RUINS IN THE SUNSHINE
She pulled out a giant chocolate bar. “Does anyone want some?” That’s rhetorical, right? We’re on a bus filled with women, albeit strangers. It’s day one of a week together to hike the Inca Trail in Peru, but this ice-breaking comment is sure to turn a batch of strangers into fast friends.
For some of the women this was their first international trip, and hiking the entire 32 kilometres to Machu Picchu was certainly their biggest, and perhaps most daunting, a physical feat to date.
Before the hike, we had a few days of visiting nearby ruins, but we also began with the most poignant encounter: meeting a traditional Peruvian knitting collective. Even without the same language, we intrinsically understood one another, which was apparent the moment we crossed the threshold of their village. As we step through the stone wall we see a circle of women seated on the ground, dressed in bright reds, yellows, and blue dresses and traditional hats; they look up at us and continue weaving without missing a stitch. One of the women explains that the non-profit collective has returned to using natural dyes and wools from alpacas and llamas. Since 1998 the collective has also been selling their hats, bags, and rugs around the world.
As we watch the dyeing demonstration, a young girl, no more than five, giggles and plays around me. Her cheeks are muddy and rosy from the alpine air. Being here feels like the clock has turned back—life simplified, but also changing. The girl dangles on my leg, and we stare at one another. I wonder what life will be like for her. Will she stay here? Will she go abroad?
The night before our hike seems surreal. We are staying at the Aranwa Hotel and Spa in Guayllabamba; our rooms circle around pools and jungle-sized tropical flowers.
I double up with another traveller, Natalie from Kirkland Lake, Ontario. As a nurse and mother of three, she has packed a pharmacy. “You got an ache, itch, sniffle, pain, I got a drug,” she says.
That night, I drink my last glass of wine for a week, sigh, as we scrunch our belongings into a 25-pound bag; porters will be carrying our things for four days. Natalie has each day’s clothes in airtight Ziploc bags. In under 10 minutes, I throw some stuff into a bag and hit about 20 pounds. Done. But despite her best efforts, Natalie’s bag keeps going over. “Do I need two fleeces? Eventually, she makes the cutthroat decision: one fleece.
The morning arrives and it’s slow going getting prepared. “Do you think I should pack my eyelash curler?” asks the chocolate woman from the first day. She’s saying this for effect, but it’s also true. She’s a fancy lady. Lined up with a stream of other hikers at the gate, we show our passports and eventually get our hiking passes. Gathering together, arms linked, we pose for a group photo under the sign where it all begins.
I’m the only one without walking poles, but I figure it’s just one more thing to carry; in my experience hiking most of my life, less is more. As expected, the group disperses; we begin to mingle and find companions. I stride alongside a fellow Canadian, and we begin talking about travel. “This trip makes me want more travel,” she says. “After raising children for so long, I’m ready for me now.”
It’s blazing hot, and no matter how much water I drink, my mouth is as dry as kitty litter. I think we’re moving quickly until I hear: “Porter, porter!” Our group hops to the side of the trail. Carrying bags larger than my body, these guys run in front of us.
Eventually, I’m alone. I can’t get over the beautiful path of perfectly placed cobblestones, built as if they will remain intact long after we’re gone. Five hundred years ago this was a route for messengers, or runners, that worked like a tag team relaying messages, some running hundreds of kilometres to get their information delivered.
But time goes by quickly as I take in the scenery: Whenever I lift my head it’s nothing but mountains and low-lying clouds. Anticipation also makes every hour evaporate. With every step, we’re getting closer to a divine place.
Arriving at our first campsite, our guide Disnarda, one of the only female guides in Peru (whose father still asks when she’s going to marry), explains that when this region became part of the Machu Picchu parkland, no one was able to buy property anymore. And now, since most families don’t want to let go of their famous property, they pass it down to the next generation when they die. Imagine taking the Inca Trail to work every day!
After throwing our gear into our tents and settling in, it’s time to warm up. Holding the hot soup bowl and inhaling the steam, I feel the mountain chill disappear. As we wait for dinner, our fancy chocolate lady has amassed a group of women into a yoga circle. Some of the local boys are curious and start to twist and giggle with the group. I’m feeling a little creaky in my legs the next morning. We start with strong instant coffee. The porters have laid out some treats on a blanket for us: a granada, passion fruit, some candy, chocolate, and water crystals. We go through the ritual of sun cream and deodorant—futile, but routine.
Disnarda calls today “the day of excuses”: “It’s too hot, I am tired.” At 4,234 meters to the peak Women’s Pass, it would be our hardest day yet. Since I’ve been in Peru for a few months, I’ve had the chance to acclimatize, and it makes a world of difference. But even so, after lunch, each step is laboured, slow. It’s like someone is stepping on my lungs—like a half-empty tube of toothpaste. I reach the plateau first and wait as the women emerge over the crest. One of the quieter ladies takes her last few steps and raises her poles in the air: “That was fucking awesome.” And as each woman reaches the peak, it’s a similar story of joy: “You can do this, almost there,” are common refrains, always met with a glorious hug. We made it.
The next day is like hiking through a cloudy dream. Carefully stepping onto the mossy stones, ducking under a tunnel and through the jungle branches, I can sense something. It’s like Lord of the Rings; each step is closer to the end of the journey. Eventually, through the clouds, I can see a corner edge of stone, a bit of a structure. I can’t make out its entirety. Is it real? Descending the steep steps that follow alongside the terraces, I feel a bit creeped out, as if something, or someone, will emerge through the clouds. But the people of the Sayaqmarka are long gone. Or are they?
Coming into the final campsite, I see a porter holding a Wild Women sign to direct me. When he sees me coming he quickly scampers to his feet and leads me to a bucket to wash my hands. We can’t have a conversation, but his caring gestures, running to get the paper towel, are sweet and kind. Walking out to the precipice of the campsite, the clouds again disperse at the right time. Below are more terraces and walls of Phuyupatamarca, a site of ritual baths. I can almost hear the water trickle through the stones; 500 years later and the hydraulic irrigation system still works.
The next morning is exciting. It’s the day we see Machu Picchu. We’ve all seen pictures throughout our lives and now we get to truly see it, walk it, feel it. We’re walking over layers of time. Where so many once lived. For most of the day, Miss Chocolate and I talk about life. She’s a mom and wife, with impeccable nails and hair. I bet that tucked into her sneakers, her toenails are painted, too. And today, sweating through the jungle, I can make out the faintest line of lipstick on her mouth. I own one tube of lipstick. But as we listen to one another, bonding over fitness—inspired by Jane Fonda’s leg warmers and body suits back in the ‘80s—we agree that fitness has been our release and our therapy throughout our lives.
We finally reach the Sun Gate, once the main entrance to Machu Picchu, where guards controlled visitors to the sacred site. Looking up to the top is maybe the steepest set of stairs I’ve ever seen. Taking giant strides for each step, I wonder, “Who knew the Incas had long legs!” We reach the top quite breathless. With high-fives to strangers, we sit on the giant terrace steps, legs dangling over the edge, waiting for the others. Of course, on a clear day one could see straight to Machu Picchu, about an hour’s walk away. Not a chance today.
As the rest of our group arrives, we take picture upon picture, waiting out the clouds, but an hour’s gone by and no movement—the clouds are here to stay. Really? All this way for no view of the ruins? We decide reluctantly to descend, hoping that eventually the sun will come through.
I walk ahead. This moment should be mine. Half an hour later, it happens: by some freaky timing, the clouds start to clear. A stone wall here, a piece of a terrace there, and then all of it. “Whoa,” I let out. Underneath the fog is a stone city so perfect and so symmetrical that the impact hits my stomach. It’s more beautiful and amazing than any picture can describe. Almost 700 terraces, 16 fountains, and 200 structures of a sacred site hidden for centuries under the earth; seeing it feels like someone lifted a veil on a tray of diamonds.
The others arrive. As they approach, when they see it, they immediately stop in awe. Silence. Linking arms one last time for many photos, it’s bittersweet. But as we spend the day together walking through the ruins in the sunshine, I know it’s not the end of our journey.