Stairway to Heaven: IncaTrek 2003

As we climbed the steep, slick bulwarks known as “Last 60 Steps” towards the Sun Gate in the pre-dawn mist of the Andean mountains, my thoughts were whirling around the less glamorous things. 25 miles and 14,000+ feet of altitude later, my legs were aching for the more cushy times in the Morris lounge. My clothes, still drenched from the torrential downpour the afternoon before, were sending shivers down my back 14 hours later. The morning hike has left me covered in mud from my knees down. But as I took the last step towards that ancient outpost of a civilization gone with the wind, the memories of the hard, lumpy floor of the tent, the 3:30am reveille, and days of altitude sickness faded in the splendor of what stood before us. Machu Picchu, the once-lost Inca stronghold, rose from the valley between several virgin peaks, hugged at their base by the roaring Urubamba river. Oh, was it worth the trouble.

Rather than follow our sectionmates to the tropical lushes of Costa Rica or the island paradise of the Dominican, we took the road [relatively] less traveled by choosing southern Peru as our getaway recipe. We came looking for adventures of all shapes and sizes: our itinerary included sightseeing, whitewater rafting, horseback riding and, of course, trekking. What we came away with was a whole new perspective on this unique part of the world, its people and ourselves.

It didn’t take us long to get under way – a couple of hours after landing in Cusco, the ancient Inca capital, led by our only Spanish speaker and master spokesman Benjamin, we were leaving our downtown hotel ($10/night with all you can eat papaya) for the city. We soon discovered that altitude sickness wasn’t something to be ignored (even at 11,300 feet), and spent the rest of our hike through town and its environs nursing ourselves on coca in all known forms – teas, cookies, candy and straight leaves. Exhausted and emburdened with what would be our first street purchases – from pottery to baby alpaca scarves – we collapsed into our lumpy beds.

The next couple of days took us into the Sacred Valley, where we admired the countless gorges, valleys and vistas, the near-alien precision, form and technological mystery of Inca temples, and the long-faded opulence of Spanish churches, uneasily erected over demolished or weathered Inca sites. We strolled through several markets, gobbling up the local “treasures” while getting our first glimpse into the daily lives of Incas’ descendants. We rafted the mighty Urubamba, swell from the rainy season, and shared home-cooked Peruvian delicacies with our guides amidst a rainstorm, as Dean was striking up an acquaintance with three German med school coeds that shared our raft.

But the highlight of our trip was, no doubt, the 25 mile, 4-day, hike (or, at times, crawl, slide, and climb) through 14,100 feet to Machu Picchu. While we did have some help along the way (10 porters, 2 cooks and a superstar guide Bobby), this was no day at the beach. Treacherous slides, near-vertical ascents (not maintained since the Inca times), mud, dehydration and mother Altitude seemed to get the best of us at times, but the swiftness and foresight of our crew rescued us every time we stumbled into the campsite. I mean, could we really expect a daily 4:00PM tea time, complete with biscuits and jam, not to mention the 4-course lunches and dinners, and tea in our tents in the mornings, all served in formal sit-down settings?

But the trek was much more than a strenuous walk with a traveling all-you-can-eat buffet. It was a round-the-clock biology lesson, as Bobby incessantly pointed out various native plants and described all their magic powers (from contraception to IQ enhancements), real or imagined. We took in our daily doze of history, as the mysteries of the Inca civilization and the ugly truth of colonization took shape in precise solar calendars, still-functioning aqueducts and defaced shrines. The Inca experience came to its apex in Machu Picchu, as every temple, palace or town square seemed to unravel the accomplishments, beliefs, and even occasional miscues of these amazing people.

Having indulged in other local traditions such as Inca Kola and Cusquena beer while waiting out the avalanche that delayed our train back to Cusco, we changed things up a bit by spending our last day in a beachfront caf‚ in the ritzier part of Lima. As the sunset setting over the Pacific reflected off our cocktail glasses, the scale, joy and awe of the entire experience began to set in our minds … and it’s far from done.