I took the 25-mile hike on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu to see ancient ruins but found much more in the courage and strength of a Peruvian mountain man.
They say there are no atheists in foxholes, and the same could be said for those who hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. The majestic beauty of the rugged Andes Mountains, the delicate fairyland forest, the wild flowers that glow with neon-bright color and the eerie shrouds of mist that drift like ghosts of the decimated Inca empire lead one to believe a creator must have made this masterpiece.
But for me, the 25-mile hike along the Inca Trail, one of the most challenging treks on the planet, over incredibly steep climbs and descents, all at dizzying altitudes where oxygen is in short supply, inspired prayers for deliverance.
The walk to Machu Picchu, four days of hiking and three nights of camping in tents, was the first leg of my 14-day trip with ACTIVE South America, an outfit that specializes in “action-packed” guided tours. I considered myself to have the “good level of fitness” recommended in the trip itinerary. I go to the gym, I hike and bike on weekends — but I soon found there’s a big difference between the kind of workout required to look good in your jeans and the strength and stamina you need to hike to this ancient city.
How much strength and stamina is that? Picture the equivalent of 5,000 lunges and squats a day with 10 pounds of weight in a backpack accomplished over a period of 8 hours. Add to this climbs up and down steep grades on uneven stone steps that range from 6 inches to 2 feet in height, often slippery from the rain, at an altitude of over 10,000 feet and you’ll have a better idea of what “a good level of fitness” really means.
I was the oldest one in our group of six, which included Aydin, a triathlete; Kat, an experienced trekker; Melissa, a young attorney from Washington D.C.; Brandon, who recently left the Navy but still had that boot-camp level of fitness; and SingularCity member BT, who, like me, is on the north side of 40. Our guides, Leo and Yohn, were natives of Cusco and long acclimated to a part of the world where, despite being close to the equator, has temperatures that can dip to near freezing.
I’d already discovered that human knees come with a limited-mile warranty, so I was armed with Aleve, a cheerful outlook and the determination that although I might not be the first to make it to the campsite each evening, I would be the proverbial turtle and eventually arrive in Machu Picchu.
Indeed, the first day was fine. We took a two-hour shuttle-bus ride to Piscacucho and met our porters, also known as runners. Most of these runners are local farmers who earn extra money by toting tourists’ camping gear and personal items to each campsite. Despite being short in stature, these runners have incredible strength. With their big, broad feet in sandals or sneakers, they can carry up to 70 pounds of equipment on their backs, the packs often poking high above their heads, and literally run the Inca Trail. They trotted past us as we trudged along and would arrive at our campsite long before we did so they could pitch our tents and make us delicious, hot meals.
On that first day, we passed farmhouses with friendly, happy dogs, fat burros and round-cheeked children. Yohn walked with me, behind the others, and we had fascinating conversations about life as we took in one magical view after another. My impression was that Peruvians in the Andes live a simple existence in a pristine environment, locked in a timeless place where the world outside doesn’t matter.
On our first night, we slept in tents at the Wayllabamba campsite. I’m not a camper type, but this was fun. I awoke the next morning to the sound of roosters crowing. Juan, the chef’s assistant, went from tent to tent, handing out cups of coca-leaf tea. The itinerary claimed day two would be the most challenging day, with a hike to Warmiwañusqu, or “Dead Woman’s Pass,” at an altitude of 13,800 feet.
I looked for my altitude sickness pills, and then realized I had left them behind at my hotel in Cusco. I was hoping that my body would eventually acclimate to the low level of oxygen. As we set off the second morning the others seemed to sail up the trail. I, the turtle, plodded onward with Yohn at my side. It had been raining intermittently during our hike, and the higher we climbed, the colder it got.
Despite wearing a plastic poncho, my head was wet and water seemed to run up my forearms, leaving my sleeves soaked. Finally, I could see the others waiting at the top of the pass. Things got fuzzy as the lack of oxygen took its toll. I remember feeling nauseous but relieved to know we would be climbing down to the campsite on what the itinerary described as “cobbled steps paved by the Incas 500 years ago.”
What I found, however, were the same kind of very steep rocks I’d been climbing up most of the day — only now I had to carefully place each foot on the next rock and take a huge step down while trying to balance myself with my walking stick. The rain clouds had cleared, the downhill side of the mountain was gorgeous, but I missed much of the beauty as my eyes had to stay focused on my next step.
I noticed the sun was getting low on the horizon and felt a wave of fear. Yohn stayed calm as I asked him how we would find our way to the campsite in the dark.
When we hadn’t appeared at the campsite, Leo ordered two runners to find us. It was almost dark when Yohn saw them. Leo came too, holding a small canister of oxygen. I sat down on a rock and breathed in oxygen like a parched man gulps water. In a state of semi-delirium, I asked if we could sleep right there on the rocks. The runners got me to my feet and, supporting me on either side, helped me to the campsite, where I went directly into my tent and crawled into my sleeping bag, exhausted — but not before wondering if this was some kind of game of “Survivor.” Would I get out alive?
I was worried about day three. I was out in the middle of the Peruvian wilderness and, unlike in America, there were no park rangers, there were no rescue helicopters — the only choice was to trudge onward, and trudge onward we did. Up and up we climbed, reaching the top of a ridge only to find that the climb continued.
Yohn urged me forward. We passed ancient pre-Inca fortresses and a lake that Yohn said was haunted. We occasionally heard the sound of runners coming up behind us and moved to the side until they passed. I was grateful to have the excuse to stop and catch my breath. After three hours of hiking, my knees started to tremble and my dizziness worsened.
I continued to make slow progress with Yohn by my side. It started to rain and the fog thickened. We crossed slippery log bridges over swelling streams, moving forward because there were no other options. I saw tents ahead and breathed a huge sigh of relief — then Yohn told me it wasn’t our campsite. Ours was still two hours ahead. At that point, I hit a wall. If our lunch campsite was still two hours ahead, how far away was the evening camp and how could I possibly make it there before nightfall?
Yohn asked the campers if I could have a bowl of their soup. I didn’t feel like eating, but I forced myself. I looked at Yohn and asked him if I was going to die. It may seem silly in retrospect but, at the time, death seemed a likely result. I prayed that God would save me – a sincere prayer. We started walking again, on through the rain, up and over the rock steps, sloshing through mud. Yohn stopped to try his walkie-talkie, then turned to me and said that runners were coming to carry me to the campsite. Carry me? Whoa! I might have been on the verge of collapsing, but now I was going to die of embarrassment?
Within minutes they came. Two of the runners, who had already run to the lunch campsite, had run back down to rescue me. The two men were shorter than I was; I didn’t see how they could carry a 125-pound woman up the rocky hill. They slung a big scarf around my behind, and one carried me piggyback for as long as he could — then traded positions with the other runner so he could rest. After a few relays, a tall young man appeared on the path. He was dressed in a nice rain jacket and wore a San Francisco Giants baseball cap. I assumed he was another hiker. Words were exchanged in Spanish, and he took off his coat.
“He’s going to carry you,” Yohn told me.
“Who is he?” I asked, wondering how this man materialized out of nowhere.
“His name is Reuben. He’s one of our guys.”
Reuben — who, besides being a runner, was in training to be a camp chef — took me up on his back and showed me how to wrap my arms around his neck. Then off we went. He was literally running up the incredibly steep hill with me hanging on for dear life. It wasn’t easy for him. Sweat was pouring off his body. I feared I would break him or damage him permanently, but he kept telling me, “No preoccupi, no preoccupi” (“Don’t worry, don’t worry”). I expected him to trade me off with the other runners, but he just kept going, leaping up the huge steps and down the steep descents, barely touching the earth as he glided forward from one rock to the next.
If Reuben had slipped, we would have tumbled over the cliff to our deaths or cracked our heads open on the rocks, but he seemed to fly on wings as he carried me to safety. When I prayed for a miracle earlier that day, I couldn’t imagine how one could really happen — but here it was.
We passed by hikers who stared in amazement as we seemed to float by. At times, I couldn’t look because the path ahead was almost a vertical descent of slippery rock, but Ruben never missed a beat. Every so often, I felt the impact on his knees vibrate all the way to the top of my head, but he kept flying forward with me tightly wrapped around him, feeling his breath, feeling his heartbeat, feeling like we were one.
He delivered me to the door of my tent, hours before the others arrived. I thanked him profusely and sank into my tent, astounded by the miracle I had just experienced. Ruben took off his angel wings and blended back in with his fellow runners, who were preparing the tents and helping to make dinner.
The next day, final day of our trek, we said farewell to Reuben and the other runners. We would take the remaining three-mile walk to Machu Picchu from the Wiñay Wayna campsite. The runners would take a shortcut down to the train station in Aguas Calientes. I thanked Reuben in front of the others, telling him he appeared like an angel from heaven to help me. I told him and the others, with Yohn translating, how I would go back to the United States and tell people about the amazing strength and courage of the men from the Andes they call the “runners.”
I went expecting to see the beauty of the ancient Inca ruins and found that prayers can be answered in the form of people, and in my particular case, a Peruvian mountain man.
Copyright © Kim Calvert/2013 Singular Communications, LLC.
Kim Calvert is the editor of Singular magazine and the founder of the SingularCity social networking community. An outspoken champion of people who are living their lives as a “me” instead of a “we,” Kim oversees the creative direction and editorial content of the magazine and online social networking community. She secures contributors and is responsible for maintaining the fun, upbeat, inspirational and often-humorous tone of Singular, a lifestyle guide for successful single living.
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