A few years ago, friends of mine invited me to their wedding in Lima, Peru. If I were going to Lima, then surely I was going to swing by Machu Picchu. And if I was going to Machu Picchu, then I was sure to hike the Inca Trail—a four-day trek up into the Andes before descending on Machu Picchu at sunrise. A hike through cloud forests and sub-tropical jungles and Inca ruins, including the City Above Clouds. It sounded like the perfect lead to Machu Picchu. And it would have been, if only I had been a bit less delusional. Or the tour operator had been a bit more explicit about the conditions.
I signed up with a tour operator that boasted small groups and best camping sites. They provided the meals and the tents, while we were responsible for carrying our sleeping bags, mats and the rest of our luggage. Unless, we requested a personal porter. A seasoned backpacker—or so I thought myself—I didn’t even consider the option. I was in my early 30s. I was in comparatively great shape. And I had recently backpacked in Montana, Wyoming, California and Utah. I was sure, only the old folks in the group would relinquish their backpacks. Well, I was wrong. On both counts.
To my surprise—and grave disappointment—I was the second oldest person in the group. The other group members, boys and girls in their early 20s (from Ireland, New Zealand and Australia) were traveling the world in their gap year before college or graduate school. And they had all hired a personal porter and were now prancing up the hill with only a daypack. Still, I wasn’t deterred. I proudly hoisted my backpack and joined the line of hikers. Not a big deal. I’ve done it before. Only that I hadn’t done it before. Not on the Inca Trail. The problem was, there was no “trail.” We hiked instead an endless sequence of stone steps going straight up at an impossibly steep incline. Apparently, the Incas hadn’t heard of switchbacks.
Going up was hard enough, but climbing down, with the heavy backpack on my back, destroyed my knees. As an ex-gymnast, I’ve always had trouble with my knees, but the pain I experienced on the last two days of the hike was excruciating. By the time we finally reached Machu Picchu, I could barely walk. I dropped my backpack and sat on the grass taking in the breathtakingly beautiful complex, unable to walk around with the rest of my group. I was there but I can’t say I SAW Machu Picchu.
The very next day, I landed in Lima and put on my high heels to attend my friends’ wedding. It was not a pretty picture.