“Haiku! Haiku!” our guide yelled. The Quechua term for “let’s go/get going” became threaded into the fabric of my days and my dreams during the passage across the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. I never would have imagined the extent of the challenge of the 3.2 day, 30-mile hike based on Active Adventures – South America‘s website description alone. Maybe it was the fever that took up high residence the day before we were to begin our journey — and had yet to leave the day of — that altered the description’s import, or lack there of. Or, that I later lost the ham/cheese sandwich I gingerly ingested the next morning on the bus en route to the park, and in front of 17 other people, while waiting for our guides to finish checking us into the park. Though I calmly and artfully turned my back and removed myself ever so discreetly from the group before the offending moment of truth, one collective gasp rose up from behind me before the guides rushed those from which it had issued forth closer to the trailhead — and away from me. Never mind the poor cactus upon which I heaved my vengeance…thrice.
Wrongly, the guides thought I was having a bout of altitude sickness, evidenced by the Andean elixir they poured into the palms of my hands, instructing me to rub it heartily between them before bringing my palms close to my nose and inhaling deeply. Opening of the lungs to combat the altitude was not what I needed in that moment … or, as it turned out, for the next 72 hours. But the heady floral alcohol-based concoction used by shamans to “open” one’s energy was still hard to refuse despite the misdiagnosis.
So it began. Though I wondered in that moment if I would quite possibly not be able to make it to Machu Picchu, I was resigned to the trek. At worst, the plan was to send me back on a donkey if it appeared I couldn’t hike past the second day, the hardest day. Okay, whatever, that’s a plan, I thought. I accept that I’m at the will of the travel gods, for one can’t defy them and the brand of random “this is out of your control” justice they can so often mete out. Just take it and roll, take it and roll.
In Hindsight: This was one of the best adventure-type trips I’ve taken. I spent three weeks in this country, experiencing its extremes, from Cuzco/Machu Picchu to Lake Titicaca and the Amazon. While it’s been several years since my trip, it is ingrained in my soul. Here are some quick “timeless” tips you might want to take into account if you’re considering visiting Peru (the order is for the sake of organization!):
1) Check out Active Adventures – South America. This tour company and the guide (while not all guides are Peruvians, ours was a native with Incan heritage) was awesome, organized and professional. And they do a good job a “luxury” camping during the hike, setting up all the tents and cooking great meals.
2) Do not drive to Machu Picchu. If you can take the time, hike to it. The entire hike is beautiful and surreal, and you spend half your time walking in the clouds (See my photo gallery of the hike, Machu Picchu Revealed). The three-night trip is enough time, but they have longer ones. .
3) Stay awhile. Visit Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable body of water, and do a kayak tour to one of the lake’s islands for an authentic overnight home stay with a native family. The country has become keen on the locals hosting tourists as a way to share their culture and make some money. Look for flamencos on the drive up! And be prepared to be stopped by local police. This seemed to be a matter of routine, by our driver’s reaction, but not “above board”. Our driver was prepared with money in hand to offer the policeman (seriously!).
4) Stay awhile. Visit the Amazon. We stayed in cool riverside lodge and did day hikes and river tours. Plus, it sounds cool to say you’ve been there!
5) Appreciate the people. They are beautiful and gentle and good natured . There is a spiritualness to them that befits this beautiful, mystical land but belies the poorness of the country. I tried to capture this in Faces of Peru photo gallery and the Allure of Peru blog post.
6) Listen to their music. Buy Peruvian music at any of the markets and listen to it while you’re heading to your next stop.
7) Take a ton of photos. While I was ill during most of the Machu Picchu hike, I had the presence of mind and will power to snap away during the entire hike. I’m transported back every time I look at them.