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The tears came when Fredy fitted the plastic mouthpiece around my mouth and nose. I knew this was my fault. I’d pushed myself when I should have respected the intensity of the trail. I’d been so proud that I was the third in our group to make it to the top of the pass. Now that decision struck me as just plain stupid. Suddenly, I felt like I was stranded in the middle of nowhere, years away from Machu Picchu, much less my home. It was raining hard enough that I could have yelled and no one would have heard me. “I miss my kids,” I cried.
“You’ll be fine by morning,” Fredy assured me.
Fredy was right. I unzipped my tent to discover that our campsite was perched on a ledge so high that I felt like I could see clear through the valleys to the Amazon.
When we set out after breakfast, I promised myself that I’d stay at the tail end of the group. And that’s when the Inca Trail truly revealed herself to me. Angel’s Trumpets in white, yellow and red dangled from branches like bells in a belfry. Hummingbirds buzzed past orchids the size of fingernails. Fredy talked to us about each flower, and often stopped to show us medicinal plants, including an acne cure that’s popular with the teenagers in Cuzco. There was also something he called a “vagina plant,” a concept that perplexed us until we asked him the next day to clarify what he meant. Turns out the Inca Trail has a plant that can cure yeast infections.
The Incas believed that many of the mountain peaks in this region were sacred, and it would be impossible to walk the trail and not feel in some way moved. One minute you are hugging the side of a mountain so as not to fall into the jungle below. The next you’re squeezing through a cave. At one point the trail curved and suddenly we were standing high above the ruins of Sayacmarca, an elaborate archaeological site. It had taken three days to get there and was accessible only by foot. There was no ramp, no heliport, no shortcut. Like the original pilgrims, there were no rewards unless you did the work.
That evening we toasted the last night on the trail. We were eager to experience the majesty of the Sun Gate and Machu Picchu the next day.But I had no idea that before we set off Fredy would lead us in a prayer of thanks to mother earth that would cause me to weep with gratitude for two hours of our descent down thousands of feet of stairs.
Shooting stars drew white arcs against the black sky. We were huddled together in our down jackets, slap-happy with the rush of our adventure, guffawing at each other’s jokes about the portable biffy and the vagina plant. We knew that the power of the group, not to mention the unwavering support of Fredy and his crew, had gotten us through this magical adventure.
I looked across at Wendy. “I thought you hated hiking,” I said.
“I do,” she answered. “But I love this.” She gestured to the group, the sky and the smiles of pure love spreading across all our faces.
Elizabeth Foy Larsen, a Minneapolis-based writer, is the co-author of “Unbored: The Essential Field Guide to Serious Fun.”