One of my life dreams was always to visit Machu Picchu, Peru. It was probably one of the greatest travel aspirations that I have had for most of my life. It is interesting to say that here because it isn’t so uncommon for people to travel between countries. But for me, coming from a place like the U.S. where we tend to not travel outside of our own country that often for a variety of reasons, I had always imagined Machu Picchu when I was younger as a place that was remote, far away and unattainable. Years ago, I probably felt that way about all of South America. Perhaps because throughout my childhood, all of my memories of the news on TV centered on scenes of guerilla war and uprisings (many caused by our own government) as well as drug trafficking. Never mind the major contrast of all of the Latin American countries, not to mention the major distances between them, our news helped grow the vision that all of Latin America together must be the same: unsafe. Interestingly enough, most of my students are now having the same thoughts towards the U.S. after continuously hearing about loose gunmen randomly killing people in schools and movie theaters. Their opinion is that we are somewhat crazy, and I think they probably have good reason to think so.
The truth is that flying into Cusco, the closest city to Machu Picchu was really very easy. While the city is somewhat touristy and the local people are adamantly trying to sell you things like hats and magnets and massages on every corner, it is definitely a place where I felt for the most part, serene. The architecture is a combination of the colonial Spanish and the indigenous Quechua culture of the Andes Mountains. For me, having a vacation from the dreary winter of Santiago, I couldn’t get enough of the clear sky and the balky clouds that hover low that remind me of places like the desert of New Mexico and Arizona. The only problem was becoming accustomed to the higher altitude during the first day which led to me spending the first five hours in bed nauseous, with a migraine headache. However, the hostel provided plenty of free coca tea which supposedly relieves these symptoms. I think my body eventually adjusted.
In the days leading up to Machu Picchu, I was able to travel outside the city to an area called the Sacred Valley which is filled with scattered indigenous ruins.
There are two options for seeing Machu Picchu. One is by taking a train from outside of Cusco and the other is by hiking the Inca Trail. Because access to the trail is limited by the number of people per year in an attempt to preserve its existence, the latter involves making a reservation at least five months in advance with a guide and a small group of other hikers. This is what I decided to do and yes, the trail can be tough at times, but it’s really the better way to see Machu Picchu. Not only because you see many other ruins along the way and have the opportunity to connect with other travelers from different countries, it also builds more of an anticipation to reach the destination. And, in addition, you acquire much more of a relationship with the land. The hike is not completely difficult as I passed many people that were very young and very old, but it can be exhausting since you are walking six to eight hours each day up and down very steep steps, part of the time in the rain, the second day being the most strenuous.
We were lucky enough to have signed up with the tour that we did because I have heard of some that give little food. On the contrary, ours offered three huge meals each day and not mediocre food, but a variety of homemade soups and vegetable and meat dishes complete with a dessert. Below are the men that carried and prepared all of our food and equipment.
These men, some of them wearing only sandals literally ran very quickly ahead of us on the trail transporting all of these items on their backs. Some people even paid them to carry their own personal belongings as well.
Usually it takes four days to reach Machu Picchu, but our group arrived just before sunset on the third day which only gave us enough time to view it from a distance and relax a little before walking to Aguas Calientes, the closest small town to stay the night in a hostel. The next morning we returned around 6am to have an official guided tour of the site, unfortunately, in the rain. The area was covered in a thick layer of fog that later began to disappear.
Not long after our tour, hundreds of other tourists began appearing which made me think of when I went to the Grand Canyon and found myself bombarded with large buses of loud mouthed families all anxiously waiting their turn to take pictures of themselves on the edge of the cliff. It sort of disrupts the serenity of it all, to say the least, especially after spending so many days away from the sounds of vehicles and city life. Therefore…..
No, I didn’t have any spiritual realizations. For some reason, I always considered that I would, but I find that I have those in moments that are more unanticipated. This is why I am happy that I experienced the hike, because the actions of walking the steps and spending so much time under the trees and noticing all of the subtle changes in landscape and climate and altitude from the beginning to end are what affected me most and what I will most remember of Machu Picchu. Sometimes I like to think of places in terms of relationships and so I could say that in some ways, I had a short encounter with a very beautiful and amazing place and I wish I had had more time to continue knowing it.
And, it was an interesting experience having always imagined a place, a perfect place and always carrying a certain image of how I might be changed in some way by that place. The reality is that real change cannot be predicted or foreseen or maybe even longed for; instead, it is usually quite unexpected. I must admit with some honesty that I am more certain that I have had spiritual and emotional shifts in places like….yes, Santiago… only because it is a place that has tested my patience and caused me to struggle in ways that have forced me to grow as a person. It is a place that I have built a relationship with and in this respect, I am always seeing myself mirrored back to me, the good and the bad. And so, the trip made me think a lot about the expectations I project towards places as well as the time limits I place upon them.
Finishing the trip also made me think a lot about fulfilling life dreams and life goals. It sort of gave me that dreaded what’s next? feeling. Maybe it’s even caused me to feel like I can be finished (at least temporarily) with all of that traveling I was dying to do all those years. Not that I don’t want to see other places, but at the same time, I can let go of that feeling of having never really experienced life outside my country in a profound way. It’s no longer a big mystery and I see it as something do-able instead of unattainable. I guess my goals in life are returning to that need to once again build a career for myself and maybe how to do it a little differently this time, and that leaves me with making some decisions on how to approach things next.
I used to think I would know what to do when the time presented itself to me…but I think it’s more like me being ready enough to seek out the time and knowing that making the decision is just like taking an opportunity…like trying something new and interesting.
Whatever I decide, the process continues…