Alchemy on the Inca Trail

The moment I catch my first glimpse of Dead Woman’s Pass between ragged breaths in the thin air of 13,000 feet, I smile with relief. Perched atop massive stone steps, slick with jungle rain, I can barely make out the fluorescent sheets of plastic adorning ant-sized tourists up top to shield them from the downpour. My hiking partner, Rosie, and I are way out front of our group, preferring to put our heads down and charge forward until our heart rates soar and we stop to gasp for air in the crisp mountain morning. 828 feet later, I stagger up the final few stairs to the top of the notorious pass, beaming. My fingers go numb as I wander around snapping a few photos, the wind-chill dipping into the mid-twenties. I can feel the blood coursing through my capillaries as I take in the taller peaks and wait for my crew to catch up. The hardest part of the trek was behind me, I was higher than I had ever been with a full pack on, and my mom was somewhere just below, crushing it on The Inca Trail.

Peru’s Inca Trail is one of the world’s most sought after treks, and with good reason. Built by the Incas in the 15th century, the route traverses the Andean mountains between Cusco and Machu Picchu and was built as a pilgrimage path, connecting many sacred and ritualistic sites as it climbs high mountain passes and dips into cloud forests, thick with moss and orchids. The modern trekking version of The Inca Trail extends from Ollantaytambo to the mystical ruins of Machu Picchu, though the original trail system was far more extensive, spanning throughout Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, and Western Brazil. The trail is steep, narrow, and often exposed, providing a heart-thumping challenge for anyone who sets foot on it.

For me, any other method of reaching the lost city felt like cheating. The rich history and dark rituals woven into the trees and the stones underfoot were too compelling to pass up. When my mom told me that she wanted to tick off the bucket list item of Machu Picchu, I was adamant that we would hike in, full of gumption and girl power. Peruvian law requires that you enter with a guide or tour company, so my mother (though 55 and in great shape) opted to get a porter to carry her gear so that she could enjoy the trail more. Ever the mountain masochist, I fully loaded my 70L pack and put my game face on. After 2 acclimatization days in Cusco, I laced up my boots and got ready to burn rubber.

The trail began innocently enough. After an intense government checkpoint where passports got scanned and permits were stamped, a suspension bridge across a roaring river spit us out onto a gentle incline as our quest commenced. Dozens of short, powerful men from all over the Peruvian Andes began to run past in the brightly colored t-shirts of top trekking companies, and our team erupted in cheers and applause at the sight of the porters in beast mode, hauling up everyone’s food, tents, and gear. This was a sight we would soon grow accustomed to: clusters of badass Peruvians literally sprinting past even the strongest of hikers on the trail, carrying 50 lbs. of supplies on their backs.

Because of the world-famous nature of The Inca Trail, it attracts thousands of tourists each year in every fitness category imaginable. There are budding documentarians with telescopic lenses, diehard weekend warriors fresh off the trails of Yosemite, and bucket-listers of all ages huffing and puffing up the ancient rock steps. All visitors are warned that the trip is strenuous, though the trekking companies don’t seem to enact any sort of litmus test for those who sign up, filling the valley with a bevy of novice backpackers. The sight of underprepared hikers often made me exceedingly anxious, and I definitely raised an eyebrow and silently prayed that the less experienced wouldn’t stumble off one of the mountain’s vertigo-inducing narrow pitches.

Now, while the trail itself is entirely at altitude and quite steep in many places, it does not require the agility of a top mountaineer or the stamina of a marathon runner to complete. That’s one of the most brilliant things about the trip – it pushes everyone right up to their limit at different moments while allowing plenty of time to decompress or rest afterwards. My mother hikes when she can, runs 3-5 miles a few times a week, and was solidly in the middle of the pack, challenged, but smiling her way through cliff’s edges and waterfalls of prehistoric proportions. I climb, train 3 days a week, and go out for an 8-10 hour hike every weekend, putting me up front with the guide in my full backpacking kit, but I pushed against the edges of my ability as well. The thing I loved most about the trail was its diversity, as though it knew when to send a hummingbird to make you smile through the freezing rain droplets or when to plunge away into a breathtaking vista just as you felt your lungs couldn’t take any more ascent.

Dinner the first night was an epic feast straight out of a king’s ballroom. Roasted chicken, soup with pico de gallo, and bananas flambé were delivered to our crudely erected table under the dining tent in rapid succession as we stared, dumbstruck and a little dizzy with altitude and hiker’s high. Sleepily turned loose after mealtime, I tip-toed to the squat toilets at the edge of the tent city, shivering and careful not to disturb a small skunk our assistant guide had pointed out. Damp and sticky in the absurd contradiction of cold plus humidity, I snuggled into my sleeping bag and read exactly two and a half pages on my Kindle before drifting into a deep slumber.

Tent bound in the pre-breakfast rain, I wiggled my body to and fro in my sleep sack, ultimately opting to unzip the whole thing and invent a new form of recreation for the lethargic called “tent yoga.” My mom laughed at me as I thought up new ways to contort my body atop the 72’’ x 20’’ sleeping pad each and every morning on the trek. The teenager in me balked, frustrated that the cold and the wet were imprisoning me indoors. Finally, I took a deep breath, donned my rain gear and an oh-so-stylish plastic poncho, and crept out of the tent to begin day 2. Dead Woman’s and Runkurakay Passes lay before me, and I nervously prepared to test my training at altitude.

My brain descended into reverie almost immediately. Trekking through the mud and the rain in a Polyepis forest at 12,000 feet spun my thoughts into visceral, psychedelic daydreams as I counted my steps against the heavy rhythm of my breathing. I fantasized about my boyfriend shoving my face into the thick, wet soil as I trudged forward, my mind playing sadistic games with itself to keep me entertained as I focused on the trail. Cuddles sounded godlike, friends I hadn’t seen for years entered and exited my brainwaves, and visions of mischievous elves hiding just behind the next tree stump flooded my senses. I felt as though The Lord of the Rings might have some actual historical basis as I climbed higher up the mountain’s ridge.

The scale of the landscape was immense. Picture a tropical version of the Yosemite Valley, perched at an elevation 8,000 feet higher. Now, imagine the nearest car is over 20 miles away as the wind howls through 16,000 foot peaks all around you, the Veronica glacier just beyond them. Llamas and Alpacas dot the horizon, grazing on lissome Andean grass. I have never seen earth quite like it.

One of the most special ruins along the path greeted us as the sun set through delicate spider webs of clouds at the end of the second day. Sayacmarca is a nearly inaccessible town, built into a steep hillside with decorative, rather than agricultural, terraces surrounding its stone walls. Tropical flowers caressed their way up from the forest floor, licking the edges of the ruins in the bleary, fading sunlight. Our guide explained that this temple was a ritualistic laboratory when Incas still ruled, with a large stone slab in the center serving as a sacrificial altar for llamas, herbal elixirs, and coca leaves. I swooned, allowing the goth, tween history nerd still living inside my heart to soak it all up.

We slept at 11,800 feet in the stunning campsite of Chaquicocha, panoramic views of high Andean peaks posed all around for maximum eye-candy. The constant, jaw-dropping scenery almost made me forget that I was in and out of tent cities, with a literal village of support hustling gear and creature comforts up and down the rocky slopes. While my usual preference would be to camp as remotely as possible in far-off mountain valleys, the restaurant-quality food and running water that abounded did offer a level of convenience that I hadn’t expected. It also made the trek more manageable for those among us who do not elect to poop in a hole in the woods every weekend.

Day three drifted in and out of a high elevation cloud forest as our guides scanned hidden crevices for orchids and led us through dense jungle pathways in a downpour towards the most breathtaking ruins of the entire journey. Midway into the hike, the rain finally abated, leaving us with luminous threads of clouds framing distant mountain ranges as we strolled along a ridge blanketed with lavish mosses and thickets, finally arriving at the ruins known as Intipata. As though on cue, the sun broke through the opaque canopy of clouds that had loomed above us for 2 days, and as we rounded the corner to step onto the agricultural terraces, I slid face-first into my very first llama of the trip.

Though history lessons have their time and place, at these particular ruins, the llamas stole the show. A huge rainbow broke out across the Urubamba Valley, and it wouldn’t have surprised me one bit if Kermit appeared with his banjo. The scene was straight out of a fantasy film. Wet grass serenaded my nostrils as I held my face towards our friendliest star, basking in the warm light. I stared down at the river, thinking of its unimaginably massive contributions to the people of this region for so many centuries. I sat my palm on the furry, damp backside of one of my new friends and whispered thanks.

We continued down the path, towards our final campsite. A short walk dropped us into what quickly became my favorite ruins on the trip, the famed city of Wiñay Wayna. Often dubbed “little Machu Picchu,” the remnants of this town sit atop a cliff overlooking the entire Urubamba Valley, with glimpses of snow-capped Andean peaks beyond. While Machu Picchu is a tourist-ridden zoo 95% of the time, Wiñay Wayna is breathlessly serene. Only a few groups are allowed in each day, and most choose not to venture up and down the uneven stairs. I wandered deep into the ruins alone, tracing my hand along the archaic walls as I wondered what it would have been like to inhabit this sacred space six centuries ago. Mouth agape, I took in the sunset, as towering nearby peaks quickly turned to electric shades of orange and pink. The last of the dying light lingered as clouds fondled the valley below, and I wiped a tear from my cheek in gratitude.

The morning we descended on Machu Picchu felt much like a sports team preparing for a big game. Our guides corralled us into the dining tent after dinner, hashing out a plan that involved waking up at 2:45am so that we could beat all the other groups to the checkpoint. Once there, we had to wait for two hours until government officials arrived to check our permits. The moment the fence opened, I hiked through the dark, pushing as fast as my legs would carry me towards Inti Punku, the sun gate. An arduous set of granite steps broke the gentle grade of the trail as I made the final climb up, gasping for air as I caught my first glimpse of the sun rising over Machu Picchu. The fluorescent magenta of sunlight pulling itself across the landscape was worth every bit of sleep I lost, and watching everyone’s faces as they arrived at the final destination, gawking, made me smile so hard my face hurt.

Once we reached the site of Machu Picchu, I was struck by the sudden clash of staccato, city energy and the onslaught of commerce. Buses roared by as thousands of bejeweled seniors and fanny pack-laden families streamed into the sacred valley. A few deep breaths helped regain my balance, and I rejoined the group for an in-depth tour of the grounds. It felt wild to finally arrive after so much challenge and soul-searching along the journey. Part of me was paralyzed in the realization that this was actually happening, and I had to slap myself to take it all in with proper gravity.

The fiercest hikers in the group opted for an extra 1,000 foot climb to the top of Huayna Picchu for the ultimate view and a fitting end to the trek. Once back in Aguas Calientes, I ordered a pizza and a pisco sour, staring blankly at the plate like a stunned, Hindu cow. I wasn’t entirely sure how to make sense of the fermenting feelings that were tumbling through my insides, and the pictures I clicked between on my cell phone all appeared unreal, as though a cardboard cut-out of my body was photoshopped onto one of the wonders of the world.

The rush of civilization made the comedown more grueling. I got a good night’s sleep. I cried on the plane ride home. I spun the things I had seen through a golden loom inside my head, wondering what the lesson was, or if there were any. I knew that the jolt of the metropolis made me yearn for another 4 days in the woods at altitude, that I missed my like-minded tribe of hiking warriors, and that this, like many other destinations, felt hollow in the wake of the journey itself.

When you embark on a pilgrimage, you enter into a silent contract with yourself to arrive at the end as a changed human. You rip away the gossamer of your most tender parts and stare at the chunks of meat fueling the engine inside. The freedom of communing with discomfort for a spell is invaluable. Some of my fellow trekkers found knowledge, some were ecstatic to have completed the most difficult hike they will ever attempt, and some pushed their limits outdoors and learned that they crave even more. The alchemy of The Inca Trail touches everyone along its path, and that’s what makes it so extraordinary.

I left this voyage with arms outstretched, ready for infinitely more bruises and cool nights in a nylon tent. It dazzled my inner wolf and solidified my strength as an outdoorswoman, teaching me hidden history of the ancients along the way. I’ve returned to the states with a vision and purpose that is laser-sharp. The Inca Trail isn’t just a hike; it’s an awe-inspiring journey back to source.

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