Leaving for Peru is the closest I’ve ever come to missing a flight. The scene is the same every time I leave for a trip: The clock ticking down as I stuff random odds and ends into a bulging, straining-zippered suitcase that begged me to stop before I even started cramming in the Beanie Babies and stacks of old National Geographics. Standing at the open refrigerator, shoving soon-to-expire food into my face in anticipation of airport vegan food deserts. Surveying my disaster of a kitchen and choosing the three dirtiest pots to half-ass wash, the ones that are most likely to grow into an alien potted plant and make my entire apartment reek of bleu cheese by the time I get back...
Making an on-the-fly calculation of how many dirty dishes I need to fling unceremoniously into my dishwasher so that any maintenance people entering my apartment while I’m away won’t conclude that a homeless drug addict had been squatting there for six years. Ordering a Lyft to the airport while I read online about how prairie dogs can tell which hole to return to after they-OH MY GOD LOOK AT THE TIME. Rushing downstairs laden with luggage and the overflowing trash bag I thankfully remembered to take out, while my Lyft considers leaving without me and my elderly neighbor stops to ask detailed questions about what kind of mileage my car gets.
All of it was the same this time, except for one quirk. WHERE THE FUCK IS MY PASSPORT. Who the hell misplaces their passport, I’ve wondered in the past. Now I know the answer and it is that wonderful people misplace their passport. GAH WHERE IS IT. “It’s not like I JUST used it or anything,” I thought sarcastically, having been back from Turkmenistan for less than two weeks. I imagined it hiding somewhere, smugly, still covered in Central Asian dust. I was otherwise ready to go, and it was well beyond time to leave. But there I was all the same, running in a loop around my apartment, checking everywhere I could imagine myself having possibly put my passport. 40 minutes in this loop. Wow. Maybe I’m not meant to go to South America?
All of this was entirely due to one brilliant idea I’d had weeks before: Why don’t I put my passport in my new hiking backpack immediately after I get back from Turkmenistan? Impossible to forget it that way, right? Probably, unless you cleverly put it in the backpack’s ultra-secure hidden inner pocket and then 100% completely forgot that pocket even exists.
Passport in hand, downstairs in a blur, and into my Lyft. My Lyft driver was kind, courteous, thoughtful, and unbelievably fucking slow. Why couldn’t I have got that insane “I learned to drive by watching the lions hunt in Africa” guy? Where’s an asshole when you need one? Texas? Noted.
I walked into the airport 30 minutes before my international flight was to take off. Not great, Bob. There was no way I was getting a checked bag on that plane, so I headed straight into the security line, even though what I was carrying in no way qualified as carry-on baggage. Even worse, I had my hiking poles in my bag, which aren’t even allowed in the cabin. I figured I’d take my chances that they wouldn’t be notice- Oh shit they’re taking my bag out of the X-ray machine. If they make me check it there’s no way in hell I’m making my flight. The lady having her bag examined in front of me took her luscious, sweet time putting her shoes back on and then finally, finally I was having all of my shwag yanked out onto a cold steel counter.
“Yeah I just wanted to check this out because you’ve got a lot of food in here,” explained the amazingly chill TSA guy who may have just been hungry.
Oh thank God. The vegan purgatory of Turkmenistan fresh in my mind, I had indeed packed a preposterous amount of food. I may just make this flight after all.
I got to the gate just before it closed and I was off to Miami with a planeload of doucheholes. Seriously, if you’re flying to Miami, I don’t know how to say this, but odds are you’re a major knob. I’m just reporting what I saw.
Taking off again from Miami, it was highly trippy to look down at the skyscrapers right under our feet, like some strange lucid dream where you can fly and for some reason you flew to Miami. The city landscape unfurled below us in the hot sun. Is it good that I can’t see Miami without imagining Dexter stalking the streets, down there, somewhere? I wonder how Miami feels about that particular association? Just nice to be thought of, I suppose.
I’m not sure the flight attendants on the flight to Lima were enchanted by me. It didn’t help at all that at the end of the flight, they came around with a bag soliciting donations for UNICEF, and I misunderstood this and handed them my trash.
This is a good time to mention that I’d spent the previous two months studying Spanish for this trip and it was a massive waste of time. According to Duolingo’s little flash card chickens I was 15% fluent in Spanish, but in reality after the brain reset of fumbling through Turkmen and Russian in Turkmenistan, the only bit of Spanish I’d retained was “Yo como las manzanas,” so I was covered if I ate any apples and desperately needed to tell someone about it.
Talking to the waiter in a restaurant in the Lima airport, I answered his questions in French three times and Italian once. I do not speak any Italian. What a shitshow.
Going through immigration in Lima was like a big game of duck-duck-goose. Peruvian-Peruvian-Peruvian-Peruvian-American With A Hiking Backpack. Every non-Peruvian I saw looked like they had just stepped out of an REI catalog, myself included. It was one of those funny moments when every stranger in the joint knows what you’re there for. Cocaine. No wait I mean hiking to Machu Picchu.
I hoped against hope that my training for hiking at altitude would turn out to be less of a complete and total failure than my study of Spanish. I’d spent months running up and down the stairs at work and watching the feds kill everybody just for shits in Waco on my iPad while I trudged up the stair machine in the gym. The last time I’d hiked at high altitude in Hawaii I’d fallen apart like a hot sloppy joe, and I really did not want to be one of those people who flunks out on the first day of the Inca Trail and has to do the ride of shame down the mountain on the back of a donkey. There’s no predicting who is going to do fine at altitude and who is going to spend their time deliriously barfing from the bottom of their nuts, so I wanted to at least give myself some extra margin for error with a solid base of fitness.
That was, until I was impaled by a flying computer hard drive.
In the brief moment of time between my trips to Turkmenistan and Peru, I’d found myself needing to securely dispose of a failed hard drive. This was tangentially related to me trying fruitlessly to recover my entire Turkmenistan travel blog off of my crashed laptop’s hard drive, so that I wouldn’t have to write the whole thing all over again from scratch.
Ron Howard voice-over: He had to write the whole thing all over again from scratch.
F.M.L. (family medical leave).
If you want to get rid of a hard drive and not have some kind of trash gnome get all your credit card numbers off of it, the process is simple. You simply remove a dozen star hex screws from the casing with an obscure tool no one has, then bash the shit out of the drive with a hammer because removing the screws doesn’t actually do anything. Eventually the drive pops open, revealing the stack of platters inside that have your credit card numbers and nude flexing selfies on them. Then you simply drill through these platters with a power drill until the drill bit contacts the metal casing on the other side of the drive and the drive yanks itself out of your hand and spins around at amazingly high speeds for a second before flying off into your knee.
I remember thinking “Wow, that was dumb,” assuming this was just a “Whoops, bonk!” kind of mishap until I looked down and saw blood splattered absolutely everywhere. The carpet, all the clothes I was wearing, there was a lot of blood and it was everywhere. The drive had cut straight through my pants and embedded into my knee. In the approximately one second since it had happened, an alarmingly large quantity of blood had completely soaked down my pant leg and into my sock.
I’m not sure if my pain tolerance is all screwed up from marathon training or if I’m dead inside or what, but at this point my only thought was “Shit, these are my favorite pants!” I went into the bathroom, washed out the gushing wound, put pressure on it for 15 minutes and then bandaged it up. It was the middle of the night, so Urgent Care was closed, but I’d managed to stop the bleeding, so it seemed like it would be fine. And it was, for about an hour, until I forgot what was going on and bent my knee, at which point blood gushed right through the bandage like a gore volcano. Balls.
Seven stitches later, I was somewhat less good than new, but happy I’d have just enough time to get the stitches out before I left for Peru. I was less excited about the doctor’s prescription: No exercise and no stairs until the stitches come out. Well then, I guess I’m as trained for Peru as I’m going to get.
Walking through airport security in Lima, I passed through a checkpoint turnstile and somehow managed to time things just perfectly for one of the turnstile arms to thread through the telescoping handle of my rolling suitcase, leaving my suitcase trapped once the turnstile locked in place, like I was locking up my bike in a bad neighborhood. This is the kind of thing you couldn’t do on purpose if you had 100 tries.
The airport security guy shot me a quizzical look when I failed to take my bag and keep walking away like a normal person. Then he looked down and saw what I had accomplished. His eyes spoke in a clear and audible voice: “What's wrong with you-Wow holy shit you really are a magnet for weird shit!” and he laughed as loudly as his job would permit before stopping the whole line and disabling the turnstile to get my bag out.
Sitting at my gate, an announcement looped over the loudspeakers. “In this airport we do not announce flights. Good fucking luck.” Wouldn’t it be the same amount of work to announce the flights as to announce that you don’t announce them? How Perude.
There was a middle-aged guy standing next to me at the gate, wearing headphones that weren't plugged into his phone at all. The cord was just dangling free down his leg. The man was clearly befuddled by the lack of rocking volume emanating from his Lima Airport playlist, so he compensated by cranking his phone speakers all the way up. There we go, that’s the ticket! Now satisfied, he rocked on while the rest of us in the immediate vicinity looked at each other awkwardly like “Do we say something to him?” I couldn't stop giggling. “JUST A STEEL TOWN GIRL ON A SATURDAY NIGHT!” The degree to which I was enjoying this may have had something to do with being awake for 24 hours straight at this point. What day even is it?
For the flight from Lima to Cusco, the bus across the tarmac smelled like someone had eaten a basket of rotten fish, and then died. And then several hours later the cadaver unleashed an absolutely monumental delayed death shit. And then a penguin walked over and threw up on it.
The flight to Cusco was whiter than Bob Hope's balls. We gringos clearly cannot get enough of sleeping outside in polypropylene sacks and peeing on rocks that are more meaningful than the rocks we have at home.
The plane’s approach to Cusco was, without exaggeration, magical. Cusco is nestled snugly high up in the Andes Mountains, and our approach took us in low over countless mountain tops as clouds mystically swirled in the valleys below. Holy crap.
After this gratuitously scenic approach, we began to descend in completely normal airplane fashion.
That was, until we touched the top of the cloud bank hovering between us and Cusco, and the pilot suddenly yanked back on the stick like someone recoiling after touching their toe into scalding-hot bath water. We climbed vertiginously straight up into the air, pushed back into our seats alarmingly as we rose at an angle I’ve never experienced on a plane before. Commercial flights usually maneuver in a slow, gradual, conservative manner. This was more like Maverick suddenly realizing he missed an opportunity to be homoerotic with Ice Man in a deleted scene from Top Gun.
After we leveled off, the captain came on the intercom to casually announce that it was too cloudy for us to land in Cusco. I suspected he’d actually seen his ex-wife on the runway below and wasn’t in the mood to deal with that shit, which seemed understandable. Actually I’d read about this before, that flights into Cusco are frequently delayed because the town’s mountain location requires an unusually high degree of visibility to safely land there.
Then the captain announced that we were going to fly in a circle over the city for 90 minutes and wait for the clouds to clear.
Ninety minutes? Did we hear that right? Do we have enough fuel to just dick around in the air for an hour and a half?
And then we did just that, flying in a big loop high above the city until I got tired of seeing the same clouds pass by over and over again and fell fast asleep with my face against the window.
I woke up when our wheels slammed into the ground. Oh cool, we finally landed in Cusco. Everyone stood up in the aisle, got their bags, and waited to be let off the plane. The ground crew wheeled up the staircase.
Looking out the window, I thought, weird, Cusco’s smaller than I thought it would be. There’s a lot of dirt and a big stone hummingbird logo out there. Why aren’t they letting us of the plane?
The woman who had been seated next to me eventually got tired of standing and sat back down again. Only the flight crew descended the stairs out onto the runway. An hour passed. Eventually the woman next to me went to the front of the plane and asked the stewardess and pilot why we couldn’t get off the plane.
It's simple ma’am. We’re not in Cusco. We’re in some random town all the way on the other end of Peru, nearly in Bolivia. We are as far from Cusco as we were when we took off from Lima, just now in the opposite direction. Apparently we were running out of fuel circling over Cusco and had to find somewhere else to land before gravity made our decision for us. If this airport hadn’t been available we would have landed in Brazil. Brazil?
We sat there for another two hours, then finally took off again and took another pass at Cusco. This one stuck. We touched down four and a half hours late.
It’s recommended that you spend at least two days in Cusco acclimating to the high altitude before beginning the Inca Trail hike, since the first two plus days at altitude are a bit like having your insides pulled out through your ass. I couldn’t make two days in Cusco work with my flight options, so I was only going to get 24 hours in Cusco. Now I was down to 19. It’s okay, I’ll just sleep as much as possible and hope for the best.
This is where I’ll explain that my AirBnB was really inexpensive. That is how I ended up awake all night as the one hundred discos up and down my block raged nonstop all night long. Shit, I rented a room in Cusco’s party district. My room was open to the street below, and the door had large holes in it. It also didn’t close all the way, so there was no buffer at all between me and the rager consuming Cusco below me. This town knows how to party, in spite of my fervent late-night wishes to the contrary.
Our hiking guides were coming by to pick me up at 4am, so I was up and sitting out on the steps in front of my building a few minutes early. The street was like a highway for alarmingly drunk Peruvians. Ten seconds after I stepped outside, some drunk guy walking by tried to pick a fight with me, so after that I left the door ajar behind me so I could duck back inside if things got hairy. My host came out to ask what they had done wrong to inspire me to bail at such an inadvisable hour.
I tried not to make eye contact with any of the hammered people streaming by down the street. Regardless, one guy noticed that I was tense and nervous, and his obvious solution was that I needed to buy some cocaine from him. Gracias no. Another dude staggered down the road, stopped in front of my stoop, whipped out el dongo flamboyantly and took a long, gushing piss in the street right in front of me. This happened two more times. A police car flew up the street, which wasn’t really wide enough for cars, and arrested several people. Multiple drunks dropped their bottles as they staggered by, alternately having them either shatter in the street instantly or managing to kick them down the road as they stumbled. Sweet bubbling Christ, when is my ride going to be here?
Eventually two guys in the tour company’s green shirts walked up the road. Thank God, finally. It turned out they were on a different hike and were picking up a guy across the street, who had been smart enough to hide indoors. Arggg. My door was unmarked and extremely hard to find, so I felt like I had little choice but to remain visible. Eventually my ride showed up around 4:40 and after I punched him in the face we were off to start the trek.
Passing through small Peruvian villages along the way, I was struck by two things. One, the old ladies in Peru wear the kind of hats I would expect to see on a particularly fancy gunslinger in the Wild West. This is adorable. Additionally, Peru has the market cornered on adorable little dogs, most of whom follow the old ladies around like an entourage.
My good luck with tour groups continued, as I liked all of the five Australians, three Canadians, two Brits, two Americans and one Taiwaner on our hike. What do you call someone from Taiwan? I call them a Taiwaner. Let’s move on.
We stopped in one of the little villages so I could get some coca tea and take a photo of this horrific thing:
This trip was going to be a bit of a test of how much altitude I could handle if I did absolutely everything right. I mean, aside from only having a half day in Cusco instead of the recommended two days, and not sleeping at all instead of sleeping lots like they tell you to do. But aside from all the things I had fucked up right out of the gate, I was going to do everything else perfectly.
I hoped to prove to myself that I could hike at even higher altitude in Tibet this fall without falling apart on a molecular level. Doing everything right involves a few common sense things, like drinking plenty of water and not filling your Camelbak with Coors Lite. Other bits are more obscure, like the Diamox prescription I’d received from the travel clinic back home. Altitude sickness mostly results from not getting enough oxygen in the thin air, so Diamox speeds up your breathing, especially while you’re sleeping. The bizarre side-effect is that your hands continuously tingle intensely like they’ve been asleep for hours and all the blood is just now rushing back in. This is only really a problem when you’re squeezing mountain bike grips for dear life as you fly down a cliff road in Bolivia, but that’s a problem/story for another day.
The last pieces of the puzzle are coca leaves. These are the same leaves they make cocaine from, only you’re ingesting far lower quantities. You can soak them in hot water to make tea, buy coca candy, or just stuff the leaves into your mouth and chew on them like a goddamned animal. I did all of the above. I was walking around with so many coca leaves in my pocket that even after they were all gone I was far less than certain the drug-sniffing dogs were going to let me through customs on my way back into America, where unlike in Peru and Bolivia, coca leaves are highly illegal.
Before we started the hike, we all sat down to breakfast together. Three times a day throughout the four-day trek, our porters would set up a meal tent, tables, chairs and unbelievably fancy meals consisting of a half-dozen different dishes. This was entirely mind-blowing, especially since they even catered elaborately to the vegans as well. I’ve had many trips to large cities where I didn’t eat as well as I did on a folding table in the middle of nowhere in Peru.
We were all new to this at the first meal, however. The porters set out fourteen small troughs of water next to little pump bottles of some kind of liquid, which we shrugged at and utterly ignored. As the trip went on and these things kept appearing, we gradually realized they were meant for us to wash our hands before we ate. I’m fairly certain the porters’ opinions of us never recovered from us snubbing the troughs and eating that first meal with our filthy gringo hands.
The porters were fucking amazing. Nothing makes you feel like the biggest candy-ass in the world more than seeing a little five-foot-tall dude blaze past you on the trail with approximately the entire contents of your apartment on his back. The loads these guys were carrying were comical, and after we left each morning they managed to break down the entire camp, pack it up, fly past us politely on the trail carrying absolutely everything, arrive at the next camp and have all the tents and tables and toilets and our duffel bags stuffed full of the 400 things we couldn’t survive four days without all set up neatly well before we stumbled into camp and collapsed face-first into the dirt.
To make matters worse, all the porters would line up and applaud you when you got into camp. Don’t get me wrong, this was completely awesome and I want to figure out a way to make this happen in my daily life now. But having a group of people who just completed a superhuman task applaud you simply for not dying while doing a much, much easier version of the same thing, at half the pace and carrying almost nothing, is a little embarrassing. After about the third time this happened we started applauding the porters every time we saw them, both out of sincere appreciation and a sincerely crushing feeling of guilt.
On the first night our guide Victor went around and introduced us to all 19 of our porters, cooks, and the poor motherfucker who had to deal with the portapotty. Victor explained how these were the true Inca descendants, the Spanish had never made it up here into the mountains, so these guys were still pure Inca: short of stature, with darker skin and no facial hair. Generations of living high in the mountains had left them immune to the effects of altitude that were beating all of our dicks into the ground on a daily basis.
Unfortunately, there is still quite a lot of racism toward the mountain folks in Peru today, as they’re considered the lowest strata of the society. We saw this in action on our last day, as we started our hike at 3:30 in the morning so the porters would have time to pack everything up and run, literally run, the miles up the trail to the train station to catch the first train of the day back to civilization. This was the only train of the day the porters were allowed to ride on. We were all kind of pissed off about this on their behalf.
Victor told us not to be offended if the porters were shy around us, as their historical cultural experience with whites had been, how you say, shit salad. There was no animosity, they just weren’t used to white people talking to them in any decent human way at all. Most of us didn’t speak Spanish anyway, and none of us spoke Quechua, the native Incan language that the porters also spoke.
Our guide explained that the Incan descendants referred to each other as brother or sister regardless of relation, and taught us how to say “Wawqi,” which is Quechua for brother. The next morning the porters woke our candy asses up with hot cacao tea in bed like every morning of the trek, and I thanked them by saying “Muchas gracias, Wawqi.” The younger porter rolled his eyes and smiled like he was deathly embarrassed for me, while the older porter rattled off something in Quechua that I took to mean “Oh Jesus now this fucking guy thinks he’s our brother.” Oops.
Later on during that day’s hike, I asked Victor if all men were brothers to the Quechua people, even gringos. He said sure, of course. I mentioned how the porters had laughed at me when I called them Wawqi that morning. He explained that they were just surprised since they’re not used to hearing whites use their language. I said that they’d also looked at me like I was the biggest tool in the universe, so I was probably going to cool it on the Wawqi going forward. Everyone laughed and thanked me for being the guinea pig to take the leap on something they’d all wanted to do but were afraid to try.
I honestly have no idea if the porters were embarrassed for me or just surprised. I managed to work “Wawqi” in a few more times on the trip, to a better response, so I was probably misreading their initial reaction. It’s so hard not to interpret people through our own cultural lenses, assuming everyone is as cynical or sarcastic as we are.
The first of our cynical, sarcastic crew I befriended were Jimmy and Miriam from the UK. They were a lot of fun to talk to and were both admirably unprepared for this hike, setting out with bookbags and no hiking poles. Jimmy was also hilariously, profoundly sunburnt from their trip to Rainbow Mountain the day before. This became a bit of a running joke as Jimmy was getting redder by the minute and I wasn’t sure what was going to happen when he ran out of shades of red, if he’d invent a new color to turn or would just spontaneously burst into flames.
Hannah, Kyla and Annabelle were three girlfriends traveling from Australia, who were awarded the nickname “Tortugas” from the guides for their leisurely pace bringing up the rear on all of our hikes. Annabelle believed this involved pirates until one of the guides translated it heartbreakingly as “turtles.” I think it actually means “tortoises,” which are slower than turtles, a fact I did not hesitate to point out whenever possible.
Kevin and Sammantha were also from Australia, and Sam did me no favors at all by dressing almost exactly the same as fellow petite Australian Hannah on the first day. They were all great however, continuing my unbroken streak of liking every Australian I’ve ever met. Sam was newly vegan and thrilled to see I hadn’t died yet during my first 15 years of veganism.
Wilson and Leah were traveling with their friend Tia, all of them fabulously Canadian. Leah is an excellent photographer who had brought an absolutely comical amount of camera gear on the hike, possibly to the exclusion of everything else.
Will won me over quickly by brazenly talking shit about Americans at every opportunity, which amused me greatly. Tia was the third vegan in the group and was coming off an ayahuasca experience in Peru, which I promptly reported to the Department of Homeland Security. Sadly, they informed me that they don’t have any jurisdiction over Peru. Yet. On the first hike, when I was trying to sort out who was who and how to tell the Australians apart from the Canadians, Tia did me a huge favor by adding “Ay?” after everything she said. Thanks Tia.
I was sharing a tent with Chang from Taiwan, who had quit his job and was traveling the world for more months than I can remember. I met quite a few people in South America who were doing some variation on this, which is ballsy and impressive as hell. Chang was a fountain of helpful tips about places he’d been to that I’d be visiting soon, and was generous with the spare Bolivianos he had kicking around in the bottom of his bag.
The other two Americans were Frank and Donnie (names changed to protect the guilty), a father and son from California. Frank was a well-traveled divorced dad who had followed his ex-wife and son as they moved around the country after the divorce, which I admired and which is also my personal nightmare of obligation that will probably keep me from ever having children. Donnie was 13, smart, interested in many things, and a complete and total pain in the ass.
I struggled with whether or not to write about these two at all, since I try to only talk ruthless shit about the underage in every other blog I write. And I just got done calling the kids in Bolivia assholes. It’s not really a kid’s fault when their maturity level is less than half their biological age, that comes down to parenting and circumstances, so I don’t really hold any of it against Donnie. But the punchline of my Huayna Picchu story makes no sense without some background, so sorry kid.
I could easily see how it had come to be this way, a divorced dad not wanting to spend the little time he has with his son being the “bad guy” who has to put his foot down. Unfortunately this left it to the rest of us, as Donnie was emotionally six years old and also wanted nothing to do with his dad, so he spent 90% of the trip hiking with us, leaving us obligated to self-censor our adult conversations and make sure he didn’t fall off any of the ample cliffs yawning around us at all times.
There’s nothing more “13” than completely taking for granted that your dad’s taking you all around the world on these fantastic trips at great expense (something I was definitely jealous of, having grown up in a family that rarely traveled). And I have no doubt Donnie will grow into a fine adult one day, once he gets over the need to constantly show off, his utter obliviousness to other people, the nonstop compulsive loud talking, the whining, the arguing with everyone about stupid shit, and the crying fits when his cake doesn’t come fast enough (yes, they baked us a goddamned cake in the middle of the jungle, I told you the chefs were amazing). Or maybe he’ll grow into the kind of person who talks shit about kids on his blog, who knows, the future is wide open.
Donnie had his heart set on befriending Will, who hilariously had no time for this whatsoever. This was extremely entertaining. “Do you mountain bike? Can you do tricks? What kind of tricks can you do? Can you do a kickflip?” “Not right now.” “Why not?” “I’m hiking.” “Can-” “No.” Will was obviously trying to nip this in the bud but hadn’t realized yet that Donnie would never, ever take a hint.
I mostly managed to avoid Donnie, after getting trapped into a few never-ending question chains about my trip to North Korea or what Easter Island was going to be like. My main priority was not getting stuck hiking near him and Frank, as their endless loud bickering pretty much shattered any chance at the kind of quiet communion with nature I had come to Peru to experience. People in other countries often complain about how loud Americans are. And guys... we really are. It’s a big country and we feel the need to be heard, I guess.
I had my hands full anyway dealing with the fact that the altitude was going full MMA on my ass. The last time I’d hiked this high up was on top of Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Which, ehhh, had not gone well. At the top of Mauna Kea, in short order I’d become extremely dizzy and light-headed and my IQ had dropped by about a hundred points, to where I couldn’t figure out how to get the cap off my water bottle or how to operate a doorknob. My brother had found this all quite hilarious. He Googled on his phone what to do about altitude sickness and the first result was about the effects of Viagra at high altitudes. We laughed for far too long about how this would just add another problem I didn’t need, and then promptly ended the hike because I couldn’t remember my name.
Since then I’d done a lot of reading about altitude sickness, how it strikes people randomly regardless of fitness, and how if it goes too far, you can die a painful death. Not encouraging! This was especially cruel since hiking in the mountains is one of my favorite things to do. I’d read up on Diamox and coca leaves and convinced myself that the Mauna Kea disaster was just because we’d driven to the top of the mountain before starting our hike, going from sea level up to 13,800 feet in an hour, which is really the very worst-case scenario when it comes to giving yourself time to acclimate to altitude.
Now here I was, leaving Cusco’s 11,000 foot elevation and hiking the Inca Trail, which tops out at Dead Woman’s Pass at 13,828 feet. The good news was that the Diamox and coca leaves were keeping my brain from melting and running out my nose. I knew who and where I was. But I was dizzy and crazy nauseous. Oh well, no use in focusing on the negative. Better to distract myself getting to know everyone and enjoying the scenery. Up we go.
The hike started out down along the river and we were blessed with absolutely gorgeous weather. As we climbed gradually up, I had to remind myself to look behind us every time we stopped, as the mountain views behind us were getting more dramatic by the minute as we went up.
Before long we encountered an older Chinese woman coming down the trail the opposite way. It’s not a two-way trail, so this can only mean one thing: somebody threw in the towel. Ouch. She wasn’t riding a donkey, which was slightly disappointing for me, but I felt for her all the same.
After a few hours we stopped for lunch, and as I laid in the grass and looked up at the trees swaying peacefully above us, I wondered if I was going to wake up and find everyone gone.
Thankfully, we all left together and survived the rest of the day’s hike.
That night in camp, the zipper to Chang and my tent got utterly stuck, refusing to budge and sealing us inside the tent. We were too tired to mess with it and just went to sleep. This was fine until I woke up in the middle of the night badly needing to pee. Zipper: Nope, go to hell. I ended up having to slide out through a narrow gap in the bottom of the tent flap like a cat burglar.
The second day of the hike involved the dreaded ascent to Dead Woman’s Pass. As the incline increased, the group started to spread out as we each found our comfortable hiking gears. I started to wobble as the dizziness and nausea intensified and almost fell off the trail. Kevin asked if I was okay as he passed me. “Oh yeah man!” Don’t barf on Kevin.
The one really nice thing about the incline was that the group had spread out enough to allow me some nice moments of solitude in nature. As I approached a small waterfall, I was absorbed by the intense, glowing colors on the flowers blooming in the spray of the water. As I stopped and tuned into the flowers I was filled with an overwhelming sense of their presence and the perfect beauty of the life energy in this small space.
As we hiked higher and higher in altitude, I found myself falling further and further behind to the back of the pack. This was a very interesting experience, as it gave me a chance to reflect on my own ego. I love to hike and with that comes a certain pride in keeping yourself in shape. I’m usually at the front of the group, waiting for other people to catch up. And not that it’s a race, but that is sort of your reward for the work you’ve put in. Other people are wheezing and suffering and that sucks, but it’s fair, you worked out for months and they didn’t. You can go as fast as you want and actually enjoy the experience, you’re not taking in the scenery between gasps and attempts not to vomit.
Now here I was, having put in all the work, but still one of the slowest people there thanks to my bonkers sensitivity to altitude. This was intensely interesting to experience as it made me aware of the sense of identity I’d invested in being in shape, and beyond that, my lifelong need to be good at things. Thanks to some messed-up childhood circumstances I’d grown up believing I needed to be good at everything I did, just to survive. And here I was, at 41, seeing the kernel of that still within myself. I looked around with adult eyes and reminded myself that it didn’t matter, no one cared. You’re safe. It’s just you and the mountain.
Before we started the major assault on Dead Woman’s Pass, we stopped for a break in a scenic valley that llamas were just hanging out in for no apparent reason.
As I wound my way up toward Dead Woman’s Pass, I was stopping more and more frequently to sit down and let groups of porters blaze past me. While I was hiking, I was having to lean heavily on my hiking poles to keep from falling down as the dizziness surged.
During one of these stops, one of the women from a different hiking group we’d run into a few times called over to me.
“I just saw your son! He’s doing great.”
In my semi-delirious state I started to nervously question if I’d woken up in some alternate dimension where I had a son. Jesus, this really is the darkest timeline. Oh, wait. I think she means Donnie.
As I hiked up and up, my stomach somersaulting violently, I started mentally crossing planned future hikes off my list. Kilimanjaro? Nope. Fuck you Kilimanjaro. El Chaltén in Patagonia? Get the fuck out of here. Why do I even do this? Do I even like hiking? No need to subject myself to this ever again. Then I remembered that I’m taking my mom to Tibet in September, where we’re going to hike at Everest Base Camp and trek around Mount Kailash at 18,470 feet. Fuuuuck. Okay, I’m only going to have to feel like this one more time.
In time, the pass came into view up above us. Oh hey, it really does look like a dead lady laying on her back up on the ridge:
Lady, I know how you feel.
Being able to see the pass was more cruel than encouraging, though, as I was moving slowly enough at this point it would be a solid hour before I’d even get there. Toward the top I was stopping after each step to get the nausea under control. I hoped none of my friends up above could see me because it would be embarrassing if they started to cheer me on, the applause then eventually petering out as they waited a half an hour for me to actually get up there.
Finally, I reached the top and got to sit down without the threat of yet more mountain looming ominously above me. I’d got to the top before Frank and one of the Tortugas, though I’d done most of it while talking to Fred Flintstone’s alien friend Gazoo.
After Dead Woman’s Pass, Tia and I raced down the steep Incan steps to our lunch stop. Everyone was spent. Sitting felt incredible. After lunch it started to drizzle and we collectively looked up the mountainside.
“Wait, we’re not hiking up there-” someone asked, pointing at our bright green porters improbably high up the steep mountain in front of us. An instant later, the entire mountain disappeared into the fog.
The trail cut switchbacks up and up, far further and longer than any of us expected for the “easy” second ascent.
There was a brief educational stop at a fortress-like overlook before we were off again. We’d been told we needed to climb up past a lake of some sort. Jimmy, Miriam and I were convinced this lake did not actually exist. Every turn in the trail, Kyla asked in a pained voice if we could see the lake. We wanted to lie and say yes, out of mercy.
When we finally did reach the top, we had an optional stop to climb a bunch more steps to see some fog-obscured Inca ruins. Since the alternative was to head down out of the altitude to our camp and sleep forever, this was a big no for me and I took off down the trail’s steep stone steps.
Most of our group seemed to hate hiking downhill, I think between the beating your knees take going down, down, down, and the treacherousness of the wet, ancient steps. I’ve spent enough time running down shitty mountain trails though that I was on cloud nine, scampering down to lower altitudes where I could feel a little bit less like I was dying.
I hauled ass down the trail for about half an hour before reaching our camp. Or at least I thought it was our camp. I walked in and the porters just looked at me like “Who the fuck are you?” Nobody clapped. Maybe I’ve got the wrong camp? I looked around. Nope, this is our stuff. I guess they just weren’t expecting anyone so soon. It was super-awkward.
I looked around and my stuff wasn’t there. I asked the porters and it turned out I’d beat the porter who was carrying my gear to the camp. Well that’s something. I just have to hang out and wait.
About 20 minutes later, Tia cruised into camp and the porters had their shit together enough now to not be startled and she got the customary round of applause. I applauded from a prone position inside my tent.
This camp had a real bathroom, which I was more excited about before I actually saw it. Thus far in my travels I had avoided actually using any squat toilets for sensitive business, but my streak was destined to come to an end here in Peru. I’ll never be the same again, but the point is I didn’t fall in and that is good.
As we lay in our tents in the middle of the night, a million frogs formed a chorus in the woods around us, the sound rising and falling in swelling waves. Not bad, Peru.
Our guide Victor has promised us day three of the hike would be the most beautifully scenic, so of course we hiked the whole day in dense fog and rain. This was cool in its own way, looking down cliffs that disappeared into the eerie fog. Of course, I’m only saying that because whatever we couldn’t see was a complete mystery to me. I’d probably be pissed if I had any idea what mind-blowing scenery we missed.
We did get to hang out with some llamas, which was awesome:
I spent most of the day hiking at a good clip with Will and Kevin, our conversations interrupted occasionally by the sound of one of us completely eating shit on the wet rocks and avoiding a face-plant or a tumble off the cliff only by the grace of our hiking poles, which are like parachutes when you’re hiking in the rain.
Near the end of the day’s hike, we rested at a breathtaking scenic overlook and pissed off an Argentinian couple by conversing too loudly with the llamas.
From our final campsite we hiked over to check out the ruins at Wiñaywayna, which kicked ample amounts of ass:
My favorite features here were the windows that pointed perfectly to waterfalls raining down the mountainsides around us. Down one tiny narrow side corridor that didn’t seem to get much foot traffic, inside one of the inlaid altar spots in the stone wall I found a few locks of hair tied together with string next to a fob with a symbol etched into it, an apparent offering to some obscure gods.
For our final night, the porters had set up our tents on a ridge up above the large dining tent. This seemed fine except for the fact that the ridge was slanted down toward the ledge, like a ski jump. Every night we’d slept on some kind of incline and had woken up down toward the corner of our tents. This night it seemed like such a thing might end with you waking up on top of the dining tent. Chang wanted to sleep with his head down toward the front of the tent. I figured I’d sleep feet first so I’d have some chance to catch myself if I woke up to the sensation of my feet going off the edge in the middle of the night.
That wasn’t the only danger, as the gap between our tents and the ledge was only a few feet wide, and we were all basically crippled at this point from hiking up and down mountain steps for three days straight. Unlike most, my knees were fine, but my calves were as tight as a drum and in full revolt by this point. Every time I crawled out of the tent and tried to stand up, there was a moment where my calves said “Nope” and I thought I was going to go right off the ledge like a tree that had been chopped down.
That night we had our final dinner together and our cooks presented us with the aforementioned cake. I still have no idea how they prepared this in the jungle using packed-in cooking implements. Keep up that voodoo, Incan dudes.
Our guide Victor had talked us out of our desire to start hiking in the middle of the night so we could be the first people to reach Machu Picchu in the morning, patiently explaining that they don’t let hikers in until the people who paid a ton of money to stay in the hotel next to Machu Picchu have had their fill and have rubbed their eyeballs all over everything. So we could either spend our time waiting in the pitch black in a line at the checkpoint or sleeping warmly in our tents. We wisely deferred to the guy who had done this literally a thousand times before.
“Sleeping in” meant not getting up until 3:30 in the morning, then pounding a quick breakfast and getting in line at the first checkpoint with approximately 300 other people who were also hiking into Machu Picchu that morning. I passed the time at the front of our group chatting with Leah, Will and Tia, and trying to ignore Frank and Donnie’s very loud conversation behind us. Frank was saying things about gun rights and gay marriage that made me want to sew a Canadian flag on my pack.
Once the checkpoint was opened, the hike turned into a rapid conga line of the hundreds of backpackers who all wanted to get to Machu Picchu before all these other assholes. Occasionally the gap between the mountainside and the cliff was wide enough to politely/not-politely squeeze past the slowpoke in front of you, slightly improving your odds of getting a photo of Machu Picchu without a bunch of dorks in it. We’d started out about 50th in line and Will was keeping a count of how many people we passed, hoping to get to the front of the pack by the time we got to Machu Picchu.
The biggest challenge of this hike was starting out in the wet cold and then trying to strip off layers as you warmed up, attempting to stash the removed clothes in your pack without breaking stride and allowing some hoser to pass you. This is harder than it sounds when you have hiking poles strapped to your hands and a condom-like rain cover stretched tight over your pack.
In time we reached the steep stone steps up to the Sun Gate, the overlook approaching Machu Picchu that offers the classic view of the site you see on postcards. This is the primo photo opportunity of the hike, unless you reach it in the dense fog like we did, in which case it ain’t shit. We all sat down and registered the disappointment as we waited for the rest of our group to catch up. Leah had been waiting to get this photo for half her life. Ouch.
I looked around and everyone was putting on the nuclear-puke-green souvenir shirts our hiking company had handed out the night before. Uh oh, we were supposed to bring those to wear for a group photo. I’d used mine to wrap some wet socks and stuffed it in the bottom of my duffel, which the porters were at that moment carrying as they sprinted toward the train like their hair was on fire. Oops.
An American woman and her teenage son hiked by.
“If I see them Mexicans I’m gunna drink their beer, tell you wut, damned Mexicans,” the teen drawled in an accent that couldn’t have been more Deep South if it had been accompanied by banjo music. I laughed out loud.
Americans. Guys, we're the worst. We really are. Except maybe the Chinese*.
*Note to the Chinese: I love you.
Once the Tortugas had caught up, we all headed off together on the last stretch of trail before entering Machu Picchu. The feeling of anticipation in the air was absolutely electric. This was my favorite part of the hike, starting to catch tiny glimpses of the ruins through gaps in the trees as clouds wrapped magically around the mountain peaks towering over us.
This is probably a terrible time to mention that I’m really not that into ruins or archaeology. I was here for the mountains, and the Andes did not disappoint in the slightest. All trip long I was in awe of those mountains, and the otherworldly beauty of it all came to a head in this moment. The energy I felt on that final approach was everything I had hoped for in coming to Peru.
Right before my trip to Peru, my mom told me about an experience she had while on a recent trip in Northern California. She’d found a waterfall near Mt Shasta and was laying on a rock, taking a break, when a vivid memory suddenly came back to her of a past life as an Inca girl in Peru. She was to be a human sacrifice, which would secure a higher social status for the rest of her family after she was gone. In the memory she felt at peace with the events, as it was a high honor to be selected for the sacrifice. My mom realized that her lifelong friend Michael, who was on the trip with her and who had always been almost compulsively generous with her, had been her brother in that life, and was carrying the guilt over her sacrifice and how it had benefited him and the rest of their family then.
Before entering Machu Picchu, we received a brief history lesson on how the Inca would pick the most beautiful young girls from the various villages and bring them to Cusco and Machu Picchu to be raised in isolation as Virgins of the Sun. Then, when necessitated by the Gods displaying their displeasure via an earthquake or a drought, the priests would sacrifice the girls as offerings to the Sun God.
So. Do I get my mom a souvenir or not?
Also, guys, Victor told us, don’t eat anything in Machu Picchu. Cuz that shit is super rude. Approximately 30 seconds later Donnie was stomping through the ruins chomping on a candy bar. Goddammit Donnie.
Entering the site, we spent a long while perched on an overlook, watching the dense clouds roll in and out. Our first view of Machu Picchu came as little bits and pieces materializing tantalizingly out of the fog.
Victor toured us through the various temples and squares of the ruins...
For a moment the clouds rolled out and revealed just the top of Huayna Picchu, towering, impossibly steep and imposing behind the ruins. I swore out loud.
“Are you still going to climb that?” everyone asked me. No one could imagine hiking any further once we’d finally got to Machu Picchu. All anyone wanted to do was to get a long massage while drinking a cold beer in a hot bath.
“Yep! My legs are trashed but what the hell, I’m here.”
I’d signed up for a permit to climb Huayna Picchu before the trip, and I was honestly more excited about this than seeing Machu Picchu itself. I love hiking for the solitude, the quiet and the connection to nature, and as much as I loved our group and highly enjoyed my time hiking with them, I was eager to have some time to myself to make a spiritual connection to this place.
I’d heard early on in the trip that only two other people had signed up to climb Huayna Picchu. I was under the impression that my tentmate Chang was one of them, but the third climber was a mystery. Then late in the trip it came up that Chang wasn’t doing the climb. Well then who was?
“My dad and I are!” Donnie announced enthusiastically. Fuuuuuck.
I took some solace in the fact that Donnie had been complaining about the hiking for two days straight, and had mentioned more than once that there’d be no point in climbing Huayna Picchu if it was foggy. And Frank had been dragging himself through the hikes for days now, so it seemed highly likely they were both going to bail on the extra mountain climb, which was aces by me.
At dinner, Frank asked Victor how tough the Huayna Picchu climb was. Victor paused, searching for the right words.
“Well it can’t be any steeper than the climbs we’ve already done,” Frank suggested.
Victor smiled and looked off to the side, which I’d learned by now meant “You are absolutely, completely fucked.”
We reached the entrance to Huayna Picchu. Victor pointed to the mountain and said good luck, we’ll see you at the restaurant at 1pm. The rest of the group said if you die it was nice meeting you, and carried on with their much less dangerous tour of the rest of the ruins.
Frank, Donnie and I waited in line until the gate officially opened just before 10am. “We’ll meet up top!” Donnie said enthusiastically. “Maybe!” I offered noncommittally without looking back and sprinted up the trail, determined to not spend the entire climb listening to Donnie and Frank endlessly bickering.
The climb went steeply up and up, and up some more. The steps carved into the rock were wet, which was far from ideal, but there were cables to hold onto in certain sections, which was quite helpful. These weren’t “overly cautious trail design” cables or “these are here for old ladies” cables, these were cables you absolutely had to cling to, to have any hope of wrenching yourself up the alarmingly steep steps.
Higher up, there were some small terraced sections of the mountainside where you could catch your breath and look down on Machu Picchu far below you.
I was overjoyed because somehow my altitude sickness had finally, blessedly gone away. I was still out of breath and the climb was kicking my ass, but it was in the way a tough climb should kick your ass. After three straight days of intense nausea and dizziness, I had started to wonder why I even liked hiking and if maybe I was confused and it was biking I actually liked. Those days were a strange mix of loving the views, and loving the people I was hiking with, while simultaneously feeling like absolute shit every minute of the day. It was like profound illness with a view.
Now I felt like myself again and remembered what I liked about all of this. I climbed further up, with the kind of exploding energy you only experience after you’ve been terribly sick for days and are overjoyed to feel alive again.
I was also profoundly relieved, since I’d spent the first three days of the hike wrestling with the realization that there was no way I’d be able to hike at 18,000 feet in Tibet if I felt this close to death at 14,000 in Peru. I figured I’d still go on that trip and gut my way through it, for the chance to see Tibet and for the sake of my mom getting to do it, but it was going to suck like nothing ever had before. Now I realized I just needed four or five days to acclimate to the altitude before I started hiking, and the Tibet trip had over a week of acclimatization built in already because this was not their first time taking sea level white people up into the Himalayas.
When I’d shown a friend at work a picture of Huayna Picchu and said I was going to climb it on my trip, her response was “Are you sure?” Like I was probably confusing something more reasonable with this absurdly vertiginous cone of rock.
As I climbed, the ascent grew steeper and steeper, which was no mean feat since I was already hanging off a cable close to the bottom. Eventually the steps grew so tiny and I had to turn my feet sideways to fit them onto the six-inch steps, and they grew so steep I had to start grabbing the steps with my hands and ascending like I was rock climbing.
I heard a Peruvian couple arguing in Spanish below me.
“I can’t do it!”
“Climb like a dog! CLIMB LIKE A DOG!”
I realize now that none of my photos really capture how steep this was, because I was busy climbing with my hands instead of holding a phone with them. Here are a couple from around the net that capture it better, taken by people who rank photography and survival in a different order than I do:
I reached a spot where you could step off the staircase and catch your breath. A guy standing there offered to take my photo and I repaid his kindness by not barfing all over him. There was no way I was forming a sentence in Spanish at this point.
Eventually I reached the final staircase, which I recognized from the insane online photos I’d been showing everyone before the trip. The stairs go up at an improbable angle and fall off to a sheer cliff on the left side. Hilariously, this was one of the least scary parts of the climb, as these stairs were at least big enough for me to fit my feet onto. Once I reached the top, I clung to the rock wall with one hand and struggled to snap a selfie with my other hand without passing out or falling off the mountain.
At the top, there was an overlook and a sign celebrating that you’d dragged your crazy ass to the top of the mountain. Above this there was a huge rock at the peak you could scamper up onto to get photos of Machu Picchu far below.
I sat on the rock for about twenty minutes, enjoying the view, until a loud voice shattered my reverie.
“There’s Sean! Hey Sean!”
It was Donnie and Frank. Craps. How the shit had they made it up here? Frank looked like he had died twice on the climb up.
On the way up I had noticed the signs for a second hike you could do on the mountain, the Grand Cavern hike. This one wound all the way around the mountain to the Inca caves on the opposite side. I’d lamented that the hike was listed as 4 hours, since I only had 3 hours total on the mountain before I had to meet our group to catch the train in the town below. Now that Donnie and Frank were here I was feeling extra motivated to make this work, somehow.
I ran into them on the scramble back down from the rock at the peak.
“Sean, can you take a photo of my dad and me at the top?”
“Uhm, actually there are plenty of people up there who can take your photo. Congrats on making it up!”
I scampered off to the Grand Cavern trailhead.
Hmm. The sign says it's an hour to the Grand Cavern. But it says Grand Cavern + Exit is only 90 minutes. Oh wow, I have just enough time! I’ll be a little late for the lunch but that’s fine, I don’t really care about the lunch. Let’s go!
I took off down the trail and it was quickly apparent no one had hiked this in ages. The trail was overgrown and I didn’t see a single soul. Awesome!
I tuned into the nature around me and sat down for a moment. I meditated and mentally asked my guide Kobo Daishi what I was doing there.
“Your heart is in the mountain,” he answered.
And as I hiked around the mountain I began to feel it in my heart, a healing of some wound I had been carrying around since who knows when. The feeling swelled more powerfully the longer I hiked.
The next day in Bolivia I would tune into Kobo Daishi again while hiking on Isla Del Sol and asked him what I was meant to do there. He said “Put your heart into your feet, and then down into the Earth.” I attempted to do so to the best of my ability, shifting the emotional awareness of my heart down into my feet. I felt the energy extend deep into the ground. This created some kind of channel where I bonded with the energy of the island, while at the same time waking up some kind of energetic awareness in my feet. Ever since then my feet have been buzzing intensely with a strange energy, like there is a new chakra in each one.
Wow, what an incredible hike. This was the highlight of the entire Inca Trail for me.
We’d been told we weren’t allowed to take our hiking poles into Machu Picchu, but instead of turning mine over I’d hidden them inside my pack, in case I really needed them on Huayna Picchu. And now, heading down the steep, crumbling steps on the back side of the mountain, I really needed them. I figured the rule was really about keeping boneheads from poking holes in Machu Picchu and besides, there was no one on the back side of this mountain to narc on me anyway. I figured that whatever the penalty was for unauthorized hiking pole use, it was something less than falling off a mountain to your death. Poles in hand, I ambled down the mountain.
Until I reached the ladders. I guess the Peruvians got tired of building really, really steep stairs, so on the back side of the mountain they scratched that idea and just slapped together some ladders leading down the cliff face. The ladders were just some branches that were nailed together and they were fucking terrifying.
I thought about this for a minute and decided there was no way I was turning back, fully aware that this might well be the “Let’s take a look at where you fucked it all up,” moment during my life review in the afterlife.
I gingerly put one foot on the first rung of the ladder. Seems to be holding my weight okay. So far so good. Two feet. Okay, now this janky ladder is keeping me alive. It’s you and me ladder. I looked down. There was a tiny platform at the bottom, after which the cliff dropped off alarmingly. If I fell, I’d have one chance to land perfectly in that spot and try to splat like pancake batter, anything else and I’d just bounce off and tumble off the cliff and on down the entire mountain.
Time to stop looking down.
I took another step down and the rung gave slightly. UHM. It stopped. Okay. The ladder creaked. It’s probably fine! One more foot down. Each rung of the ladder had to be tested gingerly and then more and more solidly with my weight before I took my other foot off the rung above. Slowly, carefully.
Half-way down, the ladder started to shake and sway. Oh God. Keep it together ladder. When’s the last time somebody was even on this thing? My mind was clear but my heart started to pound. Breathe. Next rung. Next rung.
An eternity later, I put a foot down on solid ground. Whew.
Cool, just two more ladders to go! Sweet fuck.
Telling this story after the trip, more than one person asked me why I do this kind of thing. Usually they don’t ask in those polite terms. My stock answer is that I believe we grow the fastest through confronting our fears. You learn something from putting yourself in positions that scare the crap out of you, getting a handle on yourself and then pushing through. I used to be really afraid of heights. But pushing my way through it, cliff by cliff, apparently that’s gone now.
There’s an interesting concept in astrology called your North and South nodes, which are meant to represent where your soul has been in your past lives and in what direction you’re attempting to grow now. My South node is in Taurus, indicating past lives where I played it too safe and got stuck in a rut. It’s said the only way forward from there is to push yourself to take big risks, and that beyond the edge of what feels comfortable, you’ll find new parts of yourself. I hadn’t heard about this at all until I got back from South America, but now the last few years of following my intuition through skydiving, janky Peruvian ladders and Bolivian Death Roads make a lot more sense. Way to know what the hell you’re doing, intuition.
In time, the ladders were behind me and I was traipsing down the trail again, butterflies zagging around me in the sunshine. What a day! In time I reached the Incan ruins and the Grand Cavern at the base of the mountain.
The back of the cavern disappeared into the darkness. It was highly eerie walking inside alone, imaging what kind of things could come running out of that blackness. For some reason a dinosaur seemed like the most likely possibility to me at the time.
Leaving the cavern, I approached the first trail sign I’d seen since the top of the mountain. I’m doing great on time and it should only be a half-hour until-
Exit > 90 minutes.
Nin- Oh fuck. That sign at the top hadn’t meant that the trail was ninety minutes to the exit, by way of the cave. It meant that it was an hour to the cave and THEN an additional hour and a half from there to the exit. Forget the lunch, my train was leaving in an hour and a half! And not from Machu Picchu, from the town. Gaaah.
I kicked it into high gear and resolved to finish the trail in an hour. This dream was not helped at all by the fact that the trail had led me all the way to the bottom of the mountain on the back side, so I’d have to climb Huayna Picchu to the peak all over again, and then make my way back down the perilous steps to the bottom on the front side.
Hike, hike, hike, scramble up over rocks as inconsiderate bees swirl around your head to check in on what’s up with you. Not now, bees! Enjoy the wind blowing idyllically through the trees as you gasp for breath. Snap photos on the run as the stunning scenery unfolds all around you.
I made my way all the way up to the peak and then back down again, scrambling down the tiny wet steps, somehow all in under an hour. Then it was jogging across the impossibly slow pathways through Machu Picchu itself on my way to the parking lot where the buses to the town were waiting.
Hmm, there’s a bit of a line for the bus. Well, not much I can do about that. I made my way to the back of the line.
Except the line didn’t end. It turned and stretched to the back of the bus area. Once I reached that point, I could see that the line actually went all the way back to the gates of the complex. Wow. Okay. I made my way to the gates and as I passed through, saw the line turn again and stretch all the way down the dirt road leading up into Machu Picchu.
The woman walking beside me and I both said “Oh, fuck” in unison.
I reached the end of the line just in time to hear one of the people in front of me mention that they’d asked how long the wait was from that point in the line and were told it was an hour. Gaaah.
The hour passed, inching forward and listening to tourists being tourists.
I climbed onto the bus, highly aware that after four days of hiking and no showers, I probably smelled like Cher’s unmentionables. The seat next to me on the bus was the last one left empty, and I felt bad for the American who got on the bus last and had no choice but to sit there. But he turned out to be a dick so it was okay.
“You think they’d build a better road,” he sniffed as we bumped along the serpentine dirt road down to the town.
Guys, I’m not kidding, we’re seriously the worst.
“Oh come on!” he complained when our bus almost hit another bus head-on. Look dude if you’re not okay with dying in a head-on two bus collision, don’t come to Peru. That’s all I’m saying.
Will and Leah later told me that on their bus trip down the mountain, the guy sitting next to them spontaneously offered them both wet wipes and Axe Body Spray, so profound was their funk. They, of course, declined. I think Will declined because it was funny, while Leah was worried about the medical effects of unleashing Axe Body Spray in an enclosed space.
When the bus reached the town, I climbed down and our guide Victor was waiting for me in the throng of people up the road.
“Sean! Where were you! I was so worried!”
“Sorry man there was a really long line for the bus and also I did a really long totally inadvisable hike that was awesome.” I said the first part.
Victor and I raced to the restaurant where the rest of our group was finishing up lunch and scrambling to catch the train. Everyone applauded that I was still alive and told stories of how worried everyone had been.
“We told Victor you were doing the Cavern hike and he said there was no chance in hell you were going to make the train.”
Hannah relayed a conversation from while they were all waiting for me:
“What if he just doesn’t show up at all?”
“That would be such a Sean move.”
“Yeah, like was he ever even on the hike with us? It would be like a ghost story.”
We all scrambled to the train station and unwound over great conversations on our train ride back to civilization, reveling in the fact that we all smelled exactly as badly as each other. God help anyone else who was on that train.
Riding back into Cusco on a bus, everyone was wrecked. As much as we’d bonded on the hike, when each person’s turn came to be dropped off, there were no tearful goodbyes, no exchanged contact info, just a bleary mic drop and a moaning stumble off the bus as everyone couldn’t wait to take a long shower and then sleep for three days straight.
Except me. I wasn’t going to a hotel, I was getting on an overnight bus to Bolivia. Everyone agreed this was completely insane.
The bus terminal to Bolivia wasn’t going to open for a couple of hours, so the tour bus dropped me off instead at a fancy vegan restaurant in Cusco that I’d been wanting to try. My excitement was tempered somewhat by the fact that everything the porters had been carrying for us was given back to us at the last second in a big white bag with our name written on it in huge letters.
I said my goodbyes to my Inca Trail friends. The bus pulled away and I was left standing on the street corner with my hiking backpack, my suitcase and a bright white sack of stuff that said SEAN on it in big letters, like a homeless person. Walking into the restaurant like this was hilariously awkward, especially since the restaurant turned out to be the size of a child’s bedroom. “Don’t mind me,” I thought, as the saintly waiter scrambled around dealing with everything I had knocked over and off the walls with my bag, “I’m just moving in.”
The food was a fabulous goodbye kiss on the cheek from Peru.
The Bolivia bus drove us through the night, stopping for breakfast in some random town where the old ladies ride in style:
From there we carried on down to Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca, where we boarded a boat that took us out to the Uros floating islands. Our guide explained several times that the lake’s name does not mean “Lake Shit.” I mean, to the point where it was clear that he gets asked 17 times a day why they named it Lake Shit. I’m sure the second-most common question is why they named it “Lake Boobshit,” but I didn’t get to see the official ranking of questions.
For the record, the name means “Puma Stone,” because there’s a big rock on one of the islands that looks like a puma. I didn’t see the rock, but everything in Peru is named after either a condor or a puma so I wouldn’t be surprised if the rock just looks like a McDonalds and they had to call it a puma because it sure as hell didn’t look like a condor.
The Uros are a pre-Inca people who dealt with assholish Inca behavior by weaving floating islands out of grass and living on them out in the middle of the lake, which is the same thing I did when I was a teenager and my parents were being unfair.
Stepping off the boat onto an island made of grass is a surreal feeling. The ground sinks spongily beneath your feet with each step but you never feel quite like you’re going to fall through into the lake. All the Uros people go barefoot so I had to try this myself:
Not too bad. The reeds feel good on your feet and are only a little damp. We received a demonstration of how the islands were built (and continually rebuilt as the grass decomposes) and how they’re anchored in place so they don’t all wake up in Bolivia, because no one wants that. The best part of the demonstration was the chance to peel and eat one of the lake reeds, which I may have enjoyed more than normal as I had not had real sleep in seven days at this point:
The Uros children were beautiful, and one of the islands featured the world’s friendliest puppy dog running around and making sure it was petted by every single tourist that came aboard.
We enjoyed a tour of the thatched grass houses on the islands, and the whole thing would have been lovely if not for the fact that we were clearly only there to be sold the shitty handicrafts that the Uros women were peddling.
“Your family is beautiful-” “BUY MY SHITTY TRINKETS!” “I’m sorry ma’am but I have far too many of my own shitty trinkets I’m still trying to unload, I couldn’t possibly take on your chintzy shit as well-” “I UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU’RE SAYING BUT ALLOW ME TO REITERATE THAT YOU NEED TO BUY MY SHITTY TRINKETS RIGHT NOW!”
Back on the bus!
My time in Cusco, spent dealing with the fact that every single person on the street is trying to sell you a tour, a massage, a painting or cocaine had helped me build up my tourist armor. In a month I’d gone from getting sucked into every rug shop in Istanbul to completely tuning out all the people trying to talk to me on the street in Cusco and shutting down the Uros ladies who were trying to use their adorable kids to guilt me into buying a plastic bracelet. A few more layers of shellac and I might be ready for India.
Later that morning our bus dropped us off at the Bolivian border. We dragged all our shit up the street like hobos into Bolivia and were picked up by a different bus there, one that was apparently more prepared to deal with Bolivia. Goodbye Peru.