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On the Trail to Machu Picchu

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Machu-Picchu

Our fitness editor’s “what if” curiosity leads to a transformational trek in the Andes.

We’d been hiking for four days through the Andes — up gravelly moonscapes, down muddy trails, around glaciers, across cow-manicured fields, and over flooded creeks — when Meggie Smalley, a 30-year-old nurse from New Jersey, whispered from behind me, “I can’t.”

Our four-person travel group had trekked more miles than we cared to count, ascending and descending the great mountains of southern Peru, climbing as high as 15,000 feet.

We’d endured altitude sickness, stomach upset, and, much to my displeasure, zero hair-washing. And now, mere steps from our destination — the fabled Incan city of Machu Picchu — Meggie felt ready to give up.

“Seriously, I can’t,” she repeated.

We were standing at the base of a set of stone steps, cut into a steep hillside and worn down by countless footsteps, ancient and modern. Illuminated by the morning sun rising low over the mountain, the steps were semi-shrouded by overgrown vegetation, but I could tell that they zigzagged up, up, up. I felt her pain.

“Come,” I said, reaching out for her hand.

We followed our guide, Elistan, a small, bubbly man whose dark features boasted of his Incan heritage. Up the steps we went,  single file. Behind us climbed my friend Mark Schneider, 37, and Meggie’s longtime friend Heather Woods, 30. By this point in the trip, the four of us felt like family.

One by one, we crested the hill. Elistan, our tireless cheerleader, could no longer contain his excitement. “We’re here, guys!” he called out. “Chicas! Mark! Look! You made it! You made it, guys!”

I stepped onto the ridge to find Machu Picchu’s famous terraces unfolding behind Elistan, who was jumping up and down like he couldn’t quite believe our ragtag team had made it. I laughed — I was just as surprised as he was.

What If?

Machu Picchu, believed to have been built in the 15th century, is arguably South America’s most awe-inspiring, and undoubtedly most famous, archaeological site.

The pre-Columbian city owes its renown as much to its beautiful, albeit remote, location — perched among lush vegetation, surrounded by rugged mountains, and overlooking the winding Urubamba River — as to the lore surrounding its “lost city” history.

Although the Spanish conquered Peru in the 16th century, Machu Picchu remained unknown to them and outsiders until American explorer Hiram Bingham “discovered” it in 1911.

It’s unclear why Machu Picchu was built on such an inaccessible mountain ridge, what purpose it once served, and why it was abandoned. Scholars and locals alike have speculated that it was part of a sacred network of religious sites in the Incan empire. Elistan told us that the grassy terraces, a distinctive feature of Incan architecture, indicate the site may have served as a testing ground for agricultural experiments.

Its mysterious origins only add to Machu Picchu’s appeal. The site draws up to 5,000 visitors every day during peak tourist season, from May to September, and nearly 1 million people annually.

The best-known route to the site is the Inca Trail, a four-day, 26-mile journey that cuts through the Sacred Valley. Traveling that path, however, requires advance planning. Only 500 people, including staff, are allowed on the trail on a given day, and permits are snatched up months in advance.

It’s not the only way to reach Machu Picchu, though. There are travel options for nearly every physical ability and interest, including multiple routes through the mountains, along the river, through the jungle, and even by bus or luxury train.

My own journey there was spurred by an emerging curiosity — as much personal as touristic. I’d heard amazing things about Machu Picchu and the surrounding countryside, but until this trip, I’d never seriously considered visiting. In fact, I’d never hiked anywhere rugged enough to require more than sneakers. I’d never camped. I’d never experienced the intense physical endurance required for a multiday trek. I’d never peed outside or gone more than a couple of days without showering. I didn’t know if I could handle any of the rigors involved.

But I wondered, What if?

What if this impressive destination was within my reach? What if I actually enjoyed camping? What if my legs and lungs could handle hiking to 15,000 feet with a 30-pound pack, a challenge even for seasoned climbers?

What if? seemed like the perfect starting point for an adventure.

“Want to come?” I asked my friend Mark late last summer.

“Yeah,” he responded without hesitation.

And so, in December 2014, we found ourselves traveling nearly 5,000 miles south to Cusco, Peru, the former Incan capital city that would serve as our modern-day basecamp.

The plan was to spend two nights acclimatizing our sea-level-lazy bodies to Cusco’s 11,000-foot elevation, then join the rest of our group to begin a guided, five-day trek to Machu Picchu, hiking by day and camping by night.

No Wi-Fi. No toilets. Just us and the mountains.

The “Savage Mountain”

Because of our short planning window and limited budgets, we opted to take an alternate trail to Machu Picchu that would lead us up and around the Salkantay Glacier — which translates from Quechua (the local language) to the “Savage Mountain.” The Incas believed that deities known as apus reside atop the glacier-capped Andes. The apus were, and still are, considered “protector gods,” Elistan explained. Climbers deemed worthy of ascending sacred peaks such as Salkantay are granted easy passage.

“And the unworthy?” I asked.

“They hit a wall,” he said. That “wall” can take the form of altitude sickness, known as soroche, or the mist that can suddenly envelop the mountains and obscure the faint trails.

Even today, more than 400 years after the Incan Empire fell, visitors leave offerings — money, coca leaves, candy, and elaborate rock formations — to appease the mountain gods and keep these obstacles at bay.

It was on our second day that our little band of travelers hit the wall. Hard.

We rose that morning to tackle the Savage Mountain. The goal was to climb to the 15,000-foot summit of Salkantay before descending 7,000 feet on the other side, where our campsite awaited.

It took seven hours to reach the summit, and we were menaced the entire time by the mist that circled the mountains. On the way, we occasionally passed other travelers. Some climbed Salkantay on horseback, but most, like us, were on foot.

“Tell my father I love him,” a young man called out to a group above us as he scrambled by, trying to catch up. He was plagued by altitude sickness, his dizziness closely resembling a drunken stupor.

Our group, slowed by headache, fatigue, and shortness of breath, wasn’t faring much better against the elevation. Each breath was a wheeze. Each step landed like a punch to the chest.

At the top, we briefly toasted our ascent with coca tea before hitting the trail again. We wound our way downhill on a muddy path and by dusk reached our campsite, a field behind a small farmhouse in the town of Rayanpata.

That night, exhausted, I dreamed that a pig had crawled into our tent and was rooting around in my sleeping bag. Even if it had been real, I was too tired to care.

A Compassionate Team

Despite the fact that all four of us were operating far outside our respective comfort zones, the group quickly fell into a rhythm — a testament to the power of routine when things get rough. We began each morning with a wake-up call before sunrise. Elistan would gently knock at our tents carrying either a cup of tea or broth, which I gladly drank while still enjoying the comfort of my sleeping bag. The sound of Heather singing from the next tent signaled that our travel partners were also awake.

From dawn to dusk, we hiked. Together, we took in extraordinary sights, traversing dozens of Peru’s many microclimates.

In the span of a day, we could start in the green highlands, where cattle grazed and small yellow flowers dotted the landscape; climb into the cold, gray heights of the mountains, habitat to little more than giant boulders; and finish in the jungle, where tropical plants hid cawing birds and all varieties of stinging insects.

Centuries ago, the Inca took advantage of these microclimates by terracing the mountainsides of Machu Picchu and other sites and planting a variety of crops that thrived in each slight variation in air temperature. New expanses of farming space, otherwise not available in the Andes, allowed the Inca to feed their growing empire.

This tradition of tilling, irrigating, growing, and tending — all aspects of the care of Mother Earth, the pachamama — is still evident. Modern Peruvians brag about their 3,000 varieties of potatoes.

Hill after hill, we moved quietly, purposefully, compassionately. If one person had to go to the bathroom behind a mossy rock, everyone waited. If one person needed to rest, we all rested. When two members of the group experienced digestive distress (not uncommon while traveling in South America), we worked with Elistan to devise an alternate route, allowing extra time for recovery without having to give up our mission and turn back. We started as a team, and we were going to finish as one.

The quiet time on the trail, the bouts of soroche, the peals of laughter while gossiping over dinner — these experiences solidified our bond, first as travel partners, and later as friends.

Beginnings and Endings

We reached Machu Picchu on a Saturday morning and spent the day wandering among the spectacular ruins. We explored the Temple of the Sun and sought out the Intihuatana, believed to be a sundial once used in rituals. We took photos from Funerary Rock with the classic postcard view as our backdrop, and chased the llamas that roam the grounds. We stared up beyond Huayna Picchu, the forbidding-looking rock that rises over the site.

We sucked in lungfuls of mountain air and soaked up the equatorial sunshine as it warmed this moment at the end of a long journey.

On the train ride back to Cusco and the long flight to Minneapolis, and even now, in the months since diving headfirst back into “real life,” I haven’t been able to shake the feeling that the trip didn’t really end.

I made new friends and connected more deeply with an old one. I learned about my physical limits and discovered that my mental capacity for adaptation is much stronger than I had ever imagined. I tried many things I’d never dreamed I would try. The trip was fun, and fulfilling in countless ways. And yet, there’s no tidy conclusion. No bow to neatly tie it all together.

I brought this up the other day to Mark. “What if the whole point of this trip is that there is no conclusion?” he offered. An ending, he pointed out, would be a closing of a door — but this trip, it was an opening. It got me excited about camping and hiking more, about seeking novel and challenging experiences in my life. As Mark put it: “Travel is for beginnings, not endings.”

Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu

A five-day trek that includes three meals a day and a guide, $549 to $649 with Valencia Travel Cusco. More info at www.theclymb.com/adventures

WEB EXTRA!

Adventures, Big and Small

For many people, the word “adventure” conjures images of rock climbing and deep-sea diving, skiing the Alps and cruising to Antarctica. But you don’t have to cross oceans or empty your life savings to find adventure. In fact, you can challenge your mind and body, and discover new experiences, without leaving your backyard.

“The concept of ‘explorer’ has more to do with entering into a certain mindset of exploration, rather than visiting foreign lands,” says Keri Smith, author and illustrator of How to Be an Explorer of the World. “We can choose to have an interesting experience wherever we are. We always have the potential to see something [we] didn’t notice at first.”

Smith, whose books were recently described by Time magazine as “training manuals that make people more willing to leap,” takes a democratic, adventure-for-all stance on exploration. Opportunities aren’t limited to those with the physical capabilities to scale Everest, the financial means to go on an African safari, or the thrill-seeking impetus to go base-jumping.

“A simple walk down a street is full of magical experiences,” she says. When we travel, “we are free to experiment. This way of inhabiting the world can be something that we choose to do on a regular basis . . . [by challenging] ourselves in small ways to try something new. When we begin to create a ‘habit’ of daring ourselves to try new things, in small ways, this can then translate later to bigger things. We become more willing to try.”

Not sure where to start? Smith offers the following advice:

Make a list of things that you haven’t done before. Start small. It could be trying a new food, a restaurant, a new drawing medium, a new route to school or work, wearing a color you’ve never tried, sitting in a new cafe. These things will be very personal and don’t have to cost money.

Try seeing the world in different ways. Pretend you are a character from a novel or film. Focus on one thing as you go about your day (light, smells, colors). Create a new soundtrack for your explorations out of music you don’t normally listen to and then listen to it as you wander. Pretend you are on vacation. Alter your pace. Alter one of your senses somehow; for example, wear earplugs.

Use your imagination. Create some kind of game for yourself as you go about the world. Design a scavenger hunt. Leave notes wherever you go. Hide things in trees for others to find.

Wander aimlessly on a regular basis. This allows for a situation where the unexpected can happen.

Become a collector. Collect things you find as you wander. Document your findings in a journal, scrapbook, blog, or other medium.

 

WEB EXTRA!

Train for the Trail: The Hiking Workout

Hiking, especially a multiday hike hauling a heavy pack full of gear at high altitude, is a special sort of physical and mental challenge. Strong legs, core, and lungs will power you up and down hills while also minimizing fatigue, soreness, and overall suffering.

Although I’d developed a base layer of strength through barbell and kettlebell training in the months leading up to my trek to Machu Picchu, fear of the unknown as the trip loomed closer prompted me to step up my game: a regimen that specifically targeted quad strength and core stability to support me in the descents, and hip strength to support the weight of my pack and stabilize my upper body.

The plan also highlighted the step-up to build overall strength and endurance. (In the month leading up to my trip, I logged 1,000 unweighted step-ups on a 20-inch box, plus 730 weighted step-ups with a 30-pound pack.)

The training plan below, designed by my friend and travel partner, personal trainer Mark Schneider, served as my template.

Directions: In the four weeks leading up to your trip, perform one session of each of the following workouts weekly for a three-day gym program. For weighted exercises, select a load that you can perform for the prescribed number of sets and reps without compromising good form.

Additionally, incorporate two to three days of hiking each week, if landscape and weather permit. For weeks one and two, hike without added weight but with the shoes you will wear on your trip. In weeks three and four, add your pack (with weight, building up to the load you will be carrying on the trip), plus the shoes and socks you will wear on your trip.

If hiking outdoors isn’t an option, climb stairs or perform step-ups for 15 to 20 minutes two to three times each week. (That’s in addition to the Day 3 workout, which includes a step-up portion.)

Day 1: Lower-Body Focus

Superset 1:

  • Squat variation

Choose one among the following options per workout:

  • Barbell or kettlebell front squat
  • Zercher squat
  • Barbell back squat

3 to 4 sets of 5 to 8 reps

  • Standing knee-to-elbow

3 to 4 sets of 5 to 8 reps per side

Superset 2:

  • Lunge variation
  • Choose one among the following options per workout:
  • Walking lunge
  • Reverse lunge
  • Elevated split squat

3 to 4 sets of 10 to 12 reps

  • Calf variation

Choose one among the following options per workout:

  • Standing calf raises with weight
  • Jump rope
  • Lateral hops
  • Seated calf raises

3 to 4 sets of 15 to 20 reps

Day 2: Upper Body/Midsection Focus

Superset 1:

  • Upright row variation

Choose one among the following options per workout:

  • Chin-up
  • Standing cable row
  • Face pull

3 to 4 sets of 6 to 8 reps

  • Hamstring/hip-mobility variation
  • Choose one among the following options per workout:
  • Step-up to tall box
  • Walking lunge with long stride
  • Shinbox

3 to 4 sets of 8 to 10 reps

Superset 2:

  • Hip hinge variation

Choose one among the following options per workout:

  • Deadlift
  • Kettlebell swing
  • Romanian deadlift
  • Good morning

3 to 4 sets of 4 to 6 reps

  • Core stabilization variation
    • Choose one among the following options per workout:
    • Dead bug
    • One-knee kneeling Pallof Press
    • Windmill

3 to 4 sets of 8 to 10 reps per side

Straight set:

  • Pressing variation

Choose one among the following options per workout:

  • One-arm overhead press
  • Incline dumbbell press
  • Dips

3 to 4 sets of 8 to 10 reps

Day 3: Total Body

Straight Set 1:

  • Heavy carry variation

Choose one between the following options per workout:

  • Two-hand farmer walk
  • Zercher carry

5 sets of 40 to 100 yards

Straight Set 2:

  • Twisting variation

Choose one among the following options per workout:

  • Turkish get-up
  • Full contact twist
  • Rotational kettlebell deadlift

3 sets of 6 to 8 reps

Straight Set 3:

  • Step-ups
    • Climb stairs or step up onto a box, starting low and building on the height each week

For time: Five to 15 minutes

 

WEB EXTRA!

Q & A: Keri Smith, author of How to Be an Explorer of the World

Experience Life | For many people the word “explorer” conjures images of conquistadores, pirates, and adventurers gallivanting across the globe. But you contend that everyone can be an explorer, and that we don’t have to venture very far from home to do so. What does being an “explorer” mean to you?

Keri Smith | When I was writing How to Be an Explorer of the World, I was pregnant with my first child. About halfway through, I developed a slight complication and had to be on bed rest for a period of time. At this point, my explorations became slightly more micro in scope: I studied dust piles in the corners of the room, the quality of light as it changed throughout the day, the ambient sounds. I was forced into a situation that pushed my idea of exploration to its limits. I have always had the philosophy of “use whatever you have in front of you in any given moment,” and I was given a chance to really use that. The concept of “explorer,” as I see it, has more to do with entering into a certain mindset of exploration, rather than visiting foreign lands. And, in that, we can choose to have an interesting experience wherever we are. We always have the potential to see something we didn’t notice at first.

EL | What inspired you to write your book?

KS | The book began with a list that revealed itself to me in the middle of the night; I scribbled it down frantically. It was a summation of all the things I had learned from teachers and other artists. I knew the list was important, so I decided to develop the ideas further.

As an artist, I was interested in a kind of “ethnography of everyday life,” or documenting the world as if you had never seen it before. How can you see things differently? How can we examine our daily life from the perspective of an artist/scientist? What if we approached everything as if it was full of interesting clues waiting for us to discover something we hadn’t noticed before? This became the focus of the assignments in the book. I suppose in a way I am asking you to look at the mundane with new eyes. That is the point where things start to get interesting.

Why is it that, when we are traveling, mundane things seem much brighter? A simple walk down a street is full of magical experiences. What is it about travel that allows us to be open to new experiences and try new things more willingly? It might be because we have shed ourselves of all habitual behavior, we become different versions of ourselves no longer enslaved to our daily ruts. We are free to experiment. This way of inhabiting the world can be something that we choose to do on a regular basis.

EL | Time magazine recently described your books as “training manuals that make people more willing to leap.” Do you agree with that description?

KS | I suppose I would agree, although I am incredibly fond of tricking people into doing things they are mostly unaware of. What I mean by that is I don’t like to talk too much about creativity, but instead trick you into having a creative experience. In the example of my earlier book, Wreck This Journal, by asking you to do something ridiculously simple and destructive to a page, I am effectively getting you to do very important journal work, and getting your creative brain working to figure out how you want to go about the destructive task. Hopefully, you don’t even notice that you are “leaping,” doing something that scares you a little. But it’s OK if you do.

EL | What might make someone unwilling to “leap”? Why do we hesitate when faced with doing something that we want to do, or something that might make us better?

KS | Trying new things is scary. One way of managing the fear is to challenge ourselves in small ways to try something new. When we begin to create a “habit” of daring ourselves to try new things, in small ways, this can then translate later to bigger things. We become more willing to try bigger things. The journal becomes the vehicle for regular leaping. The smearing of ink with our hands can translate to going to watch live music we’ve never heard of.

EL | Your work hinges on the idea that we should be willing to get out of our comfort zones. Why is it so vital that we embrace discomfort?

KS | If we don’t push ourselves regularly with the small things, over time our bodies, our senses, and our brains start to atrophy. Our world becomes smaller and smaller until we are living in a tiny little box. This seems to get worse as we age. We tell ourselves that the box is OK, that it is safe, but really the box becomes like a little prison.

Deep satisfaction, a sense of fulfillment, new experiences, tangibility, a direct experience of life, connection — these are the things our souls are really seeking. We cannot experience these things by staying in the same place (literally or metaphorically). We need to push ourselves into new ways of seeing and thinking, alter our course regularly, use all of our senses during our explorations, forget what we know, question things, wake ourselves up.

If we only participate in passive activities, [like watching] television, we become very much like them. Over time, that behavior becomes ingrained and it makes it much more difficult to break out of a cycle of passivity. We can all speak to the ways in which this manifests in ourselves, if we are completely honest. I’m attempting to encourage a habitual pushing out of the comfort zone to get us accustomed to experimenting.

EL |  What does adventure mean to you? Would you describe yourself as an adventurous person? Do you seek it? Or does adventure organically find you as a result of your penchant for exploration?

KS | Adventure is entirely subjective and personal. While I would not say that I am a particularly adventurous person, by creating a regular habit of pushing my comfort zones over the years I have become much more comfortable with “experimenting,” generally speaking. I suppose I am referring to creativity and my artistic approach, but it also applies to other life experiences, [such as] travel, food, etc. I am much more daring than I used to be. I am equally interested in finding an adventure in my backyard as I am of traveling to foreign lands. The world is like a game board — how can I shape it, document it, investigate it, add my own narrative to it?

Maggie Fazeli Fard is Experience Life’s senior fitness editor.

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