Cusco, at 11,000 feet (twice as high as Denver), is located in a high valley in the south central part of Peru. Gateway city for those interested in trekking the Inca trail and visiting Inca ruins like the magnificent Machu Picchu, I found the place to be breathtaking in more ways than one.
I went to Peru to do research for my novel set in Peru (Her Heart in Ruins). I spent a couple of days hiking the quaint, pedestrian San Blas neighborhood and the streets leading from the main Plaza de Armas, looking for markets and interesting scenes to photo.
I found the people friendly and though much of the business is oriented to tourism, this does not overwhelm the charm of the city. My hotel, Suenos del Inka, was well located with a good breakfast – but the 3 flights of stone stairs to my room was an every day challenge given the altitude.
My second day in Cusco, I spent the day on a bus tour of the Sacred Valley, where we stopped at various ruins and markets. I was pleasantly surprised with the tour, enjoying very much getting out from the city into the surrounding areas.
A young woman from Minnesota, sitting in the seat next to me, told me she had quit her job and was traveling around South America for 4 months, hoping to decide what to do with her life. I told her I was on the other side of that decision, nearing the end of my career, but that computer programming had been a good career for me.
A month prior to coming to Peru I had arranged to take part in a 4 day/3 night hike on the Inca Trail that ends in Machu Picchu with a tour group called, appropriately enough, Enigma. The hike is actually 3 long days, at varying altitudes but reaching as high as 13,800 feet, with the 4th day being a relatively short hike followed by an exploration of the Machu Picchu ruins.
Overconfident, having summited Mount Humboldt in Colorado this past summer (an easy to moderately difficult 14K mountain), I not only thought I could manage the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, I passed on the option to pay for a porter to carry my pack. I was going to test myself, hiking for hours and hours up the mountain trail with a heavy pack.
We were 10 trekkers who paid about $700 each, 2 Enigma guides to herd us, and 16 porters to carry our tents, utensils, food, etc. (water would be drawn from mountain streams and boiled). The number of trekkers allowed on the trail at any one time is limited, and this period (early December), being the beginning of the rainy season, seemed to be a less crowded time. Still we did see other hiking groups, mostly made up, as was our group, of twenty and thirty year olds.
Pretending to be at a party with strangers, I moved among the line of trekkers, starting up a conversation with each person, discussing our home countries and cities, our careers, our past trips to other countries. Hoping this would help pass the time, and it did. We would be hiking for 8 hours…
We started out slowly on relatively flat ground, then made a serious push up to our lunch stop. The porters had beat us there and set up a dining tent. We had small bowls of hot chicken-flavored pasta soup. After several hours of hiking at high altitude, I enjoyed sitting and eating, but worried about what was to come.
After lunch we continued straight up the mountain on ancient stone steps. We broke out our parkas when rain began to fall.
We were in cloud forest – with streams running like silver veins through the green overgrowth. I found myself slowing, each step draining energy from my legs. I was breathing heavily, struggling, but so were the others. We took turns resting and passing each other.
“How much farther?” we’d ask, only to be told “3 more hours.” Felt like a knife in my thighs. I became queasy. I passed the older woman in the group, sitting on a step, not looking well. I heard her vomit but did not look back, afraid what my own stomach would do.
“2 more hours” I heard. I was stopping every 20 steps now. We had gained about 2000 feet in elevation from the beginning of the trail.
“1 more hour” I heard. I had to stop every 10 steps. I pushed myself, tried singing. Van, a nice young lady from Singapore, struggling herself, gave me a bite of her almond Snickers bar. I chewed once and had to spit it out – for I had no saliva to digest the chocolate. Like trying to eat crackers when you have cottonmouth.
I found myself trailing the group, my guide walking behind me, encouraging me. I forced myself to get up after each stop, feeling the torture of each step. “15 more minutes” I could hear voices from above – the others had reached camp. “10 more minutes” I actually hurried my steps, a final effort to reach the camp. I made it.
We were high up, near 13,000 feet, with a view of a herd of llamas resting on the mountain slope, even a snowcapped summit across the valley. The air was brisk and cooling rapidly. The rain had stopped.
Our tents, supplied by the company, had been set up by the porters. I hit the bathroom, a stone building with holes in the ground, some 30 yards from our tents. I’m cold, I thought. So cold.
“Dinner in an hour, rest up.” I got out my new $200 superlight sleeping bag, and lay down in it, only to have cramps start popping up in my legs. I tried not to shout in pain, as the cramps spread from my toes, to my calves, then worked their way to my inner thighs. “Oh F!” my legs hurt. I massaged them as best I could. Finally I managed to rise. I went to the main guide, Erik, and told him I couldn’t go on. Could I go back in the morning? Could he loan me a porter?
He was very nice about my situation. Of course I could have a porter to hike back with me in the morning. But was I sure? I had already walked about a third of the trail.
“I am sure,” I told him. “My body is telling me I won’t make it if I continue.”
We had a good meal of a kind of ground chicken omelet, and my morning’s departure was announced to the group, who encouraged me to continue but I told them, no, I have no energy left. My parting gift to them was the story I was told in Chelyabinsk, Russia, the previous summer. About how the meteorite fell and the light was so bright as if the sun had come down to the earth. And how the people in the city waited for the explosion to follow, waited for the end of the world, 1 minute, 2 minutes, 3. Waited and waited but nothing followed the light, until 15 minutes later when the sonic boom from the exploded meteorite broke nearly every window in the city, injuring 2000 people with broken glass.
“So it goes to show that we never know when God will end our lives. Could be in the next second, with a rock from the sky.”
I slept poorly, the full moon changing to a heavy rain. I felt cold then hot. Then cold. Finally I slept and woke to a clear, almost frigid morning. After mango pancakes for breakfast, I said goodbye to “my family,” wishing them the best, and started the 6 hour trek down with my porter carrying my pack and several pounds of company equipment to boot.
My legs were wobbly, luckily most of the way was down. I stopped often still, to rest or take photos. The trail passed through beautiful country, with clouds hugging the mountain tops around me.
Near the end we stopped at a chicha stand (corn beer). I bought my porter 2 cups for 2 soles (60 cents). I knew that I had made the right decision to come down, but still, there was the stigma of having said I was going to do something and then failing at it.
On the other hand I had acquired good info I could use in my novel, and I had trekked longer at higher altitude than ever before in my life.
Back in the small town at the beginning of the trail, we caught a collective, a minivan that serves as the local bus. The bus took us 30 minutes to a larger town, where I caught a taxi back to Cusco.
I enjoyed my night’s sleep in the soft bed in the warm hotel, and the good breakfast in the morning. I recharged my batteries that day, then took the 3 hour train ride to Aguas Calientes Saturday morning and the terrifying bus ride from there up to Machu Picchu.
“Ray?” I heard behind me as I took my first pictures of the ruins. I turned. One of my fellow trekkers, Steve, around 30, in black beard and looking pale, approached me. “I’m glad you made it.”
“Yes,” I told him, “I had to see Machu Picchu. How was the hike?”
“We all made it,” he told me. “The first day was the worst. We got a lot of rain though. And on the third day I suffered a bad headache and threw up. A bit weak.”
“Probably dehydration,” I told him.
“Yeah. Kat is up there taking pictures. Say hi to her if you see her. I’m going to take a break.”
“Ok – great seeing you.” We shook hands. I turned from him and took in the magnificent view of the mountains around Machu Picchu.
I spent the next couple of hours hiking around the ruins, taking pictures, dodging tourists on the narrow stone walks, shaking my head at how they huffed and puffed after only a few steps. I had walked a third of the Inca trail – and back again! Walking the steps at Machu Picchu was dessert for me.