I spent the past four days hiking the Inca trail to Machu Picchu. I expected that the trek to one of the 'new' seven wonders of the world would be difficult, emotional and even spiritual, and it didn't disappoint. Our group of six agreed that it would be impossible to describe just how challenging those ~25 miles over four days was for us. The steep ascents and descents on the rock stairs placed by the Incas was physically and mentally challenging. Making our way down the slippery steps on days two and three took over two hours each, and with our legs already like jello and our minds on the hot water and food awaiting us at camp, we were all spent and ready to be done.
While day two was the steepest climb and most elevation gain, it was day three that I was most worried about because it was the longest (9 miles). After two full days of hiking, I was afraid that my knees would not be able to withstand that long of a trek. Much to my surprise, the first half of day three ended up being my favorite part of the journey. I ended up hiking alone through much of the cloud forest, listening to the birds, and watching the mountain peaks disappear and reappear from behind puffs of white clouds. A more appropriate name might be the enchanted forest with the moss-covered trees creating a canopy over the trail.
As I walked, I thought about those who had come before me; the Incas who had meticulously placed the stones on the side of the mountain to create the path, and the millions of hikers who made this same pilgrimage to Machu Picchu. While I don't know their reasons for making the trek, and there is a lot that is unknown about the Incas due to the lack of a written language, for me, looking over the edge of the cliff and at the majestic mountains all around me, the trek represented a sort of cleansing. The journey meant letting go of my past mistakes and my fears about the future, and accepting myself exactly as I am. I pictured the rain as cleansing me from all of the fears and doubts that have prevented me from taking the leap into my life as it should be, a life lived fully with my heart open and free of the demons that plague me. As I dropped down through the narrow passage of a cave created by a large rock face, I emerged on the other side a little lighter, with a stronger conviction regarding my place in this world.
Fortunately we ended up having mostly dry weather throughout the trek despite it being rainy season. Most of our rain came at night or over lunch while we were under the dining tent, and the rain we did have on the trail was light enough that the rain ponchos purchased for 5 soles each were enough to keep us dry. I'm not sure if the lack of rain while hiking was due to Bruce and Marty wearing their gators everyday or my chant to Ganesha while meditating, but either way we were grateful.
When we arrived at Machu Picchu and made our way down to the entrance, I passed all of the people who had taken the train up the mountain. Their huffing and puffing while climbing the hundred or so steps gave me a great sense of accomplishment for having walked there (even though I was a bit envious of their clean hair). Those steps were only a small fraction of what I had climbed over the four days, and I couldn't help but feel a bit special for arriving by foot. I felt like part of something bigger than myself and more connected with Pachamama (Mother Earth).
The females in our group, myself included, basked in the fact that there were real toilets at the gate and that we no longer had to hoard toilet paper, which had become more valuable to us than anything else after spending three nights and four days in the woods. We happily paid the one sole and collected the receipt for el bano. You come to appreciate the little things in life once you spend a few days away from the luxuries of civilization with only what you (and a porter) can carry on your back. I never thought I could be so excited to see Pringles as I was at the last place we had to buy snacks during the climb up Dead Woman's Pass on day two. Those small blue plastic bowls of hot water that the porters provided for us each morning and evening were our only means to clean ourselves for four days, so the idea of getting back to our hotel and a hot shower made us ecstatic.
The sign by the bus stop that read "May peace prevail on Earth" was a touching sentiment to complete the experience for me. The Incas had chosen a beautiful place to build the city of Picchu, surrounded on all sides by mountains. Being in the mountains makes me feel at peace, and it's impossible not to marvel at the grandeur of the peaks. The Incas may have never finished building before mysteriously abandoning this place, but they left a treasure for the rest of us who occasionally feel drawn to set out on a journey of self discovery. I think I speak for our group of six when I say that those 25 miles represented a struggle, but left us filled with gratitude and taught us that you can keep going long after you think you can't, and we are all capable of great things.