Hiking the Inca Trail

The author [right] and her husband Matt reach Machu Picchu after a four-day hike. | MICAELLA PENNING
We had just crested Dead Woman’s Pass, Warmi Wañusqa, at nearly 14,000 feet. Blasts of icy air swirled around us, entombing the landscape in thick, gray clouds. Groups of neon-clad porters perched on boulders, eating sandwiches. A 6,000-foot descent would follow, to the Sun Gate above the verdant, terraced slopes of Machu Picchu, and I couldn’t bend my left knee.
 
“Sometimes people must hire horses or porters to carry them out of the Inca Trail,” our guide Jonathon had said at our orientation. “So bring extra soles (peruvian currency), just in case.” I had shuddered to think of it then, and now a chilling wave of panic enveloped me as we started to descend, knives of pain searing through my knee.
 
My husband Matt had told me about his travels in Peru on one of our first dates. He’d gone on a service-learning trip in medical school, spending three weeks at a mission in the northern desert before heading south to Cusco to hike the Inca Trail. I’d been dazzled. And now we were here together.
 
Just one day previous, we had begun the hike full of energy, joined by a social worker from Germany, two Parisian engineers, our guide Jonathon, and seven porters. The Urubamba River had thudded softly beneath us, as we crossed a footbridge by the trailhead. The last section of road had been bone jarring, narrow and gravelly, our bus weaving left and right on tight corners over skimpy-looking bridges with steel rebars splayed out sporadically from their sides. Little farms dotted the roadside; a naked plastic doll peered out from a tilted hovel’s window, held up by piles of junk.
 
Cactus plants lining the trail grew ovoid fruit on the tips of their prickly pads, covered in little green nobs, with skin ranging from red to orange. I thought I had seen the fruit in Cusco’s San Pedro Market.
 
“Ah ha!” Jonathon said, when I asked about them. “Tuna, not like in the sea, but yes, they are called tuna.”
 
“Are they edible?” I asked.
 
“Oh yes. Just wait a few moments, then we’ll try some. But first, look at this.” He picked off a few white spots from the cactus, half the size of a pea. We gathered around, sweating and panting.
 
“This is a parasite. See? Cochineal. Watch though.” He started to grind the white lumps in his hand. Within seconds, it looked as though his palm was covered in blood. The white was gone, only liquid the color of cherries remained. “This is used to dye wool,” Jonathon said. “But it’s also used in lipstick. You know, like Pamela Anderson?”
 

The Inca Trail winds through various Andean environments, including cloud forest. | MICAELLA PENNING

We stopped at a trail-side shack with a roof made of straw, where a woman had piles of tuna fruit (I later learned their English name: prickly pear).

 “Does anyone have a sole?” Jonathon asked.
 
I dug into the coins in my pocket, and handed him one. He gave it to the woman who proceeded to deftly peel and chop two of the prickly pears, after carefully selecting the reddest ones from her basket. She handed us a lid from a plastic bucket with the fruit chunks resting on it. It was seed-filled, but deliciously cool and sweet.
 
“These are very good to help you survive in the desert,” Jonathon said. “They have a lot of water and sugar in them, which you need.”
 
As we walked away, I saw Jonathon slip the woman another coin, and leave with juice dripping down his chin.
 
Streams of porters passed us, most wearing sandals or smooth-bottomed tennis shoes. Each trekking company had their own uniform, usually in bright neon hues: green, purple, yellow. Winding ahead of us would be strings of vibrant rectangles with matching legs poking out below. Every time a group came up behind us, Jonathon shouted “Porters!” and we all learned to instinctively move to the edge of the trail, next to the rising slope. Five hundred people are allowed on the Inca Trail at one time, 300 of which are porters. Some carried blocky boomboxes in their arms, twanging and thumping out pop music with a chorus of pan flutes.
 
Toilets were windowless structures, pitch black even during the day, with porcelain holes over which to squat. I was never the first to miss the opening entirely. With a hole only four inches in diameter, aim was critical, and I found it remarkably difficult. My legs, already tired, started to shake with the strain of squatting.
 
But I was glad not to be my husband, who took so much Imodium that all attempts over the next four days were unsuccessful, even after I taught him the modified telemark stance, in which one knee is bent further than the other, easing strain on one leg. I had learned it many years before, from reading my brother’s copy of Allen and Mike’s Really Cool Backpackin Book, complete with illustrations.
 
We passed Incan ruins silhouetted against the gray sky, and orchids whose petals looked like the ruffled skirts of flamenco dancers. Yet there were also similarities to home—tall stalks of tarwi (an Andean species of purple lupine), ferns sprouting through rock, and carpets of wild strawberries.
 
But the wrenching pain in my knee made home feel all the more elusive. It had been injured off and on over the last six months, and now I couldn’t bend my knee while putting pressure on it.
 
At first I pretended I was fine, and didn’t tell anyone of the pain. But that didn’t last long. “Is your knee injured?” Jonathon asked, a few minutes later. I nodded. Matt stopped and gave me his walking stick. Hobbling slowly, I limped down one stone step at a time, bending only my right knee. The rest of the group bounded on ahead.
 

View from Chaquicocha in the Peruvian Andes. | MICAELLA PENNING

Thick fog ensconced our campsite at Chaquicocha when we straggled in that night, long after everyone else. I gobbled down pain medications, wrapped my knee in a lacey white cloth bandage, and inspected the grape-like blisters blooming on my feet. Frogs erupted simultaneously into song as darkness came, croaking and creaking all night long. Rain thundered against our tent. By morning, what had been empty grayness the night before was now a deep, expansive valley leading to snowy peaks, illuminated against a glowering sky.

 Soft light remained through the morning, as we passed more orchids, begonias, tumbling waterfalls and trees covered in neutral shades of moss. Though I felt guilty, we hired a porter to carry my pack that day, and I was grateful to ease the strain on my knee. At times the trail was barely a foot wide, its outer edge a precipitous drop into the valley below. As the sun rose, the mountains became blue in the distance, a blue nearly as rich as the ocean’s. Snow and clouds melded on their summits, like cresting foam on a choppy sea.
 
We woke in wintry cold and darkness on the last day of our hike, so we could leave at half past three, to reach the Sun Gate by sunrise. I soon tired, the pain in my knee more than adrenaline could keep at bay. Still, I hobbled as fast as I could, not wanting to be left behind. At each crest it seemed that surely we had made it.
 
The sun was still hidden behind the mountain peaks when we arrived at the Sun Gate. Below us lay Machu Picchu—old peak—and I felt strangely disjointed, seeing a place so famous and known, emblazoned in my brain from photographs.
 
Situated on a spine-like ridge, the ruins were bright green and dull gray; of grass and stone, edged by thick tree-cover on its boundaries, stretching down the mountain slope to the river, over 1,000 feet below. Lightness crept over the surrounding peaks, and struck the mountainside to the west, slowly engulfing the dark shadows. By the time the sunlight oozed across the terraces and stone structures, the sun was so high in the sky that the light was jarringly bright.
 
Buses disgorged tourists and soon Machu Picchu was no longer the soft neutral shades of greens and grays, now covered with a prism-like scatter of t-shirts, umbrellas and backpacks. The air buzzed with a Babel-like assembly of languages and chattering excitement. I found a shaded spot to sit down, and felt an overwhelming sense of relief. I had arrived, on my own two feet.
 
By Micaella Penning