Finally, some Me time! I take a lungful of fresh, oxygen-free Andean air, and hold it in for a minute.
Something in me is rejoicing – must be the sky so close to the mountaintops that they’re touching it, disappearing in it.
Roaring like thunder are the wild waters of the Urubamba River, rushing under the crude logs of the bridge below me over huge, smooth boulders; it’s scary and hypnotizing at the same time.
With a fancy Inca Trail stamp in my passport; a fresh supply of chocolate bars in my backpack; a walking stick, the most important item of the trek; a new pair of sneakers on my feet; and a new music player from the Molino market on my ears to keep my spirits in sync with the snow-capped peaks around, life feels good.
Hello, tough trees, I jump gracefully from the bridge onto a narrow path, shaded by thick thorny bushes on both sides. Real good.
A couple of days out in the open after two hectic weeks on the road is all I need – peace and quiet, some flower smelling, sun and natural vitamin D to boost my immune system. Charging my batteries and reconnecting with myself doesn’t sound bad either, the vastness of space and me but a grain of sand …
There’s definitely something to mountains!
The first day is a breeze, says Pepe; only 8 miles with minimal elevation.
Just to get wrecked the next day is the part he usually leaves out.
I could do with some physical challenge, though – no harm in pushing yourself a bit now and then, is there?! Especially with those love-handle suckers, showing up at the sides of my waist!
Today is the only day of the Trail we still come across some civilization – clusters of adobe shacks with tin roofs and earth floors, that is. With dogs sleeping in doorway shades, and pigs, chickens and toddlers let loose.
On my way to the last normal toilet, I almost trip over Katie and some guy, sitting on a log bench. Katie is a British salsa teacher dreaming about going to Cuba because “Cuba has the best salsa schools in the world.” She makes me promise to find her one when I go.
Lining the path are buckets filled with bottles of water and beers for sale to Inca trekkers.
These indigenous Quechua – I look at women in red skirts and home-knit sweaters, at men in black pants and traditional waistcoats, walking behind ploughs pulled by donkeys and oxen; there’s more to them than meets the eye. Known mostly for giving the world one of the most enigmatic cultures, the Inca, they’re also hiding some pretty entrepreneurial spirit behind that placid exterior of theirs!
Which shows in the form of long poles with red flags at their ends, sticking out of the windows of chicha houses located conveniently along the trek.
Inside them, gathered around huge earthenware pots are our porters, scooping up a yellowish liquid, consumed throughout the Andes for millennia. It’s a beer made from fermented corn mostly taken as a refreshment. Except during religious festivals, when people get wasted from it (for ritual purposes).
We want a shot too – the very Inca drank it! And just like them, we pour off a little on the ground first as an offering to Pachamama, the Mother of Earth, before downing it.
Chicha beer tastes slightly sour with a hint of hay.
Pepe says it has anti-inflammatory effects, but then again – what booze doesn’t have positive health benefits?!
And when he says that the production process is as follows – women first chew the corn, then spit it in the water and let it ferment – we laugh (look at that big, fat, juicy Andean corn!). Pepe doesn’t move a muscle in his face and just keeps looking at us; sometimes, it’s really hard to tell when he’s serious and when playing. It’s like there’s two sides to him – one funny and breezy, the other grave and somber.
The local settlements scattered along the meandering river gradually thin out until completely disappearing.
How do they get all their up stuff here, actually? I wonder while standing above the Inca ruins of Willkarakay, a multi-level complex of hundreds of buildings that occupy an entire hillside. The place is another unbelievable example of a coarse, rocky mountain transformed manually into a cascade of perfect, semicircular terraces.
(Only to be destroyed by the very Inca to prevent the Spaniards from accessing Machu Picchu when they had to retreat.)
I don’t have to wait around long for an answer.
“Watch out, a llama express!” yells out the Australian guy, walking on the path behind me, and jumps to the side.
A caravan of llamas, carrying giant sacks on the sides of their backs, emerges in the turn. The chief llama has large brown spots and huge round eyes; they stare at me at eye-level.
I don’t dare move.
After a short staring contest, the llama swivels her ears and resumes her march.
The caravan follows, pressing with their bodies hard against me. It feels like bouncing off a fleecy, padded wall of a psych ward!
“You want some?” the Australian guy offers, holding out to me a pack of coca leaves. The side of his cheek is already bulging.
I shake my head and keep watching, as he expertly removes the stems from the leaves so they don’t scratch his gums, puts the leaves in his mouth and moves them around with his tongue until they form a ball. Then he adds “lejía”, a lime mix, a small chunk of ash paste that helps release alkaloids supplying the body with energy and strength.
He got these instructions from Pepe, who, after watching him stuff his mouth with dry leaves and swallow them, couldn’t take his ignorance anymore.
“Wouldn’t it be easier to just crush the leaves and sniff the powder?” the Australian guy wants to know.
“Si quieres cagarte los pantalónes, sí.”
I refuse to translate that.
“You’re a pretty tough East European,” the Australian guy says now.
“You must have done a bunch of treks before, running around mountains in just tennis shoes like that.”
Tennis shoes? I look down at my feet, confused, then slide my eyes over to the others. They’re all sporting bad-ass hiking boots.
That explains the lack of traction and slippery soles.
Aren’t sports shoes meant for just any physical activity?
Given that all my previous trekking experience boils down to a bizarre Cold-War Era thing when, as kids, we had to run around the woods behind our school wearing gas masks, raincoats and plastic bags over shoes to practice for the scenario that the arch-enemy to all peace-loving people and just communist societies, the capitalist U.S., launches a nuclear attack, no wonder, I got myself a pair of shoes designed for explosive movements in a gym instead of a pair of boots sported by stormtroopers!
Around 5 pm, after 7 hours of hiking, some history stops and a lunch break, we arrive at the campsite. It’s at almost at 10,000 feet of elevation, set up on a raised rocky ledge surrounded by snow-capped peaks.
The tallest one, disappearing in the clouds high above, is our goal tomorrow.
All tents are already up, even the large dining one with folding tables and chairs. All that’s left for us to do is to pick up our sleeping bags and mats from a pile on the ground and present ourselves for teatime.
Sprawled out on a grassy slope, we sip tea and eat biscuits, watching our porters play soccer with porters from other campsites.
Yeah, let me say it again – playing soccer after a day of each dragging 45 pounds of stuff on their backs!
Two hours later, loud bangs of a spoon on a saucepan summon us to a sumptuous dinner.
And when I say sumptuous, I mean sumptuous!
The first course is guacamole with white cheese and 4 chips on the side. Next comes a tomato and cucumber salad, a quinoa vegetable soup, a fried chicken with rice and American potato filled with some delicious stuffing, and a fried trout in mushroom sauce.
As a dessert – fruit jelly, to drink – coffee, tea, coca tea and muña tea.
Dining a la Michelin couldn’t be better!
When the night descends on us, we go to sleep, content and with full bellies, the Milky Way above our heads.
Even in darkness, the soaring mountains around form an amazing panorama, and the peace emanating from them can’t be disturbed by even my sleeping bag continuously sliding down the floor.
In these altitudes, you drop off as soon as you hit the pillow.
“Wake up!” My tent shakes violently. “Everybody, wake up!”
“What time is it, for God’s sake?!”
Moaning, I stick my head out.
My tent is covered in frost; my breath is coming out in condensed puffs; a dazzling sunrise blinds my eyes.
A mug of steaming tea is sitting on the grass before me.
That’s what I’m talking about!
Sipping the hot liquid, I look up. Hiding in the peaks high above is a V-shaped canyon, the infamous “Dead Woman’s Pass,” our goal today.
(Enveloped in angry, menacing clouds, it’s getting ready for us.)
“Hurry up, breakfast’s ready!” Pepe’s voice is bouncing off the hills around like a ball bouncing off walls.
Feeling a bit funny – must be all the Sublime Extremo chocolate bars and Mini Kraps crackers I had yesterday to keep my blood sugar stable, I sprint to the baños with a toothbrush, a bottle of water and a toilet paper roll in my hand. On return, I pack my mat, sleeping bag, personal belongings, and leave them outside.
Breakfast consists of toasted bread, butter, jam, pancakes, granules with milk and fruit, coffee, tea and hot cocoa – I don’t even have breakfast like that at home!
While we feast, the porters take down the tents, pack everything, and load it.
Seven. On the dot, Pepe taps his watch. Time to head out.
I run back to the bathroom to say goodbye to my breakfast (a very unpleasant goodbye.)
“Are you all right?” Sadie wants to know. Sadie is a sturdy nurse from New Zealand whose tent was next to mine last night.
I nod, partly because I know gluttony and high elevations don’t go well together, partly because I know Sadie’s take on things: “trust your guts and get the hell out of their way!”
Just like last night, when Sadie had a little chit-chat with the American lady, a recently retired and divorced librarian she’s sharing accommodations with. Both in their fifties and traveling single, they hit it off straight away.
“If he wants to go, let him go,” recommended Sadie when the American lady expressed second thoughts about her divorce.
“Think of it this way – you had the best of him, now let somebody else deal with his old age, bad prostate, poor indigestion and crankiness. You’ll get the spark back in no time, you’ll see, just trust your guts and move on.”
We begin our march by heading off for the old Inca path leading to stone staircases that go on for hours.
This is also where the steep climb through several geographical zones with constantly changing weather conditions starts, the infamous Gringo killer, the hardest part of the entire Inca Trail. A five-hour vertical climb with no relief!
At first, we’re sticking together like one, getting mentally ready for the task ahead.
But when we give one last look to the adobe houses with yellow and red corn drying on canvas outside, and enter the area of thick bushes, thorny shrubs and deformed conifers, we split up.
Slowly, I get left behind.
I’m feeling kind of nauseous. Tiny sparks are shooting out before my eyes, I can’t manage a couple of steps without my stomach’s contracting like a latex balloon.
The gnarled shapes and dead twigs hanging down around are not really helping, either. Leaning on my stick, I feel pulled closer and closer to the ground as if my body knew that’s where all the oxygen is.
Except, 11,000 feet lower down.
Altitude sickness is Pepe’s verdict half an hour later.
No way! I can’t believe this!
He wants to send me back.
I refuse. I took it real slow, I argue, it’s just something bad I ate. I had plenty of time to acclimatize, so ni hablar this could be altitude sickness.
He just shrugs his shoulders and assigns one of his assistants to stay with me.
The assistant takes my backpack, my water and my newly-purchased camera.
I look up to the sky above me where the Dead Woman’s hiding inside storm clouds.
No harm in pushing yourself a bit now and then, is there?
If I’ve ever touched rock bottom in my life, it’s today.
Scrambling up half-collapsed stone staircases, I’m constantly sick. Every step, every breath I take upsets my stomach. If I have a drink, I get sicker, so I stop drinking and get a throbbing headache instead. It’s a vicious circle. I’m dizzy, dehydrated and miserable.
I’m the last of the 500 people on the trek that day who get over the pass .
Me and a couple of Swedish octogenarians.
My only companions are dwarf trees covered with layers of reddish bark and clusters of miniature flowers. And the stitching pain in my side, along with my spinning head.
And my assistant who just won’t stop taking pictures.
Like now, standing all smiley above a wide crevasse formed during millions of years by rain currents, waiting for the right exposure.
Just one little push, crosses my mind, one little push and he won’t stop drifting through the air until he hits the bottom of the ravine where we just spent the night. It seems like an eternity.
With my head bowed down and my spirits crushed, I’d probably miss the small clearing above the path where lunch is served, if it wasn’t for Pepe and his ear-piercing whistle.
I don’t eat a bite.
I just sit under a tree, next to Katie.
Normally, I wouldn’t pay any attention to her and her companion, being on the death’s threshold and all, but I can’t help it – he looks like an angel! A perfect soft feminine face is framed by golden locks, a perfectly shaped smile reveals perfect pearly white teeth. Katie met him the day before, and they’ve been inseparable since then.
He’s travelling alone, he explains. Writing a screenplay for an independent movie slightly based on his life, he smiles, and dimples pop up. That’s why he travels so much – to meet new, interesting people.
He looks curiously at my gloomy face and wants to know what it feels like to be down with altitude sickness. Might come in handy for his writing someday, I imagine.
I let my eyes speak – even talking hurts.
When it starts to get chillier and windier again, I head out. Following me are heavy clouds swirling menacingly above my head.
An hour later, I raise my eyes for the 235th time and look at the jagged ridge of the snow-covered Dead Woman’s Pass. She looks so close.
As she has for hours now, the bitch!
A convoy of porters bent under heavy loads is passing through. In disbelief, I stare at their strap sandals made of recycled tires. I feel like crying.
Another hour after that, and we’ve ascended above the tree line where the landscape turns into stone. Stretching all the way to the horizon are deep rocky ravines and rugged rolling slopes, covered with a carpet of olive-colored moss glistening like silver.
The Dead Woman’s famous breast with a nipple in the middle of it keeps soaring provocatively in the air.
It’s tundra zone now. I’m struggling valiantly against the wind, getting stabbed by icy needles and prickly grass.
I keep dragging on.
More porters. It’s only now that I realize it’s our tents, sleeping bags, folding tables, chairs, gas cooking bombs and food supplies they’re hauling on their backs.
These small skinny men, always setting out of the camp after us and running up the neck-breaking stone steps to get ahead of us. In those brown tire sandals.
One of them takes a break. He curiously looks at me, me at him.
How come they never slip and crash in those sandals, I ask.
They have an anti-slip sole, he explains, that doesn’t skid on wet stones.
“The new ones are not that good, though,” he adds.
Apparently, even tire sandals must be broken in!
I catch a sight of his varicose veins, and feel like crying again.
For him, for me, for all the injustice in the world!
I give him all my supplies of Sublimes Extremos and Mini Kraps.
The assistant, seeing the state I’m in, tries to console me. “The porters make more in the three days that the Inca Trail lasts than they do working their fields for one month,” he says.
And gets up to take even more pictures, running off like an antelope confirming the scientific fact that high-altitude people have double lung capacity, slower pulse and twice as much hemoglobin in their blood.
I hate him.
A figure emerges from around the bend. The Australian guy.
“Did you see the porters?” he yells. “Aren’t they ‘mazing!?”
“They always leave after us and arrive before us, did you notice?”
“This time, I decided to keep up with them. Almost lost them but caught up with them at the lunch again!” he continues with a self-complacent grin on his face.
“See ya!” he waves his stick in the air and is gone.
Not a word of concern about my current state of health.
A tough East European, I know.
Feeling all alone in the whole world, I talk to the bears moving around small ponds of water that seeps through the ground on the plain below. My bears understand me.
Two hours later, completely exhausted, I reach the summit.
I made it! I collapse to the ground, ignoring the flickering lights before my eyes that go off like fireworks on the 4th of July. I hug the earth – I reached the highest point of the trek, all 13, 829 feet of it!
The assistant takes out a sandwich and sinks his teeth into it. Crumbs of bread and pieces of boiled eggs start falling off his mouth.
I seriously hope he dies.
One last time, I look down the deep gorge running on for several miles; hard, spiteful raindrops are pounding my sweaty body.
A sound of a cough comes over from behind the pass.
A tall, thin guy appears.
“Hola, guapa,” he says in a friendly manner. A cigarette is burning in his hand. No water, either.
I realize I know him. Yes, from the Colca Canyon trip where he and his group stole the hotels’ best rooms that were supposed to be for us! He’s a tour leader, too.
And a pretty eccentric one.
“Do you wanna know what he says?” Pablo asked me that night over a bottle of wine. “He says that smoking doesn’t cause cancer, that on the contrary, it protects lungs by creating a layer of slime that traps all the harmful stuff. That it’s primarily non-smokers who die from lung cancer, that it’s a scam devised by the US government!”
The coughing goes on until the guy disappears on the other side of the pass.
When the wind, rain, fog and sun combine forces together and turn into a hailstorm, I get moving, too.
Sitting on a rocky overhang beside the pass is a naked man. I ignore him.
Now, it’s only another hour and a half down a steep trail to the Pakaymayu river campsite.
It takes me four.
The landscape’s very different now. It has hundreds of little streams, making their way down the grassy slopes of green mountains and coming together in dozens of waterfalls that throw themselves down into bottomless abysses. Rising out of the gorge, like smoke from a hell’s cauldron, are thick lumps of mist.
This path is no longer part of the original Inca trail.
Or do you really think the progressive Inca would run their roads up and down the mountain ridges and not along them?!
These steps were laid for tourist purposes only; tomorrow, we’ll join the original trail again.
I’m taking regular covers in the bushes to deal with my fermenting body.
During one, Katie and the Angel kiss their first kiss outside. It’s so emotional the drumming in my ears intensifies.
Turning to Katie, the Angel says: “so that you have a nice memory of this place,” and kisses her. So vigorously, their teeth knock. Katie nervously giggles.
I’m on edge.
Literally – I’m teetering over a bulging slope on one side and a steep gorge on the other. So are they, except thinking it’s romantic.
At the camp, the naked man at the pass turns out to be the Australian guy.
Apparently, streaking is an Australian national sport – the world’s first streaker was an Aussie!
Ready to drop dead, I crawl into my tent hoping I won’t have to spend the night in the overflowing camp toilets.
I curl up into a ball and look into the darkness of my tent.
And when I reach into my backpack for a roll of toilet paper, again, my bowels wriggling like a ball of snakes, a beautiful collection of orchid pictures blinks back at me from my camera.
The bloody assistant!
My knees may shake like jelly and my heart drum like the African djembe, but I AM getting over this last ridge!
Stretching out all around is a landscape of slate rocks and dwarf forests with tiny alpine lakes. It’s drizzling – a white fog is spilling over the edge.
I’m feeling a bit better today, despite the huge loss of fluids, electrolytes and minerals. I even got some sleep last night and ingested a cup of tepid tea this morning. No food, still.
On the bright side – my pants are hanging real loose now!
Today, we’re leaving the high-elevation zone and starting our descent into the cloud forest, and then on all the way down to Machu Picchu, where the Peru’s Eastern Cordilleras pass to the Amazon jungle.
To Paqaymayu, Sayacmarca, Phuyupatamarca, Wiñayhuayna, places like that.
Never a dull moment!
Above my head, beams of light are breaking through swirling clouds, illuminating a ring of snow-capped peaks of 20,000 feet. And the rainbows!
I can feel the excitement of day one oozing back into me.
It’s so invigorating I decide to check out the ruins of Qunchamarka tambo the Inca built on the hillslope next to the trail.
“Take your backpack off and leave it at the entrance!” an angry voice says just as I’m trying to squeeze my body through the tambo’s tight stone entrance, almost tripping over a pile of bags on the ground (damn, the Inca were short!).
“This is a sacred place and you should respect it!”
A sacred place? I almost laugh in the face of the woman before me.
Almost – it’s hard to do that when you have barely enough juice to get over the next bump and are panting like a steam engine.
Tambos, to my knowledge, were mountain rest stations, kind of a pub and a hostel in one, built for travelers and “chasqui”, the Inca messengers, fast runners over long distances. Here, they could stop over, cook their food, feed their llamas and spend the night.
So, definitely not a place where women were not allowed when menstruating!
Shaped usually as semi-circular structures with a series of concentric walls inside, these small stations were constructed along the vast network of Inca roads that linked the plateaus of the Cordilleras with the coastal plains of the Pacific.
Roads that run through deep valleys and high mountains, and were wide, paved and straight in some places, and hewn through rock like tunnels in others. Along rivers, they were lined by walls, in mountains, they were built as stone staircases or suspension bridges.
Kept clean and passable throughout the year, they were equipped with stations, storehouses, solar temples and checkpoints.
Most Peruvian present-day roads have been built on these original Inca roads, including the Pan-American Highway interconnecting the continent.
I stick my head out of one of the tambo’s tiny windows and look down into the valley where we just spent the night. A sacred place, my eye!
These Esoterics, they just seem to abound in these parts, touching stones, imbibing sun energy, basking in their brotherhood.
And bossing everybody else around.
Not worth thinking about, I pull my head back and resume the climb.
A familiar sound bounces off the surrounding hills.
Moving somewhere up there, in front of me, is clearly Diego.
Diego and his scrawny figure that seems constantly ahead of almost everyone.
True, there are regular cigarette breaks, but other than that, Diego’s marching like a war bull. Pulled by the gravitational force of his next smoke, ha-ha.
This day, the third and longest of the Inca Trail, becomes my favorite. All 10 miles of it, actually, adorned with extensive, mind-blowing Inca structures, just like this tambo.
Another one is right ahead of me.
Perched on a high cliff, with a perimeter of multiple valleys and mountain chains encircling it, this Eagle’s Nest’s real name is Sayaqmarka, the “City on the Cliff.”
Built as a military checkpoint, it controlled access to two valleys – the Urubamba valley and the neighboring Aobamba valley.
I lean over a low stone wall, the only thing separating me from a thousand feet deep abyss the access path leads along.
Thank God I’m not a sleepwalker!
The path runs up to a terraced area, encircled by a ring of precisely assembled walls protecting a vast system of streets, houses, towers and canals within it.
Staggering ravines, gorges and canyons covered with verdant tropical vegetation, and towered over by cascading mountain ridges is all you can see from the citadel’s top part.
And all you can hear is the sound of gurgling water, brought through a network of stone canals from the small alpine lakes above.
Another masterpiece of engineering.
I keep looking around mesmerized. I’d never leave here, if I didn’t have to. I’d just be taking pictures of incredible natural beauty, basking in the sun, watching the small dots of people on the path below.
“In America, there would be fences, chains and ‘no trespassing’ signs,” says the American lady.
“And cable cars, a McDonald’s and photo fees,” adds Sadie.
We laugh, gusts of a warm breeze stroking our faces.
I’m catching up with people again!
This time with not just octogenarians, but also people in their fifties!
Enjoying the air’s brightness, birds’ chitter and the sea of rolling hills around coming alive with dramatic plays of shadow and light, a figure appears around the curve.
It’s the Australian guy leaning with both hands on makeshift crutches.
“I’m crippled, I’m crippled!” he cries out, tears in his eyes.
We collapse into laughter.
Trying to keep up with the porters yesterday, he’s pulled his leg muscles and now, he can’t bend his knees!
Not stopping, the Australian guy just smiles resignedly and hobbles off, kicking his legs comically out to sides.
When we get a grip of ourselves again, we get up to the last mile of the walk.
After an initial steep descent, the path levels off and starts passing under a vault of entwined branches covered with layers of moss and lichen. Crawling all over the ground are thick roots; hanging down from trees are curtains of vines and lianas full of shiny leaves and waxy flowers. Occasionally, a stream of mist rises to our knees, making us look from a distance like we’re walking in the air.
This is the cloud forest, the place where the moist warm air meets the cold mountain air and creates mists and clouds. In the Andes, local climates change drastically over short distances, with rainforests just miles away from snow-covered peaks.
Behind a bend, growing off the side of a bulky mountainside is a huge chunk of rock blocking the path. The only way to get around is to squeeze through a narrow tunnel hewn by the Inca into the rock. Dark, wet and rough inside, the tunnel is 20 feet long and 3 feet wide.
Filling it are cries of humans touching or being touched by inhuman things, like cobwebs, dripping lianas and slimy rock.
And as if that wasn’t enough, waiting on the other side is the infamous Inca Staircase, 1,500 steps carved into solid granite that drop off almost vertically into the jungle.
A spiral of bodies turned sideways is descending it right now, picking their steps down the giant helix, half-devoured by wild forest vegetation.
“F*ck me dead,” utters Sadie before placing her powerful boot on the first of tiny steps.
I pick up a lot of kiwi slang during the descent.
Once down, we’re deciding whether we go straight to the campsite or make a little detour by the Intipata ruins, a colossal, multi-layered complex of terraces sitting on the side hill right above us.
“I need a break after all these bloody stairs,” says Sadie. “My head is spinning like Michael Jackson.”
That seals it.
A few minutes later, we lay sprawled out on emerald green grass below a tall, terraced wall.
Covered with cascading white terraces and lined with clusters of stone buildings huddled together along edges, the mountain slope looks like a dreamlike vision.
Leaning in over the walls are tree branches wrapped in heavy vegetation; the jungle that had possessed the ruins for hundreds of years (saving them this way paradoxically from destruction), is claiming her lost territory. Her hunger gives the place a dramatic vibe.
The deep silence the ruins are immersed in is only being interrupted by a high-pitched chirp of the cicadas, rising and dropping like ocean surf, and an incessant chomping of the llamas, keeping the deck nice and short. Flying all over are swarms of tropical butterflies, their wings winking like cobalt blue, scarlet-red and amber-yellow eyes.
A mist is rising from the valley across where the greenish cone of the Machu Picchu mountain can be seen. That’s our goal tomorrow, the last stop of our trip.
Just before my eyes close completely, I glimpse two people stealing out of one of the lower stone structures. Katie is hastily fixing her hair, walking casually behind her is the Angel.
When I open my eyes again, the feeling of heat on my face is gone. The sun is covered by dark clouds, filling the air is light thundering.
I must have dozed off, I realize.
Just like Sadie and the American lady next to me.
The sky turns black so fast we have hardly time to make it halfway through the radial staircases, before it starts raining. And raining hard, with mad lightning crisscrossing the sky.
We break into a run, heading for the walls sheltering the gabled Inca houses. As soon as we get there, we realize there’s no protection for us there – the roofs over our heads are empty!
The Inca built their houses from stone, right, but used perishable wood for roofs!
Standing in an open space with rain pouring down our heads, we laugh.
We’re trapped and we know it – covering the valley are curtains of water coming down like a deluge; whipping the hills are crackling bolts of lightning shooting out of clouds. The rolling of thunder is so deafening it keeps echoing inside our heads.
The grazing llamas break into a wild run and disappear in the jungle.
Having nowhere to hide, we put on our ponchos and slide down along the walls to the ground.
The warm rain water washing my face, I create a small roof over my head with my hands to look through the mass of water. The visibility is low, barely a few yards, with everything shrouded in drumming rain, still, I’m in one of the most beautiful corners of the planet surrounded by tropical mountains and mysterious ruins.
If the grass and stairs weren’t so slippery, I’d run down screaming with joy!
A deafening crack, a two-tailed medusa, strikes the air. One of the stinging tentacles enters the ground right above the terraces, its blow so strong it makes me flinch.
I turn my head and freeze – the other end has just passed through the body of the American lady that violently twitches and collapses to the ground.
My mind goes blank. I don’t dare move, the rain slapping my face.
Not so Sadie – she springs up, grabs the American lady by the arms and pulls her into a safety feeling for her pulse.
Is this really happening?! Shivers runs down my spine.
The rain and storm continue.
Then the American lady opens her eyes, and my heart jumps.
She’s dazed but fine. Besides a black spot on the top of her head, surrounded by burnt red skin, she has no other injuries. She’s in full control of her body and speech.
As the storm started, it stops.
“Do you know what happened?” Sadie asks, stroking the American lady’s shoulder.
“No,” she replies, “but there’s a wicked buzz inside my head.”
Not everybody dies after being struck by lightning, I learn. Yet, such an unscathed escape is pretty exceptional, a downright anomaly.
When the rain ceases for good and the sunrays light up the valley again, we pick up our things ready to leave. The American lady pulls up her shirt and we gasp.
Stretching across her back is a broad red ornament, a branching crown of a tree.
No, a branch of a fern, yeah, a magnified fern leaf is what it looks like, this nature’s work of art. I’m not able to take my eyes off it.
“Broken capillaries,” Sadie explains on our way to the camp, “caused by electric discharge.”
“Aw shoot,” is the only response of the American lady when we take a picture of it and show it to her.
The thing causes such a stir in the camp that even the portadores, busy setting up tents and cooking food, come to check it out.
“Was her hair standing up?” some hiker inquires. “Did smoke come out of her shoes?”
Fortunately, the camp is pretty empty at this hour. Most hikers are at the Visitor’s center enjoying their first shower and cold beer in 3 days. Others are checking out yet another set of beautiful and perfectly preserved Inca ruins at the other end of the campsite. The Winay Wayna terraces are built into a sweeping killer mountainside that overlooks the Urubamba River, and are almost as imposing as the ruins of Machu Picchu.
The last dinner of the Inca trail is opulent. The chef outdoes himself using carrots, onions, corn and other atypical things to create a cake, decorated with figurines of toucans and parrots.
His creativity is rewarded with a huge applause. And so is the hard work of the porters, returning home the next morning while we continue to Machu Picchu.
One by one, we shake hands with them expressing our gratitude.
When it’s the American lady’s turn, the portadores won’t touch her hand. Instead, they make a shy bow.
Getting struck by lightning is seen by the Andean people as a sign from the spiritual world to those chosen to serve as shamans, the natural healers and mediums between the world of humans and that of spirits.
Surrounded by thick impenetrable jungle, gigantic cones of mountains and strings of rivers on one side, and steep, bottomless ravines with cascades of white terraces on the other, I can’t help but believe it.
While waiting for the gate to the Inca Trail to open, a part of our group gets stuck at the back of the crowd. A group of what look like Germans won’t let them through.
“We were here first!” claims the barrier of their bodies.
All reasoning falls on deaf ears, the locked bodies of the brutes won’t open. “No one is skipping the line!”
We have no other option but to start pulling ours through.
A tall, bulky man positioned at the front of the barrier steps suddenly forward and gives me a harsh shove. I fall on the wire fence behind me that caves in, hurting my arm.
Before I can get up and give the man a piece of my mind, the entrance gate opens up and the crows shoots out.
It’s 5 am, the sun’s still down but the horizon’s getting light, and the race is on.
I rise like a Terminator. And just like him, I say, I’ll be back.
The hike to Machu Picchu starts quickly – the urge to get to the Sun Gate before the sun does allows for no slack. Space is tight – the trail is only a thin cut in the hillside of the Machu Picchu mountain running along its crest. Bulging out on one side is a gigantic slope, gaping on the other is a steep precipice.
“Is that mad race normal?” Unable to keep up, I give up less than halfway through. “The Sun gate’s only 5 miles away, plenty of time to get there!”
Pepe nods his head.
A small group breaks away from the peloton and starts pushing up. Diego and his party.
I slow down even more – no reason to get done in so soon. It’s gonna be a long day, getting up at 3:30 am, at an hour when the camp is still covered in pitch darkness and a persistent sprinkle, and not getting back to Cusco before 9 pm.
Better save the energy for Machu Picchu, the famous icon of the Inca. One of the visually most stunning places in the world.
When the crowns of the trees start finally thinning out, indicating the finish is near, I sigh with a relief and throw my stick away into the bushes.
Too soon. Another curve and a dark, steep staircase emerges, running all the way up into a light falling down from the top.
“Monkey Steps,” says Pepe.
Damn you, Incas! I sit down on the bottom step of the arched staircase.
Originally laid out evenly, the steps have after hundreds of years of use and of effects of weather elements come out of their positions. Slid down on both sides, they look like a spilt keyboard. Clinging to them are tight walls, forming a dark narrow corridor from the top of which a white light falls down.
The light at the end of a tunnel.
Some of my senior Swedish friends appear around the corner. Sucking water through tubes attached to water bottles in their backpacks, they stop in their tracks and look up.
“O, nei!” they exclaim, “just when you think it can’t get any worse, it does.” And “whatever direction you go, it’s always uphill!”
They bend forward and climb on all fours. So steep is the staircase.
I glance at Pepe and laugh. Monkey Steps, get it.
This is the kind of conversation that pretty much covers our usual verbal exchange.
To interrupt the awkward silence, I ask Pepe if he’s got any kids.
“Two boys. A three-year-old one and a five-year-old one.”
“Have you always been an Inca trail guide?” I proceed.
“No, I used to be a whitewater rafting guide.”
White-water rafting, Upper Urubamba river, class IV rapids, I recall one of the activities offered in Cusco.
“A friend of mine almost drowned while rafting,” I laugh at the memory.
“A funny story. The raft tipped over and he got pulled under by a hysterical girl who wouldn’t let go of him. When he was about to say goodbye, he noticed a strange noise. It was the bubbles rising to the surface. That’s how he got his bearings and came up,” I keep laughing.
Pepe looks at me with a strange look on his face.
“I lost someone on a rafting trip once,” he says slowly. “A 15-year-old girl. She died in my arms.”
“Jesus,” I gasp. “That must have been terrible.”
“Her mother took her on a rafting trip to make her happy. The rafting took place outside the Sacred Valley, so very few people. The section is normally ok for beginners but it rained the night before and the water was up. We hit bad rapids. The girl lost balance, fell over and went under. Instantly. I jumped after her, but the current was too strong …”
“They saw her life jacket on the other side of the river. She was wedged between two rocks, unconscious. She felt like a rag doll in my arms… “ His voice trails off.
“Her face was covered by hair, only a part of her cheek, over here,” Pepe points at his left jaw, “with a large birthmark on it, was visible. I gave her CPR but it was too late … It was the worst day of my life.”
“I quit rafting after that and got a guide license,” he smiles again and adds almost inaudibly “and have tried to set it right ever since.”
I say nothing.
None of us does, until a dozen minutes later, we reach today’s goal – the arc of the Sun Gate, where, three days and 28 miles later, the Inka Trail ends.
I look around the fortified complex made of raised platforms, stone buildings and grass terraces, protected on three sides by a wall of vegetation. The fourth, soaring high above the Machu Picchu saddle, is offering panoramic views of the Inca Citadel below.
Covered in a thick, greyish fog right now.
“Oh, no,” I say desperately, my heart sinking to the deep blue. That’s the worst nightmare of all trekkers – Machu Picchu in a fog!
I sit down and wait anxiously with the others for the magical moment, when the “Old Peak” shows up in the rays of the rising sun.
So far, only a sea of gray clouds keeps opening up and closing again, spilling over the edges and rolling down the hillsides like a living thing.
Then a narrow streak of light shows on the horizon, with a reddish disk swinging over it, and a wave of restlessness washes over us: will the sun make the fog go away?
Suddenly, a broad semicircle of white cubes pouring down the cone-shaped mountain, exposes in all its grandeur the legendary city of Machu Picchu.
The immensity and extraordinary beauty of the iconic ruin, perched high on the slopes of a tropical mountain, and the vertical drop-offs of 1,500 feet, rushing down from it in staggering leaps, are so vast it’s beyond all anticipation.
Never tracked down by the Spaniards, the citadel’s intact palaces, temples, plazas, terraces and platforms are one of the greatest archeological discoveries of the 20th century.
Raging high in the sky revealing slits of azure are the clouds, that still refuse to give up. Illuminated by sudden flashes of blinding light, the place goes through a striking color transformation – from a turquoise green to a jade green, to a moss green, to a bottle green.
Running across it like a backbone of a dragon, and further on across the bluish cones of the neighboring mountains and their snow-covered slopes and white glacier hats, is the massive, jig-saw ridge of the Eastern Cordillera, a ridge seemingly without an end.
The whole place looks like a different world.
I’m totally captured. Not just by the ruins and their precise geometry, but by the entire natural setting of it, the stunning beauty of tropical mountains hidden inside Andean ranges.
The next couple of hours, we spend weaving through Machu Picchu’s different ground levels.
There are 200 structures that form its two different areas – an upper, residential area with temples and houses, and a lower, agricultural area with terraces and warehouses; all integrated within their environment as if they were extension of nature.
It’s so hot and humid, we’re hiding like lurking zombies in dark corners, splashing our faces with whatever water we can find, be it an Inca canal or a groove carved into granite bedrock. Praised be the Inca hydraulics engineers for the Stairway of Fountains, a system of interlinked aqueducts, where, flowing out of the wall of a temple here, and filling a basin hewed out of rock as smooth as glass there, is crystal-clear, ice-cold water, brought down from mountain springs.
Even worse than the heat are the staircases. Climbing up and down on them is a task impossible for those with a foot larger than a child’s. We’re climbing turned sideways to avoid taking a tumble down.
Some of the steepest and narrowest flights lead to the Sacred Plaza, a plaza named like that even though no one really knows what it was.
Surrounded by dozens of buildings and terraces arranged along contour lines, and linked through a system of star-shaped staircases, it contains three of the most important structures here – the Sun Temple, the Temple of the Three Windows and the Intihuatana.
The Sun Temple has a window, through which a beam of light streams on the winter solstice in such a way it forms a mysterious shape on top of a granite stone. The windows of the Temple of the Three Windows are facing eastern mountains, with the rays of the morning sun falling in such a way during the summer and winter solstices they illuminate the stone stele erected in its center. The Intihuatana stone, the “astronomical calendar enigma.” stands on the highest point within the Sacred Plaza, and is one of the strangest, most mysterious and never decoded Inca structures. Carved from a huge slab of rock, its star-like shape resembles the head of a huge bolt.
All these structures are allegedly located above Earth’s center of energy, especially the stone that makes for a powerful attraction for all the 21st century’s New Age psychics and neopagan druids.
Watching the endless stream of people, passing through the narrow, tight and cramped area, I get an excellent idea of how to get even with the belligerent group of Germans.
We’re going to block them out of here!
There’s no sharing this portal to the Divine with them!
When the needles of the compass Pepe pulls out of his pocket and places right above the Intihuatana stone, a huge magnet essentially, go nuts, we create such a stir that soon, all traffic to and out of the place is completely stalled.
The Germans get stuck in a long line on a tiny staircase in a burning sun.
We don’t stop here.
“Condor was one of the three sacred animals of the Andean mythology, along with a puma and a snake. The mighty raptor was seen gliding high above the Andean peaks, distant and unreachable. In the eyes of ordinary people, it belonged to the world of higher beings that he, the ruler of heaven and messenger of gods, connected with the world of men.”
We’re standing in the overcrowded area of Apu Kuntur, the Condor’s Temple, and admire for the hundredth time the unrivaled art of Inca stonework. The massive granite blocks are fitted with such precision – the ashlar technique, blurts Abby out, turning all red when Pepe looks at her approvingly – that their perfectly smooth shapes lock together like pieces of a puzzle.
So tightly that a blade of grass can’t be pushed through them.
The Australian guy has to prove all the archaeologists wrong, of course, and bends his credit card in the process.
Normally, one wouldn’t think of coming over here to see one of Machu Picchu’s architectural pearls – the temple isn’t easy to find, as it’s hidden inside a labyrinth of tight walls – yet, waiting here is a three-dimensional, holistic image of a giant condor with wings spread out in flight.
Us, too, are running our eyes ignorantly around the small confined space, filled with two blocks of V-shaped rocks sticking up into the air, and a giant condor head with a beak and a white bib, emerging from the polished stone floor before us.
This is when the three individual parts should come together as a whole – if you know what to look at.
Which we don’t, even after Pepe’s several demonstrations.
“Blow me!” is all we say when we finally see it.
Rising high in the air is a rock condor with outspread wings, captured so faithfully, that the wings even carry the typical, light-colored stripes and spots of the Andean bird.
Here we learn the real reason Machu Picchu was abandoned, which is the subject of many controversial theories and speculations, a sore point with the academic world.
Overpopulation, drought or diseases are the best the scholars and their imagination can come up with.
“Well,” reveals Pepe, “when a condor gets old, it flies to the highest peak, folds its wings, pulls in its talons and takes a headlong plunge.”
Seeing a condor fall dead is interpreted as a bad omen, since condors are the messengers from the world above.
“One such fall was the reason the inhabitants of Machu Picchu left. It announced the arrival of the Spanish and the destruction of the Inca empire.”
There you go! No brainer!
All of this, too, stays hidden from the eyes and ears of the bratwurst guzzlers.
There will be no touching with a forehead the condor’s energy rocks to open vision to the spirit world, no walking through the dark cave underneath it to experience a spiritual rebirth!
This time, it’s just the sweaty hordes, poking elbows and selfie sticks thrust in your face.
Our next stop is at the end of the lower section of terraces where the arched wing comes out into a small grassy area. Standing out against the horizon is a magnificent slab of stone over fifteen feet tall, copying the outlines of the sacred Apu, the mountain-guardian, across the valley. Back in Inca times, these special stones served as shrines.
Today, they serve as juju objects – people rub them to harmonize their etheric bodies, align their blocked chakras and get their higher minds rid of impure emanations.
Or something like that.
We, too, spread out along its stone pedestal, pressing our bodies against the smooth, 25-feet wide slab to boost our energy levels. The moss-covered rock is warm and sun-smelling; unceasing buzzing and chirping fill the air. Slowly, we pass into the land of dreams.
“Awaken!” I mobilize myself again. “Awaken your soul vehicles and open up your root chakras, so that the Higher Self within you can be realized!”
“I can feel it!” shouts out the Australian guy. “I’m feeling something warm spreading from my toes up to my head!”
Turns out, it’s the Red Bulls he had for breakfast this morning to kill his hangover.
We go back to spooning the stone; there’s not an inch of space left out along it.
Staring back at us are the upset faces of the morning group.
And at the same time, the tambo group from the day before.
Yeah, they’re the same people – the same kind, gentle and spiritually-minded people.
Who needs to know they’re not Germans like I said, but Czechs like me?
Balance has been restored, and that’s all that matters, I put my face back on the warm slab. Now, it’s time for some relaxation, for doing absolutely nothing but gaze.
Are those two suns up over there?!
Hovering in the sky above the mountain across the valley are two orange discs.
“Yeah,” Pepe says as casually as if telling me how much sugar he takes with his coffee. “On certain days of the year, a double sun rises above that sacred mountain. I’ve seen it a couple of times myself, no kidding.”
I try to think about what it means, to genuinely reflect on it, but the American lady next to me gets so restless about a funny tingling in her spine, I can’t focus.
What apparently began as mere vibrations in her fingertips, has now spread through her entire body.
“Can you see the blue line of light along the edge of the stone? Now, it’s running along the entire length of it, look!”
We decide we’d better move her away from the stone.
Described by Pepe as another miracle of engineering, we head over to the other side of the mountain to check out an Inca bridge. It used to protect the back access to Machu Picchu.
The 20-minute walk down a shadowy trail, filled with birds’ chirps, vertical rock faces and plunging gorges, starts with an entry into a special register book. The book has two columns – one to sign in, the other to sign out on return.
Some names in the other one are missing.
Camouflaged by tropical vegetation, it takes us a while to pick out the bridge when we finally get to the end of the trail.
“Is that it?!” erected at the base of a ledge is a two-foot wall, clinging to a smooth rock face. Spanning it is a drawbridge made of two pieces of tree trunks.
Expecting another cutting-edge technological wonder, we’re shattered to find such a primitive solution.
True genius lies in simplicity, Pepe says.
There were two access routes to Machu Picchu, and who controlled them, controlled the city. One starts at the Sun Gate, and runs through the Cordillera to the Sacred Valley and Cusco; that’s the route we arrived by this morning.
The other starts at this back bridge, and can be blocked at any time by lifting the bridge up or destroying it, which would leave the place literally cut off. Unconquerable!
“I wouldn’t even see it if you didn’t tell me it was there,” says Katie with sadness to her voice – the Angel is spending the day with an illusionist from a Las Vegas show.
We agree. Especially when it turns out that the primitive footbridge is the only visible part of an otherwise invisible web of sky-high mountain trails, clinging to terrifying rock walls towering hundreds of feet above us. (Built apparently for mountain gazelles rather than people.)
The line between genius and insanity is really fine.
The last place we visit, this time without Pepe who’s meeting someone at the gate, is Wayna Picchu, the “Young Mountain.” Wayna is a vertical killer peak at the far end of the Machu Picchu complex, with two thousand feet deep precipices dropping off to the horseshoe-shaped valley of the Urubamba River.
A narrow stairway, more dents in the rock in some places than actual steps, goes straight up like a ladder. It’s so steep, a steel rope had to be nailed to the rock to have something to hold onto during the worst sections of the climb.
It’s a no brainer why the name “stairs of death,” that make this rocky spur in the shape of a rhino horn so famous.
We join the line. Passing each other on the stairway are two climbers.
The descending dude is clinging to the rock wall like a baby to a tit, not letting go of the rope for dear life. The other is picking his way up wobbly steps the size his palm, trying bravely not to look into the empty space on his left – the moving dot of a train at the bottom of it is pretty distracting.
It becomes instantly clear that coming down the mountain is even worse than going up.
Half the group quits on the spot.
The rest of us, never giving up even when we should have, reach the top of the mountain after an hour’s nerve-racking, trying-not-to-peer-down climb.
The peak is covered with a cluster of small shrines, terraces and staircases; sticking out into the air from insanely vertical walls are flying steps.
The Inca must have been mentally ill or knew how to fly!
Looking down from the peak, I’m offered 360-degree panoramas of the Machu Picchu site, the river canyon below it that circles the hill like a loop, and the amazing array of mountains that run off in every direction into the distance.
Before leaving, I decide to take a picture of my favorite Inca motif – a row of walls aligned behind one another, with little windows in the middle; it’s like looking into self-immersed mirrors.
When I find the least shaky stone slab, I crouch down and look into the first of the trapezoidal openings, so typical for Inca structures. A chain of gradually diminishing windows starts running into the distance. At the end of it, framed like a valuable painting, sits the Australian guy, naked.
This concludes the four most interesting days of my trip.
I’ll be back, though. I’ll be back to Machu Picchu and Inca Trail twelve more times over the next two years.
And each time, I’ll marvel at the perplexing beauty of the iconic place, even when sitting on a rocking bus that takes me down the zig-zagging road to Aguas Calientes, the small town at the foot of the mountain. I’ll see Machu Picchu enveloped in clouds, fogs, rains, storms and sun rays.
I don’t have to say goodbye yet, I think happily, and turn away from the window.
Someone familiar is sitting a few rows down the aisle from me.
I run my eyes over his strong, tanned neck, muscular shoulders and the hand he’s running through his thick dark hair not covered with a cap this time.
His other hand is resting on his thigh, hiding beneath it another hand, a smaller one.
I glance at the woman sitting next to him. Her head with short blond hair is turned to Pepe, her face smiling.
There’s a distinctive birthmark on her left cheek just down the jaw.
I stare at it for a moment, then a wave of realization washes over me.
I really get it now, Pepe.