One foot in front of the other. Breathe in, breathe out.
We don't talk much. It's nearly impossible to find the air required for polite conversation at this altitude and with this incline. Instead we walk, one foot at a time, hearts racing, heads pounding, lungs burning. Silently encouraging one another to continue the climb to our first night of camp at 14,000 feet.
We're tired and with good reason. We were scooped up from Cusco at 5:45am; on the trail by 7:30. We've hiked nearly 11 miles, summited two passes and gained/lost 5,000 feet in altitude, twice. But in the last nine hours, our first day in, we've explored hilltop Incan ruins, watched two dogs heard hundreds of sheep over a stone wall, passed Quechua villages with no electricity or running water, and been in absolute awe of the changing landscape and beauty of the high Andes. It's one of those days that feels like a week's worth of living.
With throbbing calves we reach the top of the near vertical cliff, shedding our jackets and embracing the cold and violent wind. We attempt to catch our breath but the air is thin, virtually nonexistent. We make note not to raise our heads too quickly, now familiar with the immediate onset of dizziness. A few meters further up and we see it. Like a mirage in the desert, three tents in the valley below.
The campsite is completely set up when we arrive. We're told that coca tea (coca leaves in hot water, a Peruvian cure for altitude sickness) and freshly popped popcorn will be served in an hour. Although the hike itself is physically challenging, this level of "glamping" is downright cush. We’re served three incredible meals a day, informed of all the history and significance of the region, and rely on three strong horses to carry nearly all our gear. The team from Apus Peru Adventure Specialists includes our trusty guide Urbano, horsemen Luis and Roberto and talented chef Herbert, who happens to have one of the most contagious smiles of all time. We're also hiking with another couple in their early 30's, ironically from Megan’s home state of Colorado, named Jonathan and Lisa. Ten minutes into our pre-trek briefing and we knew we hit the group activity lottery. We all jive immediately, sharing stories and sarcastic jokes like we've known each other for years.
Over the past two months, we spent hours researching the best trek to Machu Picchu and finally settled on an alternative trek (as opposed to the much more popular Inca Trail and Salkantay treks) hoping to get away from the crowds and find a more solitary experience. Now, less than 1,000 feet from the summit of a 15,000 foot mountain, this decision is rewarded with complete isolation, silence. Maybe it's the profound knowledge that we are dozens of miles and thousands of feet from anywhere. Or perhaps it's the miniscule feeling of looking up at jagged peaks with snow capped glaciers. But it’s a feeling of transcendence; a pure and profound connection to nature.
We wake early to ascend Puca Casa pass and move breathlessly up the treeless cliffside. It's barely 7am and it’s been a tough morning. None of us slept well and a few of us have suffered the side affects of altitude sickness (headache, stomach problems and nausea). But the early morning fog and low clouds are breathtaking and we pop coca candy and stick leaves in our cheeks as we trudge forward.
The feeling of summiting the highest mountain (over 15,000 feet) either of us have ever seen, let alone climbed, can only be described as elation. From here, we happily descend over 5,000 feet before reaching the bottom of the valley. As we keep moving, the barren high altitude mountains give way to long tufts of grass and eventually wildflowers that grow along the edge of the valley creek. With the spectacular view of Veronica Peak in the distance, we hike for five hours, past waterfalls and wild orchids before arriving in the farming community of Chillca for a late lunch.
That evening, a short train ride from Ollantaytambo takes us to the town of Aguas Calientes. We sit in our leather train seats among hundreds of tourists on their way to Machu Picchu, feeling strangely overwhelmed after days of isolation. Yet the energy is palpable, a shared anticipation as we roll closer to one of the new seven wonders of the world.
It’s still dark at 4am as we hurry toward the trailhead that leads to Machu Picchu. Although our legs are sore, we opt to skip the shuttle bus and hike up the 1,280 feet into the park instead. We reach the top quickly, the (only) 8,000 feet of elevation feeling like a hit off the oxygen tank after the last few days.
Machu Picchu is just as incredible as we ever imagined. Terraced stone walls cascade down the mountain, llamas munch on bright green grass and massive square stones touch the sky. The Incan city is perfectly executed and beautifully maintained. Over the next hour, as the park begins to fill, we learn about daily life in the city of Machu Picchu, growing more impressed with each site we visit. Urbano is a practiced guide and we quickly visit the most well known spots before the onslaught of tour groups arrives.
The ancient city of Machu Picchu is bookended by two mountains: Huayna (Wayna) Picchu and Montaña Machu Picchu. Each day, 400 people are permitted to climb each mountain, both of which have substantial elevation gains and offer incredible views of Machu Picchu below. We’ve pre-booked to climb Montaña Machu Picchu and set out on the trail (aka staircase) up the mountain. Our final climb, up, up, up. It takes us under an hour (we’re assuming this is some sort of record but have yet to confirm) and happily eat bananas while watching a group of girls take selfies and “jumping” photos, before being told “No yumping!” with a wag of a finger by park staff. At 1640 feet, the tiny city of Machu Picchu looks like an ant farm below.
Later that evening, we board the train to Cusco, exhausted, with aching legs and hundreds of bug bites. Experiencing Machu Picchu was a dream come true, and while it was just as amazing as we ever imagined, the magic of hiking through the high Andes sticks with us. We pushed ourselves, both physically and mentally in extreme conditions. We felt a million miles from anyone, enchanted by the complete silence of the mountains. The challenge, the laughs, the isolation, and the hypnotic high Andes, all gratefully cemented in our memories.