After drinking my coca tea, I met with the group, and we loaded up in a van. We then drove for about 30 minutes to the start of the trail. Hugo was full of energy, and from the start, I could tell we would get along very well. Most of the other guides and members of the crew did not speak English, making it difficult to communicate for some of us. We approached our starting point, unloaded the van, and loaded up our backs. Hugo explained the first section would be flat at the beginning but long and steep at the end and should take around 8 hours to get to the first camp.
As I loaded my pack onto my back, I had an overwhelming feeling of anticipation, excitement, and anxiety. I had waited for this experience for a long time, and it felt surreal at that moment.
Breathing at these altitudes is difficult and can make even the seasoned athlete keel over, but I was looking forward to the challenge and needed the escape. Looking down one foot in front of the other, I began the hike. The atmosphere and scenery are excellent, and the sense of oneness with Pachamama (Mother Nature) was undeniable. As we hiked along the trail, Hugo was very knowledgeable about local flora and fauna. He also knew the history, practices, and most of the previous ancient civilizations that occupied the past territory. Every once and a while, we would stop rest, and Hugo would tell local legends and stories. As we progressed up the mountain, the breaks became more frequent as the air’s oxygen got thinner. After a few hours of hiking, we came across a few villages of local people living similar to the Quechua. He explained how many people in this area still live the same as they did generations ago.
As we continued to walk, the terrain got steeper, and we could begin to see an immense waterfall in the distance. We continued to hike until we came to the base of the Perolinyoq waterfall. The waterfall’s power and presence were all-encompassing, and it is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful waterfalls I have ever had the privilege of being in the presence of. Hugo told the legend of a mermaid-like woman that lived behind the waterfall and would come out at night to scavenge for hikers food and equipment.
After spending some time at the waterfall cooling off, we continued to hike up the side of the mountain. Eventually, we could see an ancient Inca ruin across the valley on the side of a mountain and above that our first base camp. We continued for another 4 hours or so until we reached the ancient Inca ruins of Q’orimarca, which is believed to have been used for food storage, worship, and a resting point for Inca messengers. From here, you have a fantastic view of the valley and the trail that we had hiked thus far. We rested as Hugo talked about Inca culture and how they would build food storage sites throughout the valley. The Inca knew techniques to preserve foods like potatoes for hundreds of years, how messenger would run different trails to Machu Picchu locations and needed these places for food and shelter. Once Hugo had finished, we continued hiking another 30 minutes until we reached our first base camp. All of the tents had been set up by the porters since we would be arriving so late, and Hugo let us know which tents were who’s and a brief explanation of where to use the restroom, when we would eat, and other basics of camp. I walked over to my tent pretty exhausted and took off my backpack, which felt heavy by that point. It felt so good to unload and relax. I got my sleeping back, and gear situated in my tent and then laid down in front of my tent and did some yoga stretching. As I sat back up and looked out over the valley, the sun began to set. I felt terrific about my strength and endurance and more alive than I had in a long time. I thought about mom and could feel her presence around me and smiled with a tear in my eye as I knew she was enjoying the moment with me.
In the background, I could hear Hugo letting us know that dinner was about ready and for everyone to come to the main tent to eat. I strapped my headlamp on my head as it was almost dark and walked over to the main tent. Evenings in the main tent were many fun and many great conversations, with Hugo being the organizer. He also liked to play name that tune. We always had an assortment of teas and hot chocolates and bread and cracker, sometimes popcorn. We would then have soup followed by the main dish, usually rice, potatoes, some vegetable and chicken, fish, or beef. A desert and more conversation followed that. After we had our fill, it was time to sleep, which was not a problem because we were all tired. After once more coca tea, I walked over to my tent and managed to work my way into the sleeping bag. It was cold at night between 30-40 degrees, and the oxygen in the air was thin. As I began to close my eyes, I could not help but think of the mermaid creature lol, thanked God for the amazing day, and fell asleep.
I walk up the next morning around 4:30, got my boots and jacket on, and headed over to the main tent for breakfast. A few people were having altitude sickness and did not sleep well, so they took medication, which helped them some, but Hugo insisted not to take the medication that the side effects were terrible and to drink coca tea. After breakfast, coffee, and conversation consisting of what the days hiking would consist of, everyone went back to their tents to load up. After getting everything situated and water bladders filled up, Hugo handed us all a bagged lunch, and we began our hike around 6:00.Hugo had let us know that day two would be the hardest with the steepest accents and longest distance. I felt good and was excited about the challenge. After hiking for about two hours, we were at a very high altitude, about 14,500 feet, and breathing became even more challenging. So our paces slowed, and our breaks became more frequent. The landscape was so dynamic yet peaceful with a wide range of sights and smells. After another few hours, we stopped to eat our bagged lunch. By this time, the temperature had warmed up, and the sun was intense. I re-applied sunscreen and striped a layer of clothesWhile eating my lunch and conversing with the group, Hugo answered a question about local culture and wildlife. He explained that the Condor was one of the most sacred animals to the area and much of Peru. As we came to one of the steepest climbs, Hugo asked if everyone was ok and that the next 1000 yards would be challenging but rewarding. We all shook our heads, some more sure than others, and pushed on, frequently breaking as my heart pounded out of my chest. As we reached the top, we were all rewarded with an unbelievable view of the Andes’ snow-capped mountains. It was breathtaking, not just because of the hike and lack of oxygen but also because of the mountains’ power. I sat down and took it all in. It points like this in life. I realized that you learn the most and grow.
Along with the mountain range we were on, you could see rocks stacked randomly everywhere. Hugo explained that they are placed for various reasons; trail marking, prayer, wish, memory, and I’m sure multiple reasons for other cultures in different regions. I gathered a group of rocks, stacked them with the intention of a memorial for mom, and said a few prayers. We all had our moments, and then we got together for a group picture before continuing on our way. The hike’s rest was pretty flat with slight up and down small hills until we reached camp.
It was routine at camp to take off boots, backpack, get the tent situated, and relax a minute before going to the main tent for dinner. By this time, I felt acclimated to the altitude, and my breathing was not as labored. My feet and back were a little sore, and my knees, but overall I felt good. After eating another delicious meal, Hugo played name that tunes consisting of the ’80s and pop music, which surprised me that he liked it and knew most of it. We all had some good laughs that night about the hike and our adventure this far before heading to our sleeping bags and passing out.
The next morning, I felt a bit stiff but good overall and excited that I would see the sun gate today. I Ate breakfast, loaded up, and headed out. Today’s trek would be challenging with a steep ascent followed by a rocky switchback descent and a gradual slope toward the sun gate. The trails’ uphill accents were very challenging and, at that altitude, was much more complicated than it looked. Once at the top, I was rewarded with an amazing view of the mountains and valley below. Once everyone had reached the top, we had lunch and listened to Hugo talk about the Quechua and Inca people’s traditions and culture. He then explained that the next section would be dangerous, and we would need to use hiking poles to ensure proper stabilization while hiking down the steep boulder and rock-filled switchbacks. Hugo spotted a Condor far up in the sky circling the mountain top as we continued on the hike, and I must say it was quite a majestic experience. As we got toward the bottom, we rested a bit and talked about how technical that section of the hike was and how fortunate we felt to see a Condor flying in the Peruvian Andes.The next section would be to the Sun Gate and take a few hours on mostly even terrain. It is somewhere in this section of the hike that I lost my headphones, which at the time I was frustrated but felt in the end it was a good thing because they can be isolating, and I needed to take in nature’s sounds. As we got about 30 minutes out, you could start to see the sun gate in the distance and the majestic Andes mountain peaks behind it. It felt like something straight out of the Lord of the Rings. My heartbeat was faster as we approached and walked along what seemed like the mountain’s massive backbone.
The Sun Gate Inti Punku on the Inca Quarry trail, which in Quechua, means ‘Sun Gate’, and the Incas built structures like these throughout the Andes to honor the sun god. This intriguing archaeological complex overlooks Ollantaytambo and the valley below – which was a fantastic reward on the challenging second day. We all took pictures and then hiked downhill toward the Sacred Valley and base camp for the last night.
As we approached base camp, we stumbled upon another group camping 100 yards above us. The quarry trail’s nice thing is it is not as crowded, and this is the only other group we came across during the entire hike. We stopped and talked for a while, shared experiences, and continued. Once at camp, the same routine of unloading, getting everything situated, freshening up, and most importantly, taking off my boots. By this point, my feet were sore but no blisters, thanks to good smart wool socks and Salomon boots. I rested for a moment and then headed to the main tent for dinner. At dinner, as usual, Hugo had a funny story to tell about a group of girls that came on the hike a few months back and how the porters and guides were going out of their way to be nice to them because they were beautiful. Well, apparently, on the second day, the porters stumbled upon the girls peeing standing up and were shocked. They could not believe they were trans. So Hugo said from then on, the porters no longer hit on them or went out of their way to help. So one evening, one of the so-called girls said to Hugo, what is wrong with the porters? They seem to be shy and no longer interested in us. Hugo said honestly; they saw you peed standing up and were surprised to find out you are men. They started laughing and said, we are not men; we use a “She Wee,” a device that girls use to pee standing up. They all got a good laugh, and the porters could not believe it.
After more stories and plenty of food and tea, I headed to the tent for the final night sleeping on the trail. As I walked to my tent, I had an in-depth conversation with the gentleman Robert from Scotland. We both looked over the valley as the sun faded, and the sky turned black. I can say the stars were amazing that night, and although I felt one with the universe at that Moment I felt tiny compared to the depths of time and space. I headed to my tent, got in my sleeping bag, and passed out, wholly exhausted mentally and physically.
I woke up around the same time and the same routine. Today’s hike would be the easiest of all the days as we hiked through the Sacred Valley down into Ollantaytambo. Since we had descended so much yesterday and would continue today, the weather got warmer, and the oxygen was more available in the air, and my lungs were appreciative. As we continued hiking, Hugo had mentioned to me previously about ancient tombs up into the mountains that were far from the trail, but he would take me when we got to that point if I was interested and had the stamina. Robert and I were game, so we left our bags with the rest of the group, who were gracious enough to wait, and hiked up the side of the quarry mountain to the ancient tombs.
The hike was challenging and took about 45 minutes, but you could see mounded stones and underground entrances to tombs when we got close. This was amazing experience and almost seemed like a childhood fantasy of living out Indiana Jones’s adventure. The opening was very narrow, but as you climbed down in the rock quarry tomb, you could see skeletons’ remains. The feeling in the tomb was eerie, and I was very respectful of the environment and the loss of life, especially considering I had just lost my mom, dad, and grandmother. I was very emotional as I exited the tomb and said a prayer. We each took a turn going down into the grave as Hugo explained, he rarely ever took anyone to these tombs and assured me that death is just the beginning of something new and that life soul energy never ends.
We hiked back down to the group, shared our experience, and headed toward the trail. We hit a few rough patches of mosquitos, which were happy to see me, but I cannot say the same. Hugo explained rubbing leaves from the peppercorn tree would repel then, and sure enough, it worked. We saw some great plants, including San Pedro, a local medicine that produces hallucinations similar to Peyote. We also started seeing animals, small villages, and farms. After a lunch break and a few more hours, we crossed the bridge back into the town of Ollantaytambo. At this point, it felt awkward and strange to be around civilization and so much commotion. My senses were significantly heightened, and I just wanted to hike back up into the mountains. I did enjoy a beer as we headed to the train that would take us to Aquas Calientes, the gateway to Machu Picchu.