Almost exactly one year ago, I took a trip that changed my life. It would eventually inspire me to change all my plans: starting with short-term ideas at first, until the growing wanderlust in me couldn’t be confined to mere days, and my trips grew to months-long stints out of the country.
Machu Picchu. Mother of all hikes (in my lifetime, at least). I modeled my trip after hearing about my friend Carina’s journey, naively thinking, “No sweat, I could do that.” How wrong I was to think that hiking for 6-8 hours a day, for four days, in high altitudes would be easy. But I did it.
I’ll start at the beginning. After a quick stay in Lima, I flew to Cusco, Peru. My arranged hostel ride didn’t show, and after waiting for too long, once all the legit-looking drivers had gone, I accepted a ride in a 70s van with leopard interior. Noticing US dollars crammed into the cup holder, I argued with him when he refused to give me my change due in Peruvian soles, but chalked up the $3USD loss to a lesson learned for next time. (Go with a legit driver.)
Jet-lagged and feeling the altitude difference already in Cusco (which the STEEP bajillion steps to the hostel didn’t help with), and still a hostel newbie, I hadn’t planned to be unable to get in my room right away. So I chucked my bags in storage and dragged my hangry (hungry+angry) self around town in search of food.
I can only explain the hour of wandering and getting lost and not settling on a single place to stop and eat as culture shock. I hadn’t traveled much out of the country, and the steep streets, valleys in the distance, wild dogs nibbling on garbage, and no trace of English–unlike in Europe–was a new experience for me. And in my newness, I felt safer walking and walking until my feet hurt, going in circles, not asking for directions.
Eventually, I walked into a Palm Sunday parade, with women and children waving crosses made of palms, just like we received in church when I was a kid. I let myself relax in this foreign country, in this vibrant city, keeping my bag close but enjoying the experience, not letting my fears interfere. I filled the rest of the day until I collapsed on my bed at night: finding an adorable cafe to eat two meals’ worth of food and coffee, watching a procession of marching bands, going on a walking tour and meeting an awesome family from Mexico, then going out to dinner and drinks with them, pushing myself to keep up as they spoke Spanish, smiling in appreciation when they often switched to English for me.
The next day, my legs already sore from biking in Lima and hours of hill-walking in Cusco, it was time to start the trek. Ready or not. Our guide, Raul, myself, and a Canadian couple comprised our small group, with our porters carrying tents, cooking supplies, and our extra gear in backpacks the size of body bags. They would run up the track ahead of us, effortless, cooking our meals from the ingredients carried on their backs, setting up camp at night, while we would struggle to hike slowly, carrying little more than drinking water in our daypacks.
It terrified me that my legs ached already on day 1, and I didn’t do a good job of hiding my complaints, despite my equal feelings of awe at the sights around us. Monolith land creations cradled us in between them, ants on the Inca Trail. Donkeys, llamas, women, and children passed us, leaping up steep steps and slippery mud trails with ease, while I used two walking sticks to move forward, up, up, up.
Every night, after having eaten a delicious lunch, with lots of coca tea to help with altitude sickness, and then more hiking, and then a delicious dinner, served in three courses, with dessert, and more tea, we would fall fast asleep. Out at 7:30pm, up at 5:30am with the sunrise. One night, gazing at the mountain view before passing out in my sleeping bag, I stared and stared. There were no words in my mind, just feelings, all my senses alighted to the wonder in front of me.
Each day of hiking for hours simultaneously killed my legs and brought life back to my spirit. I tried to perfect my Spanish and Raul tried to perfect his English as we talked about the kinds of topics that seem fitting in nature: family, relationships, fears, living life to the fullest, faith. He explained the cultural aspects of the trail, told about the Sun god, and as we uncovered the hidden ruins left by a lost civilization, it was enough to make anyone wonder, as Raul said, “The wonders of the earth seem too great for a higher power to not exist.”
I’ve pushed myself to achieve crazy goals in my lifetime, often fitness-related, but nothing compares to the feeling I had when we reached the end of the trail, to unveil Machu Picchu in all its splendor, shortly after the sun rose on the last day. We’d gotten up at 3am, dragged our sleepy, broken bodies to the gate where we needed to show our passports again, and trekked for the final hours. I thought about how badly I wanted to shower, and lie down, and be done hiking. Quitting wasn’t an option; the only way out of the trail was on a stretcher like individuals who’d injured themselves, as we saw happen one day.
When we made it to the end, I gazed out at the ruins that didn’t look like pictures I’d seen; they looked BETTER. To this date, when I look at my Machu Picchu photos, I still think, they can’t be real. The green grass, faded bricks, clouds like cotton candy, and llamas grazing under the bluest of blue skies, framed by mountains, was the most brilliant screensaver photo come to life.
Celebrating our accomplishments–and fighting through exhaustion–we bused down (on the scariest cliffside ride full of switch-backs) to Aguas Calientes to enjoy cold drinks and desserts. Heading off on my own, I savored a dip in the Hot Springs, sulfur pools that I willed to cure my muscles. After more wandering, market shopping, and strolling, I boarded the return train. An amazing journey in and of itself, windows on the ceiling amplified the stunning nature we zipped through, and I chatted with the incredible women randomly assigned to my table spot: a Chicagoan my age who traveled internationally biweekly after starting her own company and two teachers from New Zealand who were video blogging about their year in South America.
Feeling inspired by everything around me–these women, the sights outside the train, having accomplished the trek–thoughts encircled my head. I didn’t know at the time what any of it would amount to, but I knew I had just begun exploring what the world had to offer, my thirst for adventure growing, wanting to be quenched.