It’s been a while since I’ve relived the story of Peru and certainly the first time that I have actually pieced together the threads in diaries and photographs to commit the journey to paper. It’s the story of realizing a dream and it’s the fun story of the most epic birthday celebration.
Machu Picchu had been a larger-than-life dream of mine for as long as I could remember and I decided that if all the stars aligned, I would wake up to the sight of this ancient city on the day I turned 40. It took a bit of creative nudging of the stars though, as we were forced to fly via Amsterdam to Lima, traveling for 34 hours before finally touching down in Peru. It was quite an experience for me flying from the Northern Hemisphere over the vast Amazon jungle and seeing from a bird’s eye view how vast the lungs of our planet are. I remember wondering what tribes of humans live deep within the green mystery that we had no idea even existed.
Our journey broke for 24 hours in Lima and then straight onto another flight to Cusco, this time flying over the Andes, which is literally the polar opposite of the jungle views, with arid, sharp peaks jutting out of the earth.
Cusco was the ancient Inca capital from where roads led out in each cardinal direction to reach a vast empire. During our time in Cusco, we were lucky enough to experience the celebration of Inti Ra, the Festival of the Sun, held each year around the winter solstice since the 12th century. At an elevation of 3,400m above sea level, it took a fair bit of acclimatization, but the burst of colour, music, dancing and food was a beautiful distraction! Cusco is in many ways the epitome of the Spanish invasion where the ancient culture of Peru collides with typical Spanish architecture and language.
During our acclimatization we did a bit of exploring along the Sacred Valley that is the lifeline of this area of the Andes. Here we were introduced to a way of life that has not changed much over time. Alpaca and Lama wool is still dyed using the same natural dyes they have for centuries to weave brilliantly coloured clothing and blankets that are so typically Peruvian.
The terraced fields of quinoa and potatoes growing along the mountainsides among ancient ruins make the scenery spectacularly beautiful. Ollantaytambo is one such ancient village, which originated at the juncture of three valleys. Granite stones were extracted many kilometers across the valley into the mountainside and brought here using a system of pulleys and teams of men to transport one cube at a time to build terraces and temples. It is fascinating to see how each stone cube is carved to precision to fit perfectly into the one below. The temple and terraces were incomplete at the time of the Spanish Invasion, but the beautiful little town seems perfectly suspended in time – a gateway to the ancient Inca Trail.
It was from here that we started our trek to Machu Picchu with a spirited group from around the world, together with our guides and porters, carrying bright purple loads of everything from tents to toilet paper for the hikers. I am always so humbled by the willingness of local people to not only open up their ancient treasures for us to explore and experience, but also to haul all our comforts along the trail.
Our hike starts as we cross the river and begin a slow ascent along the valley dotted with ruins, and I cannot believe that after many years of dreaming, I am finally walking in the footsteps of an ancient civilization. We were completely astonished when we arrived on that first day at the spot for our lunch break. The porters and cooks had sped ahead and erected a tent, complete with a set table and hot water to wash our hands before our meal. We were served, right there in the middle of the Andes, a 3-course hot meal, freshly prepared while we were ambling up the valley!
Our porters and guides continued to pull out all the stops over the next few days and it always filled me with such deep gratitude for the journey and the people who made it so touchingly special. After lunch, they packed the whole kitchen and dining room back into the purple sacks, flung them on their backs and raced past the hikers (in sandals) to set up the next stop.
While we were ambling around the Andes in June 2014, the Soccer World Cup was playing out on the same continent in Brazil. Somewhere, in the middle of nowhere, on our way to our first overnight stop, there was an important match being played and in a small little settlement perched on the mountainside was a tiny black and white TV in a cow shed. All the locals were crammed into the small space, where they invited us in, sharing their beers and cheers happily.
By the time we reached our overnight camp, our tents had already been erected and a bowl of steaming hot water was set outside the tent for us to wash our weary feet. Once the trekkers were happy, our porter team trotted off to a makeshift soccer pitch high up in the mountains to play in their own football clash in the dust.
Day two started out in what I imagine “Middle Earth” in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings to look like. The trees looked like magical creatures and the waterfalls spilling over bright green moss looked as if they were shimmering.
We were following a steady uphill climb, away from the valley and out of the vegetation, the landscape changing the higher we walked, the temperature dropping with every meter we gained in elevation. We were traversing “Dead Woman’s Pass” to what would take us to the highest elevation on our trek at 4,215m above sea level and into the clouds.
And then down the other side. Down, down, down the stairs (yes, actual stairs that have been there since the Inca empire) all the way back into vegetation and the most spectacular overnight suite overlooking the mountains.
Our amenities were extremely basic, and our campsites were shared with many other trekkers on the trail, but to be able to camp along this ancient trail, looking out at magnificent sunrise settings such as these, is nothing less than total peace and complete gratitude for sharing pieces of history on this incredible planet we get to call home.
A little bit of breakfast humour to get us going on the third day of our trek as the chefs served us little personalized breakfast pancakes.
The scenery was breathtaking as more and more ruins appeared along the route, at times making me feel like we were living our very own Indiana Jones epic. Touching the stones I could imagine the people and feel the dense, rich history of a lost civilization. Along the winding path our guide stopped a little ahead of us and pulled a flute out of his pack. Percy started playing a haunting Peruvian tune which echoed off the mountains and valleys in what felt like a moment of pure connection between ancient and present where time disappeared and all we could do was be.
The last stretch of the Inca Trail hugs along a cliff face, ending up at the Sun Gate, which looks down over Machu Picchu. It is spectacular at sunrise, so many hikers attempt this last bit of the trail in the dark to catch the morning view. Due to a few fatal hiking accidents in the dark, authorities closed off the entrance to this part of the trail, which only opens at 5am. The last campsite on our route is here, together with many other hiking groups. The trail is so narrow that you cannot pass another person, forcing hikers to walk in single file, so whoever enters the gate first sets the pace to get to the sun gate. A mix of excitement and anticipation about entering the cliff-trail first made for very little sleep on a dusty flat patch along the trail.
It felt like the middle of a dark night when we were quietly woken up by our guides to snake down to the barred entrance to be the first group in line when it opened. And as luck would have it, on the day of my 40th birthday, we were right in front. We had a bit of a wait ahead though, because it was only 4am, but as hikers started filtering into a line, my sweet, special husband had many birthday surprises lined up. He had secretly carried an iPad in his backpack, on which he had made a movie of video clips from all my friends and family back home wishing me a happy day. I sat in the dark, reading cards and watching messages from all my loved ones as I was about to take the last steps towards Machu Picchu.
At 5am we set out, still dark. I’m not entirely sure if the adrenaline was excitement or terror, but as we moved on the narrow path along the cliff face it felt like my heart would explode from my chest. Up we climbed on the large carved steps until finally, at sunrise, we had our first glimpse of the city of Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate. It was an overwhelming, joyous, emotional moment that I will forever have etched in my memory.
We walked, for the final time, along the cobbled trail that was built to connect an empire that has disappeared. An eerie, haunting reminder of impermanence and change. I felt so fully absorbed in every footstep as we got closer and closer, not wanting to miss a single heartbeat of what I knew was the culmination of so many of my dreams.
Machu Picchu is loaded with mystery, energy, magic and beauty (and dotted with a llama or two). Walking around the ancient city was more of a deep heart connection than a visual brain connection. All the history books, all the research, all the stories and some of the facts are contained in the stone ruins on the mountain. It engaged not only all my physical senses, but a deep emotional knowing too. It was indescribably special.
Reluctantly we left the mountaintop, taking a hair-raising-hairpin-bendy road by bus all the way down to the charming little village of Aguas Calientes, where our group of hikers gathered in a little café to share our thoughts and experiences (and some celebratory birthday cake!).
The day flowed from one highlight to another when we boarded a train to take us from Aguas Calientes all the way back down to Ollantaytambo. The train had a glass roof and as we wound our way through the mountains, we had spectacular views of the Andes all around us! Another birthday surprise came out of the backpack in the form of two steel cups and a tiny bottle of Peruvian Pisco (yip, the stuff hangovers are made of).
We continued the Pisco-fuelled celebrations with the rest of our hiking group on a bus all the way from Ollantaytambo back to Cusco and by the time we reached our hotel, the best ending to an epic 40th birthday was a hot shower and a comfy bed.
There are always threads and connections and lessons that we pick up along our adventures and each one has a different meaning, depending on what we seek and where in our life journey we find ourselves. The journey along an ancient stone path in the Andes wove a stitch in the rich experience of this life of mine and I got to share it with my favourite human.
The 40th celebrations were not quite done yet and in a crazy twist of circumstances, we got to have another party for a couple of hours on a layover in Amsterdam on the way home.
Who knew that before my 50th birthday, we would be living here…