Our muscles so fatigued, our lack of sleep taking its toll.
Exhausted but remaining upbeat.
It was all winding down and I was already sad to see it go.
One last dinner, a celebratory cake.
We made a plan to quietly and efficiently wake up at 3:30am to do our very best to be at the front of the line the next morning. We were told we'd have to walk fast, to stay close to the rocks, to be careful where we stepped, to respect the trail in the darkness of the night. Avalanches and mudslides were a legitimate concern as the rain poured and poured and poured.
We said goodbye to our porters. One last night in our tents.
Only Machu Picchu left to go.
Erick would predictably greet me with a good morning "hola chica" as I unzipped my tent; a hot towel and a warm beverage offered before I had my boots on.
We'd all made it through the night, we were all healthy enough to continue.
Another delicious meal, more scary stories to keep me terrified in the night.
These were some of the very best days of my life and I already knew it.
Day one: we begin.
An early morning wake up in our respective hotels to be picked up and transported to Kilometer 82. Those who stayed awake would later comment on the treacherous nature of the roads we traveled. Try as I might, a nap of sorts took hold. Night turned into day and we had arrived. Introductions and re-introductions were made. Fresh fruit, white bread, soon-to-be-beloved powdered coffee and milk.
Passport check-ins, we were first in line. A family photo and the hike commenced.
We walked first through hot, desertous lowland. The rainy season had been promised but only a sprinkle reared its momentary head.
Astrology, Snickers bars, and general small talk would endear me quickly to this new family. A break in the shade followed by lunch in a serene and sunny opening. Our last contact with modern conveniences sold from a tiny wooden doorway.
The climb that followed this midday meal turned out to be a brutal one. Up, up, up endlessly. The altitude would leave us all breathless; these spin instructors, former marathon runners, experienced hikers, and yours truly humbled step after step. Our guide Erick, as always, full of stories and lore and endless expertise about the flora and fauna along the way.
As had been described to us the night before, our group, if in full agreement, would do all it could to remain in front of the other companies and their hordes. We'd push just a bit further than most; all the while securing ourselves solitude on the trail, an all but private campsite, and a little bit less to ascend the following morning.
Spirits were high, as we'd promised Erick they would be. Late afternoon arrival to our temporary tent homes. Hot water, hot chocolate, popcorn, warm clothes. Sitting and talking until dinner, our conversation possibilities still endless.
The evening meal would leave us full and Erick would leave me wide eyed and terrified with ghost stories. We were sleeping in higher altitude than we had started so we needed to make sure to advise if any illness or signs of altitude sickness arose in the night. But he reassured us that he thought we'd be stronger in the morning with rest and "new energies".
Falling asleep at 8pm, happier than I had been in recent memory.
The days to follow were more productive.
Slow walks through convents, museums, and tiny wandering, uphill streets.
Forays into Peruvian cuisine, new friends, a minimal hike to prove we could breathe. Views like paintings over Little Cusco, nestled in the valley.
Puffed quinoa, stuffed peppers. Llamas, blue shutters, cobble stones, taxi cabs.
Cusco was starting to have its way with me but time was passing quickly. As excited as I was to return to nature and embark on this adventure, I couldn't help but often feel like I wanted to stall.
This hike, those stairs, altitude higher still; all these things inevitable and already feeling predestined.
Nervous excitement. Anxious anticipation. Exhausted but finding it difficult to sleep.