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Story and Photos by John Geary

I picked up the coca leaf, and whispering my most heartfelt wishes into it, I blew through it, toward the base of Humantay Mountain.

That small act of devotion completed a ceremony to honour the gods of the mountains, and help ensure a safe journey as we prepared to ride further into the Land of the Incas.

In my case, it was also a way of saying "thanks" to the Andean deities for getting me this far, battling altitude sickness and dizzy spells.

We'd set out on horseback that morning from the Salkantay Lodge, located in Peru's Soraypampa Valley, a few hours' drive from the city of Cuzco. Our group of travelers, guides and wranglers rode up the afternoon before from the Coronilla Ranch, base-ranch for the outfitter, Mountain Lodges of Peru (MLP). This was part of a six-day ride through the Andes, following old Incan trails, culminating on the seventh day with a trip to the ruins at Machu Picchu.

/p> Upon arriving at the lodge, hosts and hostesses greeted us with steaming mugs of coca tea. This brew is supposed to help counter the effects of altitude sickness. Only time would tell if it would ...

Waking up the morning of our ride, I glanced out my window to face one of the more memorable "room-with-a-view" vistas I'd experienced in my travels. Mountains surrounded us on all sides, huge snow-covered peaks rising up from the alpine plains as if the earth itself was stretching up into the sky to touch the gods.

After breakfast, we were matched up with our horses for the day-mine was a young mare named Piccolina-and began our trek up.

The lodge sits at an elevation of 12,400 feet, or about 3,780 metres, and we were riding higher still, our destination a small lake at the foot of Humantay Mountain.

We rode past small groups of cattle grazing on the mountain meadows, alongside a small stream. Aside from the water gurgling over the rocks, a deep, almost spiritual silence prevailed, as if the land itself was a church for the gods of the mountains. The alpine scenery along the steadily rising track was so breath-taking, I felt no need to talk. Not that I had much breath to spare, anyway.

After a few hours, we reached the base of a 300-foot hill we had to climb in order to reach the lake. The hill is too difficult for the horses, so we dismounted and began the ascent on foot.

MLP always rides with a doctor as well as a small tank of compressed oxygen for anyone who needs it. Ten minutes into the climb, I knew all the coca tea in Peru was not going to help-but the doctor and his oxygen could. I took my time, stopping whenever needed, taking hits of oxygen. I was the last one to arrive at the lake; however, as we ascended the hill, I derived a hidden benefit as I'd had to halt, sit and enjoy the views longer than the others.

At the lake, we enjoyed a quick snack, watching wild horses graze high on the mountainsides around us. Then it was time for our "devotional service."

Our guide, Guido, had us build an apacheta, or cairn, with rocks and coca leaves. In the ancient Andean world, the earth, the mountains, the rivers, the trees, the lakes and even the rocks are sacred. Ancient priests could read and interpret coca leaves, each leaf containing a unique form and message.

With this in mind, we each placed our rock on top of a leaf. Once finished, Guido handed us each another leaf.

"Hold it in your hands, make a heartfelt wish, something important for this journey, or for your life, and whisper it into the leaf," he said. "Then blow it toward the mountain."

For myself, I thanked the mountain for helping me get here, and wished for continued health for the rest of the trip.

We then dipped our hands into the lake, ran them through our hair, and prepared to return to the lodge.

As we started back down the path to our horses below, an Andean condor soared high overhead, a messenger from the gods, acknowledging our prayers and bidding us a "safe journey."

(sidebar - service info)


Mountain Lodges of Peru can be contacted through its website, . Email:

Riding in the Andes with MLP is not for novice riders; you do need to have some basic horseback riding skill, as some of the trails are quite narrow and high.

MLP also offers guided lodge-to-lodge trekking which ends with a visit to Machu Picchu.

Several airlines fly regularly to Lima, Peru, including Air Canada, American Airlines, Continental and British Airways, to name a few.

Travel Writers' Tales is an independent travel article syndicate that offers professionally written travel articles to newspaper editors and publishers. To check out more, visit

PHOTOS by John Geary

1. 8519: Saddling up at Coronilla Ranch.
2. 8521: On the trail to Salkantay.
3. 8542: View of the mountains, at the start of the ride up to Humantay.
4. 8544: Horse's eye view: the trail up to Humantay.
5. 8560: Halfway up the hill to the lake at Humantay - a long way down to the horses at the bottom.
6. 8573: The small lake at the base of Humantay Mountain.
7. 8576: Building an apacheta to honour the gods of the mountains.
8 8579: Almost home: less than a half hour's ride back to the lodge, seen in the distance.


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