The Andean air is thin and dry at 3400 m above sea level. The morning sun beats down on our bus as we whip past swaths of Eucalyptus trees planted, in part, to reduce landslides along the narrow, cliff-side highways. We have just finished three days of acclimatizing to the altitude in the ancient Incan capital of Cusco, Peru and are now on our way to the town of Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley. I am documenting a team of 21 Canadians, men and women ranging in age from 26 to 67, who have taken on the challenge of trekking the famed Inca Trail to Machu Picchu for charity. The group has raised over $150,000 through The Dream Mountains Foundation and now they have to deliver on completing the four-day, 43 km hike to the legendary Incan citadel.
We wake early to the sounds of roosters crowing in Ollantaytambo, the jumping off point for the trek. We have reduced the weight of our backpacks to 6 kilograms each to keep us light and lean on the trail. Half of that weight is reserved for drinking water leaving just enough room for an extra set of dry clothes, sunblock and a camera. Local porters will carry our sleeping bags, mats, tent and food up the trail, reducing our workload substantially.
At the trailhead, an energetic “Dream Team!” group cheer sets us off like a starter’s pistol. Only 500 people are permitted on the Inca Trail per day, and 300 of them are working porters and guides, needless to say the group is pumped! We cross a small suspension bridge and begin a slow, steady ascent along the Urubamba river.
Not long into the trek, our guide, Kique, stops next to a large cactus and begins scratching dusty white scales from its surface. Within a few seconds he’s amassed a handful of cochineal bugs. Adding a few drops of water to the mix, he crushes the bugs with his finger, instantly producing a deep red pigment. The insects contain carminic acid, traditionally used by the Inca to colour fabrics, but today Kique begins applying the colourful paste to our cheeks declaring us fearless Inca warriors!
Our slow arrival into camp the first evening has everyone properly initiated. We crawl into our tents and change into clean, dry clothes for the night. Some of the group have never camped before and the cool mountain air has just slipped into the single digits. At dinner, Dream Mountains team leader and CAA Member Shawn Dawson reminds us that tomorrow we will be climbing the steep ascent to Warmiwañuska “Dead Woman’s Pass.” At 4200 m, it’s the highest point on the trail. With that, we swig back the last of our warm coca tea and slip into our sleeping bags to recharge for the night.
We wake early to the sounds of passing livestock on the terraced farmer’s fields surrounding us. A hearty breakfast, rife with accusations of whose snoring was the loudest, sets us on our way for the day. We follow the ancient stone path as it winds its way through a shady forest hugging a cool, babbling mountain stream. This serenity must have been the Incan idea of a joke, because after a brief stop for lunch we found ourselves on a three-hour grind up a steep, exposed incline under the crushing heat of the Andean sun. Our team spreads out along the trail as everyone finds their own pace. By mid-afternoon, cheers are ringing out across the valley as each team member reaches Dead Woman’s Pass. Wisps of clouds float by overhead like celebratory confetti, the expansive views providing a reward for our strenuous undertaking. The afternoon sun dips behind incoming clouds. Tears of joy surrender to enduring the two-hour slog down to our camp, in the valley below. Everyone sleeps (and snores) deeply through the night.
The sunshine is with us for a third day in a row as we discover ancient Incan ruins around every bend. The most impressive is Sayaqmarka or “Inaccessible Town.” Perched on the tip of a prominent ridge and protected by sheer cliffs on three sides, it is only accessible by a steep, narrow staircase etched into the side of the mountain.
Legs shaking and aching we settle into our final camp for the night. Everyone is exhausted from a solid day of exploring along the trail, but there is an air of excitement as tomorrow we will finally arrive at our destination. As headlamps click off in each tent, the darkness reveals an unpolluted expanse of stars glittering above…pure magic.
It’s 3 a.m. We set out under darkness in an effort to reach our goal for sunrise. The trail crosses rustic, wooden bridges stitching together sections of the mountain-side path that have been washed out by landslides. As day creeps in, the rising clouds part momentarily revealing a majestic, snow-capped mountain range in the distance. Our group scrambles their way to the top of the final, steep set of stairs on the trail, just as the morning light illuminates the valley below. With the warm sun on our backs we triumphantly step through the Sun Gate, our destination is straddling the ridge in front of us. We have arrived at Machu Picchu!
The ancient citadel is stunning and delivers the chills one might expect. As our team walks through the weathered, stone alleys and lush, green terraces we talk quietly amongst ourselves. Slowly, we all draw a similar and classic conclusion; though everyone had been pushing so hard to get to this destination, it had been the journey along the trail that proved most valuable. We had challenged ourselves with a great adventure. Our reward was the growth that comes from showing yourself, and the world, what you are capable of. Looking back for one last glimpse of Machu Picchu, I realize that’s exactly what the Inca had done. They had built the impossible, leaving the world a permanent reminder of what their empire could achieve. I just wonder if they had anticipated, over half a millennium later, they would be encouraging so many others to dig deep and do the same?
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