Several years ago, a psychic told me that my token animal is a llama. Skeptical? Who knows. I didn’t think about it too much, and long after that my cousin and I planned a trip to Peru. We wanted to hike to Machu Picchu, and pack as much adventure into the whole thing as possible. We registered for a tour with the fabulous Karikuy Tours Peru, bought our tickets, got vaccinated and medicated and packed our backpacks full of leggings, protein bars, and beef jerky.
It seemed fitting to start this adventure on January 1st, soon December 31st, 2015, we arrived exhausted after a red-eye and a delay to Cusco, Peru. I speak Spanish but don’t know cities, and Niki knows cities but doesn’t speak Spanish. We over-payed for a cab to our hotel, checked in, drank tea made from Coca leaves, and fell asleep. It was the tamest New Years Eve I’ve had since I was a little kid, but the only thing I cared about right then was sleeping away the altitude sickness and Dramamine hangover.
We started early on New Years Day. A Karikuy van came to pick us up, where we met up with ten or so other travelers about our age from all over the world. I’ve since forgotten most of their names, but it was fascinating to hear their stories and see how many different parts of the world they came from. We drove up and up and up on a curving mountain road, up through the clouds until it felt like we were on top of the world. The rules are different in cars in Latin America; I never wear a seat belt or get remotely scared even when the curves are sharp and blind and there’s a drop off on one side with nothing resembling a guard rail.
Way up at the top, we put on Fox Racing gear and I felt like anyone back home who had seen me would have thought I was about to ride a dirt bike. I had to shorten my bike seat to the lowest possible setting for it to fit me, and I was a little bit nervous. The thing is that I like riding bikes but as far as I know I am incapable of riding one up a hill. I was banking on the fact that this was marketed as “90% downhill.”
Our ride (true to the promise, very downhill and very doable) was incredible. We could see the Sacred Valley splayed out below us as we wound around curves. Occasionally we passed a car but mostly had the road to ourselves. We descended through the clouds and began seeing more houses and convenience stores lining the road. The whole time to my left, there was a sharp drop off down into the valley. Biking downhill is more exhausting than I would have imagined, and when we got to the bottom we were starving. We ate at a sweet little traditional restaurant that served us a family style meal, and then we got ready for the next part of the adventure.
I was incredibly excited for white-water rafting. I had been before, but it had been years. There was a large group of us going and we split into smaller groups, each of which had a boat and a guide. I couldn’t stand our guide. He was about our age and really everything I hate in a boy wrapped up into one person. Know it all, showy, thought he was hilarious and full of inappropriate comments and innuendos that were just vague enough that it was impossible to call him out on it. The rafting was okay but whatever his name is mostly ruined it. Luckily those two hours were the only time we had to spend with him and we will never see him again.
Our view from the bike tour
The second day, we woke up to pouring rain. We were going to leave our hostel around 6:30, but our guide, Jhimmy, told us to wait a while for the rain to stop. He said it would, and he was right. Jhimmy was one of those people who amazes you by just being a great person all around. He was sweet and funny and respectful and made Niki and me feel completely safe as we navigated steep mountains paths in a foreign country. He also taught me the Spanish term for “lightweight,” which literally translates to “economic.” Guys, I’m not a cheap date, I’m “economica”. It sounds so much more dignified.
Jhimmy, Niki and I hiked alone today. After breakfast, we crossed a bridge into an old, abandoned village. Jhimmy told us that about a decade ago, a flood came through and forced the locals to move across the river. A few families had stayed, and we saw a dilapidated but strong structure of three white crosses, and a lone turkey walking in the old muddy road. Here we met up with a dog we named Coca, who hiked with us for about six miles before going back home. We walked along flat land for a while, and then up into the mountains. Here we hiked on trails built by the Incas and maintained by farmers. This wasn’t the traditional Inca Trail, which is maintained by the Peruvian government and hiked with the help of porters. We made a couple stops at local homes, where there was bottled water and American candy for sale. At the second, we drank sweetened iced coffee that had been produced organically right there. There was a girl about our age who either worked there or was the daughter of the family who owned it, and she painted our faces and arms with the paste from a bright orange plant.
We hiked for a total of about eight hours that day, on steep stone staircases alongside the mountain, and on calm paths next to the river, lined by weeds and grass that grew over our heads. At one point, we walked out onto a rock cliff that jutted out into the Sacred Valley over the river. We crossed a broken down swinging bridge (we had literally signed our lives away on the first day, so the broken and missing boards were a little nerve-wracking) and at the very end, crossed the river in a rickety cable car to get to the hot springs where we changed and spent the next hour relaxing.
Our girl Coca and our cable car ride
Our third day started with zip-lining after breakfast. I had been canopy zip-lining before and thought it was pretty underwhelming, but this was completely different. The lines were hung over a river between two mountains. The adrenaline rush was incredible. Our guides were guys who looked to be a few years younger than us but obviously knew what the hell they were doing.
Our hike today was much easier than the day before, but equally beautiful. We walked along the train tracks from a hydroelectric dam to Aguas Calientes, the little touristy “frontier town” at the base of Machu Picchu. I put in my head phones for most of the hike and listened to a lot of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Miranda Lambert and thought about the vast differences in what I was doing at that moment from my day to day life.
So much of my regular life is things I do because they’re what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m in school right now because after spending the best year of my life away from school, I realized that it’s probably a good idea to go ahead and finish up and have the degree so I can have cooler jobs, more options, and better money. But I’m not here for the education. Nothing I’ve learned in the last four years of school could compare to what I learned those four days hiking in Peru. It was a history, geography and language lesson, but it was also a lesson in philosophy and ways of life. Witnessing firsthand the wisdom that created the Inca world was incredible. It was brittle bones, buried and then excavated by conquistadores and colonialism, but it was also living flesh and blood in the mountains themselves and in the people we met.
Jhimmy’s first language is Quechua, and he taught us about the Pachamama and the guiding principles of the Inca belief system. I have no idea what his educational background is, but he struck me as both smart and wise. We talked about corruption, exploitation, and the differences between new, advanced technology and ancient teachings and traditions. It’s rare to meet someone and immediately feel like you understand one another about the most basic, central, important things. It’s even rarer when you meet a person like that thousands of miles from home and speaking a second language.
Day four was the day we had to wake up at a completely awful, ungodly hour. I hate early mornings. I don’t think anything good ever happens before 7 am, and mostly not even before 10. But on day four, we woke up at four. It was horrible and it was too early to get coffee anywhere and I was awful and grumpy and quiet (if you’ve been around me when I’m awake and I don’t want to be awake, I’m sorry.) But I got my ass up and Niki and I walked with a German couple we had met the day before down to the first checkpoint. The Peruvian government issues passes to Machu Picchu to limit the number of visitors each day and to profit from the visits. The lovely combination of my anxiety and the time of day made me neurotically and repeatedly check that I still had our passports and passes. I did. We went through the check point. Everything was fine. I was slowly waking up enough not to act like an evil demon.
The hike from the checkpoint up to the ruins only took maybe an hour or an hour and a half, but it was one of the most physically intense and demanding hours of my life. Niki and I didn’t speak, except when we stopped for water. The mountain was steep and relentless, but about halfway up, some adrenaline or something kicked in and instead of excruciating, it was invigorating. We reached the top as dawn broke, and through the hazy clouds we looked down over the ruins. It was an image I had seen many times before in pictures, but it still seemed unreal. As the sun rose, the clouds cleared and the air warmed. There were llamas. The hikers were joined by tourists with visors and fanny packs and polo shirts who had come up on a bus, and I judged them silently but harshly (we took the bus down because our knees hurt so here I am being a hypocritical asshole but I’m just telling you what happened.)
Some llamas who live at the ruins, and some tourists who probably rode the bus
After exploring the ruins, we went to another checkpoint to climb up on higher to Huayna Picchu. There was no bus up there, so I immediately felt a lot of solidarity with everyone we met on the way because we were all just getting ourselves up there and it was still tough as hell. Huayna Picchu is hands down the most incredible summit I’ve ever reached. We were looking down over the ruins and over the Andes mountain range, and the sky was blue and the sun was out but we could see icy caps on the mountains around us. I wish there were some way to capture the feeling of being up there. My favorite professor told me a few weeks ago that years before, he and some friends stayed up there hidden past the time they were supposed to come down, and spent the night at the top.
Huayna Picchu, my favorite part of the whole trip
By the time we were back in Aguas Calientes (yes, by bus) we were tired in all the ways you can be tired. But our next hostel was back in Cusco and our train didn’t leave Aguas Calientes until late, so we had nowhere to sleep. We wandered from restaurant to restaurant, ordering bottled waters and coffees so we would have a place to sit down, and going out onto the street to smoke lemon flavored Lucky Strikes and pass the time. Lemon flavored Lucky Strikes are absolutely wonderful and taste like candy and don’t exist in the States. When we finally got on our 9:55 train back to Cusco, I leaned against the window and fell into the deepest kind of sleep there is. Around 1 am we stumbled through downtown Cusco and found our hostel. I don’t know if I’ve ever been that happy to get in bed in my life.
The Last Few Days
The last few days are a blur of drinking coffee and going to the market and eating street food and sitting on the balcony of the hostel smoking my new favorite lemony cigarettes. We met a lot of other travelers, many of whom didn’t speak Spanish and most of whom were traveling for much longer than we were. Cusco is great city with European vibes and beautiful plazas and churches. I’m not going to tell you very much about the trip home, how we almost got stranded in Lima or how I absolutely lost my temper at a hateful TSA agent, but I will say that the most third-world part of the entire trip was hands down the shit show that is the Miami airport. Also, I’ll say this. If you cry genuine tears to a sympathetic woman, you may get moved onto an earlier flight after yours has been delayed. Just a tip.
As it always tends to be for me, getting back home was really nice. Niki and I had talked about that while we were sitting on the balcony of the hostel in Cusco. I think it says something really good about life when you have an amazing experience somewhere but are still happy to be back home.