I set out from Cusco, Peru on a 4-day trek to my number 1 bucket list travel destination, Machu Picchu. I left Cusco in the wee hours of the morning and I was off on my journey that would take me over 87 km through mountains and back and forth across the rocky river.
My feet were tired of walking yet I kept going. My muscles seemed to be on autopilot because I wasn’t sure how they were still working. But we kept on trekking on.
I think we started trekking about 4 mountains back behind me by this time so by now I thought it should be a good idea to let the blood flow from my feet back to my head. What better way to accomplish that than by doing handstands? Handstands at 8,000ft and 1ft from the edge. That’s a great idea, right? Well, since I didn’t fall, it must have been the perfect idea!
We arrived at Machu Picchu in the morning before the sun rose. The mountains were covered in fog. In fact, we were also covered in fog. I sat there and watched the fog drift around as if I was in a magically spiritual place. Once the fog started to lift, I realized that I was, in fact, in a magically spiritual place! Machu Picchu was amazingly breathtakingly beautiful. Machu Picchu had been number 1 on my travel bucket list for 14 years. I was finally here. I was finally seeing the beauty with my own eyes. I was standing where the Inka once was. I was walking where these amazing masters once walked. I was in awe. I was speechless.
I sat on the edge of a wall and looked out into the fog. I could sit here for hours, days even. This landscape was so surreal and amazing.
Next in my list for the day was to hike up Wayna Picchu Mountain; that’s the mountain behind all that fog in that picture right there! I had pre-purchased my ticket over 7 months prior because I wasn’t going to allow myself to miss out on that opportunity. Tickets for this mountain sell out many months in advance. My time slot to hike up began at 10:00 AM.
I was in line at 9:40 AM ready for this adventure. I had been told before that it was a crazy hike up and I was warned to be careful. I was in the last group allowed to go up for the day so I asked a guide why they didn’t have a later group. I was told it was because it can get windy and hikers could potentially be blown off the side of the mountain. Hmmm what was I getting myself into?
When I checked in, I was asked to fill out some information and that I would be asked to sign out once I came back down. When I asked why this was necessary I was told it was a checkpoint to see who was missing. Again, what was I getting myself into?
I’m from Florida. We don’t have mountains in Florida. We don’t have these checkpoints for anything that I’m aware of. I don’t even hike. I had already tested my limits of trekking to Machu Picchu over these 4 days. Was this going to test me even more? Boy, was I in for a surprise!
I started on the hike for the mountain. This hike started to go downhill and I jokingly said to some others “this must be to trick us to keep going.” This would turn out to be a far stretch of what was in store.
A few gradual steps up and then the hike quickly turned into a steep climb. The steps weren’t even; they were made of stones that ranged from rounded to flat to jagged, they ranged from giant distance apart to the tiniest of steps. There was gravel and loose dirt scattered in among the larger stones which would occasionally add to the challenge of keeping your footing. I got to a point where I was climbing these steep steps on my hands and knees. Let me remind you that I did this hike all by myself. I wasn’t in a group and I didn’t have anyone for a “buddy system” to keep us both in check. Sure, there were other people hiking at the same time but we weren’t hiking together.
About half-way up the side of the mountain I decided to turn around and see the view behind me. Wow! How cool was it to see Machu Picchu look so small. I could barely see any of the other visitors as they moved around in the abandoned Inka city.
Once I got all the way to the top of that mountain I had to take a moment to take the entire view in. It was pure and simple majestic beauty I was looking at. Machu Picchu looked so very small from the top of Wayna Picchu Mountain. At this viewpoint I could see that Machu Picchu was built in the shape of a condor; one of the largely influential animals for the Inkas. It almost looked as if Machu Picchu could fly away. I stood on top of this large rock at the top of the mountain and was so excited I had made it to the top so I could see this beautiful view.
I felt so small. It was in this moment that I felt just as teeny and as tiny as a little bitty ant. In this large, vast world we live in. My existence is minimal in comparison.
Have you ever seen something so beautiful? So majestic? Ever? No, no, I don’t mean me … I mean that beautiful city built by the Inkas! I am seriously on top of the world!
After a long time of soaking in all the wonder, I had to find my way back down to the rest of the world. I started on my trek down the mountain. At first it didn’t seem too bad. There were steps. They were uneven and very, very steep, but they were still steps. I wasn’t prepared to go mountain climbing, I thought I was hiking. But, remember, I’m from Florida so I’m not used to going uphill… or downhill for that matter. It seemed easier for me to face out and step down because this allowed me to see where my feet were going plus I could have both hands leaning behind me on the steps. Yes, they were really that steep.
So, I’m going on my downward trek one step at a time when all of a sudden one of the rocks moves under my right foot! In what seems like a movie in slow motion I watch this rock bounce a couple of times on the steps and then fall into the emptiness below, about 8,900 ft below me. At the same time that the rock came loose from the steps I, thankfully, fell back, the bottom of my backpack caught the step and then my butt fell into the step below that. There I sat on these steep steps looking out onto a horizon of mountains overlooking Machu Picchu. After I was able to catch my breath, I slowly inched my way down the steps to a landing. I found a solid surface to sit on and I just sat there looking out onto that mountainous horizon overlooking Machu Picchu and I contemplated life, I contemplated my life.
I felt lucky to be alive in that moment but at the same time I felt as if something had stopped me from falling in the first place. I felt like I was caught and placed back onto those steps. Could it be true? Of course! I believe without a doubt that I was being protected. Sure, I saw my life flash before my eyes, as cliche as that sounds. And, as I sat there contemplating life I thought about what others would say at my memorial. Maybe I took it to the extreme, but that was probably the single scariest moment in my life up until then. I had never hiked that close to the edge of a mountain before, I had never been in a place that high up without a barrier protecting me from falling hundreds or thousands of feet to the bottom. But I was protected in that moment. The mountain protected me. The Inkas protected me. My guiding spirits protected me.
I made it down the rest of that mountain yet I kept wishing I was back on top of it. Those moments that Wayna Picchu and I spent together will be ones I won’t soon forget. It may have been Machu Picchu that I had spent 14 years planning to visit and then 4 days trekking to get there. It may have been Machu Picchu that instantaneously took my breath away as the fog started to lift when the sun rose above the distant mountains in the east. It may have been Machu Picchu that had inspired this entire trip to Peru in the first place.
But, it is Wayna Picchu that will hold a piece of my heart in Peru forever.
Paqarinkama (until tomorrow), Wayna Picchu, Paqarinkama!
Machu Picchu elevation: 7,972 ft
Wayna Picchu elevation: 8,924 ft
Munapakuyki (I miss you), Wayna Picchu!
Dr. Cori Campbell, DPT