The best—and worst—ideas are often born from a simple flash of inspiration. And so it was that I impulsively signed up to hike the Inca Trail in Peru with my friend, Joe Howard. Last winter I read The Last Days of the Incas, by Kim MacQuarrie. In short order, I had talked Joe into joining me on a guided trip to Machu Pichu.
We scheduled our trip in June, the optimum time to hike the Inca Trail because it's the dry season. But June is winter in South America, and we would be hiking at high altitudes. Joe and I spent the next four months either amassing gear or working out on the elliptical trainer wearing backpacks filled with dumbbells.
It took 24 hours and five airports to fly from Kansas City to Cuzco, the legendary capital city of the Inca Empire. Our two days in Cuzco, which lies at 11,000 feet, allowed us to acclimatize to the altitude and to visit nearby Inca ruins, including Saqsaywaman, where the Inca royalty lived and the primary temples were located.
Our hiking party included six Canadians, six Norwegians, two British citizens, Joe and me (by far the oldest members), and our Peruvian guides. En route to the Inca Trail, we spent a night in Ollantaytambo, the site of a famous battle between the Incas and the Spanish. Our impulsive decision to attend a local bullfight proved more adventurous than we'd intended. The locals formed a large ring in a field, and two bulls were led into the ring and encouraged to fight each other with the help of a whip wielded by a man wearing a bizarre skeleton outfit. The fight was won when one bull pushed the other into the ring of people, who would then flee the onrushing bulls. We promptly joined the ring. But when one pair of bulls declined to fight, Skeleton Man whipped one bull very hard, prompting its owner to run into the ring and punch him. While everyone else joined in the ensuing melee, we hightailed it out of there.
The following day, our hike began at Kilometer 82, where the Inca Trail begins. That seven-mile hike along the Urubamba River was by far our easiest. On the second day, we endured the onerous climb to Warmiwanusca, Quechua for "Dead Woman's Pass." The trail became a succession of irregular and uneven stone slab steps, ascending from 9,000 to 14,000 feet, which we climbed for five long miles. After seven hours, we reached the top, and from there, the steps plummeted. We dropped from 14,000 to 12,000 feet in an hour and a half. I don't think I've ever been happier to get somewhere than I was to get to camp that night.
We hiked another long day before arriving at Intipunku, the "Sun Gate" to Machu Pichu. Undiscovered until 1911, Machu Pichu remains clouded in mystery; many theories exist about its purpose. What remains are the beautiful ruins of a marvel of ancient construction and engineering. Six-hundred-year-old stone walls still stand where a thousand people once lived, worked and worshipped at the Temple of the Sun under the jagged peaks of the Andes.
After exploring Machu Pichu, we returned to Cuzco by train. I was grateful that we didn't have to hike back, and even more grateful for the good company of our international contingent. On the trail we had evolved into a true team, and by the end of the trip, we were fast friends. As beautiful as the sights were, my most enduring memory will be the friendships forged along the Inca Trail.