We woke up at 3:45 in the morning; we had to be ready for pick-up by 4 and when it’s that early we cut it close. It’s not like we slept much anyway, our cheap hotel room had no heating so we were up most of the night shivering, or maybe it was because we were too excited. We hurriedly packed our bags and hauled them to the side of the street to wait for the bus, our breath dissipating in the morning air.
We were feeling good. We’d given ourselves a few days adjusting to the elevation in Cusco before the trek, if I’ve learned anything from our trip so far it’s that altitude and I don’t mix. To be honest I felt a bit on a redemption mission, our last multi-day trek ended with a couple days in the hospital, and for a long time after that I felt like a failure (which I know is crazy - no one should feel like a failure for having severe pneumonia, a 103º fever, and hiking to Mt. Everest Base Camp anyway). At any rate, we were confident this time, in better shape, armed with a packet of mystery pills some guy gave us in Nepal which I was ready to take at the earliest sign of altitude sickness.
Our bus finally pulled up and we boarded, nodding at the other passengers, most with their heads down and hoods up still trying to get a few hours of sleep before we started hiking. We’d met them all the night before at a pre-trek meeting: there was Walter, our indigenous Quechua guide, one of those strong-and-silent types, and the other hikers - Adrianna and Joel from Canada, Erin and Brent from Texas, John and Julia from North Carolina, Ana and Eli from Guam. It didn’t take too long for us to realize that we were all a bunch of married couples spending our vacation together in the mountains, and thus our trip was dubbed a couples retreat. We didn’t know it yet but just a few days with these people would make this trip the best we could have hoped for.
It was still early when we got to Mollepata where the bus dropped us off and we started hiking. The first few hours eased us in, leisurely walking and chatting with the others in our group, getting to know each other and getting a feel for what the next five days would be like. We got to the campsite early, we were staying in those glass-topped domes where you can see the stars at night, and we couldn’t wait. But we had time to kill before bed, so we headed up towards Humantay Lake, just an hour away and famous for its bright blue waters. The lack of sleep and high altitude had already caught up to us though, going at a snail’s pace up the mountain, not even bringing our camera equipment with us because frankly it was too damn heavy and we were tired. So when we finally got to the lake we enjoyed that evening, just for us. We watched the sun set behind the water, sparkling turquoise and gold, nestled into snow-capped mountains. After dinner we got into our glass huts, our fingers cold and clumsy as we zipped up our sleeping bags and laid back to look out of the domes. The night sky is clear when you’re out there so far away from anything else, we fell asleep staring at the Milky Way and counting stars.
The next day (and all the rest) started the same way: a knock on our door at 5:00am, Walter blinding us with his headlamp holding two cups of steaming coca tea, shoving them into our hands as we blearily wiped our eyes… I’ll miss that. It was cold in the mornings, in usual fashion we were severely under-packed for the trip and had no idea the temperatures would drop so low up there. Leggings under shorts under jeans, scarves wrapped up to our faces, we shoved extra pairs of wool socks on our hands because we didn’t have gloves. We’d start hiking before the sun was up, watching it rise from behind the mountains, illuminating the peaks in red.
The second day was long, we reached our highest elevation at Salkantay Pass. The trek there was steep and jagged, with seven switchbacks before we reached the top (nicknamed the “seven snakes”). The previous night Walter had asked if any of us wanted horses to ride up the trail, which of course we declined. But a few hours into that trek we started to regret it, only half-joking, wondering if we could get a discount on a group order of ten. When we took our final steps up to the pass the air was thin and cold and quiet, the sun was reflecting brightly off the snow. We sat for a while there together, sipping tea. Walter taught us how to make wishes to the mountains, with coca leaves as offering to Humantay and Salkantay.
The next few days passed quickly, as the mountain terrain changed to tropical forest. We walked in file behind Walter, though often he would make stops along the way to tell us the history of an area, or have us smell a plant, taste a fruit, once he painted our faces red with berries from the side of the trail. One evening we went to some natural thermal springs in the mountains, daring each other to jump from the ice-cold pools into the hot ones, finally getting to relax our sore muscles. Another morning we went to a coffee grower nestled in the jungle, grinding the beans and trying the most authentic Peruvian coffee. But mostly we just hiked, and talked, and chewed coca until our jaws hurt and our tongues were numb and our spit turned green.
My favorite times might have been the dinners every night, huddled around a long table with the others in our group. Dinners where the first few nights we talked about regular stuff - jobs, music, family; then as the days wore on conversations evolved into discussing future baby names, analyzing each others star signs, or finding what same obscure TV shows we all watched as kids. Dinners where other tables asked us if we all knew each other before this, they assumed we must have because of the weird and inappropriate things we were joking about, the way we seemed to get along so well.
On the fourth day we had a long stretch of walking along railroad tracks to Aguas Calientes, the last town before reaching Machu Picchu. The trail was flat and boring and three hours long, to entertain ourselves we balanced on the tracks and played word games, dodging the trains that would speed by every so often. Somewhere along the way we found an old wallet, with a lot of cash in it too, someone must have dropped it during their hike. At dinner that evening - our last dinner together - we turned the wallet in to Walter, who proceeded to use the money to buy us all a round of drinks. We felt a bit guilty but Walter shrugged us off, and we joked that if we ever lost our wallets we’d want the cash to go to something like this - to new friends and to conversations over pisco sours.
The final morning we started off at four, one last early wake-up, one last coca tea. The trek that day was difficult, sixty minutes of steep, uneven steps until we got to the citadel. On our way to the entrance of the trail, we passed by the line for the bus up the mountain, it was already snaked around the block. Walter asked us once more if any of us wanted to take it, he usually had at least one person in each group opt for the bus and he’d go with them, so it had been a long time since he’d actually climbed the steps himself. We all wanted to walk though, so Walter had to too, and I don’t know if he liked or hated us for that but at least I think he respected us.
All the hiking we did before felt like nothing compared to the last stretch that morning, trudging up step after step in the humid jungle air, tripping over the uneven rises and jagged roots that made up the path. Finally reaching the clearing and seeing the citadel for the first time was surreal, looking upon what we’d spent the past four days trekking towards. When you are before one of the wonders of the world, you feel as though you’re getting to see the best that this earth has to offer - it’s an exhilarating feeling.
As the day went on, us couples started peeling off one-by-one - some of us hiked to the Inca Bridge, or to Sun Gate, or to both, some of us went to wander around the citadel or just look out at it a while longer. We hugged and waved goodbye, the sort of goodbye where you say you’ll call if you’re ever in town but in reality you know you’ll probably never see these people again. But you always hope you will.
It’s been a while now since we left Machu Picchu, I guess I was having trouble gathering together my thoughts. I found a quote that has summed up the feeling better than I ever could -
“It’s an irritating reality that many places defy description… Machu Picchu for instance seems to demand silence, like a love affair you can never talk about. For a while after, you fumble for words, trying vainly to assemble a private narrative, an explanation, a comfortable way to frame where you’ve been and what’s happened. In the end, you’re just happy you were there - with your eyes open - and lived to see it.” (Anthony Bourdain).
For all the freezing nights, long days, dizzying headaches and steep climbs, and for all the beauty and majesty and ancient wonder I will never find the words to describe - we were just happy to have been there.