Let’s get one thing straight: Dead Woman’s Pass is as awful as you fear. It’s called ‘Dead Woman’ for god’s sake. Okay, so the name comes from the shape of the pass, like a woman lying down, not from actual deaths. But still. It’s a phrase that incites terror. And as I was slogging my way up, willing myself to just reach that next rock, that next bush, and as the snow line reached ever closer and the sun burnt ever stronger, I looked up at that reclining woman and cursed her and the Incas who had named her.
But let’s back up, to why I was huffing up the pass in the first place. I had decided to tackle the Inca Trail during one of those life reassessments that every human experiences in their mid-30s. In the span of a few weeks, I had registered for my first half-marathon, broken up with a guy, and decided to hike the Inca. The race because, well, why not. The guy because, well, meh. And the trail because it had been my dream since I first learned of Machu Picchu in high school Spanish class. And dreams are a dangerous thing. Abandon them and they haunt you forever. Follow them and you end up hiking to an altitude of 4,200 metres and wondering if dreamer you is actually a sadomasochist.
I had arrived in Peru a week prior, on Intrepid’s Sacred Land of the Incas adventure. Even though I was lugging hiking boots and enough protein bars to feed a herd of llamas, it all seemed surreal. ‘One day’ had turned into next week and my brain couldn’t make sense of it. (Also, side note: the protein bars were totally unnecessary — the porters supply you with so much food that your belly barely has time to register a grumble before it’s time for a meal stop).
It didn’t help that I had caught a stomach bug while I was in the Amazon, mere days away from heading to Ollantaytambo and the start of the trail. For three days I shivered in the sweaty, sticky heat while my travel mates went off in search of anacondas and tarantulas. The Andes (and the strength to hike them) couldn’t have felt further away. On the morning we departed for the trail head, my stomach was still flipping — but this time not just from nausea, but from nerves. Reality had set in.
Thankfully, the trail eases you in on the first day, leading you over Peruvian plains — undulating hills that are the closest you’ll find to flat in the Andes. It’s the teaser of what’s to come, when the hills get steeper, the steps higher, the air thinner. It’s the day when you learn how things work, like how the porters run past you, carrying packs bigger than you and weaving up and down and around staircases. It’s the day you learn that Inca steps are nothing like the stairmaster you trained on.
It’s also on that first day that you realize what it means to be an Inca Trail trekker. Permits are given out to 200 trekkers (and 300 porters) daily, so even in moments when you feel tired and sore and totally alone, you’re never far from someone who’s able to give you a friendly nudge. Sometimes I was someone else’s cheerleader, and sometimes it was someone giving me a push. On day two, as I struggled to move myself up the final 200 metres to Dead Woman’s Pass, I could hear hikers at the top calling down, urging me on. As I staggered the last few steps, a trekker from another group congratulated me by name. Because that’s the thing about the trail: you see and talk to the same strangers again and again, until they’re not strangers any more. You bond over everything from sore knees to altitude belly, and sometimes there are celebrations thrown in. Like on our second night, when we snacked on banana cake for two trekkers’ wedding anniversary — a surprise dessert made by our porters with nothing but a camp stove.
Over the days, you battle steep climbs and steeper descents, lost toenails and broken blisters, and you’re guaranteed to curse yourself at least once for not opting to take the train instead. After all, the vast majority people who visit Machu Picchu don’t take four days to get there. So why suffer the trek?
Well, because like with so much of travel, the reward isn’t the arrival but the journey. Machu Picchu gets all the fame and glory, but there are hidden treasures to discover along the trail, too — and unlike the finale, they’re only accessible on foot. Yes, hundreds of people trek the trail every day, but when you turn a corner and see the glorious ruins of Sayacmarca perched on a clifftop in the distance, or peer down and find Qonchamarka peeking out from beneath a jungle canopy, you’ll be forgiven for feeling, just for a moment, like you’re the next Hiram Bingham.
On our last morning, we reached the Sun Gate early enough that there was still mist draped over the mountains. By the way, all those photos you’ve seen of people standing before Machu Picchu? Those aren’t taken at the Sun Gate, no matter what their Tinder profile says. The Sun Gate is much higher, and gives you a view that stretches far beyond the ruins. It’s the first glimpse you get of Machu Picchu and it encompasses views of the surrounding peaks and the valley leading down into Aguas Calientes. You can spy the buses coming up the roadway and congratulate yourself for getting here the hard way.
After four days of hiking, I sat there, my aching feet dangling over a ledge as I watched the mist move in and out. I cried. Dammit, that sounds so cliché, but it’s true. I sat there with my back to everyone and dripped tears down my dirty face because dreamer me totally deserved this.
Words and images c/o Tammy Burns.
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