We had NO idea what we were getting ourselves into when we signed on to the adventure of checking out the Andean Lodges, a series of the highest altitude lodges in the world. Pats and I flew into Cusco for only one night to acclimate (our first of many mistakes). Andean Lodges sent 2 guides to check in with us at our hotel to make sure we were prepared for the hike we had ahead. When asked if we had walking sticks, Pats replied "I'm Canadian, we don't need walking sticks"...our next mistake. We were each handed a brown sack where we were only allowed to bring 20 kgs of gear and clothing for what would be a 5 day trek on foot across the Andes Mountains. Each of us would get a llama to porter our own bag and I had to practically beg them to allow me an extra bag with my drone and photo gear that we were able to put on the horse with our guide. We would have an Andean guide to lead us each day on an 8 hour trek to our lodge for the night and then the next day trek another 8 hours to the next lodge and repeat for 3 more days. Again, we had NO idea what we were getting ourselves into.
Pats and I are both Pisces and we looked at our horoscope that day before starting our trip, because it was a special day; a lunar eclipse was happening. Our horoscope said that we would come up with a life-changing business idea on that day and both of us were like, "How is THAT going to happen?", but our horoscope was right and this trip would prove to be a pivotal moment in my life. Not only was this the single hardest physical challenge I have ever completed (it made the LA marathon seem like a quick jog), but it was through some of the most awe-inspiring and breathtaking scenery I have ever witnessed. I was constantly torn between feeling like I was physically going to die and needing oxygen and wanting to document what was such a special experience that not many people will ever get to do. We would look at a series of mountain ranges in the morning and talk about walking over them, then stop by a glacier lake for lunch, and then hike 4 hours more. It just seemed insane and every morning I would think, "There's no way I can do this" and by the end of the day when we finally could see our lodge where we were sleeping for the night, I realized I had proven myself wrong.
It took a 4 hour bus ride through winding mountain roads, Incan Ruins, villages, and farmland covered in alpacas and llamas to get to the beginning of the trek. Behind the mountains in the Sacred Valley are another set of snow-covered even more jagged tall mountains. Those were the ones we would be trekking across and I will never forget the first image I took when we finally got to the beginning of the trek. It was just our little guide walking towards these monstrous mountains that we would be crossing on foot and I never felt SO small and intimidated about what we were about to embark on. Mother Earth is no joke!
Up here in extreme high altitudes was where the idea for Andeana Hats was born. Pats and I were coming across these amazing Quechua women wearing so many different hat styles and I kept on stopping to photograph them. Our guide said to Pats, "Wow, your girlfriend is really into photographing the hats here" and Pats was like "You don't understand she is like the Indiana Jones of photography" and I said, "More like ANDEANA JONES" since we were trekking through the Andes Mountains and then we both stopped and were like, "That would be an amazing name for a hat company!" and from that point forward. We spent the next many hours of hiking brainstorming on how we could start this company together!
Along the trek you have to keep your face and everything covered up, because the radiation and sun are SO strong up there, you will get badly burned. We rationed the one oxygen tank that was the only thing that gave us a brief respite from Hypoxia, the condition you get at high altitudes where your internal organs literally start dying from lack of oxygen and your symptoms are extreme headaches, locked body muscles and neck, lack of appetite, and nausea. It is very hard to be physically active when you feel this way and the ONLY cure is to hike down to lower altitude and get more oxygen in your body, but instead every day we hiked higher and higher to our next lodge. Our group started out with 7 trekkers and by day 4 we were down to three of us! This hike is not for the faint of heart.
Day 4 was what everyone was hiking for; to see the insta-famous spot of the Rainbow Mountains. It was surreal, because up until that day we had been alone with our small group and guides and barely saw any other people unless we hiked through a small village. It was just us and our large troop of llamas we were herding that were carrying our bags...until we reached that spot . There were almost a thousand people there that had gotten bussed in to the one spot that were all fighting to take the same photo! I flew my drone since I couldn't even take a photo there without hundreds of people in the background, and then we kept on walking along our trek. About 45 minutes past the famous spot may have been the most EPIC view I have ever seen; when suddenly the Earth is a vibrant red color like Mars. The contrast between the red and the snow was stunning and I felt sorry for all of the people who bussed 4 hours to be in that crowd and that they would go home with a sad photo with tons of tourists in it, when the BEST view was only a 45 minute walk further into the trek. To REALLY experience the Rainbow Mountains is to trek in the way we were doing it, where there are no roads, no tourists, and no oxygen. We saw so many beautiful vistas and what made it even more special was how physically and mentally challenging it was to get to these places.
Day 5 of the trek is HEAVEN, because the entire day is downhill through amazing scenery and out of the snow. As you get lower and lower and you are following this beautiful river downstream, it feels like some amazing drug is starting to kick into your bloodstream, because all of the horrible symptoms of hypoxia start to let up. Like my constant migraine and neck pain started to go away and my energy and appetite came back. It was like a weight was being lifted off of me and the euphoria that sets in was amazing! By the end of the trek when we could see our van that we had said goodbye to 5 days earlier was in sight I literally started to cry I was SO happy and I couldn't believe we had not just survived, but thrived! Only 3 of our group of 7 finished (all women) and I was SO proud of what we had accomplished!
I just wanted to share some of the images of what the REAL Rainbow Mountains look like and some of the incredible Quechua people we met along the way that inspired us to start a sustainable hat business and to push our personal boundaries to the limit. I left that trek feeling like I can do anything I put my mind to and I was on top of the world....literally!