Machu Picchu: The Trek
Just over two months ago, I sat in an old colonial-style hotel in Cuzco Peru with 14 strangers sipping coca tea staring at a gigantic map outlining a trek we were about to take through the Andes mountains. We were departing at 5AM the next morning to begin a five-day hike to Machu Picchu via Mount Salkantay, the second largest mountain in the region and alternative hike to the Inca trail.
I had written in a previous post how I heard so many people talk about the magical-ness of the place, the energy, etc. It was a trip I had wanted to do for years and I was looking forward to the trip being a personal journey and maybe even a spiritual experience of sorts.
After three days in Cuzco, we joined up with SAS travel and our group of hikers to embark on our journey. There were 14 of us total, three women from a climbing group in Oregon, four Germans who had gone on numerous treks—including one to Mt. Kilimanjaro—and a few others… Within the first few hours I realized I was in way over my head. I do yoga or pilates a few times a week but that’s the extent of my fitness routine. These guys on the trek with us were pros! The pace was quicker than I thought and the altitude made it hard to catch my breath.
The first night camping in our tents I practically had a nervous breakdown. Actually, scratch that, I did have a nervous breakdown. It was disturbingly cold and the $25 jacket I bought at Ross Dress for Less was not cutting it. Despite wearing this so-called coat along with gloves, a scarf and a wool hat, I couldn’t sleep because of how uncomfortably cold I was. I began feeling extremely claustrophobic in the dingy little sleeping back I rented from SAS and my back and sides were aching from the hard earth we were laying on. I lay awake for at least an hour praying that I could avoid leaving the tent, but finally I couldn’t hold it anymore and had to bare my backside in the freezing open mountain pass to pee. I couldn’t help thinking that I hadn’t chosen my “vacation” destination wisely.
Basically, I was having those crazy “night thoughts” to the 100th degree. What was I trying to prove anyway? Why couldn’t I have just taken the luxury train like the other 95% of people who visit Machu Picchu? I thought if only the Inca’s could see me now, they would think me quite the fool knowing that I was able to take a train but instead chose to walk through rain, hail and wind for over 40 hours through 30 mountains. It suddenly seemed absurd.
On day 2, I realized my nervous breakdown was not unfounded. After a sleepless night we were awoken with coca tea (the same plant that cocaine comes from which is supposed to help with altitude sickness) at 7AM to begin the toughest day of the trek–a ten hour hike with 3 1/2 hours uphill in freezing cold weather.
I can’t quite describe what happened this day. My preconceptions of frolicking through the mountains reflecting upon existential matters while having a spiritual awakening were quickly shattered. Instead, I went numb and donkey-like. As if I had blinders on, I focused solely on my feet and the ground they stumbled over. My mind contained only one thought, well maybe two: 1. Keep moving one foot in front on the other and 2. Don’t stop.
The guides had an extra horse which they offered me three times. Three times I refused. Damn it, I was NOT going to be “that girl.” Heck no, I was making it to the top of the mountain with the mountain climbers even if it killed me. And I thought that it just might. After just a few hours my muscles were so sore and tight that if I stopped moving for more than a few minutes I could barley begin again. I was not dressed properly and the wind was splitting me in half.
But alas, we reached the top of the mountain where we celebrated with a group picture and high fives despite being battered by hail and freezing wind. The conditions were so bad that the guides had to keep us moving—and so we began the six-hour descent with no rest. At this point, my Dress for Less jacket became my worst enemy as water began seeping into it. Here, I hit my absolute low of the trip and seriously considered throwing myself on the ground and wailing to everyone “Please, just go! Save yourselves and leave me here to die in peace!”
But I continued.
We reached camp 12 hours after we left in the morning. After the six-hour descent, we were in a much warmer climate. We immediately kicked off our mud-caked boots, massaged our broken feet in the grass and immediately cracked open a few beers (there was a little stand set up at the camp by some locals with some essentials, including the most important: alcohol). It was simply glorious.
The second half of the trek in the next post… Hint, it gets better
Some pics here, check out the photography page for more.