The day before I left for Peru, a good friend emailed: “They have trains to Machu Picchu, you know.” I smiled, interpreting her droll message as a poke and a warning. For my husband and I had arranged to get to the so-called Lost City of the Incas (in fact, the Peruvians never lost it) the hard way: Hiking over rough stone paths built centuries ago through the Andes. We would climb from the Urubamba River at 8,000 feet above sea level to Dead Woman’s Pass at nearly 14,000, descend to 11,000, then up to 12,600, creeping up and down mountains for four days to arrive on foot via the Sun Gate and see stone ruins and steep terraces spread out below us.
Five hundred people start the trail each day, so we had plenty of company and ample support. Our group of six had an excellent guide and 14 porters to carry our gear, set up our tents, and make our meals. We were responsible only for our bodies. Unless we were hurt so badly that porters had to cinch together packs and haul us out, our legs and lungs would have to do the job.
No one worried about my husband. He recently celebrated 40 years as a runner with a chili party and trivia questions about his ultra-marathons. They worried about me – healthy and determined but 67 years old with one titanium hip. I am devoted to hiking and regular exercise, but stair-step machines and forest walks hardly compare to treks through mountains. And nothing prepared me for the mental focus required to hike hour after hour up and down mountains on uneven stones.
Why not take the train? Hiking is like slow food. Both force you to wait and savor. There’s something humble, even reverent, about arriving at an ancient place the same way travelers did centuries ago, on foot, weary and grateful.
The first day, our guide Nick – a engaging 26-year-old with a deep knowledge of history, brilliant smile and healthy inventory of American slang – assured me that age was no barrier. He’d guided visitors as young as 4, as old as 95. On one trip, an 85-year-old woman from New York outpaced everyone. My ego kicked in: Game on.
The first day was a 7-mile hike along the Urubamba River with little elevation gain. In Nick’s words “easy-peasy.” We passed through mountain hamlets, greeted a grandmother walking with her grandson, saw our first set of Incan ruins, snapped pictures of flowering cacti and gates hung on hinges made of old rubber sandals. We camped that night in a field above Chamana, a small village where local children and free-ranging chickens greeted us. I brought school supplies – pencils, crayons, notebooks – and Nick lined up the children to receive them. I crawled into my sleeping bag content. Easy-peasy indeed.
The second day was harder, only 5.5 miles but all a steep, uphill climb from 8,500 feet to 12,600. Out in front were my husband and two congenial brothers from Canada, both in their 60s and well-trained for mountain hiking. I lagged behind with two friends from Minneapolis, who were younger and in fine shape but slow on the ascent, like me.
Coca tea and a diuretic prevented the nausea, dizziness and headaches that often come with altitude, but my sessions on the stair-step machine had not prepared me for hours of climbing. Soon I was counting steps – 10, 15, 20 – between pauses for extra breaths. A young, pale man passed us going downhill, led by a grim-faced porter. “He’s been sick,” Nick murmured. “See how he looks around the mouth.”
On the flight from Miami, a gastroenterologist explained that people who grow up in the Andes develop 18 percent more red blood cells than we flat-landers – cells that carry more oxygen to fuel their brains and bodies. As women carrying long pieces of rebar and porters with 40-pound packs sped past us on the trail, I was sure he was right.
Slowness has its rewards, though. I paused to admire plants confined to pots at home — geraniums, fuschia, coleus – grown to the size of bushes. I asked an old man we met why he wore two hats. “Dos cabezas. Dos mujeres. Dos mandos,” he joked. Two heads. Two women. Two bosses.
For one sole – about 30 cents – I used a toilet behind a woman’s chicken coop with plumbing that ran god knows where. Outside several houses hung red bags on long poles, the sign that a batch of chicha – beer made of corn – was ready for customers. The small village of Huayllabamba had a restaurant. At 9,700 feet, we could have stayed for happy hour.
Instead we pressed on to Llulluchapampa Camp, 12,600 feet high, to sleep on a terrace that faced a slope where llamas grazed. At dinner, we told stories, laughed, celebrated. At bedtime, clouds tucked in around us like blankets.
The third day was the longest, 8.7 miles, and Nick got us onto the trail by 6 a.m. with a plan to finish by 4 p.m. First we climbed to Dead Woman’s Pass, the trail’s highest point at 13,800 feet. In photos, I smile with thumbs up beside my husband. Then came a steep descent and first sign of trouble. Porters flew past while I picked my way carefully over stones damp with seepage from springs. By 11, when we ate ham sandwiches before another ascent, I was an hour behind schedule. Go on, I urged my husband. I’ll be fine.
At one point, I asked Nick what an early exit would look like. He pointed down the steep path we’d just climbed, then down another steep green valley. “At the bottom, there’s a train station.” Not after all that work, I thought. He offered to carry my daypack, but I declined. I would pull my own weight.
By 2 p.m., I was lagging further behind, without energy to make a short side trip to Runkurakay, a stone building where Incan messengers stopped for food and rest. By 3 p.m., when I reached the tent set up for our lunch, I was two hours behind and too weary to eat. I refilled my water bottles, envious of tents set up for travelers who would spend the night there. But our tent was two hours ahead, and the others had gone ahead. With Nick carrying my daypack, I trudged back onto the trail.
Later, when we returned home and I reread the materials the travel agency had sent, this sentence stood out: “It is important to go into the trek prepared to be challenged not only physically but mentally as well.”
How does one prepare for exhaustion? When the sky dims and your camp waits on a distant hill, when your stomach heaves in protest and you vomit up all you’ve eaten that day, too weary even for embarrassment?
“Basura organico,” I said, organic trash. Lame, but I wanted to assure Nick that at least my humor was intact.
I followed him down a narrow cleft through huge boulders where Incas carved steps and up a gentle incline. We met no one. I hardly spoke. Throughout that long afternoon, Nick stayed close by, joking, telling stories, encouraging, concerned. By 5 p.m., it was dark and getting colder. He pulled his jacket tighter and radioed ahead. I could not walk any faster.
I remember that part of the journey like childbirth: Late in labor, when every muscle is exhausted, you ache to stop, rest, reverse course. But there is only forward.
Two porters came back with flashlights to take our packs. At 6 p.m., 12 hours after we began, I dragged into camp. The others were eating in the bright dining tent. “You must tease your husband,” Nick urged. I must have been convincing: They all looked aghast after my mock display of conjugal fury. After a few sips of chamomile tea, I crawled into my sleeping bag. That night of retching and restlessness, I won even the porters’ respect. Nick reported their review: “Even when she is puking, you could see she was determined to make it.”
Somehow, I got up and walked the next morning. My stomach was still on strike, so I walked the final five miles dreaming of ginger ale. At lunch, Nick gave me the bottle of Coca Cola he’d hauled through the mountains. Never has sugary, carbonated water tasted so grand.
There’s a set of steep steps shortly before the final approach to Machu Picchu, “gringo killers,” they’re called. I climbed them like a ladder – using my hands.
Then at last, we made our way through the Sun Gate, the main entrance to Machu Picchu centuries before buses began hauling tourists up a road of hairpin turns. The rising sun shines through that gate on the summer solstice. It’s the place to snap the famous portrait of Machu Picchu – ancient green terraces and grey stone buildings spread out below, the cone of Huayna Picchu rising up behind them. In our selfie, my husband’s smile is chin up and proud. Mine is a survivor’s, weary, windblown, grateful to be done.
As one not drawn to extreme anything, it was good to discover what my husband calls “your gear beyond exhaustion,” a buried cache of physical strength and mental determination. But the biggest lesson of those high and lonely mountains was how greatly I relied on others – the porters, my husband and friends, and Nick – to carry on.
Songs from musicals were the soundtrack of my dreamy adolescence. Sometimes at night, when all the family was in bed, I would stretch out beside the stereo in the living room and softly play LPs of Rogers and Hammerstein musicals. Climb every mountain, I sang from Sound of Music. Now another line, this from Carousel, slips in alongside it: You’ll never walk alone.