I sit at a cafe high above Cuzco and watch the rain clouds sweep over the city spread below me. One moment there is pounding rain and the next, the soft silver white of the sun reflects off the tapestry of terra-cotta roofs.
My sister Lissa and I arrived in Cuzco a few weeks ago with our hearts full of excitement and fear. We had been preparing for our seven day trek to Machu Picchu for the past six months and it felt surreal to be taking altitude pills and counting socks as we readied our bags for the 4:30 am morning pick up. I was experiencing significant issues with my back and after 21 hours on 3 separate flights I felt fragile; breakable. Lissa’s right knee was suddenly aching with every step we climbed, not to mention we could barely navigate even the steps up to our Airbnb without wheezing uncontrollably. How in the world would we haul ourselves over the 3 massive mountain passes clearly outlined on the map our guide had passed out at our informative ‘yep, you already paid for this, too late to back out now ’ meeting? I had no idea.
The next day, after a 3 hour van ride we were dropped at our starting point. Our small group consisted of Betsy and David, a lovely couple from Wisconsin, Danielle from Australia, Lissa and me, and our Alpaca Expedition guide Julio. Julio, in his early thirties, was the youngest of the group. Dani, Lissa and I are in our mid-forties and Betsy and David are in their late 50’s. We were definitely older than the standard trekking group of perky 20 somethings that were pouring out of the other vans at the starting point. We gamely clasped our hiking poles and started towards the first steep slope curving upwards into the thick green of the mountainside.
I’ve talked and written a lot about how much I love to walk. It slows one down and forces you to notice the small things; the beauty that hides unless you take the time to look. Trekking at high altitudes was an entirely different kind of slow. I couldn’t have sped up even if someone lit my feet on fire. I forced myself to develop a rhythm: 1, 2, 3, step. 2, 2, 3, step… and so on and so forth. I set small goals for myself. Just make it to the next big rock, or the next bend in the path. I would walk about 10 steps and then allow myself to gulp air into my ineffective lungs, rasping and panting until my heartbeat slowed to normal. This ridiculous but essential pace was humbling to say the least. I finally understood why those mountaineers in all those climbing movies were so sluggish. I wasn’t even weighed down by cold weather gear, just sunblock and Deet. I painstakingly made my way up the mountain, thankful that a team of horses were carrying the bulk of my clothes.
Once I accepted this new, slower way of being, I began to enjoy the day. Everyone in our group, or as Julio called us, our family, was experiencing the same challenges and in the way that suffering together makes things a bit easier, we all encouraged each other in our very evident weaknesses. Julio became more than our guide. He was our advisor, physician and especially our cheerleader, moving us forward in spite of ourselves.
On the Camino, Lissa and I always had a bed, a hot shower and plenty of red wine to sustain us. Here, up on the mountain, things were a bit different. I enjoy backpacking, but am accustomed to short 3 day trips over long weekends when Lissa can get away. Trekking for seven days was a whole new experience. We, however, had chosen Alpaca Expeditions to guide us, (thank you for the recommendation, Drew Robinson from Trail to Peak) and they made every effort to make our trip as luxurious as possible. Every morning we were woken up with steaming Coca tea and hot water to wash in. We had an incredibly talented chef named Julian who whipped up 5 course meals over a single propane burner. I don’t have the words to tell you how delicious this food was. Heaping plates of crisp flavorful veggies and tender, succulent meat graced our table every day. We had stools and a full dining table on the other side of Julian’s kitchen in a large tent that was set up for every meal, including lunch. Breakfasts of omelette and fresh fruit and quinoa porridge were always ready when we emerged from our sleeping bags. After our morning hike we consumed the aforementioned platters of lunch and continued on for four hours to reach our campsite for the night. Upon arrival we would find our tents set up and bathroom pod ready and waiting. We would rest until happy hour which usually featured popcorn and empenadas. Dinner was slightly smaller- only four dishes would appear, as well as a sweet poached pear or flambéed banana for dessert. Keep in mind that our porters and chef were walking the same distances as we were, but significantly faster in order to prepare the camp for us and have our meals waiting. (I’ll write more about my admiration for our Peruvian team in part II.)
For the first 3 days, we trekked near Salkantay mountain. On the second day we climbed up and over Incachiriaska pass. Clouds misted my face and hands as we moved every so slowly upward. We could actually hear the glaciers on Salkantay crack as we climbed past a vivid emerald glacial lake. The mountain loomed over us, a gleaming white giant amused at our feeble steps and ant-like movements. There are varying reports as to how high this pass actually is, from 16,200 feet to over 17,000 feet. It really doesn’t matter. When I stood on the highest point, with the earth and clouds floating beneath me, I celebrated. It felt like one of the hardest physical challenges I’d ever completed. Every breath I forced in and out of my lungs was full of wonder; full of life.