing I have ever done, but I’d done it and it was amazing. Machu Picchu is amazing. Undeniably amazing. And I even got a stamp in my passport to top it all off.
The come down after Machu Picchu was real. We were all absolutely shattered and it was a long journey back to Cuzco. Our bus turned into a party bus, as one of the American guys on the Inca trail had a birthday, and he drunkenly offered (forced) everyone pisco all the way back to the city. By the time we got back to the hotel, we pretty much collapsed into the deepest sleep I’ve had this entire trip. My blood sugars stayed relatively stable, a relief. We’d managed our diabetes impressively well, only having a couple of hypos along the way, which in reflection had been caused by miscalculating the carbohydrate content in the food we’d eaten.
We spent the next few days in Cuzco soaking up the atmosphere from the festival of the sun, eating good food, and hanging out with our trekking group. We visited another chocolate museum (it’s important to give each country a fair chance at proving themselves chocolate wise) and found a gorgeous little cafe called ‘The Meeting Place’ – which is run by volunteers and donates 100% of profits to local charity projects. We spent our last night in Cuzco, drinking cocktails in a beautiful ceviche restaurant, where they served pretty decent fish and chips. To our beautiful friends in Arizona (Brandon, Jamie, Colleen and Kelly) – we’re coming for you next year, get that itinerary started! To Levi and Hayley – see you in Leicester on my birthday, I expect at least a Justin Bieber song to be sung to me as a greeting. And to the amazing kiwis, Jen and Hamish – give it a couple of years and we may well be visiting you as residents. Ha!
After Cuzco we flew to Juliaca, to get to Puno, by lake Titicaca. After the worst airport experience and flight I’ve ever had, first they told us our tickets were only for Peruvian residents and then changed their minds and told us that we had to pay for our luggage when we’d already paid. In the end they threw our bags over the counter and said, well you pay or you leave your bags. So we had to cough up $50. Absolute con! Don’t fly Latam. Ever. We arrived in Puno at a relatively nice hotel and after a nap, ventured out for food. My blood sugars had been wholly unpredictable and I had been battling high sugars for the last day or so. I’d woken up two mornings running with inexplicably high sugars (24mmols! The highest I’ve had in four months) it was infuriating and exhausting and the first full day in Puno for me was spent in bed. Sometimes diabetes can really kick your arse. Despite constantly battling, there are often factors that throw your numbers way out and these factors are totally out of my control. In this case, I think it was a combination of exhaustion, maybe a virus and a bad vial of insulin. I had taken enough insulin to floor an elephant and was still sitting at 10-13mmols. I was also running my basal at 150% and it still wasn’t making any difference. After a couple of pump set changes, a lot of insulin and a lot of sleep, my sugars started settling.
The next day we’d booked a tour around Lake Titicaca. I still felt a little bit fragile but at least my blood sugars had almost begun to play ball. Our tour included visiting an indigenous island, having lunch which had been cooked in a special oven underground and visiting a floating island. The tour was great, we’d paid much more than the going rate on the promise that it was a smaller tour and more authentic. Unfortunately there was a big group of over 20 Dutch people, meaning the group wasn’t exactly small, but all the same it was fascinating. My favourite part was visiting the floating island. These floating islands are dotted around Lake Titicaca. They are made purely of reeds and take a year to make. Every three months, new reeds are added to the island to stop it from sinking and eventually when the island sinks, the whole process starts again. The island we visited housed around 25 people, with a rotation system for ‘island leader’. They live very simple and very humble lives and it was absolutely fascinating to see. I also made a few friends. What a cutie.
We left Puno very early the next morning, after booking a ‘direct’ 6hr bus to La Paz, Bolivia. Turns out, direct in South America actually means three buses, a ferry, a bit of walking and 10.5hrs instead of 6… All the same, we’ve arrived in Bolivia now. Peru will always remain a highlight for me. We had such high expectations, and despite the challenges, it made the rewards even sweeter. I left my soul and my soles (Peruvian currency) in a country rich in culture, colour and history and I would recommend everyone go and do the same.