“What are the odds of getting food poisoning the day before my Machu Picchu trek?” was a question that crossed my mind as I added a generous amount of mayonnaise to my potato snack. Mayonnaise that may or may not have been standing in the burning sun all day, on a stall in a street in Cusco, Peru.
Well, the odds were greater than I had thought, as I found out the next morning. So with my breakfast having touched my stomach for mere seconds, I was off on my first day of a five day trek to Machu Picchu. The goal of the first day was to walk up the so-called Salkantay mountain, which we would reach the top of on the second day. The first two days would be the most difficult, and after those it would be downhill again until the last climb up to Machu Picchu; the ruins of the city that used to lie at the heart of the Inca empire.
And hard it was, that first day. The rainy season should have been over, but it wasn’t. Adding a lack of oxygen and food poisoning to the mix, I struggled to keep a good pace. Nonetheless, I had made it to the camp site, as we all did. After drinking some funny tasting herbal tea my stomach got better. And thank God for that, because I was going to need my strength the next day.
We arose early before the sunrise, and started our steep climb. It didn’t take long for everyone in the group to become focused, just taking the climb one step at a time. My perception of time faded — all I wanted to do was go up. Looking up didn’t make me feel like I was getting any closer, but looking down assured me that I was! When rain turned into snow, most of the group had already passed me by. The other slow girl and I kept each other motivated, ploughing on through the snow to catch up. And finally, we did. With the rest of the group cheering for us, we used our last bit of breath and energy to ran towards them, to take a picture with the sign indicating we had reached an altitude of 2.86 miles (4600 meters).
After everybody was done taking pictures of this beautiful mountain top, the easier part of our journey began, walking down. The surroundings changed fast, from snow, to valley, to jungle. When we got to our camping site, we were exhausted. Having seen so much, it felt like we had walked for a week already. That night, we built a campfire, turned on the music and took out the bottles of pisco (the local liquor). We danced around the campfire until finally, the rain put it out.
Because it was already quite dark when we arrived at the campsite, I hadn’t really seen much of the surroundings yet. But the next morning, after it just had stopped raining, I stuck my hungover head out of the tent just in time to see a majestic rainbow above a tropical forest. The best start of a day I have ever had.
Of the next couple of days, I can mostly remember being struck by the impressiveness of the surroundings, feeling small in an overwhelming environment. The contrast is huge with my regular life at home in Amsterdam, where I can control almost everything. But there, in between those mountains, nature forces itself upon you and you can do nothing but accept. When it rains, you get wet. When there are landslides, you take a different route. When the sun gets out again, you smile.
We spent our last night, before walking up to Machu Picchu, in a small town beneath it, called Agua Calientes. We had spent the night enjoying the luxury of a hotel, and looking forward to finally reaching Machu Picchu. The next morning we got up at four in the morning, hoping we would see the sunrise at the Inca ruins, crossing our fingers that it would not rain. The climb was steep, and the stair steps were seemingly endless. I went back into focus-mode, trying to imagine how the Incas had walked the exact same steps hundreds of year before, building the steps with their own hands.
By the time we reached the entrance of Machu Picchu, the sun had just peeked over the mountain tops, beaming rays of light on the old ruins. It made the dew evaporate, giving the whole site a mystic look. While the haze cleared up, it revealed how the mountains behind it have the shape of a face, making it almost seem as if someone is guarding the ruins. Not a drop of rain came down that day.
Now, when I think back, I remember the struggle I had walking up the Salkantay mountain and the food poisoning I had, but I don’t actually feel it. But the feeling I had when I finally reached the top of the Salkantay mountain, or Machu Picchu, I can vividly recall.
And it feels awesome.