One of my best qualities is that I am really good at making things as difficult as possible for myself. My trip to Peru definitely fell into this bucket. I had a myriad of travel fails in the process of getting to Peru, which ended up in over 30 hours of travel to get to Lima. Then I missed my flight to Cusco and had to wait all day at the Lima airport for the next flight (which was of course late). I didn’t let that get me down because even if my time was cut short, it was better than not having gone to Peru at all. The main thing that I was there for was my 4-day hike through the Andes, so as long as I got to do that, I would be happy.
The night before the trek into the Andes Mountains, I lay awake listening to the drunken shouting from the bar across the street. It sounded like someone was really upset and I wondered if I should go down there and see what is going on. There were car horns blaring and dogs barking. Someone thought it was a really great idea to have a “battle of the car horns” where different horns were trying to match the pitch of the others. I’m not used to sleeping with urban noise anymore and of course, weekend nights are particularly bad. Then, all of a sudden, I felt a tight pain in my stomach. It began turning and turning in circles. This was not good.
Oh no. Something was going to come out. [Insert Ripley/Alien imagery here] I wasn’t sure which end it was going to be, but my body was not happy with whatever what was inside it and I was going to be sick.
Going into this hike, I was mostly concerned about my knee and the ligament that I had torn several weeks beforehand. I was still limping a bit and my leg couldn’t fully straighten. I was also putting most of my weight on my right leg, so it was also unusually strained. In addition, I had to give up my training regiment preparing for this hike due to the injury. So naturally, I was nervous about what to expect. My only choices were to either go or not go, and once I start, there is no turning back. I would have to get myself off of that mountain one way or another. Let’s be honest, I couldn’t not risk it. I had booked this hike months prior and it was a bucket list trip for me. So I decided that no matter how much pain I was in, I knew I would not die, and I was going to complete the trek through the Andes Mountains.
Sounds reasonable, right?
Little did I know that my knee was going to be the least of my concerns. We were driving into the Andes as the sun rose. The fuzziness of the green grass clinging to the mountain sides was enchanting in the glow of the morning light. It was the end of rainy season, so all of the plants and trees were proud and blossoming. It was like a magical fairyland of green lush beauty.
Yet, here I was. Riding in the van, bent over my legs, trying my best not to puke. I couldn’t even look out the window. The road was bumpy at best and rickety carnival ride from the 1970s at the worst. But I felt quite accomplished when I made the 1.5 hour ride without getting sick. The rest of the group consisted of only men and I overheard one of them ask another, “Is she going to be ok?” Per usual, that comment did kick in a bit more determination.
Now to start our 30 miles, three-day hike into the Andes mountains, ending in Machu Picchu on day four.
After a couple of hours into the hike, I didn’t give a damn about my knee. All of my energy was going into taking just one step further without getting sick in one way or another. We were told that day one of the hike was the hardest hiking day, as we escalated 4,000 feet in elevation. It was basically a straight up shot for the next seven hours, beginning at 10,000 feet.
Growing up in a big family, and especially considering that I am a middle child, I have always prided myself on my ability to go with the flow. But between being the gimp of the group, not having slept the night before and still recovering from food poisoning, I was clearly the weak link. It was a hard pill to swallow to realize that I was going to have to go much slower than I am used to and in the process was going to slow down everyone else as well. I even took up an offer to carry my pack on day two because I was struggling so much. It’s really frustrating to do a hike when you’re not at your peak health, then throw on top of it that you are at a much higher elevation than you are used to.
Regardless, I persisted.
We had been hiking for a little over six hours on day one and the worst was over. We were finally on flat ground, which I had never been more thankful for in my life. I knew we were somewhat close to our campsite, but I’d already learned to take anything our guide said and add 50% to the time he quoted me. Then, it looked like we were going to have to go up hill again. At that point I, was so broken, in pain and exhausted that I decided I would rather sleep on the grass in the middle of that field with the horses than take one more step up. I literally stopped in my tracks and all I wanted to do was sit down and cry. I’m pretty sure everyone else could see the fear in my eyes and the guide assured me that just over this hill was our site. Thankfully he was right and I did not have to sleep with the horses.
That night I was terrified because if day two was going to be anything like day one, I was not going to survive. The pain of being sick, my knee, my leg… and now I was beginning to also get a cold. I had a terrible sore throat and knew it would just get worse with sleeping in the cold and pushing my body so hard.
All I could do was tell myself to sleep as well as I can and hope that my body miraculously recovers overnight.
Day two was a much better day. Good nourishment and a decent night’s sleep can work wonders. We woke up around 5 am, ate breakfast and hit the trail again. This was going to be our longest day, so I was already mentally preparing myself. It was supposed to be a 10 hour day, but ended up being about 12, because I was slow.
The views were incredible. Since I wasn’t constantly feeling like I was about to die on day two, I could actually enjoy the views and take more pictures. I was absolutely obsessed with the morning clouds and fog that hovered over the terrain in the morning. Mornings are always my favorite and I was so glad that we could enjoy brisk air, lush greenery covering and the clouds. Being at the tail end of the rainy seasons, it was a perfect combination of gray beauty and blue skies.
I did pretty well most of day two, except I kept getting the feeling that we were moving too slowly for our guide and he was worried about time. He kept offering that we could bring a horse for me to ride part of the time, but I couldn’t bear to think about giving up like that. But of course, I pushed it too hard and the last hour of downhill just about destroyed my knee. We were losing daylight so we were moving pretty fast. I decided that I had no other choice but keep up with the pace no matter how much it hurt my knee, otherwise we’d be hiking into the night. I kept trying to think of the things that I tell myself when I am running a race to encourage me to keep going. We had thirty minutes left until camp. Anyone can get through 30 minutes of hell, right? So I started my mantras.
Do it for your family.
Do it for your nephews and niece.
Do it for all the little girls who will know that they can do this too.
Do it for all the kids.
Do it because you had women in your life who showed you that you could do anything you set your mind to.
Do it because you know you can.
You’ve trained and your body is capable of getting through this.
You can handle 30 minutes of anything.
I looked down at my watch — only five minutes had passsed. That’s when the tears started. As you can imagine, crying while trying to hike really fast at 10,000 feet elevation just makes everything worse. I couldn’t breathe so I tried hard to make it stop, but I almost couldn’t help it at that point. I don’t often cry from physical pain, but I think that’s partially why I couldn’t stop the tears.
We finally made it to camp and got the tent set up. I immediately went inside and lay stomach down on the ground and sobbed. Everything hurt. I couldn’t tell if my knee hurt worse or my legs or my back. My feet were so tired. I tried to combat the negative thoughts by thinking about what parts of my body didn’t hurt. My arms, I guess. My arms didn’t hurt. Well, that’s one thing… It didn’t really cheer me up.
By now my sore throat was a full blown cold, I could barely talk and was super congested. This made it almost impossible to be at such a high altitude since I couldn’t breathe at all through my nose. Similar to the first night, I felt like if the next day was going to be like day two, I wasn’t going to make it. But supposedly day three was mostly downhill. Going downhill was painful on my knee, but is nothing compared to not being able to breathe from my cold and the altitude so I did my best to feel grateful.
Day three was when we hit the Inca trail and started to see the first other hikers since we had started. It was odd to have so many people around us after being alone in the wilderness for days. We heard all languages and accents from our fellow hikers. I started to feel pretty happy that I chose to do this hike instead of the full Inca trail, because it was packed with tourists. Having so many others around really takes away from the magic of the Andes.
Regardless, it was fun to at least see a part of the Inca trail and many ruins on our way down to Machu Picchu. Day 3 really was a breeze compared to the others and we only hiked about 5 hours before we had lunch and headed into town for the night. The next day we went to Machu Picchu and enjoyed the misty morning clouds among the ruins. It was absolutely breathtaking.
If I had known how difficult this hike would be on my body that was not at 100%, I don’t think I would have done it. I was also incredibly grateful for my hiking companion Justin to cheer me on. I felt like such a whiny baby, so to hear him tell me that I was the toughest person he knew definitely brought a renewed determination when I felt like I couldn’t go a step further. The funny thing about pain is that we feel is so strongly at the moment, but afterwards, your memories immediately get fuzzy. I am glad I did the hike. I am proud that I was able to finish it, without a horse, and without any other injuries. The head cold definitely took its toll on me and put a damper on the rest of the trip, but I would still say it was worth it.
I also am so grateful to our guide Savi who I can confidently say was one of the best hiking guides I have ever had. He is also a history teacher and was able to tell us so much about Inca and Peruvian culture. The Incas have such a beautiful tradition where they focused their energy on integrating into nature, rather than trying to dominate it. So all of their architecture, water and food systems assimilated into the mountains. They worship Pachamama and other elements. Sadly, they did not have the weapons to compete with the guns of the Spaniards, so much of their history has been lost. I had very little knowledge of Peru or Incas before this trip and now I am itching to learn more.
You could tell that Savi has a deep love for his country and so much pride for the people, especially in the small farms that we passed along the way. He told us he would like to go into social work to help small villages in Peru be more successfully and preserve their heritage. I cannot recommend enough how wonderful Action Peru Treks was to us. The food was incredible, the views were out of this world and Savi was a great host for the trip. Even though I was in pain and struggling most of the time, they truly made this an awesome experience. My advice for you if you are doing the Ancascocha trail would be to extend it longer than the 4D/3N hike. You’ll want more time to enjoy the scenery.