When someone first hears ‘Minnesota’, it’s likely that the words exotic, diverse and spicy don’t come to mind.
I grew up in Southeastern Minnesota – it’s flat and usually covered with snow – and I can confirm that these words are pretty much only used to describe dinner at Taco Bell.
I’m Dave, by the way. And I’m going to take you back to when I was 33 and had just changed careers. I needed to go to a place that would challenge me physically, emotionally and spiritually. I had always wanted to do something that pushed boundaries, to see somewhere epic. Peru ended up being that pin on my map, and ‘The City in the Clouds’ would be my goal.
I needed to do it now, because excuses and life don’t always allow you to wait until later.
I was recommended Intrepid Travel by my girlfriend as she had used them before for her trips to Ecuador, Morocco, Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia. She said they did a great job of not only planning your trip, but allowing you to really experience the culture. I looked at all the trip options and decided I wanted to earn my adventure, not take a train. So, I set my sights on hiking the Inca Trail and chose the 7-day Inca Trail Express trip.
About a week after booking the trip and bragging about how adventurous I was, it occurred to me that I would need to be in a lot better shape than I was in. I had never even been to Denver, let alone hiked the Andes for days on end. I am definitely a hearty Midwestern guy so I had doubts about my fitness and was genuinely concerned about the altitude. But I had three months to prepare. And I made it my resolution to get into shape. There was no way I was going to miss out on walking every step.
Yep, I was determined to be the guy in the gym walking on an inclined treadmill wearing hiking boots – and I did become him! Three months of training not only helped me stay blister-free for the whole trip, but I lost close to 15 lbs too.
March 24th finally came, and I arrived in Cusco to meet my leader… and 13 other people I did not know. I stepped off the plane and felt a tad light-headed from the elevation. Knowing I was about to dive into a trip where the only conversation I’d have would be with strangers… cue a giant lump in my throat.
That night I met the people that would be embarking with me on this journey. Reni, our guide, was born and raised in Cusco, and the group consisted of people from Australia, Sweden, Canada, New Zealand, and England. I immediately knew this was what I wanted. This is what I craved. Walking an ancient path with people from other walks of life was the furthest thing from the Midwest, and there was no turning back now.
Before we began the hike, we were given the opportunity to spend an afternoon with a Quechua community in the Sacred Valley. We were immediately welcomed with hugs, traditional clothing, flowers, and music from homemade instruments. The cultural highlight was when the community led us to a field where we dug out potatoes to eat for dinner that night. Dinner consisted of five different types of potatoes, quinoa, aromatic soup, and my first taste of alpaca. It is one of the most memorable meals I have ever had, and nothing like what I was used to in Minnesota.
You don’t have to know people well to feel their genuine warmth and hospitality. I can still taste the soup and hear the laughter from the table. Words can’t describe the feeling of going halfway around the world to feel like you are at home.
The hike leading up to Machu Picchu took my breath away – literally and figuratively. You can’t help but feel the energy of Pachamama (‘Mother Earth’ in the indigenous Quechua language) with every new peak. Neither can you help but be swallowed up in the beauty of snow-capped mountaintops, deep valleys with flowing rivers, llamas, intricate stonework, and light and shadow from the clouds that doesn’t even look real.
Every time I stopped to look around, I could only grin as I realized that this was real life. I was not going to rush this, but rather indulge in every moment. As I experienced each new scene, I also began to notice that my travel companions were no longer strangers to me, but felt more familiar than any friend at home. I realized that – like me – they didn’t come here to smile, take a selfie and add a few pictures to their Facebook page, but they came here to experience something bigger than themselves. Every night around the table I sat and had dinner with brothers and sisters I have always known, but just finally met.
The final morning finally came. The day I dreamed about, but still can’t grasp I lived. We woke up well before sunrise, but any aches, fatigue, or lack of sleep were going to have to wait. Everything I wanted was a small hike away. No Christmas morning will ever compare to my excitement. We walked along mountain trails for the last time, and arrived at the Sun Gate just in time to see the sun show us the city.
No words, no pictures, no video will ever be able to reproduce that moment. There it was. The City in the Clouds. Macchu Picchu.
I will never be able to describe the flood of emotions I felt. There were dozens of other people around me, but it felt like just me and the mountain. It wasn’t anything close to what I hoped it would be, it was more.
When anyone ever asks me about my trip to Peru, I have to smile and shake my head before I begin. It wasn’t a vacation, it was truly experiencing life for the first time. It changed my life.
There is always going to be a train to your destination, but the long road is what stays with you.
Make your dream a reality. Visit Machu Picchu with Intrepid Travel.
(All photos taken by Dave Rohlfing on Intrepid’s 7-day Inca Trail Express trip.)