It was so dark I was disorientated.
“Are you awake, chicas?”
“We are” I replied, still unsure why I was being woken up.
My eyes adjusted to early morning darkness, and I remembered that we was in the middle of the Andes Mountains in Peru. I shook Adele awake next to me, then unzipped our tent and grabbed two steaming hot mugs of coca tea.
“Breakfast is almost ready chicas,” said our guide, as he handed me the mugs.
“Okay. Gracias.” I mumbled in response. It was four thirty am and we were camped just below four thousand feet. Adele and I fumbled around the tent, pulling on layers of clothes and packing up our bags up for the days hike.
At quarter past five we were the first ones out on the trail. Our little group was not comprised of the best hikers – not by a long shot. We had a Sri-Lankan cum-Australian hipster with billy-goat legs and a smokers lungs; a French cosmetics representative from Miami with an obsession for North Face gear; Adele, a recent college grad backpacking South America on her waitressing money; and myself, a once fitness fanatic coming off months of forced rest due to tendonitis, a meniscus tear and over worn cartilage in the knees. But we were keen, that was for sure.
Fat drops of rain began to fall, cooling our faces and the fresh mountain air. They began to solidify, and soon flakes of snow were floating softly to the ground, creating a blanket of white over the trail.
The route zig zagged up the mountain in front of us. We climbed up, until the trail was no more than a tiny strip of earth hanging off the edge of the mountain. Often, we’d have to make way for the horses and donkeys in charge of carrying the heavier gear. We hugged the mountainside as the donkeys lumbered past, sending sliding rocks down the trail with every step. Always stay on the mountain side of the donkeys, our guide reminded us. Just as we completed our first uphill stretch the snow picked up.
By the time we reached the next plateau I could see nothing but white.
I stared at my shoes, followed them carefully each step I took to avoid the wettest or slipperiest bits of snow. The last thing I needed was to twist and ankle, or to fall and have to hike soaking wet. We were nearing the mountain pass, the highest point of our trek at nearly 5,000 meters above sea level.
100 meters before the crest that my mind grew hazy. Every step that I took felt like the most difficult exertion my body had every undertaken. Mathieu, our Frenchman from Miami, passed me, but I was so out of sorts that I unable to process what he said. My brain felt like it was melting into some sort of dizzy compliance. I struggled to urge my frozen legs on.
Finally, I reached the top, where the howling wind and blinding snow made it almost impossible to stand still. I plastered myself to the downwind side of a rock, squatting down so as not to fall over. One of the local guides quickly understood my symptoms and handed me some of gooey coca leave mixture to chew to battle the altitude sickness. My head returned to normal almost on the spot.
On the other side of the pass the snow had already stopped, and melting, it streamed down the footpath, leading us towards our destination. As we continued downwards the air warmed up, and as we peeled off our raincoats and extraneous layers, spirits were high. The surrounding landscape was deep green, offset by the tall snow-capped mountains behind us. Rocky free-range pastures lined the trail where local cattle and horses grazed. We stopped for lunch in a local village enclosure just as the skies opened up and rain began to pour down.
After a final fifteen kilometers of downhill hiking, we arrived at our camp for the night. The feeling in the air was light and joyful. There was warm food and cold beer, and a hot shower for a mear 2 pesos. We had one more day on the trail before we would reach our destination – the lost city of Machu Picchu. There, I would celebrate 27 years of incredible life.
Our last day of hiking we hit civilization. After a full 48 hours in the mountains, seeing only fellow hikers and local villagers, it was strange to come upon train tracks, paved roads and tourists coming from all corners of the globe to see one of the world’s most talked about man-made wonders. Our guide pointed to one of the mountains above us.
“That’s Machu Picchu, there. We’re right underneath it.”
Our arrival in Aguas Calientes town revolved mainly around showering, posting lots of photos on Instagram, and getting to bed early enough to be the first ones to the gate in the morning. Call time was four AM.
I woke up full of energy. We had been waking up pre-dawn for several days so our bodies were already adjusted. We were first in line for the tram that would take us up to the ancient city’s gates. Sitting under street lamps in the still darkness, we watched streams of tourists from around the world pour out of their hotels and queue up.
When the gates open, and you wander into the mountaintop city in the morning fog, you truly feel an undeniable magic. Like any ancient city, like Ankor Wat, or the Teotihuacan, you cannot help but feel pure awe for the fact that thousands of years ago, there was an entire civilization with no technology they built this incredible relic, and they no longer exist. The thought to me is mind blowing. If they were so advanced, how could they possibly die out?
The stillness in the pre-dawn light is fitting to a long dead place. There is an untouchable lack of movement. For moments you can imagine you were alive hundreds years ago, and simply woke up early to enjoy the silence.
The silence, for me, was healing. Our hike had come at a pivotal moment in my life, when I was overrun by stress and at the precipice of a huge life change. I had cancelled my enrollment into a prestigious MBA program, and I was already toying with the idea of closing down my business for good.
As we climbed the stairs from Machu Picchu to Hunan Picchu, I breathed in felt the thin air enter my lungs. 2,430 meters above sea level, on the edge of a warily narrow, 600 year old staircase on a high mountain cliff, looking down on one of the most famous lost civilizations in human history, I felt alive. We reached the top, and I sat with my feet dangling off into the abyss, looking at a breathtaking view of a the valley and the lost city.
All of a sudden 27 years didn’t make me feel that old.