A couple months ago I was minding my own business, reading a book, about to go to sleep. I give twitter one last check on my phone and see a message from my friend Jenna telling me of a deal to go to Lima, Peru for $380 round trip. I have no particular reason to go to Peru, but I decide to start booking it and make the decision as I go through the steps. The deal is about to go– it’s disappearing from different booking sites one by one. Hey, might as well go, I think. For how long? Well, I can’t think of anything off the top of my head in Peru besides Machu Picchu (which I already decided I had to see before I died), so I play it safe and book eight days, figuring that will give me enough time for Machu Picchu and maybe one or two other things.
After booking, I begin to do a little research. The thing to do is the Inca trail, which is a four day hike from the Cusco area to Machu Picchu. You have to go with a tour group, and you have to book far in advance. I booked too late for that. The standard alternative is the Salkantay trek, which is typically a five day trek. It’s harder than Inca and has better natural scenery, but no ruins along the way and doesn’t lead directly to Machu Picchu like Inca does. I try to find a good tour group going there, but none of the published dates fit into my short window in Peru. Fine, I think, I’ll just go solo.
I order a lightweight tent, sleeping bag, and mattress pad, and that’s the extent of my planning for over a month. With a week before I leave, I figure I ought to see if I need train or bus tickets. That’s when I learn that Cusco is almost 24 hours away from Lima by bus, and that getting to the trail from Cusco takes several hours as well. Long story short, it looks impossible for me to Salkantay. But I’ve had it in my head for a month now that I’m going to do it, so I don’t give up easily. Finally I find a way I can take a bus to Arequipa near the end, and then take a flight from there to Lima just in time to catch my flight. The problem is that this leaves me only about 3 days to do the trek, and less than 24 hours to acclimatize.
A week later, my trip begins. I’m overjoyed when my tent stakes make it through TSA security. Actually getting to the hiking trail is contingent on several fairly unlikely assumptions, the first of which is that the titanium stakes will make it through. The flight to Lima is long, but I somehow manage to get an exit row seat to Panama, and a whole row to myself to Lima. I get the best plane sleep I’ve ever had.
Once arriving at Lima, I only have two hours to get through customs and make it to the bus station twenty miles away. That’s a pretty tight margin, but I had no real choice when booking. Luckily there’s no line for customs and surprisingly sparse traffic for four pm on a weekday. I make it with time to spare.
The bus ride itself is pretty interesting. It’s a twenty-one hour ride in a double decker bus that’s outfitted with what seem like first class airline seats. They’re wide, recline really far back, have leg rests to turn into a not-quite-flat-bed, and are generally very comfortable. The only real point of interest on the bus ride is that the toilet is intended for urination only. We’re given a short speech about how important this is. If we need to use a proper bathroom, just ask and the bus driver will stop at one. No one asked for the whole trip. How is that possible?
I arrive at Cusco and for the first time have no real deadline because the earliest I can head to the trail is the next morning. I decide to walk the mile or two from the bus station to main square, and here is where I start to get a hint that altitude may not be something to mess with. Perched in the Andes, Cusco is 3400 meters high. For reference, that’s twice the altitude of Denver. Simply being there has my heart pounding from lack of oxygen, and I’m shocked at how winded I get just by walking up a moderately sloped sidewalk.
I check in to a hostel, eat an incredible dinner at a place called Chicha (the Alpaca tartar and Peruvian minestrone soup were incredible, the traditional vegetable casserole less so), and go to bed at 7:30pm. I don’t set an alarm, but by five or so it’s light out, so I quietly pack and leave. Six blocks later I’m at the station for the collectivos, the tiny little vans that carry fifteen people or so. I get in one bound for Mollepata. I’m the only non-native. A couple hours later we’re in Mollepata. Technically you can start at Mollepata, but you hike up a steadily inclined dirt road and are constantly passed by trucks. Eager to shave some time off my hike, I find a group of porters who are setting up a base camp at Soraypampa, and work out a deal to ride with them.
The porters aren’t leaving for an hour, so I sit down at a local cafe and eat two omelets, four round loaves of bread, and a bowl of fruit. I also down four cups of coca tea, which is the leaves of the plant cocaine comes from. I’m told that it’s nothing like drinking liquid cocaine, but does help with altitude quite a bit. The main reason I’m eating and drinking so much is because I have very little food. I went to REI thinking that I’d buy some meals I could eat on the trail, but most things required cooking, or at least boiled water. Very quickly I shifted to buying the highest calorie per ounce food, which was a line of food bars that looked decent. I bought forty of them.
Finally the porters were ready, so we all hopped in the truck. Again, I’m the only foreigner. On the way we pick up the most Peruvian couple I’ve ever seen in my life. They’re a couple with weathered brown faces, similarly brown smiles, two children, including one slung on the woman’s back with a colorful blanket. Everyone is friendly and smiling, despite twenty five of us crammed in the back of the bus along with tons of food, tents and other supplies.
We arrive at Soraypampa, and I ask for directions. I’m pointed towards a trail and told to stay to the left. With no fanfare, I start walking. Several of the porters expressed some shock that I was going to do the hike without a guide or much in the way of supplies. I didn’t understand at the time how insane this was, but I have a better idea now. First of all, if you go with group, they have 1.4 porters per hiker. That’s three people dealing with the gear for every two hikers. These guys carry some of your personal luggage and all of the food, water, tents, sleeping bags, etc. They cook the food and set up and break camp. They use trucks where possible to transport all of this stuff, but where trucks can’t go they use packs of donkeys. I have a nineteen liter backpack. Most people acclimatize in Cusco for two or three days. I have less than one day. I’ve skipped directly to day two of the hike, which is the hardest day, with an 800 meter climb through a very high mountain pass.
The trail starts out with a moderate climb, and the difficulty is immediately alarming. Fifteen minutes in and I’m gasping for breath as if I just sprinted. A headache is beginning to form. It feels really ridiculous, because at sea level the small climb would be so insignificant that I could run up and down it repeatedly with no real effort. Here it’s a challenge just to walk it. For the first time I wonder if maybe I’ve gotten in over my head.
An hour in I cross a stream for the first time. I’ve bought a Steripen to purify the water. The problem is that the water is basically brown, something I didn’t count on. I debate drinking it or not, realize I don’t actually have a choice, and pound down a quart. It tastes funny, but what choice do I have? I fill up my water bottle ad keep going.
The path keeps getting steeper and steeper, and into my view comes Salcantay mountain. It’s beautiful and tall. Really tall. I notice that my attitude has really started to go downhill. All I can think about is how hard this is and how uncomfortable it is, and how I don’t want to do it anymore. I catch myself and decide to be positive and appreciative, so I admire the scenery and start thinking about how lucky I am to be hiking in a foreign country like this. I smile and laugh a bit and keep going.
Before I know it, I’m at the base of a mountain pass between Salcantay and some other mountain. As I look up I see a seemingly never-ending series of switchbacks leading to the top of the pass. My head is pounding and I’m gasping for breath as I shuffle up the first of the switchbacks. Halfway up I’m so fatigued that every step requires a series of internal negotiations. Move the foot. Just move it. Push it forward. Good. Now do it with the other one. Come on. Do it with the other one. Okay, five second break, then the foot goes forward. One, two, three, four five. There we go. Now back to the right foot. Make it to the top of the next switchback and we’ll take a thirty second break.
Then it starts to hail. I’m climbing this mountain in slow motion and I’m being pelted with pea-sized hail. I start laughing uncontrollably because the situation is so absurd. I’m on the side of the mountain, totally unfit to be climbing it, there are no other humans within mile, and I’m being pounded by hail. The levity helps me struggle through another couple switchbacks.
By the time I make it to the top, I am destroyed. My pulse is extremely fast, my lungs just can’t seem to pull oxygen out of the air, and my legs are now starting to hurt. The headache that started to develop at the bottom of the mountain is now pounding, making me wince with every beat. But, actually, I feel pretty good. I know that this was the hardest part, and I’ve done it. The view of Salcantay is amazing. I can hear its glaciers cracking with loud booms. I’m glad to be there.
Next begins the four hour descent. At first I’m thrilled to be going down instead of up for once, but it’s very hard on my legs. I’m wearing Earth Runners sandals, which I normally love, but open toed shoes are a bad choice for gravelly descents. Every step has to be carefully controlled so that I don’t stub my toes. Rocks constantly make their way between my foot and the sandal. My calves take the brunt of the work, and become increasingly sore.
The scenery is stunning. Framed with the backdrop of the snow-capped Andes mountains, I walk through cow and horse pastures with no apparent farmers watching them, past streams that I occasionally drink from, and around giant colorful rocks. I’ve never seen such colorful rocks– they’re black and grey and red and green. I stop to take pictures and generally feel pretty good.
I walk and walk and walk until it finally gets dark. I have no idea where I am. I had written down a list of waypoints and the hours in between them, but the only one had actually passed was the mountain. The rest I seemed to have skipped. Or maybe I was on the wrong trail.
Finally it’s too dark to continue. I spend twenty minutes in the dark scouting for a spot to camp, but in most places the ground is too marshy or covered with horse manure. I find a spot in a horse pasture and begin to set up my tent. While standing my headache was manageable, but for some reason when crouch down it feels like my head is being pounded with a rubber mallet. I crouch, push one stake into the ground, the exertion of which intensifies the headache, stand up for a quick reprieve, and then crouch again for the next one. I finally get the tiny tent put up and I lie down inside. Lying down hurts even more than sitting. I can hardly stand the pain. After several deep breaths and propping my head up with some of my unused gear, the headache gradually starts to get better. I grit my teeth and just wait. After half an hour it’s manageable enough for me to unpack my sleeping bag and mattress pad.
The floor of the tent is a slippery nylon, as is the sleeping bag. The mattress pad is slippery vinyl. I didn’t really notice it when setting up the tent, but I’m parked on a slight incline. The cycle which repeats all night is me getting comfortable and falling asleep, and then waking up thirty minutes later, off the mattress pad, pressed up against the side of the tent. I’m also terrified that a horse is going to trample me in the night. I’m slightly delirious from the altitude, and I keep mulling over whether or not a horse will see my tent in the dark. A few times in the night I’m woken up by the sound of an animal, maybe a chinchilla or wild dog, walking around my tent. As it hits the guylines holding the thing together, the whole tent vibrates. At one point it walks into the line, pulls a stake out, and the tent collapses on me.
I’m sort of scared of the animal, because I don’t know what it is, but I also have to pee really badly, so after ten minutes of holding the tent up with my hand, I venture outside. I’m surprised to see one of the most stunning sites of my life. To my left is a flowing river, to my right are horses sleeping on the side of the mountain, and above us all is the snowy peak of mountain, almost blindingly bright in the presence of the moon. It was as if the mountain was glowing under its own power, illuminating the valley I was sleeping in. I pee, fix my tent, and get back inside, continuing my stilted sleep pattern. At some points in the night I’m just warm enough, but at others I wake up with my teeth chattering and body shivering. I can’t figure out why my temperature is inconsistent, so I can’t fix it.
At around five thirty in the morning the sun has risen and I can’t sleep anymore. Besides it being too bright to fall asleep, my face hurts as it rubs against the mattress pad. Sunburn. I hadn’t really thought about that. I dig out my mirror and see that my face is bright red. I have no sunscreen or hat or anything like that. Within fifteen minutes I’ve packed up my camp, eating a few of my food bars, and am walking again. I feel pretty good, optimistic that I’ll make it. My headache is mostly gone, but my legs still hurt quite a bit. Breathing is easier, but still not great. I take out my GPS and find that I’ve camped at 4000 meters.
The first section of the hike takes me past a stream. I drink the water and it’s much clearer than that of the day before. I pound down two water bottles full and sterilize another for later. As I continue on, the descent gets steeper and steeper. I know that it’s probably placebo, but it feels like the air is thicker and thicker. I regret not walking an hour in the dark the night before to camp at a lower altitude. I could have been at 3500 meters.
As I walk, the lack of sleep begins to kick in. Initially I thought that my naps had added up to something substantial, but I quickly realize how exhausted I am. My legs haven’t recovered, either. They’re sore and fatigued. The constant descent is grueling. Morale hits an all-time low as I descend into the jungle, where the scenery is a lot less beautiful. The path is dusty, and covered entirely by horse manure and gravel. Avoiding the former and negotiating the latter require all my attention. My mind again switches to negative thoughts, wanting to leave and stop the hiking. I feel as though the slightest obstacle could bring me to tears. I try to turn things around and be positive, but I just don’t have the mental energy.
An unexpected hill comes into view. Defeated, I slog up it just as slowly as the mountain the day before. I’m at a lower altitude so it should be easier, but it isn’t. The lack of sleep and altitude have taken their toll on my mind. I can’t remember how many days I have left, and for some reason I think that it’s one less than I actually have. I reach a waypoint that’s on my list, and I’m way behind. I’ll never make it in time. I try to go faster, but I just can’t do it. I keep trying to add up the hours I have left and figure out how much I have to walk each day, but I can’t seem to compute such basic sums. It makes no sense, and I realize that it should be easy, but my cognition isn’t there.
The path dips down to bridge crossing the river. It’s a really great view, but I can’t bring myself to take out my camera. I don’t have the energy. On the other side of the river I climb up a short but intensely steep bank. I’m pushing with my feet and clawing at the mud with my hands. My back aches from the weight of my pack. At the top is a wide road being traversed by cows and donkeys. I stand aside as giant bulls are led past me. Feet shuffling, eyes on the ground, I approach a village at a glacial pace.
Two Peruvian women are sitting at the gate.
“Hay un restaurante aqui?”
I’m led to the restaurant, which is a small room with one table, no chairs, and a giant weaving loom. She brings me a stool and asks me what I want. I ask what she has. She offers a meal comprised mostly of things that I don’t like, but I agree to it anyway. I’m too exhausted to do anything else.
Ten minutes later I’m presented with a giant plate of white rice, half of a tomato, a pile of undercooked and greasy potatoes, and one fried egg. It tastes a lot better than the bars I’ve been eating, but doesn’t give me the energy I was hoping it would give me. I sit on the stool and stare at the loom.
A small van pulls up. I didn’t even realize that the road was connected to other roads. I thought that it was just for the donkeys and livestock. “Adonde va este carro?” Where is this truck going?
They tell me, and it’s somewhere I haven’t heard of. Perfect. I ask if I can go with them. Sure, but I have to wait an hour. I go back on my stool and drink coca tea. Another van comes. It’s going somewhere entirely different, but is leaving now. Do I want a ride?
I’m about to give up, and I know it. I’m angry at myself for not having the perseverance to keep going. I rationalize that if I did continue, I probably wouldn’t have time to see Machu Picchu. I’m not really sure if that’s true, because I can’t keep timetables in my head at all. I know that if I would just walk at night I could catch up and make it, but I’m in so much pain that I can’t really even consider it. I’m trying to be rational and to push myself, but in the back of my mind I already know for certain that I’ll be taking the ride.
It’s an interesting thing to really be pushed up to your limits like that. Even now I think that I could have made it the whole way, but what gives me the right to think that? When the chips fell, I gave up. That’s a lot more concrete than some well of belief in myself. I like to think that I can do anything if I try hard enough, and maybe that’s true, but the big caveat in thinking that is that sometimes I won’t try hard enough. I’ll have a trail and a truck in front of me, and I’ll choose the truck.
I take one last look at the trail. In the distance I can see another series of switchbacks going up another mountain, and that seals the deal. Yeah, I’ll take the ride.
The driver is flying down the dirt road, which is carved into the side of a cliff. There’s no guardrail, and the road is narrow. On several occasions he comes within less than a foot of the edge. He’s driving a about twice the speed I’d be driving at. At one point we take a hairpin turn around a corner and very nearly get into a head on collision with another truck. Both vehicles slam on their brakes and skid dangerously close to the edge. All of this barely alarms me, compared to my internal monologue. Although I’m incredibly relieved to be off the trail, part of me is furious at myself for giving up. I’m in the worst mood I can remember being in years. I could have made it, I think. I wouldn’t have died. It would have been hard, but I would have gotten there. If that truck hadn’t been there, I would have had to do it. I don’t actually want to continue, of course, and the realization of that fact makes me even more disappointed in myself.
We finally arrive at some tiny little village. Some kids are playing in a marching band, and chickens, cats, and puppies are walking around the grass. There are two open air restaurants there, both of which are blasting different types of music. Already in a bad mood, the discordance of the three loud songs playing at once annoys me. I get out of the van, but there’s nothing for me to do. I have no energy, and there’s nowhere to sit. After ten minutes of just standing there, I get back into the van, slump over, and fall asleep. We’re waiting for a group to finish their trek, people who didn’t quit, and then we’re all going to go to the train station.
Eventually I wake up and I see the group walking past me into one of the restaurants. I’m annoyed with them, for finishing, for making me wait by eating lunch, and just for existing. I can’t fall back asleep, but instead of being friendly and joining them, I just sit in the van and do nothing. They finally pile into the van, and I say nothing. I just stare off into space. Finally one of them asks if I’m okay. Yeah, just tired. Did you trek? Yeah, but I gave up. Where’s the rest of you group? I just went by myself. Where’s your gear? This is all I have.
Their guide is in the van, too. He looks me in the eyes and says, “You crazy, man.” In an act of self flagellation, I keep trying to focus the conversation on how I quit, how they walked twice as far as I did, how really I had failed. But they’re all impressed, even the guide. They think that it’s amazing that I trekked by myself, and no amount of genuine self deprecation will change their minds. They’re all good people, and they really lift my spirits. I can’t remember the last time I needed someone else to help my mood. For the first time, I actually give myself some credit for what I did. Ultimately I failed to finish the trek, but I had the guts to give it a shot and I did the hardest part.
We all become friends on the bus ride, and they invite me to everything else they’re doing. I check into their hostel and we make plans to go to Machu Picchu together the next morning. As it turns out, it’s pretty important to get to the Machu Picchu bus at five am, and I wouldn’t have known that otherwise. Together, the six of us go to the hot springs in Aguas Calientes that night and soak our muscles in the tubs. The next morning we go to Machu Picchu, and I’m incredibly glad to have Juan, our guide, there. He knows everything about it, and gives a great tour. In penance for not finishing the trek, I do the hike up to the Sun Gate. It’s an uphill forty-five minutes, and I only have one shoe. The other one blew out. I also hike to the Inca suspension bridge, climb over the barrier, and walk across the bridge. One of the Machu Picchu officials is there when I climb back over the barrier, but he smiles at me instead of getting angry. Great view over there, huh?
So that’s my story. I’m still disappointed in myself for not finishing. There aren’t that many times in life that I’m actually pushed to my limits, so to fail during one of those times really stings. It’s a dent in my self image and my confidence. I’m being harder on myself than is reasonable, because I want to reinforce to myself that it’s not okay to quit. I wanted to quit at that first mountain, and I’m proud that I didn’t. I’m proud that I had the guts to try in the first place, knowing I might fail. And I’m really grateful to have made a bunch of new friends just as I needed them. It was humbling to fail, to lose my ever-present contentment, and to lean on others to get it back.
I have the feeling the formatting is off on this post. I’ve got just a couple minutes before I have to get on a bus to Arequipa and I wanted to dash this off so that it hit monday.