Inca Trail To Machu Picchu

My lungs gasped for air but there was no such substance. Day 2 of our trek- clinging to my determination gulping fast, shallow breaths. I coaxed oxygenated blood to my heavy limbs to drag me up Warmiwainuska-Dead Woman’s Pass. At an elevation of 4215 meters, we were at the highest point of the Inca Trail, notorious for its challenges. 

Synapses in my brain were on strike. The steep incline through desert-like terrain was a vast change from the rolling paths and stone staircases we had trekked the day before. The single track path reaching to the summit was flanked by the perilous edge that fell into the pit of the valley. I willed my cognition to stay alert in the rarified atmosphere. I was convinced the trail was given its name for its treachery. Maybe some poor woman perished attempting to reach the summit...I later found out that the original people of Peru the Quechua named it so, because from below the crests of the valley resembles a supine woman.

I gave way as another energetic porter, a man in his mid 60’s smiled and left me in the dust. Keeling over trying to catch my breath, my ego crumpled in his wake. I was certain that the porters had some kind of Andean superpower, giving them the ability to rip up the range like mountain goats. They took swift, easy steps, expertly maneuvering around unbound rocks under the weight of our massive bags. Poking out of their sandals made out of car tires were brown, hardened, toes covered in dust from the miles we trekked. I felt embarrassed sporting my overpriced hikers, which clearly did not possess any magic to expedite my ascent.

Porters passed by me one by one while chomping on their coca leaves. The Coca leaf is used in the Andes as a traditional medicine for altitude sickness and stimulant to ward off fatigue. Apparently chewing the leaves is harmless, but the very same foliage prepared with toxic chemicals will make the renowned king of drugs: Cocaine. I had accumulated a saliva ball the size of a big marble which I stored in my cheek like a hamster. I let the acrid essence dribble down my throat in the space between my breaths. The spiteful taste kept my eyes on the prize and legs moving. 

I periodically looked over my shoulder to check on the group. Da was last in line behind the trail of bowed heads- sparsely spread out. Trudging behind the lady who arrived in Cusco in a pantsuit and high heels, Da patiently pushed her forward with his charisma. We all faced the mountain carrying our metaphorical baggage. It was up to us to transform our burdens into fuel- to just keep climbing one step at a time.

Standing on the summit of Dead Woman’s Pass I was exhilarated, giddy and exceptionally exhausted. I felt like a champion for actualizing my potential. I was high fiving and hollering as each participant crossed the threshold. My joy had an expansive feel to it- weightless, like I was levitating above the clouds. The sudden violent whirling in my head smashed me back down to Earth. My bliss flipped on its backside in a matter of seconds in a knockout blow.


My head rested on Da’s lap while the world spun around me. I lay discombobulated inside the cave of the 4 man tent. The best way to describe how I felt was akin to an epic hangover- like I had recklessly consumed copious amounts of mismatched liquor. Da had his broad palm cupped over my forehead as he always did when I was sick.

Our guide Alberto, sat across from us- his gentle face illuminated by a single candle. He was crouched over his Mesa, purposefully laying out symbolic objects for a Despacho ceremony. The items were offerings to Pachamama; Earth goddess and to Apus; the mountains. I surrendered the weight of my achy body while my head rhythmically pulsed against Da’s hand. Alberto called upon the spirit of nature to siphon my suffering and transform it into something good. His lulling incantations pulled me in and out of consciousness. I chose 3 coca leaves from the pile laid out on a piece of woven cloth in slow motion. Instructed to hold it into a fan shape, I blew on it three times and released my plea for vitality. 

I recalled fragments of the ceremony when I awoke feeling noticeably better the next morning. Either I acclimated to the altitude while I slept or Alberto truly summoned the Earth Spirits to work magic on me. I tested my feet by walking over to the edge of the ridge. We were poking above the clouds at Puyupatamarka: Temple of the clouds. Sandwiched between the sun and wispy clouds, I took in the alpine breeze deeply into my lungs and exhaled gratitude. With the daunting task of surviving two more days, I packed up my things and set off at turtle speed. 


Walking through the Sun Gate, my Soul illuminated at the first sight of Machu Picchu. The glory of the ancient citadel was still intact.  At 2,350 meters above sea level, the Conquistadors never found the stone city. Terraces, buildings, and public squares were quietly nestled between the peaks of Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu. The hardships of the previous days dissipated as we forged forward to the finish line. 

Leaving the Sun Gate, the group scurried on with renewed energy propelling us forth to the Lost City of the Incas. The mystical presence of ancient times permeated the maze of stone structures.  We scattered to explore the many buildings and sectors that blended in beautifully with the surrounding landscape. It was as if the Almighty himself carved the city right out of the mountain.

Yearning to be alone, I navigated the sacred site by avoiding sounds of clicking cameras held by zealous tourists.  My hands dragged across the cold, archaic rocks perfectly shaped to fit like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The bricks were meticulously constructed to fit together without the need for mortar.  There wasn’t a single space to slip a note between the stones. How did people in the 15th-century mine and shape these rocks to perfection? What did the people eat and where did they get their food from? Who lived here close to the gods? 

I befriended a Llama in my wanderings before I found the Funeral Rock. The enormous slab of rock sat in a cemetery site exuding a sense of purpose. Three steps and a flat landing was sculpted out of the bulk, clearly for one principle objective. It was large enough for an adult to lie on.  Were the dead laid out here so their spirit could rise into the cosmos? Was it used for sacrifices to please the gods? Perhaps a platform crafted for the Shaman Astronomer to commune with the stars?

Pondering its purpose, I gravitated cautiously towards the solid bulk.  It beckoned me to lay my back against it’s smooth, dense surface… but it was roped off. No one was around and they would never know….The voice of my desire ultimately conformed to my manner of restraint to “do the right thing”.  I was yet to find my own set of rules to live by- to smash down the invisible walls built on other people’s shoulds.  I regretted not seizing the moment and letting the magic pass me by.

Back with the group, I told Da about my urge to lay on the Death Rock. Rather than giving me a pat on the back for being a respectable tourist, he quickly devised a scheme to get me on the slab. Da does not play by the rules. He nonchalantly declared that we were to come back at night and simply bribe the guards to let us in after hours.  Mama was usually the one who dealt with Da’s crazy ideas. She’s won a few battles but by the time his spark turned into a raging fire no one could stop him on a mission. I immediately regretted telling him about my fancy. Afraid of potentially getting arrested for bribery, I implored Da to drop his absurd idea.  The glint in his eyes assured that it was a done deal.

We took the shuttle bus down the winding mountain road to the town of Aguas Calientes located at the foot of Machu Picchu. Da leaned over and informed me that we were to execute our late-night escapade after soaking in the hot springs. He wasn’t going to let it go. 

“Machu Picchu cerrado”. The taxi driver repeatedly told us it was closed but Da persisted- “Si, Si Yo sé… I know”. Da smiled, nodded and pointed up the mountain. The Cabbie eventually shrugged his shoulders and took our fare anyway. Squirming in the backseat, my heart synced with the rushing sound of the Urubamba River. I couldn’t possibly survive a Peruvian prison! What would become of our group? We’d make the headlines in the Kansai news… “Irresponsible tour facilitators arrested for bribery at one of the 7 wonders of the world!”

At the gate, I stood frozen a few meters behind Da while he negotiated with the guards. Fear and shame bubbled up in the coulden of my belly- a concoction that made me want to throw up.  “Muchas Gracias, Muchas Gracias” Da shook hands with the guards. “Let’s go!” I felt the frame of my body relax. The churning in my stomach subdued into a glowing feeling of excitement. Enveloped in the mystery of an onyx night sky, Machu Picchu was entirely ours to explore.

Roca Sagrada- the sacred rock sat dominantly in the Central Plaza at the foot of Little Peak-Huayna Picchu. It’s dark, massive, silhouette matched the profile of the mountain behind it which was a few shades lighter. We stood in reverence as the soundless citadel amplified its sacredness from all around us. 

Time leaned against us as a reminder of our mission. Clicking our Petzl lights back on, we broke the silence. With our foreheads beaming the way, we miraculously backtracked to the cemetery without getting lost. There was a vast heaviness in my body as I lay down…as if I was made of the same material as the rock . Pressed between the mystery of the past and the starry sky, there was a spark of remembrance of a time before mine. Tethered to the human experience, my heart cracked open. 

Mesa’s laid out and a ceremonial smoke with Da.
Keeping my eyes on the prize.

The glory of Machu Picchu.
Andean superheros .
Soaking in Aguas Calientes with some of the members of our group.

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