On my recent journey to Machu Picchu, I had the realization that every single thing I experienced was totally novel. I’d never camped before, or hiked a landscape that required actual hiking shoes, or stood at such a high elevation, or gone to the bathroom outside, or gone so long without showering (five days), or eaten beef hearts (anticuchos are my new favorite dish).
And throughout these brand new experiences, I had no choice but to focus on the present moment.
I could only think about my next step, on my next breath. To look ahead or to look back required a full stop; otherwise, it meant losing my footing and falling flat on my face. (I did this once: I hurriedly jumped across wet rocks to cross a stream, my mind on reaching camp as quickly as possible. I slipped, twisted my ankle, and landed hard on my knee. Lesson learned.)
Below are scenes from Cusco, the historic capital of the Inca Empire in southeastern Peru. Standing at an elevation of about 11,000 feet in the Andes, Cusco served as our starting point where we would acclimate to the altitude before beginning our hike.
The market scene and the graffiti shot were taken in and around San Pedro Market in Cusco.
The two photos below are from our first day of hiking was from Cruzpata to Soraypampa, where we set up our first camp site. It was a short trek (about three hours), but incredibly challenging. Most people ducked into their tents to nap away the effects of soroche, or altitude sickness.
I felt fine, so I stayed up with our guide, Elistan, in hopes that the storm would pass and I could take him up on the optional hike he promised to anyone who had the interest and energy — to a nearby glacial lake formed by runoff from the Humantay glacier (photos below).
It is believed in Incan tradition that protector gods reside atop the Humantay and Salkantay peaks, and it’s not uncommon for people to leave offerings (in the form of coca leaves and elaborate rock formations) and whisper prayers for protection to the mountains.
The following photos are from our biggest hiking day — 12 hours spent climbing Salkantay to our highest elevation of 15,000-plus feet and then going downhill to reach our campsite at Rayanpata, which is below 10,000 feet.
The altitude was a problem for the whole group, as we all live more or less at sea level. I began with a pretty steady pace, committing to 40 steps followed by three deep breaths while standing still.
But as the climb continued, as our elevation increased, and the switchbacks turned into straight inclines, that pace became impossible. My legs felt heavy and every time I stopped, I had to wait for my heart to stop racing. I’d never experienced anything like it before, so it was fascinating more than frustrating.
I kept adjusting my pace, and made an effort to move as best as I could. The last kilometer of the trek was the most difficult: The mist that had been chasing us up the mountain finally caught up to us, shrouding us in gray and damp. Additionally, it became nearly impossible to take more than 10 steps without needing a break.
We finally made it to the top, where we celebrated with snacks and coca tea. From there we descended the other side of the mountain, stepping through gravel, mud, and cowpies along a terrain that looked positively otherworldly. I lost track of how many climate zones we crossed that day.
On our final day, we trekked along the railroad tracks from the hidroelectrica station to Aguas Calientes, the nearest town to the historic Machu Picchu site. I’ll share more about that experience in the Head Out section of our July/August issue — stay tuned!