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Photograph by Avery Stonich

Hiking the Andes to the Amazon: Peru in the Rear View

To tap into the heartbeat of a land, you have to get up close and personal with it. This isn’t the kind of experience you can glean from a bus or train window as the scenery rushes past you. No, to really dig into a place, there’s nothing so intimate as a walking pace. Meandering along at a footstep’s speed, you can absorb the sights, smells, and sounds of a country and fully imbibe the spirit of the landscape and its locals.

This is exactly what I was able to do during two magical weeks in Peru. I’ve been back home for just a few days, and my mind is still reeling from the amazing experiences this enchanting South American country dished out to me.

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Photograph by Avery Stonich

Loyal readers will recall that I headed down south as part of a trekking trip organized by a friend. I spent seven magical days hiking in the Andes, followed by four days in the lush Amazon jungle. What a journey it was, both physically and spiritually.

Our trekking group set out from the charming mountain town of Cuzco, where cobblestone streets have been polished smooth by hundreds of years of Peruvian feet. After a brief stay to acclimate to altitude, we embarked on our adventure through the Andes.

For the first five days, we roamed the remote hills southeast of Machu Picchu—far from the crowds who flock to the World Heritage Site each year. We never set sight on another gringo or trekking group. The trail was ours alone to share with the drifting mountain breeze and hardy pastoral folk who eke out their survival amidst the steep hillsides and high valleys of this bewitching mountain land.

We tested our stamina, hiking many hours a day and traversing mountain passes up to 14,800 feet, all while taking in sweeping vistas of grassy hinterland surrounded by tantalizing snowy peaks.

As our muscles grew strong, we also strengthened our spirits in a way that comes from being outside and exploring new lands. Far from cell and Internet range, we were forced to live entirely in the present, fully absorbing our surroundings.

Every day brought a torrent of mind-blowing experiences that took us out of our comfort zone and opened our hearts and minds to a new view on life. We slaughtered a sheep for a village feast. We had our futures read in coca leaves. We helped repair a remote school. We played soccer with local children, sharing the unspoken joy of friendly competition. A local shaman accompanied us, serving as spiritual guide and performing sacred rituals to bless and cleanse our eager souls.

Finally, on day six, we climbed the steep stone steps of the fabled Inca Trail to the Sun Gate, where Machu Picchu slowly came into view. We first glimpsed it through mystical fog that drifted up the rugged valley walls, lapping at the hills like dragon’s breath. The mist would clear for a spell, giving us a brief peek of the famous Inca site before once again obscuring her from view.

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Photograph by Avery Stonich

The next day brought bright sunshine, offering a different Machu Picchu mood. With bright clarity, we explored the ancient ruin, imagining the life of the Inca, whose sophisticated architecture, ideology and command of astronomy were far ahead of their day.

After a celebratory evening back in Cuzco—complete with a local feast at our guide’s home and dancing in the streets—my husband and I left our merry group to continue our adventure in the wilds of the rain forest. From a remote lodge tucked alongside the Madre de Dios River outside Puerto Maldonado, we explored the steamy jungle, traversing the landscape by foot and slow boat.

What a contrast this was to the high, dry Andes. Peru amazes with its broad spectrum of habitats as the country tumbles from high alpine peaks to the Amazon Basin. The rain forest is home to a bewildering array of life. Each morning we awoke to the captivating calls of wildlife, challenging us to seize the day. We saw butterflies, river otters, tarantulas, caimans, agouti, capybaras, bats, giant ants, tiny ants, and birds, birds, birds. We became intimate with the jungle, gaining a tremendous appreciation for its diversity and the importance of protecting it.

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Photograph by Avery Stonich

My experience in the wilds of Peru permanently transformed me. It was an incredibly powerful journey that gave me new perspective on the amazing landscape and people there, as well as our environment and lifestyle back home. By experiencing this foreign land outdoors and at a slow pace, I was able to peel back its many layers and understand the value of this special place.

Back here at home, outdoor recreation provides a similar opportunity. Getting outside and active connects people to the outdoors and helps them understand the importance of protecting our natural resources. At Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), we are constantly touting the importance of being outside. It provides a mental release, contributes to a healthy lifestyle, boosts creativity, and fosters an appreciation for the natural world.

The best way to connect people with the outdoors is to let them get up close and personal with the natural world. That’s why OIA works hard to protect quality places for all Americans to get outside and play. We can all do our part to invite more people to reap the physical, mental, spiritual and economic benefits of outdoor recreation. Next time you encounter a naysayer, I suggest you invite them to take it outside.

Avery Stonich is communications manager for Outdoor Industry Association. Follow us on twitter: @OIA and @averystonich.