Part II: Machu Picchu – Realizations from New Year’s Day

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Okay, let me back up this story a lil bit.

To give a little context to our trek: the Inca Trail – or “el Camino Inka” – was the path the Inca (kings) used to make the journey to Machu Picchu. Along the trail, they built different fortresses or sites along the way for various purposes (agricultural as well as spiritual and political), that also allowed them to send fire signals (in a domino effect) from one site to another to sound an alarm during invasions or external threats (I told someone who was confused: “it’s kinda like that scene in Lord of the Rings”). The trail was not used as a commercial route (since there were other roads for those purposes), it was a religious and ceremonial pilgrimage conducted by the Inca, that allowed them to honor the land and the mountains.

So while our journey was historically a very spiritual one, I have to admit looking back that as visitors and tourists to the region, we could have honored and respected that history in a better way. I’ll get onto that point much later.

An Incan site along el Camino Inka

An Incan site along el Camino Inka

Since our group was late on our journey due to trip delays, our guide, Victor, said that he would “tell us about the site later”.

* * * * *

Anyway, back to Day 3: The 10 Mile Hike to the Gates

Up another 2 miles on Day 3

Up another 2 miles on Day 3

On the third day, we woke up to hot coca tea and water once more around 5 am. Even as groggy as I was, I realized that I did feel HELLLLAA better. My flu-like symptoms had subsided quite a bit, and even though I was tired and felt weak, it was the most sleep I’ve had in a long time (I pretty much rested from 5 pm the day before til 5 am the next day). I must say that someone, some god, or some spirit out there must have taken pity on me, because I have no idea how my health improved so quickly. Or maybe it was the drug cocktails I was taking the day before.

It was probably both.

At 6 am we were off again, starting our trip with two miles of steep rocky steps (it actually ended up not being too bad) where we stopped halfway at one of the Incan sites to learn about the history and the purpose from Victor. Random side note: As we headed up the second mountain of our trip, I looked to my left and saw a small pond – it looked exactly like a pond I once saw in a dream – near the top of the peak.  Except that in my dream, I think the pond was life-threatening to the people and animals around it (perhaps it was a preemptive warning to me that I didn’t understand at the time). At any rate, it was an incredibly strange deja vu experience.

The deja vu pond

The deja vu pond

The hardest part about Day 3 is that for most of the hike, you’re going down extremely steep stone stairs. While it is downhill travel, it’s a killer for anyone with bad knees or ankles (like myself), plus the steps are often wet from stream runoff. Tread carefully.

After a few miles, we visited another Incan site  and then descended down to the next camp stop for lunch. It was interesting to see how the climate changed from a high, cold cloud forest to a warmer, more jungle-type environment rich with moss, water, ferns, and plant life.


After lunch, we finally had a chance to meet all of the porters that had the incredibly hard task of carrying the group’s gear (camping and cooking equipment) on their back for the entire trip. In all we had about eleven men that helped us, from a young 22 year old guy to a 54 year old man. We also had to introduce ourselves and say our name, where we were from, our age, and whether or not we were single (!)

“Me llamo Tiffany…Soy de California…tengo treinta y cuatro anos…y soy soltera tambien (UGH!)”

One interesting thing about our group is that out of the 21 people that came on our trip, 18 were women (mostly in their early to late 30’s), and most of us were single. Is this what single women in their 30’s do – travel the world and do whatever while most of our friends talk about babies, marriage, buying homes – and other things that we can’t relate to? Interesting.

After lunch, we continued on for another five miles to our final camp. It was scenic, rainy and warm at different times, and long…

I made it to camp with the group of folks that I had been hiking with around 5 pm. At camp, we could see through the trees an amazing view of the mountains and the river below, as well as the path to Machu Picchu on our left. And a huge temple, nestled high on the mountain that experimented in agricultural techniques.

The view from camp, night 3

The view from camp, night 3

After dinner that night, we said goodbye to the porters, and gave them thanks for all their help. Since we had to get up at 3:30 am the next day, we all did our best to get rest before the 4 mile hike the next day.

Day 4: A Lesson in Life, Death, and Spirituality

Day 4 was all about waking up and packing up in time so that the porters to make it to their train (they unfortunately can’t ride the same trains that tourists do, and vice versa, which is so wack), eating breakfast, and standing in line at the gates to start the hike to Machu Picchu, the culmination of our trip.

As we stood in line and waited, we prepared. Raina led yoga exercises, while I stretched my incredibly sore calves and quads and Jennifer stretched her knee. Me and Jen were the hurt/sick people of the trip that required extensive care to make it to the end! We bonded over that.

Me and Jen, the injured/sick people of the trip

Me and Jen

As the clock hit 5:30 am, the gates opened and we were all up and hiking. There were a few other groups in front of ours and a few groups behind us, but as we’ve been the slow group for the past few days, some of us straggled behind while everyone else barreled ahead. I stayed behind to hang out with Jennifer, who was limping so badly that we weren’t sure how she was going to hike for 4 miles. Jessica and I tried to brace her knee while I gave her 600 mg of ibuprofen for the extreme pain that she was in. That definitely helped.

The smallest orchids in the world on the 4th day hike to Machu Picchu

The smallest orchids in the world on the 4th day hike to Machu Picchu

As we slowly hiked up the trail – taking pictures and limping along the way – we heard someone tell us:

“Someone fell off the trail, be careful as you hike! Stay close to the mountain and stay away from the edge!”


I thought that they might have been scaring us, but I was unfortunately hella wrong.

After 10 minutes of hiking, we came across a small group of about 7 hikers, American and European tourists, who were broken down in tears. My heart sank.  I looked to my right and saw the curve of the trail that the girl must have slipped off of as she ran to catch up with the rest of her group. Everyone was crying. WE were crying. It was absolutely heartbreaking.

For the next few hours, it was absolute craziness. Our group’s guides Jessica and Joel went to help out their groups guides. In fact, all the guides in the area were asked to step in and help with the rescue. I sat with Jessica’s stuff as she went back to talk to the girl’s boyfriend about the fallen girl’s life insurance. If they could get ahold of her coverage, they might have been able to send help – and more sophisticated help – at a much faster rate.

Her boyfriend was inconsolable. As I sat about 60 meters from where the group was situated, I could hear deep crying, and words. He was sending her love, despite his pain. It was unbearable grief.

I met up with the rest of my group – the ones that stayed behind to find help and to help Jennifer with her knee (thank gawd for Nuria and Randall, the two physical therapists on our trip!) – and continued on with them to the Sun Gate atop the mountain above Machu Picchu. We collected there as a big group, as everyone scrambled to get cell phone service to call the US Embassy in Peru, call the girl’s life insurance coverage, call the local police. We talked with members of the girl’s group who had hiked behind us who were walking to get help from the hotel/town near Machu Picchu.

And then we couldn’t do any more. We hiked down slowly and carefully towards Machu Pichhu, with the memories of the morning’s events heavy on our minds. I had a hard time appreciating the trip at that moment, but we all did our best to keep our energies high and make it successfully to the temple.

Our first glimpse of Machu Picchu from a distance

Our first glimpse of Machu Picchu from a distance

When the fog lifted and we finally saw the stone buildings of Machu Picchu for the first time, it was an incredibly uplifting sight. We took tons of photos, celebrated a little bit, and made some time to be appreciative of our journey. Afterwards we continued on further, down to the entrance gates, where we stopped to regroup, get our tickets, and check our bags.

Randy, Penny, Lizzie, Raina, and me

Randy, Penny, Lizzie, Raina, and me

The rest of the day was a bit of a blur for me. While we had began our day at 3:30 am, by the time we reached Machu Picchu, it was already about 11:30 am. Since we were now at a much lower elevation, the sun’s rays hit us harshly as we sat passively and listened to Victor’s talk about Machu Picchu and Incan history. As always, since I’m a visual/kinesthetic learner, I had a hard time paying attention to the talk. It was also hard given what we had all witnessed in the morning, coupled with the fact that we hadn’t had anything to eat since about 4 am that day.

Hella tired while listening to our guide, VIctor

I could talk about Machu Picchu – its history, its many purposes, the culture and spirituality behind it, and how we’ve come to learn about its history (mostly through European travelers, unfortunately) but that can be googled. What I walked away with that day was much more than that.

Group photo


* * * * *

We arrived at Machu Picchu on New Years Day, 2013. I usually do a lot of personal reflection and goals setting at the beginning of every year. As I stood looking out at the mountains, stone architecture, and wide garden terraces, I tried to make sense out of all the things that I had experienced since setting foot on the Inca Trail, just 4 days ago. A few things came to my mind, but the one thing that stood out to me was this thought:

We don’t belong here. 

Yeah…I´m not trying to be negative, and I’m not saying that people shouldn’t visit Machu Picchu. The trip was amazing and had incredible highlights, don’t get me wrong. Penny was a great trip organizer, I hella appreciate all the work and coordination she put into our trip to make it enjoyable and smooth. I loved our guides, Jessica, Joel – and even Victor, who all helped me out while I was sick. And I really liked and appreciated the trekking company that we worked with that’s owned by a local woman (one of the only companies that hires women as guides for these kinds of treks). It wasn’t all that. The people that I was with for the past 4 days were awesome, and I had a great time learning about the history of the trail, hiking through gorgeous valleys and mountains, and getting to know everyone in our group.

Snack bar and pit stop on the way up the mountain, Day 2

Snack bar and pit stop on the way up the mountain, Day 2

I talked to a friend back in the states after the trek, who helped me make sense of everything. He mentioned that before he enters any place that’s scared or historical, he makes sure to do a ceremony beforehand out of respect for the site and those that once lived there, to ask for permission. And it was true – while we learned a great deal about the history and Incan culture, the one thing that was severely lacking was the spiritual aspect of our trip. I felt it from the beginning, but was too shy (and felt too rushed) to say anything. But that’s exactly how I felt too.

Machu Picchu is totally overrun with tourism. Camps and vendors stands can be found every mile along the trail, while bottles and trash litter the trail and sites. The toilets actually flush into the mountains’ streams, instead of going into pipes to be processed at a water treatment plant. While the Peruvian government has limited the trail to 500 travelers per day, I don´t know if it´s enough. The energy around the mountains sometimes seems sad and heavy.


I reflect back on my sickness, the hurt members of our group, the girl who fell, the number of visitors that get sick or hurt each day. Sometimes we need to be more mindful and aware of our status as visitors and outsiders, who just can’t understand the culture or the meaning of the area as well as the people who once belonged there, or those that have lived there for centuries.


Besides doing short meditation sit with Raina (my fellow “hippie” comrade) before the end of our trip (to the great annoyance of the tour groups around us that were trying to do lectures and take group photos), I did a small prayer before we left Machu Picchu that day, to thank the mountains and the spirits that helped me recover and stay strong on this journey, for allowing me to make the visit. I also prayed for the girl who fell, and for her family and her boyfriend, hoping that everything would eventually turn out okay. And finally, I gave thanks for the fact that everyone in our group stayed healthy enough to make it to the end of our trip. Not everyone was as fortunate as we were, however. That afternoon, we found out that the rescuers had finally found the body of the girl who fell off the side of the trail – the fall was just too great. I’m sending a lot of love and thoughts out to her family, friends, and boyfriend. I hope they take care of themselves on the journey to heal and recover from this experience.

At the end of the day we were in Aguas Calientes, resting from our trip, exhausted and extremely dirty. Four days of backpacking through some beautiful yet tough terrain, under some amazing as well as some unfortunate circumstances. We celebrated our trip accomplishments, drank, and ate dinner one last time as an entire group. And of course, I did a few tarot card readings. I’m going to miss the energy of this Machu Picchu trekking group – the last four days of getting to know people, the laughter, and all the good times we had together. I take their memories and their stories with me as I continue on my way through Peru, to Bolivia…and hopefully Argentina. We shall see what happens.

* * * * *

New Years Day, 2013. Despite the hardships and the endings that we  faced on this trek, I’ve been reminded once again about the things that really matter. While I look back on my life at home and see a lot of frustration and dissatisfaction around various aspects of my life…I also realize that I’m very fortunate to have what I have, and am incredibly thankful about the fact that I have made it this far. It reminds me to be appreciative, to have gratitude, to put my life and my on-going or daily stresses into perspective. If things don’t happen the way we’d like them to, they’re rarely life or death situations. And we must not forget that we are still powerful and capable people. I remind myself that I’m 100% responsible for anything that comes my way, and that I can only do my best. That’s all I could ever ask for.

Cheers to the journey.


For more information on the Inca Trail: 

For more information on Machu Picchu: (yes, sorry it’s national geographic, my internet is too slow to allow me to look up other sites written by Peruvians)



Posted: January 10, 2013

Author: Tiffany

Category: Americas, Blog, Peru

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,


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