I hiked the Inca Trail.
I was very nonchalant about the whole thing and shrugged when I purchased my pass, when I told people about it, and when those people insisted that it would be hard. It wasn’t until we landed in Cusco that I jumped to the other extreme and made myself sick with anxiety.
As I see it, my Inca Trail adventure had four stages.
First I cleansed, purging my body and mind of everything—food, strength, technology and the petty problems of my everyday.
Then I was humbled. As we mounted the highest peak of the trail, I realize that I was mentally struggling more than physically struggling. To reach the top, I had to push pass the hurdles in my mind that urged me to stop or question my ability to do anything, let alone this. Mentally and physically, I bowed to the trek.
Humbled, I began to notice the bugs, the flowers, the rocks, the views and the people–both of my group and those in the groups that we routinely passed on the way. For the first time on the trek, I stopped focusing on myself and focused instead on what was around me.
That led me to gratitude, beginning with our pre-dawn meditation and ending at Machu Picchu, the allusive goal of the journey.
day one: tale of the devoid
5:45am – Cusco
I meant to log my apprehensions last night, but my body had its own way to express my anxiety. Until two hours ago, I was shitting liquid and vomiting stomach acid. My illness could very well have bee food poisoning, not helped by the altitude and my pounding nerves about this hike.
We’re waiting outside in the rain, and Anna is anxious about the pick-up being later than they said; she seems to beg me to share in her anxiety, but I’m not going to do it. For the first time since dinner last night, I feel kind of human and am able to sip water without it churning in my stomach. This is good enough for now. Hopefully I’ll be able to rest in the van as we drive to the Ollantaytambo for breakfast… if the van ever gets here. If the van doesn’t, then I’ll accept the universe’s decision for me to return to bed like a child being ushered back to bed by their parent.
8:40am – Ollantaytambo
My nerves have eased a bit, and I can happily report that I haven’t puked in 5 hours; I have even kept down half a liter of water, half a banana pancake, a cup of coffee and some medicine. I discovered from Anna that a symptom of attitude sickness is anxiety. That explains things a little bit.
Excited to start hiking; we have no idea what’s ahead of us.
9:20am – Piscacucho
We’re getting ready to start the trail, and my backpack looks like Frankenstein. I regret how much crap I packed and really hate that I have to carry it for the next four days.
I texted my parents to remind them of my trek so they won’t forget and think my lack of reply means I’m dead.
Now the only thing to do is answer one simple question: Why did I–why does anyone–decide to hike the Inca Trail?
11:22am – On the Trail
This hike is fairly simple so far. I’m short of breath, but Ever, our guide, stops every 15 minutes to discuss plants or the history of the trail. Rogelio, the other guide, walks in the very back where Anna and I have assigned ourselves permeant occupation. He teaches us a bit of Spanish, but mostly he laughs at our banter.
I’m feeling better, thus the banter, so perhaps this won’t be as bad as I feared.
2:20pm – Llactapata
During the Incan Empire, Incas hiked this trail to Machu Picchu for religious purposes. The men and women ran into nature to respect its strength and unforgiving ways.
The Incas had their reasons, but what are mine? Why did I decide to do this?
We have stopped for lunch and while my legs seem adapt to the rigor that the day demands, my stomach, lungs and heart stagger. I kept down the soup-course of lunch, but after three bites of rice and fish, I retreated outside the dining tent to rid my stomach of the food. Vomiting made me feel weak, broken and empty again.
Why did I decide to do this? Whatever the reasons might have been, those reasons were left behind at Piscacucho.
I guess I am here to “put myself in the way of beauty,” as Cheryl Strayed’s mother would say; I’m here to measure my height against that of the earth, and to know the strength of my own presence. I am here. And though it would be easy to wish away the struggle of this trek, to dream of a beer in Aguas Calientes, I am going to do my best to stay right here, in the moment, and I’m going to experience the struggle without trying to overlook it.
Almost finished with day one.
6:30pm – Wayllabamba Campsite
When we got to camp, Anna and I called dibs on the closest tent, and I went straight to sleep for a pre-inner nap. I’m not even sure what time we got here—4:30pm or 5? It’s been a long day, plagued by not feeling well. And I know the next three days will be even longer and harder.
Anna is taking advantage of the hot shower for s/.7. I’ve decided I don’t care. Instead, I’ve rigged my head lamp to the top of the tent so I can write before dinner.
The temperature has dropped as quickly as the light. I’m tempted to bathe off and just curl up in my sleeping bag. But I should try to eat something. Plus, the opportunity to see my first stars in the Andes is just outside this tent .
day two: be humbled
6:30am – Wayllabamba – Camp Site – 3000 mts
Today’s hike is a mere 8.3 km, but it’s up a mountain side. We start at Wayllabamba, 3000 mts, and will peak today at 4200 mts. The peak is called, “Dead Woman’s Pass,” and that freaks me out just a little bit. I’m nervous that my pack—my cheap, cheap pack—is going to break. And I’m nervous that my heart will explode.
Here’s hoping neither of those things happen.
Lord, help me hike this (fucking) mountain.
In more trivial news, I have kept down breakfast: coffee, coca tea, porridge, plantains and half a slice of bread. Today is off to good start.
Travel blog idea: a blog focused only on the things I do wrong when I travel. First post: everything about this trek.
Don’t be fooled, we’re scared shitless about hiking to Dead Woman’s Pass
9:15am – Tres Piedras – 3500mts
I’m physically much better today than I was yesterday, but I’m mentally struggling. Every plateau reveals yet another, steeper incline. Each twist of the trail shows another twist up ahead that extends to an even greater altitude.
11:17am – Llulluchapampa – 38000mts
One of the guys in our group got very sick last night, pretty similar to how I felt the night before. At one point this morning, he thanked me for being the first one to throw up on the trip. That’s rather embarrassing, but I’ll take one for the team.
Can you tell that we felt fantastic?
3:30pm – Warmiwanuscca (Dead Woman’s Pass)
I fucking made it!
The last 400 meters up were tough. I told myself the numbers; told myself that most of hike up was already behind me; told myself that it’s just walking, just putting one foot in front of the other. I told myself to listen and allow my body to do what it needs to do, what it can do.
Sage advise, but it didn’t make the hike up any easier because it wasn’t just physically tough, it was mentally tough. I wanted so badly to sit down after every step, wanted to apparate and be anywhere else. The trek up seemed never ending, getting higher and farther away with every step forward.
Luckily, I had Anna and two women from Brazil that were at the same leisure-pace as me. We would walk for five minutes and then rest for ten. On our breaks, we’d talk about how tired we were, how hard the altitude was and how beautiful the Andes were. Our chats would sometimes dissolve to remembering the lyrics to Shania Twain’s “Man! I feel like a woman” and “Climb every mountain” then to the idiocy of modern religious and how modern warfare doesn’t really differ much from the Incas’ practice of human sacrifice.
Chewing coca leaves and draining our water, we made slow progress to 4200 mts.
Look at we happy babies at Dead Woman’s Pass.
5:43pm – Pacaymayo Campsite
I could feel all the food I ate for lunch—chicken, green beans, eggs, potatoes, pasta—compounding in my intestines awkwardly as if they have never done such a thing before. With each step I felt everything become more compact. I detail this because it means I am on the mends; that I can eat and digest food like a normal person again. I also detail this because it’s what I thought about during the final stretch to Dead Woman’s Pass.
The trek down to the campsite took about two hours. At the first bathroom/ outhouse I saw, I sprinted and my three girls went ahead without me. I’m sure the walk through lush mountains on my own would have been enjoyable, but our guide, Ever, waited for me to finish in the bathroom.
Though the steps were steep and slick, hiking down didn’t leave me gasping for breath, so Ever and I were able to talk. We talked about global warming, education in the Andes, everything there is to do in and around Cusco and some of Ever crazier stories from leading tours on the trail.
Since I met Ever, he’s smirked at me in a flirty way or stared at me a little longer than is comfortable. I’ve become use to this extra attention from men in the South America. I’m a pale, blonde woman; I look different and garner a bit more attention from the machismo culture. But under the attention of our tête-à-tête conversation, Ever grew bold. He attempted several times to take my hand, and even touched my hair at one point, noting that he liked it better down and not pulled back.
I really don’t find myself that attractive. Nice to look at when you look for awhile, but not a head-turning beauty. So I don’t think men are attracted to my looks; they are attracted to the attention I pay. I was interested in Ever’s life in Andes, in his family, and in the effects of global warming he’s witnessed first-hand on the trail. But that interest was misunderstood. Had I been a man, I’d have a drinking buddy maybe even a good friend. But as a woman, my relationships are often forced to be romantic.
In this way, I mourn my gender and would prefer to be a man. If I were a man, then maybe the world could treat me as an equal rather than an object.
day three: step outside
9:00am – Runkuraqay
We started at 7:00am this morning. Today is a long-distance day; we have to get close to Machu Picchu (Machu Pikachu) for camp tonight.
11:45am – Qonchamarca
Ever took my face as we approached lunch and kissed my check. He aimed for my lips, but I swerved and then I ducked out of his embrace. I scolded him. He apologized and acted embarrassed. I wonder if that will finally be the end of his attention; I’ve made my lack of romantic interest in him very clear now though I hate that I had to be mean to make myself understood. And I hate that my interest in him as a person was taken advantage of.
2:40pm – Phuyupatamarca
The third day began in fog that rolled into the valley and thickened. And there we remained most of the day—surrounded by and climbing deeper into the clouds. The ruins we saw along the way—Runkuraqay, Sayacmarca and Phuyupatamarca—were hidden behind the fog, their interest only perceivable up close and from within.
Finally submissive to the trek, the world came alive around me. I began to notice the bugs, the flowers, the rocks, the views and the people, both in my group and those in the groups that we routinely passed on the way. The beauty of the rainforest and the Andes had been around me for days, and I had spent most of that time internally focused.
This part of the Incan Trail hugs the mountain side, the jungle dropping straight down over the edge. We were in the cloud forest and nothing seemed to exist outside this microcosm of silence. Well, the silence that nature would allow. Birds chirped, frogs gulped, little stones shuffled under our three separate footsteps, and rain dripped down, either form the sky on shaken from the trees.
I am already mourning the conclusion of the trek.
My nature photography stepped up its game.
6:30pm -Winay Wayna
I’ve enjoyed that camaraderie of the third day. I trekked with my good friend, Anna, and my new friend, Rebecca. When the silence got to be too much, we filled it with ourselves, expanding like foam to take up the available space.
They led a conversation about engagements, marriage and children. These are topics upon which I’ve thought but have given no expectations. Having given up my apartment in Chicago and, with it, my “normal” life, I don’t have much cemented in my life except the desire to keep on traveling. I look at my life as it is now and wonder where the crack started. My parents think I was violently attacked or raped, but I wasn’t. Even I can’t follow the crack in my life to the moment it started. At some point, I simply decided that the life I had been planning for myself wasn’t the life I wanted after all. Asking me how I came to such a decision is as simple and difficult as asking what happens in the brain when we first awake.
I don’t know why I chose this. One step after another, I guess. There was not grand plan, no map.
And how do I explain that to anyone? To Rebecca who I just met and to Anna who I’ve known for 6 years? I can barely flesh out my thoughts within myself, in a language that exceeds speech.
So yes, I want a partner. Yes, I want kids. But I am no longer bold enough to image all the ways I want it to happen. Step after step will get me there, wherever there is, just like step after step is getting me to Machu Picchu.
Feels at the end of day three.
day four: live in gratitude
4:20am -Winay Wayna
We woke up at 3:30am so the porters could pack up camp and get to Aguas Calientes for the first and cheapest train back to Ollantaytambo. Machu Picchu is only 6km away, and though I am still reverently praying for a clear sky, most my turmoil about this trek is being packed away with the bed rolls, folding chairs and tents. I’m ready, and I’m excited.
7:00am – Intipunka (the Sun Gate)
I’m eating one of the sandwiches we were given for breakfast and staring down at Machu Picchu. There is it. This is what we came for.
6:00pm – Aguas Calientes
Anna worked, poor thing, and I dozed happily and warmly. I legitimately forgot that we “splurged”on a private room in the hostel. High on adrenaline and pride (and tipsy from our gigantic beers from lunch) we both did a jig when we were shown the room we were to have all to ourselves for the night.
I showered, napped and allowed myself to be and do whatever I needed in the moment. And now I’m ready to flesh out my busy day and attempt to describe all that the day has meant.
meditiations at winay wayna
We were up at 3:30, but no one is allowed on the last leg of the trail to Machu Picchu until 5:30am. I’m guessing this is to keep crazy-people from hiking around the cliffs and up narrow stairs in the dark. With time to spare, we walked back to the ruins of Winay Wayna. Built into the mountain overlooking the Urubamba River, Winay Wayna is an impressive collection of agricultural terraces. Ever led us along one of the upper terraces. It was dark and few stars could be seen between the clouds.
The Incas believed that the Urubamba River was the reflection of the Milky Way, and they believed that the Milky Way was the source of life on earth. So the Sacred Valley is sacred because the Urubamba River flows through it.
We sat on the 500-year-old, Incan stonewall and stared into the darkness of the morning.
I’d like to tell you that we collectively and without being told fell into meditative silence, but that’s not what happened. Two men in our group chatted, their voices amplified by the terraces we sat within and the general silence that the darkness provided.
I closed my eyes against their noise and tried to hold onto the sound of the water rushing in the valley below.
I thought to myself, how does one hold onto a sound?
The men continued to rattle. I implored in my comical Spanish: “Silencio, por favor!” but was met with disregard.
So I closed my eyes even tighter and tried to mentally remove Victor’s crowing voice as if I could box it up and trash his track with editing software. Increase the water track, decrease the Victor track.
“Seriously, shut up! Enjoy this!” Rebecca yelled. In that moment, I fell in love with her a little bit, and immediately jumped in to support her. The men voiced some protest but finally gave into the groups demand.
We demanded silence.
Then, as if waiting for our full attention, the birds and bugs of the rainforest came alive in the early morning. The water roared at a new decimal and my mind panicked.
Once the negative thing I was mentally wrestling with was gone away, I was left with exactly what I wanted. And what do I do with that?
My legs ached, my back pinched, my head itched, the bruise on my ass hurt—all the negative things that I could choose to focus on roared within my mind. So I let it all go, let those thoughts float off into the morning sky like ballons released from a child’s hand.
For three days I’d been sick, worn, exhausted, in pain, discouraged, frustrated and embarrassed by my lack of ability. In the darkness, with the unobtainable noise of rushing water, I was baptized with a new day. Gratitude was given and gotten.
The Incas would take the Inca Trail as a religious journey with nature, and I hope that it’s not too forward to claim I’ve achieved the same.
Rebecca, me and Anna at Machu Picchu!
answer the question
Which brings me back to a previous question: Why did I sign up to hike the Ince Trail?
At its conception, I wanted to hike the trail because I thought it was as awesome thing that badass people do, and I want to be a badass that does awesome things. If I had heeded caution or researched more about the requirement of the trek, maybe I would have felt less inclined to be awesome.
As it is, my millennial-whim brought me to a mountain and I faced it.
And what an amazing experience?! Just another reason to follow my whims and thank myself (and thank my life) every day.
I’d also like to personally brag that even though I was up until 3:30am the night before the trek, I never once contemplated not going. Call me stupid or stubborn (or a fair mix of both), but I never sidestepped.
Once at Machu Picchu, the trekking done and the schedules mostly fulfilled, I found a quiet moment to stare over the walls of the stone city towards the green mountains and deep valley beyond. I touched the stone wall in front of me and considered my hand. This hand–the silly, chubby thing belonging to me–touched something old and sacred, something attached to this world in a way I never would be. This place has been here hundred of years before me, and it’ll be here long after I’m gone.
What other hands have touched here? Does the stone, the earth, remember each one?