Money & Careers

How I Embraced Retirement: A Journey of Discovery in the Andes Mountains of Peru

Yanajanca PassSteve and I with a view from the Yanajanca Pass (15, 100 ft.)

I retired at the end of last year after 38 years as a sales and marketing professional. I also turned 60. Looking for a fitting challenge to engross me during my free time, I decided to go on a trek in Peru. My supportive spouse, Steve, and I booked an eight-day trek in the Cordillera Blanca section of the Andes—the Alpamayo base camp trek.

Prior to my retirement, my role as Business Development Manager for an IBM Business Partner entailed creating programs to drive an integrated sales and marketing strategy (fancy terms to populate my LinkedIN profile!). In plain words, I worked out of my home office, participated in numerous conference calls, managed projects, and pursued completed action items.

In my last two years, I reported to a micromanaging executive. In self-defense, I bought My Way or the Highway, by Harry E. Chambers, to learn how to survive that management style. Having had 38 years’ experience, I decided that, at this stage of my career, I couldn’t sacrifice independent thought and action. And so, with mixed emotions, I chose to retire. It felt good; this was exactly the right time for me to take back control of my fundamental nature.

Training for the Trek
To train for the trek, I needed to recover the energy and enthusiasm I had known and carried into my work. Starting in January, I became a Fitbit fanatic and religiously did my 10,000 steps a day with the help of my Black Lab, Chelsea. We took daily hikes in local nature preserves and sanctuaries in Westchester County, New York. Sometimes I was tempted to attach the Fitbit to Chelsea’s collar to goose my stats!

Periodically we spent three to six hours on the Appalachian Trail/Long Trail in Vermont, reaching some of the major summits of the Green Mountains, including Stratton Mountain. Also, we did yoga classes once or twice a week to help with balance and general core work. The benefits of controlled breathing and relaxation techniques also contributed positively to the cerebral aspects of our trekking efforts.

Two weeks prior to the trip, we flew to Colorado for a long weekend of high-altitude training. With friends, we did some hikes near Breckenridge, including a couple of “Fourteeners” (Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks, of which there are 53). We also rented bikes and rode from Breckenridge to Copper Mountain and back (33 miles). In spite of the mild change in elevation that this involved, we huffed and puffed our way as if we were in the Alps on the Tour de France.

The Trek

New friends at Jancapampa Camp siteMeeting new friends at Jancapampa Camp site.

In August, we flew to Lima for our big undertaking. The first hurdle was a 10-hour bus ride to Huaraz. From this city, we spent a couple of days acclimatizing by doing some local hikes. The next challenge was a four-hour drive that included a steep (and narrow) mountain road with 37 switchbacks. This drive was not for the faint of heart. (Or the weak of stomach!)

The eight-day trek is not quite in league with Cheryl Strayed’s Wild backpacking escapade. We were supported by a private guide, cook, two donkey drivers, and eight donkeys. In addition to our tents, there was a dining tent and a toilet tent. However, NO SHOWERS for a week. Steve and I were thrown into an intimate closeness (grossness?) that we had not known in 30-plus years of marriage.

We met our team in Vaquería, where our equipment was loaded onto donkeys. We were introduced with our Spanish names, “Esteban” and “Susana.” In addition to Spanish, our crew all spoke Quechua, the language indigenous to the Andes and other parts of Peru and Bolivia. Our English-speaking guide, Heimer, patiently answered all of our queries about local flora and fauna, as well as gave us Spanish lessons.

A typical day would start at 6:20 a.m., when Heimer would wake us and bring tea, followed by hot water for washing hands and face. Next, we would repack our dry bags with our sleeping and hiking gear for the donkeys to carry. Breakfast at 7; then we were on the trail at 7:30. We carried day backpacks containing purified water, snacks, cameras, extra clothes, and rain gear. Hiking poles were an essential part of our equipment.

The daily hike would vary in distance and duration, but we usually made it to our next campsite by 4, including rest breaks and lunch stop. At camp, we again got hot water for a sponge bath. Once, Steve mistakenly grabbed a dispenser bottle and washed himself with hand sanitizer!  We had afternoon tea and snacks in the dining tent and relaxed and read books until dinner at 6:30. Sunset was at 6:30, but the sun had fallen behind the mountains much earlier, so the light faded rapidly and temperatures dropped into the 30s. After dinner, we were ready to collapse in our tents to fall asleep by 8!

Next Page: Did I experience any discomfort? Yes.

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  • Susan Fier November 13, 2015 at 4:12 pm

    Here’s a belated response to comments! Yes, I have hiked in Patagonia and especially enjoyed Torres Del Paine. It was just after their big fire so we have to go back to hike the “W”. Other places that I have hiked in my “youth” (fifties) include Argentine Patagonia (Chalten), Mt. Kiliminjaro, Mt. Kenya, Cortina Dolomites, Zakopane (Poland), Croatia, Bolivia, Annapurna Trail (Nepal), & Atacama Desert (Chile).

    The little animal in my arms is a lamb!

  • hillsmom October 16, 2015 at 11:53 am

    What a fantastic adventure! In the photo above you are holding an animal which I thought had a large red nose. but I see that was a trick of the sunlight on cloth. Is it a goat, lamb, dog…for heaven’s sake what is it? Thanks

  • Barbara Thornbrough October 16, 2015 at 7:39 am

    Love this write up. If you would like to view our photos of Patagonia where you need to go next we would love to share them with you and get you mentally ready for fabulous scenery but not at such a high altitude. I am talking about Torres Del Paine and the French Valley hikes. Utterly, breathtaking and very rewarding in terms of pushing yourself. Patagonia Camp is a place with yurts where you can go with a guide to many hikes. Good food, great accommodations and you do not have to go outside the permanent yurt with a sky light to go to the ladies room.
    Thanks for the write up. Oh the old Inca trail is another idea for you. Very high and its of tea needed. Barbara Thornbrough