Everyone seemed to understand the commitment I had made. Except for me.
When I started telling friends and family that I planned to make a four-day trek to Machu Picchu, I was met with a fusillade of questions about my sanity and general fitness.
“When was the last time you climbed a mountain?” some people asked.
“Are you going to even pretend to get in shape first?” asked others.
The truth, though, is that I planned on not changing anything about my sedentary lifestyle. I had two months to hit the treadmill prior to my journey, but I didn’t think it would be necessary.
“Look, if worse comes to worst, I’ll just walk slowly,” I’d say. “One way or the other, I’ll get there.”
And so began the most arduous journey of my life.
We awoke in the dark pre-dawn hours, sharing the streets of Cusco, Peru with silence and stray dogs.
Our group of four had arrived two days prior to adjust to the altitude of the early Incan capital, and our tour guide met with us to plan the route and tell us what to expect. We were at 11,000 feet, and we would climb to 15,000 feet on the Salkantay trail before making our way to Machu Picchu.
The cobblestone streets of Cusco, steeply pitched in places, had provided a fitting audition for the trek to come. For two days, we labored up and down the 60-degree streets wearing 15-pound backpacks.
Now, placed onto a bus with people we hadn’t yet met, we had time to ponder our fate.
The trek began with a two-hour bus ride from Cusco to the Peruvian countryside, and we traveled in near-slumber, blissed out by the beautiful scenery and present lack of exertion.
As the sun rose, we got our first look at the seemingly impassable nature of the mountainous terrain. The bus wound through roads so narrow the drivers had to honk the horn way before they approached a turn, lest they collide head-on with a vehicle travelling in the opposite direction. We started climbing just before noon, winding up a grassy mountain road that never seemed to end. Slowly, we trudged upwards, going from 11,000 to 13,000 feet in a couple of hours, all of us fighting our own individual battles with our bodies and with the challenge presented by nature.
I paused frequently as we made our ascent, fighting to catch my breath and bringing up the rear of our 14-person column. Moving slowly, coca leaves tucked inside my cheek, I began suffering from a bout of altitude sickness.
Two of my friends took turns carrying my pack while I fought nausea and the elements, and finally we arrived at the base camp. We could see the snow-capped mountain beckoning us ahead, and I stripped my boots off and fell asleep, face-forward, hours before bedtime.
The next day began just after 4 a.m., and our porters brought coca tea to the front flap of our tents.
This would be the most arduous day of the trek, a four-hour slog uphill to 15,000 feet and then a six-hour march down the mountain.
Our guide, Nilton, had pulled me aside the night before.
“Look, today’s uphill is way harder than yesterday,” he said. “We’re going to put you on a horse.”
I wasn’t alone. Four of us chose the back of a mule for the perilous climb, but I was the only one with no prior horseback experience. My first time traveling on an animal’s back would come on a muddy, rock-strewn path up a mountain with ledges wide enough for just a leg or two at a time.
The mules seemed to know just where to put their feet, but they jockeyed past each other on the narrow passes without regard to the repercussions of a slip or slide. I clung to the reins tightly, steering when I could and mimicking the voice of the guide whenever the mule came to a stop.
“Moohlah,” the guide would bellow, coaxing the mules to keep going when they wanted to lazily eat grass or drink from a passing stream. On the rare occasions when the terrain pointed down before rising again, the mules would sprint at breakneck pace, fearing nothing, including the hikers ahead of us.
Halfway up, riding single-file, my mule decided he’d had enough of my steering. He ambled off the mountain road, ignoring my grip and my verbal command, marching sideways into thick brush.
He angled me out of the saddle, and I clung tightly until it was clear I was going to fall. I let go at a point where the impact would be minimized, falling into high grass and rolling my ankle.
The guide helped me back into the saddle, and we finished the climb without incident. We passed our group, which had left an hour ahead of us, with about a half-hour left in the ascent.
At the top of Salkantay, we paused to admire the breathtaking scenery. We were above the clouds now, standing atop a rocky and dirty summit, looking down at the rugged descent in our future.
My ankle, tender from the fall, had begun to swell. Nilton wrapped it in an ace bandage and we began the climb down, walking in twos and threes and sometimes left by our lonesome.
My feet, less certain than the mule’s, found their own path. The way down was much less arduous than the way up, but still, each step could mean a sprained ankle or a fall onto jagged rock.
At one point, pausing on the side of the road to chat with a fellow traveler, I felt the ground give way beneath my feet. I caught myself by my elbows, legs dangling over the side of a steep abyss.
One of my fellow hikers rushed to pull me up, and moments later, Nilton arrived to take stock of my day.
“You’ll have some great stories when you get home,” he said. “But you have to make it back.”
We paused midway for lunch, and the skies opened up in a torrential downpour. The group walked for an hour or two in wet conditions and muddy roads, but the rain stopped before we reached the second camp.
As the march ended, one at a time, we threw off our packs and collapsed on the grassy ground.
We had all earned an easy day. The third day started with coca tea around 4:30 a.m. and we were given a choice of two different recreational options. Half of our group chose a zip line in the middle of a verdant forest, while the other half of us decided on a morning swim in a natural hot spring.
I chose the spring, nestled in a valley and looking at a mountainous peak in front of us. There were three pools, each ranging in size and temperature, and we tried them all in turn.
The zip-line crew met us at the hot springs while we were toweling off, and we got back in the bus for an hour-long ride to our final trek point. Nilton addressed the group, and he told us we’d have about five minutes of a very steep ascent before marching the rest of the way on mostly level ground.
He wasn’t kidding. The hill rose sharply ahead of us, and we walked single-file up an 80-degree incline. The path was slippery and perilous, and there was no way to use the trekking poles for added leverage. About midway up, walking on an injured ankle, I fell hard with all my weight onto an upturned tree root that struck me directly above the belt line.
I laid there, unable to get up, convinced there’d be a nasty puncture wound when I looked down. The group circled back to me to assess the situation, and to my astonishment, I learned I wasn’t bleeding.
I felt like I had been punched in the gut by Mike Tyson, but I didn’t want to quit now.
Nilton looked at me with concern on his face, and he asked if I needed to visit a hospital. I shook my head. “OK,” he said. “There’s a train that can take you the rest of the way to Aguas Calientes.”
I didn’t want to give up. The body was failing, but the mind was willing to take the pain.
Nilton helped me up, and I staggered up the hill, one hiker supporting me from behind and another basically pulling me by an arm. Now, on flat ground, I used the trekking poles for balance and support, moving slowly and gingerly, my belly swelling by the moment and my ankle aching with each step.
During the final walk, we were dive-bombed by a particularly voracious form of insect that littered my arms and legs with hundreds of bug bites. I finished the three-hour hike in excruciating pain, hobbling into the town of Aguas Calientes (where we would spend the night) on the final fumes of energy and strength left in my body. I had arrived, broken and battered, but excited about our arrival.
We got to sleep in a hostel in Aguas Calientes, marking the first night we’d slept indoors since the trek began. But we didn’t really sleep. Half of the group took the bus to the top of Machu Picchu, which meant we had to wake at 3:30 a.m. to ensure that we’d be at the gates for sunrise.
Nilton, our leader, brought us inside the walls and began to explain the history of Peru and Machu Picchu. This stone fortress, built in the 15th century, was abandoned in 1572 when the Spanish conquistadors began to impose their will on Incan society. The Spanish never made it to Machu Picchu, and it wasn’t discovered by modern historians until American explorer Hiram Bingham found it in 1911.
The Incans built stone homes on top of the rocky peak, and they had terraced fields to provide food for the residents of Machu Picchu. Amazingly, the Incans had a working knowledge of astronomy, and one of the windows were built to point exactly where the sun would be at the time of the winter solstice.
There’s beauty everywhere you look at Machu Picchu, and more than 500 years after its construction, it’s still baffling for the layman to consider how the Incans were able to build their sacred temple.
Nilton left us here, giving us another couple of hours to explore the stone architecture and to survey the various peaks fronting the mountain. Our trip to one of the world’s ancient treasures was complete, and now we had the opportunity to absorb it and to ponder how our own society will look in 500 years.
My trip, perhaps predictably, ended in a Peruvian emergency room. My gut wound had swelled and grown to a scary purplish hue by the time I arrived back in Lima on the day after Machu Picchu. I feared internal bleeding, and so I checked in to the hospital despite the fact that I don’t speak any Spanish.
The doctor who treated me spoke English, and upon inspection, she believed that my wounds were just car crash-level bruising. They gave me an ultrasound to make sure everything was OK, and I flew home the next day with peace of mind and the knowledge that I’m not built for mountain-climbing.
So what was the final cost? One sprained ankle, one popped blister on my foot, two lost toenails, a disturbing collection of bug bites and a scary belly wound that closely resembled that of a woman with a problematic pregnancy.
Would I do it again? Of course I would. But next time, I’ll at least pretend to get into shape first.