hasta luego lima

One last breeze through Lima, the haze of the hike still hanging over me. 
A little more art, a little more exploring. A sunny nap, a mid day iced tea. A final dinner and more drinks in Miraflores with a new/old friend. Up too late in our hotel's courtyard, but it didn't matter; I had only another early morning departure left to go.
And that would finally be that for me and Peru. 
Until the next time.

camino inca: el cuarto día, el último día.

 And we made it.
Second in line at the checkpoint, we chatted away in the darkness until a light turned on at 5:30am and we were allowed to pass through and make our way to the Sun Gate. We never stopped. We walked and hiked and climbed at a pace quicker than the days before. The trail was as rough as predicted; a hurried scrabble over a recent rockslide across the path, narrow trails dropping off into the jungle, traversing along in near darkness. Groups all around us had seemingly disbanded and dispersed, but we stayed together as a family until the very end, until that final climb up steep Incan stone stairs to the summit at the Sun Gate at dawn.
And it was... 
Mind blowing.
Beyond words.
Out of breath, all those "energies" finally depleted. We made it. The rain never fully stopped, but the clouds cleared and we could look down to Machu Picchu and take all the obligatory, triumphant group photos we wanted before making another quick descent to the entrance. We had seen the first tour buses creeping up the winding road, but we still managed to make better time such that Machu Picchu still felt like it was ours when we arrived. 
Another passport check in, real bathrooms, a first look in the mirror.
And Erick's final tour commenced.  
They still don't know, won't ever really know, exactly what Machu Picchu is. Who built it? Why did they build it? What was it? Why was it abandoned and left behind? Theories and clues and speculation and lore exist throughout and through all these years of study since its discovery in 1911. New notions still being formed, floated, and still to be conceived. And it's huge. Bigger than you can imagine, bigger than you can ever see in a photo or wrap your mind around once you're there. 
And it really is just as magical and mystical as promised.
Nestled, tucked away, secluded in the Andes and the mist and the clouds and the sky. In the midst of mountains that don't feel like ordinary mountains; mountains that seem to contain secrets and power and magic within magic.
You start to think that somehow it makes sense that this place should exist here. Pachamama, Pachupapa, the water, the air, the Andes, this jungle, this trail, these incredible structures built over an unknown amount of years. This hidden city whose secrets will remain secret. And you're here for a day. Taking it all in, the fraction that you're able to.
I wandered around that morning in a daze. It was almost too beautiful, too difficult to begin to process. I was there, it was finally real, but it couldn't possibly feel like reality. We'd made this journey, accomplished this incredible, arduous hike. We were attached to each other and to the Andes and to this trail. And now we were back in civilization, inside another civilization so impossible to fathom. 
We were exhausted. We were finished. 

 After the tour a few of us wandered around in the rain. Erick had just delighted in surprising us with champagne which he sprayed all over us in the spirit of congratulations. We were happy but we were winding down. We soon took a bus down to Aguas Calientes to do more wandering and to finally sit down and celebrate with food and beverage and nothing left to do. We had split into smaller groups but we eventually converged at a restaurant where we ate pizza, drank too much, salsa danced (!?), and said goodbye. Some people stayed on another night, others went on earlier trains.  A few of us made a plan to meet up in Cusco that night, but it still felt strange to be separated, even for a few hours. 
By the time we took the train and the bus and the next bus back to town, I was tired beyond description. I rallied along with Darren, Matt, Alyssa, and Wendy to meet up at the gringo Irish bar in the center of Cusco. We drank more and talked more until we couldn't anymore. And then we said a goodbye that was really real. It felt impossible, but by that point we were so exhausted that it could only just be what it was.
My flight left Cusco early the next morning. 
We had really made it. And it was really over.

camino inca: el tercer día

And on we pressed, the last major day of hiking before our eventual arrival to Machu Picchu.
Our muscles so fatigued, our lack of sleep taking its toll.
Exhausted but remaining upbeat.
This last day spent entirely in the jungley cloud forests; the rainy season at last undeniable. Walking in the clouds, trying to take in every moment, these new friends feeling like old family.
The tour groups we'd avoided were finally making themselves known. Pockets of people and porters on the trail, some saying hello, some not. It's only been since 2001 that Camino Inca became regulated such that there is a quota on how many people can be on the trail on any given day. Stories of the uncontrolled crowds of hikers and campers prior to this rule seeming unfathomable. But equally so the fact we had been, for the most part, on this ancient path almost totally alone. 
The final campground was crowded but we'd once again secured a prime and secluded location for our tents. We'd heard that there is typically a bar and a party to be had at this final stop, but we happened to be there during the year that it's being renovated.  While we had been romanticizing all manner of modern convenience and vice for days, I wasn't actually at all disappointed to have one last night of quiet camping. We used the few bathroom stalls before the later groups started piling in. Some of us took showers, most of us didn't. Llamas kept us company all the while.
Following a brief siesta we walked a short distance to another archeological site, one that rivals Machu Picchu and would become one of the highlights of the hike. Erick's presentation was complete with a binder of visual aids and the usual unbridled narrative passion. The sun would come out and we would be surprised yet again with a box of red wine. We toasted our journey in metal cups, a small amount tipped once again for Pachamama and all that she'd given us over the last days. Darren and I maybe drank more than most while we looked down onto the ruins, across to the waterfall, down to where we'd already hiked. And I can't recall ever having been happier.
Erick would later ask where my continued energy came from. I'd tell him that nature and these incredible people could be the only explanation.
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.

camino inca: el segundo día

Wakeup time, 5:30am.
I could not boast effortless sleep but upon being greeted by the mind blowing view just beyond my tent, I felt the new lease on life and new energies that were promised to me.
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.
Quiet but excited breakfast...
We'd all made it through the night, we were all healthy enough to continue.
...and we began our ascent again.
The collective chill left over from the night before quickly gave over to sweaty heat. We climbed and we climbed and we climbed. Erick all the while gratuitously congratulating us and reminding us to drink water. When we finally arrived to the infamous and aptly named Dead Woman's Pass, we toasted what would be our highest summit with capfuls of rum: one for us, one for Pachamama. We sat around for a short while, sharing candy and snacks and taking stupid photos. The most minimal amount of alcohol going to our heads; delirious from the accomplishment, high altitude, and new friendships.
We headed down, down, down until lunch. The rain would come and then go and then come back around again. But the fog would always seem to lift at the perfect moments; the views still taking our breath away. A brief stop at an archeological site, allegedly a tambo, or hotel of sorts. We all sat on the ground in dark ponchos as the rain poured.
Up we went again, and then down further over slippery Incan steps, through caves and forest and rock face and jungle.
Our goal was ultimately the third pass. Up, down, fog, rain. Sometimes a few steps ahead and alone, more often accompanied by conversation.
It was cold, it was wet, it was difficult, it was dangerous. But we were happy.
 Another site, another spirited presentation by Erick. The rain was pouring but my mood was higher than ever. Some people made their way to camp early, a few of us stayed behind. Surrounded by clouds, pure white all around. Until another view opened up to us just before we made it back to camp. We said it again and again: how lucky we felt. To be where we were, right then, together.
Arrival to our camp, just a few other groups at nearby sites. Darren would convince me to take the equivalent of a shower in a nearby outdoor sink. We'd finally meet all the porters, gather for guacamole and more popcorn and finish off the morning's rum before dinner; happy hour under a tent as the rain continued to pour.
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.

camino inca: el primer día

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.

uno, dos, cusco

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.