Our group is sitting in a circle at a 15th century Inca site. We each held three coca leaves glued together with llama fat and concentrating on protection, prosperity and a balanced life. A young shaman named Lucas is alternately praying in Quechua and explaining to us in Spanish, both translated by our guide Wilfredo Huillca. The shaman added quinoa, corn, confetti and other symbolic items to an offering for Pachamama, the Andean Earth Mother. Fortunately, modern rituals substitute animal cookies for alpaca sacrifices.
“Since we are very young, we are educated that the Earth is a woman,” Lucas said, looking from one of us to another, meeting our eyes with his open, direct gaze. “A friend. A sister. A lover. How do you steal the heart of a girl? Flowers and chocolate.”
We all laughed, relieving the intensity of the ritual, as he added chocolate and flowers to the offering. Our coca leaves also join the goodies for Pachamama. Lucas will go to a nearby mountain at the edge of Cusco, Peru later that night and burn the bundle.
The shamanic ritual comes at the end of a week exploring Machu Picchu and Peru’s Sacred Valley. Our group of 11 Americans plus two local guides has been through a lot together — altitude sickness, challenging hikes, unusual cultural experiences, digestive issues, pan pipe cover tunes and massive amounts of shopping — and we’ve done it all sober. This is the first trip to Peru for the relatively new company Choose Life Sober Adventures, and everybody agreed it was a big success.
Rambling around archeological sites
The Sacred Valley is full of archeological sites, with Machu Picchu being the crown jewel. But we spent a lot of time wandering around various old structures around the area that were once used as temples, houses and other buildings. Our guides, Jose Soldevila and Wilfredo Huillca, helped us understand what we were looking at. They pointed out holes in the hillside at Pisac, which used to shelter mummies until grave robbers raided them. They explained irrigation and drainage systems, both in archeological sites and those still in use today, even in bigger cities like Cusco.
At the town of Chinchero — which at over 12,000 feet elevation is even higher than Cusco — we tiptoed through the church Spaniards built around 1607 on top of an Inca palace. The ornate painted ceilings were awesome, even though I felt bad about the Spanish ousting the Incas. Chinchero is a weaving center, and women in traditional clothes were selling piles of colorful textiles on the lawn in front of the church. Standing outside, looking down at even older terraced agricultural fields while women wove table runners, it felt like I was in several time periods at once. Then our group rambled six miles downhill. We passed between steep mountains of the Sacred Valley, balanced on ancient aqueducts where the path had crumbled, and watched people farm potatoes with hand tools before emerging from the trail into the tiny village of Urquillos.
Seeing Peru sober
Part of traveling sober is being more present — both in our own minds and especially with other people. In addition to sharing meals, hikes and yoga classes, we talked openly in our nightly recovery meetings about our challenges and anxieties. This gave us a level of care and cohesion I haven’t seen on many previous group tours. If somebody didn’t show up for a meal, we were all texting or knocking on their hotel doors to make sure they were okay. It was the kind of group where if you’re not going to show up for something, you’d better preemptively warn everybody if you want any peace at all. It was a nice feeling. When altitude sickness laid me low, several people visited me in my hotel room, bringing me Sprite and pills for elevation sickness, and just showing they cared.
Marshall, who chose to be identified by his first name only, lives in Los Angeles and has been sober for nine months. It was his first time traveling sober.
“This early on you never know if you’re fully ready,” he said. “But being with a group of sober and like-minded people, I felt more secure in my decision to come. The temptation was way less and not feeling so isolated being the only sober person in the group made me feel more welcome and able to be myself.” Plus we stayed so busy he said he didn’t have time to think about drinking or using drugs. “It kind of baffles me that there’s not more sober travel groups, because this is a brilliant way to strengthen your recovery while seeing the world.”
From shamanic encounters to paddle boarding on beautiful Lake Piuray to sharing a meal with people in a remote mountain village, we had a variety of Peruvian experiences. But the centerpiece of the trip was visiting Machu Picchu, one of the world’s most famous places. We left early from a night camping at Lake Piuray to reach the train station at the town of Ollantaytambo. It was a beautiful ride in a glass-domed car. We watched the vegetation become lusher as we descended into the cloud forest.
About half our group chose to ride the train all the way to Aguas Calientes for a relaxing afternoon of shopping, resting and wandering. The other half got off the train at kilometer 104, a popular place for a day hike through the Sun Gate and into Machu Picchu.
The hike was tough, as we climbed 1800 feet in three hours. Some of this was dirt trail, but much was on old, uneven Incan steps. The climb involved lots of sweating, huffing and puffing. But the payoff was amazing views around every corner. The steep, tall Peruvian mountains are so beautiful, and the cloud forest is full of orchids and ferns. We had lunch by an incredible waterfall. On the way, we passed through the archeological site of Winaywayna. This terraced site is like a mini Machu Picchu, but with nobody around except our group of eight people and a lone guard stationed there to protect it.
After the first three hours of uphill, the next four involved a lot of up and down. The last 52 stairs to the Sun Gate were so steep we had to crawl. But once we reached the top, we got our first glimpse of Machu Picchu just another mile in the distance.
We arrived at the famous Inca complex at about four PM and were greeted by some rowdy llamas. Most of the tourists had gone home by then. We admired the temples, terraces and surrounding mountains, thrilled to see it, thrilled to have finished our hike, and very excited about hot showers awaiting us in our Aguas Calientes hotel.
The next morning, we took the bus back to Machu Picchu for an organized tour where we learned about temples, irrigation, sacrifices and other important aspects of Inca life. That was great, too, but didn’t compare to seeing Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate after a long hike.
If you go
Our group all flew into Cusco, where we met up and started our tour. If you can, arrive a day or two early to adjust to the elevation. At 11,152 feet, it was very high for a sea-level-dweller like me. Some of the members of our group started taking Diamox, a medicine used for altitude sickness, a day or two before. I stayed at Hotel Abittare, which would bring an oxygen tank to your room for free — an amenity I’d never used before.
Cusco is a very vegan-friendly town, with several vegan restaurants. I ate at Vegan Temple by Prasada twice. I enjoyed sitting on cushions on the floor, listening to Indian music, eating curry and dahl and drinking fresh juices. But the real reason I returned is how much the staff loves animals. They’d rescued a feisty kitten from the streets, and it was roaming the premises until they found it a more suitable home. I also met a couple of dogs who wandered in and out, looking for scraps. When I asked if one black dog got along with the kitten, a worker said, “Of course. Negro is an enlightened being of light.”
While in Peru, several times I broke my vow not to buy single-use plastic water bottles. But the tap water isn’t safe to drink, and I could not always find a place to refill my metal bottle. One of our group members had been smart enough to bring a LifeStraw water filtering bottle, which I spent the whole trip coveting.
Photography by Teresa Bergen