I heard some nervous laughter and heavy feet coming behind me so I looked up and to my amazement I saw my long time friend on the back of a porter, running down the trail with her holding on for dear life piggy back style. Now, this was not what I expected to see on the trail but this was no ordinary trail, this was the Inca Trail in Peru.
9 of us women had been trekking the Inca Trail for 3 days, and according to our seasoned guides my poor friend was just walking too slow and she was in jeopardy of missing dinner at camp. We quickly learned that you do not miss meals while hiking to Machu Picchu. This was just one of the many life affirming, scary, push me beyond my limits moments that we had on a 2 week trip to Peru. But the trip started with a much more serious agenda.
For the first week my fellow lady friends and I completed a service week in the shantytowns outside of Lima, the capital of Peru. We had an opportunity to work with the local schools and senior centers to help provide everything from basic kitchen help to dental and early childhood evaluations. Through a locally based international volunteer association I spent my days chopping onions, peeling chicken feet and serving meals to seniors who otherwise spend their days in cold, hard living arrangements with minimal nutrition. When I wasn’t being chastised for my amateur cooking skills I had the honor of performing quick manicures. I learned a lot about the lives of these women from the shape, texture, and deformity of their hands. All of them wanted hot pink fingernails and they bickered and jostled in line to ensure they wouldn’t miss out. I left my week of service knowing that I had feed many souls chicken feet soup with a dose of love and left them with pretty pink fingernails.
This weeklong submersion into the lives of the Peruvian people put our next challenge into context. We were going to hike the Inca Trail for 4 days. 4 days with no showers, no proper facilities and thankfully no mirrors!! Wilbur, our head guide has trekked the Inca Trail for 25 years, and he claimed that this was the first all female group he had guided and coincidentally, this was the first group to run out of toilet paper – hmmmmmm. Our porters and guides took extra care of us and always seemed to anticipate our needs. We had minimal personal belongings but it still required 16 men to carry all our gear, food, water, and propane. Under such careful supervision we had no injuries or mishaps, not even a blister! As an example after a torrential rain/hail storm at the top of Warmiwanusca, “Dead Woman’s Pass” (we appreciated the irony) we were invited to hang all our wet clothes in the kitchen tent to dry – this just proves you can’t keep some of us out of the kitchen even on a camping trip!
We ate like queens on the trail, drank gallons of coca tea, slept like babies in our tents, laughed, joked and cried as we made our way to Machu Picchu. Days 1 and 2 introduced us to the tenacity of the Peruvian people. As we passed incredibly beautiful Inca ruin sites our porters ran by with heavy backpacks many times with nothing on their feet, or at a minimum rubber sandals filled with straw. I looked at my high-tech, waterproof, shock absorbing, mid-height hiking boots and knew I was made of lesser stuff than our porters.
Day 3 was tough on some of the group, but we were rewarded with a chorus of “Hola, Colorado Chickas” upon our arrival into camp, which made us feel like family. Our last evening was my favorite with an opportunity to show our gratitude to our crew with words of kindness and appreciation and of course generous tips. In exchange, porters bashfully shared a little something about their family and future plans. The morning of day 4 started at 3:30am with us fumbling around in the dark to get dressed and eat breakfast so we could get through the last checkpoint and up to the Sun Gate. The pace of our group did not afford for us to make it to the Sun Gate as the sun rose, but after going up some more steep inclines and navigating the near vertical stairs right at the end (the gringo killers) we were blessed with a clear view of the iconic vista of the 15th century citadel. After a brief lesson on Inca spirituality we descended down to the goal that had keep our minds and imaginations occupied while we pushed our bodies to their limits.
The first thing to strike you when you arrive at Machu Picchu is it seems to be a part of the landscape, rather than built upon it. It appears to be totally integrated into the mountaintop. Approaching Machu Picchu from the top (via the Sun Gate) is stunning, but exhausting. You walk all the way down, through the complex to get to the main entrance, only to turn around and then appreciate it all over again from the bottom up. Our three-hour guided tour, built on the foundation of 4 days trekking with our experts was the perfect way to end our Peruvian adventure. But of course the fashion show on the train back to Cusco put us right back into giggles and laughter.