Living in the Pacific Northwest, you would think I would take advantage of all the gorgeous trails and mountains in the area and be 'outdoorsy'. But, I'm not. I don't mind the occasional hike on the weekends with the boys but we rarely log in more than 4 miles on these hikes. They're short and sweet.
So, when the college girlfriends wanted to commemorate our 40th birthdays with a special trip, the list started with the usual beachy/resort type options - The Greek Isles, Lake Como, Bali, etc. Then, my friend, Jen (who is far more adventurous than I am) suggested we go big with a bucket list item and take on Machu Picchu. When you're sitting in the comfort of a Four Seasons Resort, drinking wine and thinking about it, It sounds like a brilliant and fun idea. I won't make that mistake again.
Thanks to my friends Rosalie and Kenzie, who had just gone there, we were given a lot of good tips and ended up booking the trip through the same tour company they used. We had a hard time choosing the right itinerary but given the Inca trail was sold out (they only allow 500 passes/day) we ended up choosing the Lares trail which allowed for some hiking, a little camping and opportunities to visit some local villages.
Going into the trip, I don't think I realized what I was really getting into. I was more focused on making sure the boys and everything at home would be fine since I would literally be off the grid and they would be unable to get a hold of me. This combined with the excitement of spending an entire week with my two best friends didn't leave me much time to think about the details of what we were really about to do.
We took the advice of Rosalie and Kenzie and spent the first day in Cusco. If you end up going, I highly recommend you do the same. The altitude of 11,000 feet is quite an adjustment even on the altitude medication. That combined with the jet lag meant we were feeling a little tired and liked having a day to just bum around the city. We got in a good night sleep and kicked off our adventure at 4:00 AM on Tuesday.
Day 1 started with an early morning bus ride up to the top of the mountain near Cusco and ended up in a hot spring. Right out of the gates, the drive up the mountain was gorgeous. The views really are breathtaking and we saw a lot more snow than I expected! Normally the trek starts at 6 AM but due to some strikes in the area and concerns around our safely, we got an early start to the day and left our hotel around 4:15 - 4:30 AM. By the time we got to the hot springs, it was only 7:30 so we had the whole place to ourselves.
The hot springs are nothing like I've ever experienced. There were 6 or 7 different pools, all differing in temperature. We tried the first one and it was WAY too hot, so we choose a different one that was more reminiscent of a hot tub. The water is almost a dark brown color so that was a bit unexpected but once we were in, it felt SO good. And it was probably the best thing we could have done for ourselves leading into the few days.
After a few hours, we changed and got ready for breakfast. Anyone who takes these tours will tell you, the meals, are noteworthy in so many ways. The Chef is responsible for setting everything up - the tent, the tables, chairs, cooking area and prepping all the food. Generally this happens over a small two burner portable gas grill but you would never know it. The meals are full course meals that are SO yummy. I think I ate better on this trip than I do at home. Breakfast was a combination of traditional bread, pancakes, oatmeal and yogurt. Meals are always served with hot tea and coffee.
After the meal, we packed up our day packs and got ready to hike. The afternoon hike was exactly what I expected. It was serene and peaceful in ways we had never experienced. The beauty of the Lares trail (opposed to the Inca trail) is that we literally were the only ones on the trail. We had the entire trail and mountain to ourselves. We would occasionally run into locals as we walked past small villages or corn fields but aside from that, we truly were the only ones out there.
The trail was not as treacherous as some of the other trails (based on what we've heard). Although it was steep at times, the trail was wide enough where there was no concern about slipping and falling. We hiked for about 4 hours and ended up in a very small village. What constantly amazed me was the Chef and his assistant. The two of them had stayed to clean up after us at breakfast and pack up all the tables, chairs, cooking gear and our big backpacks. The two of them, along with 3 horses, probably left 30-45 minutes after us but still beat us to the lunch spot, had everything set up. By the time we got there, they were well under way with lunch prep. They were incredible. I still do not know how they did this every day.
Lunch was served inside a small home in the local village. The home was literally made of dirt floors, rock walls and a straw roof. Even in the middle of the day, It was freezing in there. So we were so excited when lunch started with soup. It was probably one of the best soups I have ever had. It was made with corn and vegetables and I could have eaten it for every meal if it was an option.
After lunch, a local boy, Edison, who was 5 years old, guided us to the camp site where we would spend the night. When they told us he would be walking with us, the girls and I assumed it would be a 10 minute hike. But it was actually a 45-50 minute trek. It was fairly even and flat but there were parts that were definitely a bit of a climb and he left us in the dust. His little legs had no problem moving ahead and no matter how hard I tried, I could not keep up with him.
When we finally arrived at the camp site, it was actually Edison's home - we would be camping in his front yard. The views were breathtaking. His home was situated right on the river which is their main source of water given the home had no running water or electricity. What was so impressive was how quickly the Chef and his assistant had our tents set up. As soon as they set up the 4 tents (3 sleeping tents and one eating tent), they were cooking up Happy Hour and Dinner for us.
That night was a game changer for me. We learned that Edison was so familiar with the hike because the local village where we had lunch was where his school was located. He walked 45-50 minutes each way, every day to get to school and get back home. All by himself. We were in shock. Our children are literally chauffeured in their warm cars from their homes to school each day. And, in the case of my boys, the commute is 8 minutes, 10 minutes with traffic.
Because there is no electricity, everyone goes down with the sun and rises with the sun. Which means we went to bed around 7:30 PM and were up by 5:00 AM. When we got up, Edison was already hard at work. He had collected a bunch of crops for his family and was helping his dad prepare our breakfast. Once we were eating, he moved on to break down our tents before he headed off to school. Did I mention Edison is 5 years old??!!? It was a real eye opener in terms of how excessive our lives in the US can be and how truly comfortable we all are. I have been lucky enough to travel to different parts of the world, but I have never seen a child with such an incredible work ethic. Edison was hands down, the highlight of my trip.
Day 2 - After we said good bye to Edison and finished our breakfast, we prepared for Day 2. Day 2 is the reason why I wrote this blog and why I consider this trip the workout of a lifetime. We knew going in that this would be tough but I had no idea how hard this was going to be. We started the day at 11,000 ft altitude and the plan was to climb a mountain and be at 14,700 ft by lunchtime. We were climbing 3,700 feet in 3 hours. When our guide told us this, it didn't really register. They were just a bunch of numbers to me that didn't really represent anything. But then, we started hiking. It was HARD. Harder than anything I can remember doing. Within the first 20 minutes, the three of us were huffing and puffing. Catching our breathe seemed to be an impossible feat. Walking longer than 5 minutes without taking a break became a goal.
I cannot even express how challenging it was. Small inclines felt like mountains and even having a small day pack on our backs felt like we were carrying another 100 lbs. It was physically taxing and mentally defeating. I spent the first hour questioning whether I was really fit enough for this hike and why I chose to do this instead of renting a Villa in Lake Como. I wondered if I had been fooling myself with all my workouts back home. Had I really been pushing myself? Was I even in good shape? Is this what it means to be 40? Every doubt, every negative thought, passed through my thoughts. But then, I had to remind myself where I was - I was in a country I had never visited, I was with two of my favorite people in the world. I am healthy enough to get outside and hike. I am fortunate enough to afford to travel around the world. I am blessed with a partner and family that let's me leave for a week and not worry about a thing.
That's the moment it changed for me. It may have felt impossible but in that moment, being with Karen and Jen and seeing the breathtaking views reminded me that this is why we were here. It wasn't about making it to the top in record time. It wasn't about having an 'easy' vacation. It was about the journey. It was about getting through the challenge together. It was the perfect analogy for our lives.
I think we often spend so much time worrying about what we are going to accomplish, how we are going to accomplish it, how quickly we can make it happen, etc. that we forget about living in the moment and appreciating the opportunity. The path we take to get to the end, is a big part of what makes life so interesting. The path I have taken to date has helped me realize I am often stronger than I know and more importantly, it has helped me realize the value of the people in my life. Many of them have joined me on my path and pulled me up mountains when I did not think I could make it to the top.
When we finally arrived at Machu Picchu, there was an incredible sense of satisfaction. I can't say whether it was because of the challenge we faced on Day 2 or if it was simply because I was reminded how lucky I am. This life we live should not be taken for granted. I was dealt a winning hand in life but that does not mean I should take it for granted. The friends I have, the family I was born into and the health I was given are all the luck of the draw. I didn't 'earn' these things but that doesn't mean I shouldn't count them in my daily moments of gratitude. This trip was the trip of a lifetime. It helped me test my limits and realize that we cannot take anything for granted.