Breathing. It's something we take for granted.
But when it comes to climbing a steep mountain at an altitude of 4,500 metres en route to the famous Inca site of Machu Picchu in Peru, every breath you take is sweeter than honey.
At this height every step is a struggle on this arduous trek, your head is spinning through lack of oxygen and a bitter cold wind strikes your sweat-soaked back as you wonder whether it's all worth it.
You’re so close to camp and it’s all downhill from here. Relief sweeps over your aching body.
We’re travelling on the Lares Trek, a lesser known route than the Inca Trail which carries 500 tourists, porters and tour guides every day.
At 23 kilometres over three days, Lares is half the distance of the Inca Trail and considerably easier but don’t be lulled into thinking it’s an easy ride because the peak I’ve just described is a real mission.
Admittedly I was disappointed when my travel agent told me that the Inca Trail was booked out, even though I had applied for a permit several months in advance.
But there are several advantages to taking Lares, which I’m informed by experienced guides is more scenic than the Inca Trail where you’ll come across hundreds of "gringos".
If you like a quiet, more gentle trek with only llamas, alpacas, sheep, goats and your fellow travellers to keep you company, then Lares is for you.
Just make sure you bring plenty of sweets and toys for the poverty-stricken children who will flock to you like seagulls to chips thrown at a seaside park.
I took on the adventure alongside Matilda Atme, a 23-year-old from Sydney with a dodgy knee, and a group of four elderly women we
dubbed the "Golden Girls" as they ranged in ages from 52 to 69.
Although I was rarely affected by altitude sickness, it can be testing for many people who take the trek, both Lares and the Inca Trail. Chewing cocoa leaves or taking pills can help overcome the problem.
"Going up the hills, you have to be really overcautious that you don’t overdo it," said Vicki Ashford of Port Stephens in NSW.
A fit 59-year-old, Vicki impressed me the most out of the Golden Girls. Last year she completed the gruelling 96km nine-day trek on the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea.
"I hyperventilated at the end of Kokoda but that was emotion," she noted.
"Here I could feel myself just getting shorter and shorter of breath. I think if Lares was at the same altitude as Kokoda, it’d be a walk in the park."
But asked to rate the experience, Vicki listed the trek as one of her proudest achievements.
"I’m so glad I did it," she added. "I’m disappointed I didn’t get to do the Inca Trail but I enjoyed what we did because it was more personal and you weren’t looking at 500 other people."
Whether you take Lares or the Inca Trail, everyone eventually meets up at the same magical place – Machu Picchu, located 2,400m above sea level.
One of the New Seven Wonders of the World, the beauty of this World Heritage site speaks for itself.
You can get a glimpse of its splendour from photos but it’s not the same as seeing the classical Inca architectural style of polished dry-stone walls and terraced fields. It was truly the jewel in the crown of my 18-day tour but there’s plenty of treasures to discover along the wall.
I walked on a island made of floating reeds in Lake Titicaca, watched giant condors soar through the sky at Colca Canyon, embarked on a roller coaster-like ride on a dune buggy at Huacachina, relaxed in hot springs at Lares and marvelled at the wildlife at Ballestas Islands, home to sea lions, pelicans and penguins.
But one of the highlights was flying in a light aircraft over the famous Nazca Lines, a series of mysterious geoglyphs that stretch more than 80km over the desert. Be warned it costs around $US110 ($NZ165) (the price is excluded from the tour) but you definitely won’t regret it.
German-born mathematician and archaeologist Maria Reiche (1903-1998) dedicated most of her life to studying the Nazca Lines, discovered accidentally from an aeroplane flight in 1927.
Just make sure you have a good zoom on your camera because it’s tough taking decent photos of the various figures – including a spider, monkey, lizard and hummingbird – from the air.
There’s plenty of amazing sights to savour but the best experiences come from the friendly people of Peru.
Most of them have very little to offer but you’ll find their warm smile, helping hand and cheerful nature enough to make you appreciate what you’ve got back home.
If you go:
Note about $US60 is required for tips and lunch and dinner is NOT provided.
Insurance: Comprehensive travel insurance is compulsory
Visa: No visa is required to visit Peru.
Vaccinations: Consult your doctor to discuss health requirements for the trip.
Essentials: Travel documents, warm clothes, first aid kit, alarm clock, torch, Spanish phrase book, insect repellent, toilet rolls, good hiking boots.