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For seven years, David Livingstone searched in vain for the Nile’s source. He died before finding it. Such is the pull of a continent-defining river.
I’m not so dogged, but I share his fascination with headwaters: I love gazing at a trickle, knowing that along its course to the sea, it will create canyons and shape cultures. Incredibly, the birthplace of the world’s greatest river, the Amazon, was just confirmed by satellite images in 2011; fewer than 100 Westerners have ever seen it. So I leap at the chance to add my name to the list, joining a four-day, 25-mile, mule-assisted trek in the Peruvian Andes.
Guided by Yurek Majcherczyk, a Pole who’s led Peru trips for 30 years, we start our hike at a tiny, ice-lined creek at 15,600 feet. While the altitude takes our breath away, so does the scenery: Snow-capped peaks tower everywhere, giving way to broad, glaciated valleys. Five miles across the lunar altiplano (high plain), we arrive at our first camp. I wake at 3:30 a.m. to join a side trip up Nevado Mismi, an 18,363-foot behemoth shark-finning off the divide, with views to both sides. It’s nontechnical but long, and 10 hypoxic hours later we meet the rest of the group at an icefall-bordered spring spilling out of a cliff. This spot once claimed the “source” title, but the newly confirmed one, seven miles away, eclipses it in length and elevation.
So we march on, following a stone-lined Incan trail up the Apacheta Valley. On day three, we arrive at the river’s true start. Barely a dribble, it flows clear and cold below a stone marker, snakes through grass-lined mounds, then disappears around a corner into the valley below. Sixteen-thousand vertical feet and 4,300 miles away, the river that starts with this seep dumps a fifth of the world’s fresh water into the Atlantic. Straddling the granddaddy of all waterways, watching it emerge, I feel a thrill Livingstone would envy.
You can get there on your own (fly to Arequipa, four-hour shuttle to Chivay), but doing so requires hiring mule teams, shuttles, and more. Better to leave that to the guides at Classic Travel (classic-travel.com, 800-774-6996). Make sure to take time to acclimate in the region beforehand (good bet: Hike into Colca Canyon, home to Andean condors). Best time is during the dry season in July and August.