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Hiking in peru

Close-up shot of a llama

Hiking in peru

We went to see the world, and to see ourselves in the world

Day One: Lima

Arriving near midnight, the six of us exited the airport to the smells of ocean and diesel. Seagulls and garbage. A giant 3-D billboard of a six-pack of Diet Coke illuminated the sky, a marked invasion of the USA. It made me somewhat ashamed, and thirsty.

The main highway was closed down, and so our cross-town bus exodus was made through twisty streets of urban homes in concrete of faded colors. The city slid by in vignettes, like a ViewMaster – potted plants and a statue of Mary on a windowsill, young people holding hands, faces tinged red by the stop light. At last we turned on to the highway skirting the ocean, and looking at the dark waves, the stars, we could have been anywhere.

Our reserved hotel was not expecting us, and our hearts fell a little. Thank God for my husband Dave’s Spanish. No worry – they moved us to their sister-hotel, and at last we fell to bed.

Day Two: Lima

Woman holding a baby goat
Making a new friend in Cusco.

Francisco Pizarrio was a conquistador and a Spanish bastard. His moldered, murdered body lies in the Cathedral of Ciudad de los Reyes, and the natives spit on him when no one is looking. But an angel must surely sit on his tomb and chide these malcontents, for Pizarrio, stabbed and dying, cried out to Jesus Christ and painted a cross in his own pooling blood. Plus he had built all the Colonial buildings that bring in mucho turista soles. Including ours.

History lesson aside, the Colonial district is grand with faded-grace. The buildings are a la Europe with deep colors and colonnades. But every culture brings its own aesthetic. The Colonial architects expanded on the Moorish Mudejar Style, adding small, glassed-in wood balconies perched on second and third stories. Birdcages for pale women, a kind of timber burka.

We walk to the monastery of St. Francis, where 10 million bones are interred in catacombs. It’s a librarian’s dream of a graveyard. The tombs are classified by bone type. Lets put all the fibulas over here! On the Dia de Muertos, when the dead do walk, imagine the chaos of the catacombs as the bones try to assemble. Excuse me, excuse me, excuse me. No doubt the monks lock the doors at sundown and stuff their ears against the racket. I was happy to leave that disjointed space.

Lima is built on cliffs overlooking the wild Pacific. We stop for our first lunch, lemon-cured ceviche, paella, and Pacifico on a hot-hot day. We have that first-day-of-vacation elation, and a second beer. From lunch, the walk to Lover’s Park in Miraflores skirts the ocean cliffs. The park is a poor copy of the mosaic work of Gaudi’s Park Guell in Barcelona, but there’s no need for comparisons, because this is where we are. Pottery in colored pieces, your face in a mosaic heart, my heart in colored pieces, just to be with you.

Lima has a cat park, a sort of cat orphanage, and I love them for this.

By our hotel, we spy a little bar in the evening dark. Outside, briny fog. Inside, smoke and Pisco Sours. Boxing on the TVs. My nephew Chris and Dave say Adios Muchachos, go inside, and start growing mustaches.

Day Three: Cusco – Elevation 11,200 feet

I peer out the cloudy little airplane window all way from Lima to Cusco. At first it is dry as my Nevada home and I have that castaway feeling of not truly knowing where I am. Will we land in Vegas?! And then the true Sierra Nevada, the second highest mountains in the world, appear in my snow-globe window.

I tell you with a straight face that mountains speak to me.

This humpback whale of a mountain range said, Hi! Or it might have been, High!

Impossibly high. How could a condor, even that mighty bird, fly to the top? How could the sun tuck into the deepest valleys? Green and endless as a jade bracelet.


Cusco is a postage stamp of a city – small enough to put in your pocket. Oxygen doesn’t really live here. Wind can’t blow because it can’t find the air to push around. We make our way to the main square, Plaza de Armas, a survivor of Pizarro’s work. Stone arcades surround a grass expanse, and the bells of the baroque cathedral ring the hour. Here too are birdcage balconies, for chickadees to play I Spy. If not for the little beggar girls in traditional polleras skirts, carrying baby lambs with embroidered hats, we could be in a Swiss postcard. Even though Cusco’s elevation is over 11,000 feet, it’s in a valley.

We are enchanted, but the Cusco Incas know that Pizarro took their gold, made fun of the royal mummies, and commandeered their superior stonework to build his un-poquito-Spain-away-from-home. But the Inca got their little digs in. Inside the cathedral, Mary is always painted with a wide skirt to represent the mountains, and the mural-sized Last Supper is clearly serving guinea pig. Oh, and Jesus is Black.

Pachamama is the Peruvian Mother Earth. She does all the fertility and harvest duties that every other culture’s Mother Earth does, but her sacrifices include llamas, guinea pigs and elaborate miniature burned garments. When an Inca drinks chicha, a corn beer, a small amount will be spilled to share with Pachamama. Then on Sunday, this same Inca, without conflict goes to church. On the way in, fingers dip in a dish of holy water to sign the cross – forehead, heart, shoulder, shoulder. In 2009 the Swine Flu pandemic killed over 500,000 people. One of the identified sources was the fonts of still, infected holy water. Pachamama raises her unplucked eyebrow and says, I told you not to go there.

Oh, and the Inca “nuns” were called Mamacunas, which is a really cute word.

All of the Cusco area is a blend of Inca and Spanish. (Except the people, who generally do not look European.) At Qorikancha – the Temple of the Sun, or literally gold enclosure, the muscular foundations remain. The interior walls were originally gold-plated. Pizarro took the gold as ransom for Atahualpa, the last sovereign Inca leader, and then Pizarro killed him anyway. Most of the temple was demolished and the Convent of Santo Domingo was built on the foundations. Earthquakes through the ages have damaged the church, but the mortar-less foundations just roll with the punches. 

Cusco was once the capital of the Inca Empire.

That night we walk out into the dark. The air is very clear, like the first day of wearing new glasses. The shops are open and bright. We choose a restaurant with knotty pine walls and red checkered tablecloths. It’s very cold and everyone is bundled up, even inside. Kitchen-steam clouds the windows. Beer, Pisco Sours, pizza, soup, trout, whatever you want. Ice cream!

The plaza sparkles at night. The homes on the mountainsides are nothing more than fireflies, impossible to tell where the lights end and the stars begin. We had not noticed it in the daylight, but now we see giant Jesus on the mountain, white, and lit up to holy heaven, overlooking the city, arms stretched out, asking for our supplication. Ignoring Jesus, Dave and Chris head to Paddy’s Irish Pub, touted as the highest elevation Irish pub in the world. They feel a wee Guinness is in order. The rest of us head to a back-alley $10 massage. Right this way, Amigo, Amigas.

In the morning Dave will leave for his solo trip via train to Machu Picchu and we will start our hike at 4am. Dave and Chris pick out our farewell restaurant – an upstairs room on the main square with a table by the burning fireplace and wine on the table. Chris has guinea pig, which is boney and greasy with little charred feet. We go again to the chocolate bar, down a mug, and head for bed. It’s cold as we walk back to our hostel. The moon puts a blue light on the streets.

At Rojas our little hotel, our beds have thick down comforters and crisp white sheets, a traveler’s dream.

Five people posing for the camera
First Day: Sulkantay Trail (L-R): Laura, Michael, Katie, Chris, Mitze

Day 1 of the Sulkantay Trail 

I wake up before the 3am alarm, alarmed that I will oversleep. The moonlight filters through our one high window and lights up the stonewall. Our deep-down quilt turns a snowfall illusion against the rock. I stay in the illusion for a quiet moment, then suddenly we are all up, except for Chris, who will always sleep until the late last second. We are a Smart Wool-Hard Ware-REI mess of clacking walking sticks and backpacks, trying to be quiet in the atrium as we await our bus. But I think we are like children, noisy even as we whisper. Our guide, Ciro Carbajal Castro comes to collect us. Then it’s good-bye, good-bye and Dave walks us out and it’s sad for me to leave him to his own adventure. Whoever would have dreamed that we would see Machu Picchu separately? 

Our tour bus heads up towards the stone-faced Jesus. We leave the tourist area and drive through twisty streets and residential areas carved out of the Andes. Last night this area twinkled. Today we see it’s a low-healed barrio. In the wee hours, people of the barrio are still out, or just up. But it’s the time of ghost-light and it seems anyone awake is misfortunate, or ill-intended. But the street dogs are heathy because there are plenty of corner dumps for them to dig through. And it’s very green – jungle green. At a stop light, a vine eyes our bus antenna, but we move on.

At last our bus pulls over for a leg-stretch / view-stop. We are in the middle of the green world. The Andes flare well above us, the valley falls well below. I start to sing that Condor song in my head, because I want to fly over the vista, but I know the thin, pure air wouldn’t hold the likes of me. The Urubamba River is flat and silver. Our first view of the Sulkantay, like a threat, fists above its sister peaks. If we came for beauty, we have arrived. We will walk over that mountain’s shoulders.

We are glad to at last get to our starting place at Mollepata, where we have breakfast and begin to meet our group. We talk to Jeremy, a just-licensed dentist and his friend Dustin, a health instructor, both from Canada. Looking around the table, I quickly see that my brother Michael, his wife Mitze and I are over-age.

Growing up at Lake Tahoe, Michael and I walked right out our back door, into the mountains, and never stopped.

Michael is a mountain goat and I’m a donkey.

Mitze is on her first trek. But she’s going Rocky. She started six months ago, lost weight, walked, found scary bridges to practice crossing, and ran up and down the high-school bleachers. She bought her first REI hoodie, in pink. She’s in the pink! But this is a 65-mile over mountain passes hike in five days. And we are old. I swallow a little fear with my oatmeal. After breakfast our bags are weighed and of course my daughter Katie’s and mine are overweight. (Who knew they would actually weigh the bags!) But Chris and Michael’s are under, so we avoid a crisis.

Trekking into camp, first night.
 Trekking into camp, first night. 

We meet our second guide, Castro Juan Carlos Quispe Quispe (What a great name!!) Carlos sends us walking up an alley and then we are transported like Holocaust Gypsies, or Mexican construction workers in the back of a wood-slat cattle truck. Never in America would this be allowed to happen. I am not happy. For the next hour we drive up a narrow, steep dirt road with rain-softened shoulders. No guardrails. Why bother? They would only be washed away in the next mudslide, and it so much more macho this way. But the world is blue and green, fresh and the mountains rise impossibly high around us. Meadows, wild flowers, forests, the smell of earth and sun. It makes us fearless. Unless you look down. Finally we get out of that goddamn truck and use our own two (wobbly) legs.

Up, up, but gradually so. And slowly we learn again to walk the trekkers’ walk.

That steady pace where eventually the mind and eye are free to go wherever they so please. Daniella from Austria and Marianna from Brazil fall behind with Michael, Mitze and me. Thank God for them or I would become embarrassed to be so tardy. Daniella is tall and she carries an unbelievably heavy pack. It’s the pack that holds her back. Or her career. She’s in social work, and she loves the kids, but the pay is abysmal. She wants to change and she came on this hike for her legs to walk her mind to a decision. She wants to go slow.

Purple-heart lupins are our guideposts, coloring a path that eventually leads us to a large meadow. A river smashes through. The mountains on all sides are so steep they bury their heads in the clouds. Pack horses behind split-rail fences and free-roaming cows are miniature against the Andes stature. Thus, so are we. Our camp is a long, narrow structure of blue tarps and we find that our tents are set up inside the shelter. Tonight is to be the coldest night. The camp is primitive and beautiful. The toilet is plugged up within 20 flushes.

The purest little lake in the world.

Michael joins the others and takes an additional trek straight up the mountain to a small glacier lake where the water is so cold it shivers. The color is patrician-blue because it’s the purest little lake in the world. My daughter Katie and I go in search of eucalyptus leaves because the tarp-camp smells damp. We climb a fence and collect the woody leaves with the clinical smell. When we pass them out later, it’s like we are passing out frankincense and myrrh. But let’s face it, trekkers are hippies.

Dinner is at a long bench, cilantro soup, chicken, many plates. We go around the table, where are you from? I won’t remember everyone yet, but Daniel from Israel is a sarcastic jokester with a blond-fro. Austria, Brazil, France, Canada, Ecuador, Holland, England, Reno. And the Reno isn’t us! Unbelievably the only other person from the U.S. is from Reno, our hometown. Joshua appears the wandering tramp. He only wears Jesus sandals and his feet are filthy, bracelets on his neck and wrists, twists of leather and turquoise. We begin to form opinions.

The night has dismissed the clouds. The stars decide to drop all the lower. The moon backlights the peaks we could only guess at in the gray day. It’s as if they knew they were all too high for us to see in full sunshine, too overwhelming. My heart explodes with the beauty. Or the lack of oxygen. Plus, it’s freezing.

Chris walks out on his own, slips and falls in the mud. And this mud is serious about being mud. Or is it cow poop? He asks us because he doesn’t’t want to be the stinky kid. His tent-mate is Anna, so blond and flour-dough pretty from Holland. You can practically see the clogs of her heritage on her feet. We sniff, sniff. No poop! But Chris only brought one pair of long pants and socks. He should have over-packed like we did!

Day 2 – Sulkantay Pass 15,200 Feet

Approaching the Sulkantay Pass.
Approaching the Sulkantay Pass. 

4am cups of coca leaf tea to amp up our veins are set outside our tents. We don’t drink it. Drug tests at work.

Dawn puts us on a savage trail as old as dirt. Once a route for coca and potatoes, the Sulkantay, Savage Mountain, was a deity that controlled the weather. At 20,574 feet, it rips the clouds to shreds. The ever-lasting snow is a beacon on a moony night and will burn your eyes on the summer solstice.

Chris starts out in shorts and flip-flops due to his mud-flop. This really won’t do on a mountain of this caliber and Katie makes him take a pair of her knee socks so he can wear his tennis shoes and we all feel better. His legs must be cold in the morning. There is rime on the meadow-grass, but Chris does not complain.

The line spreads out. Youth surges ahead. They have mountains to conquer. Michael, Mitze and I are soon far behind. We have only ourselves to conquer. Thank God Mariana and Daniella are trailing along with us because we know full well we are going to hold everyone up.

We leave the wide Salkantaypampa Valley behind and start the steep incline over the shoulder of the mountain. The ground becomes stoney and the plants low-growing and stunted. Our path zig-zags, rather than a straight assault. It shouldn’t be so very hard to make the pass. But it is.

At 15,000 feet my heart is startled, a hummingbird heart.

The air is not air and my blood is turning blue. My legs are willing participants and tell me they can take 50 paces, count the paces. But I stop at 20. Ciro comes up to me and says, just take one step at a time. No hurry, no hurry. I couldn’t hurry if my life depended on it, but his words, which came to me in a whisper, because the air is too thin to hold them up, are a lullaby and I slowly move up, up, up.

I move ahead of Michael and Mitze and walk for a time with Hernan and his niece Marina from Ecuador. Hernan is in his 40’s and looks like he’s about to have a heart attack. Their English is limited, but not as limited as my Spanish, and it does not take much to communicate that we can’t breathe. Hernan helps me over some high boulders and eventually they push ahead of my abilities.

I work for the summit and when I crest it, I realize that the trail turns radically to the left, and I am not at the summit at all. But now I can see it. The Sulkantay is to our right, a giant mountain with blue-gray snow and shadows. I can smell the ice and the sun is so cooled by the mountain that it reaches me with only a remembrance of warmth. The last climb is an eternity. At last, I reach the top and of course Katie and Chris are already there. A love-hippie carried flowers from the valley, yellow and lavender, and spread the petals in a heart-shape carpet. It’s sweet and welcoming, but like a mandala, tonight the wind will scatter the petals.

There is a forest of cairns on the summit, lopsided faerie chimneys. We add our stone. Justine from Paris, who is skinny and stunning, brought along a block of hard cheese. She cuts off slices and it tastes of summer farms and salt. Wonderful. We take photos, but hurry on. Most everyone has been here for half an hour or more waiting for us, and it’s very cold. Poor Chris in his shorts!

A message in flowers at 15,200 feet Sulkantay pass summit.
A message in flowers at 15,200 feet Sulkantay Pass summit. 

We drop to the far side of the pass and walk into Ireland. I do not know how this happens. I start scanning for leprechauns in chullos, the land has so changed its look.

In an ancient time the Sulkantay must have stood up and walked around, rolling boulders from its flanks, shaking off the detritus of decades. The mountain and the boulders settled back down, and in this very wet place, the lichen took a liking to these rocks and stitched them up in autumn reds and golden greens. A wild and noisome river transports melted snow, and a mist hangs low. It feels as we are in a secret place.

I walk alone, and I am certain I am in one of the most beautiful places on earth. When I catch up with Katie, she says the same. But then, a small disaster: it rains. The rain erases our view. And then it turns into a deluge. We put on our thin plastic rain ponchos, and I produce my secret weapon: a very sturdy black umbrella. I’m like Mary Poppins popping this out of my small backpack. I am most probably the only person to carry an umbrella over the Sulkantay Pass, and Katie tells me she is  in fact now just a little bit jealous. If she thought I looked the (comfortable) fool walking with my umbrella, truly it is Chris who plays the Jester. He comes out of the mist, blue poncho, arms inside, naked legs, wet and muddy feet. He is to us the Black Knight (Tis but a scratch!) of Monty Python and our entertainment all the way to lunch.

Which is depressing. We huddle in a cold and dull shelter, all of us dripping and muddy and knowing we still have far to go. As we move on, the rain lessens, the ground spongy and cut by little temporary streams. Miles pass and the rain departs, or simply turns to mist, as we have now entered a jungle. Flowers, names unknown to me, are color-bunched in the trees. Bears and big cats live here, golden eyes we will never see. The trekking line spreads out, all the young people well ahead, in a clump, like a flock of parakeets. Chit chat, chit chat. I prefer a quieter sojourn. Eventually I fall in the rear with Michael. Across the horizon we think we see Katie, some good mile ahead, for we recognize her orange parka. It exhausts us to think we have that far still to go.

We are too tired for me to even write this sentence.

But then we turn a corner and there’s our camp and you! We have arrived! We have climbed the Sulkantay Pass! We will never know who that was in the forward road.

The camp is a working farm with a two-story open-sided cabins for our tents. Katie knows I love waterfront property, so she scores us tents set up on the second story, open to the river below. It’s charming, but no guardrails (as apparently guardrails are outlawed in Peru), so be careful. We buy beers and sit on our deck with dangling feet and giggles.

Everyone is silly-happy at dinner. By now I know that Mariana is a political reporter who came to Peru on a whim, no conditioning. She is quiet and strikes me as brave. Justine and Edouard from France are planning their wedding on Justine’s grandmother’s old farmhouse in Normandy. I picture lace curtains in lead-pane windows, the wild ocean. Edouard has one perfectly crooked front tooth. I like them best. Daniel from Israel is traveling with pretty Dutch-oven Anna (who’s English is without accent) and with country-faire and freckled Isabel from England. Isabel is 19 and Daniel is taking advantage of her, but she doesn’t’t know it. Daniel proves a narcissist and Katie starts calling the trio Sparkle Pony and the Babes. Joshua shares tales of his Ayahuasca spirit-drug experiences he had in the Amazon. It took him into the deep. The shamans who prepare the milky drink say the plants themselves tell them how to make it. Joshua and Daniel eat all the leftovers of every meal, so nothing goes to waste.

When we return home we should now have to mark our immigration cards that we have been on a farm and thus in danger of bringing home Mad Cow. Mitze is the only one among us who is a good citizen. The rest of us will forget.

We sleep the sleep of 30,000 steps. I hear the water, the dogs barking. I hear my daughter breathing beside me. If my body is not comfortable, my mind is.

Day 3 Sulkantay Trail

Ciro and Carlos never let us sleep in, the bastards.

The farm is waking up. The white ducks are chatting with the donkeys, while a billy goat with a bell scatters the nervous chickens. The horses are aloof and ignore everyone. A fluffy kitten and a fluffy puppy believe they are siblings and are quite possibly the two cutest beings on the face of the earth.

We trek back into the wild-scape. The trail is long but easy, mountains choked with trees and pampas grass, a river splits the valley. Today for a long while Katie walks with me. We remember when I tucked her in at night, all those childhood years ago. Sometimes I was tired and in a hurry to be done. Sometimes she got mad at me because she said I was petting our dog Spot instead of paying attention to her. But then he did have those great soft ears! Some nights we would count the remaining time until she grew up. At 9 years, 50% already gone. And we would both cry.

Now my daughter has lived outside of my house for 10 years. But here we are. Katie sets up my sleeping bag at night and packs it in the morning. She carries my extras, gives me her extra pants when mine got all muddy, nurses my blister. Walks with me. I watch her and Chris. Now it is time for the two of them to run ahead with their lives, to be busy-busy. But I know there will always be time for us to walk together, and I am content.

At a rest stop we eat passion fruit. It smells like perfume, but unfortunately has the texture of snot.

Carlos cuts off the wide path and we go down a steep and narrow trail under the tree-canopy to the river shore. Here we find cables with a rusted metal cage attached. This is how we cross. Two by two they put us in the cage and hoist us across. It does not seem like the best idea. We continue to a dusty, faded-paint-kind-of-town. There is an outdoor stall, a sort of corner market with things like orange soda, Pringles and soap. They sell avocados three times the size of those we get at home for 30 cents each. Produce in Peru should have its own logo. Corn kernels are the size of horse teeth and potatoes come in 27,000 varieties. In this way, it seems a land of plenty. I buy avocados for everyone to have with lunch, an easy gift.

Banos Termales de Cocalmayo

After lunch a bus transports us to St. Theresa and our camp for the night. Our elevation must be lower because our tents are set up in two lines within a forest, without additional shelter. It smells of pine and mulch, but later in the dark, Katie has to dig under the tent to remove stones. The main kitchen area is a compound with bathrooms and some simple rooms for rent. There is a large fire pit with benches and we see speakers and are hopeful of a bonfire night. But for now, gear unloaded, we are back on the bus.

Deprivation is one sure facet of appreciation. I radiate appreciation as I calculate the luxury and scope of the Banos Termales de Cocalmayo. We knew the hot springs was coming, but I had anticipated the mud-plops of our Nepal trek. No such thing, this bright gem. Campgrounds, potted plants, food stalls, bars (beers, everyone!) towels, tables, lounge chairs, all adornment for the main event. Against a mountain backdrop, three stone pools slow the Urubamba River and hold the clearest, medicinal hot springs in Peru.

The dirt knows the free ride is over and just jumps right off my body.

Katie and I head down to the “showers” – a stone bench with sluices of fast running water above. We scrub-a-dub-dub, right over our suits, the water pounding our shoulders in the best way possible. And then into the pool. The water is Disney blue-green and the bottom is sand with pebbles and stones. My feet sigh. The sides of the pool and the lounge areas are slate, so everything seems made of nature. Even us.

Michael, for reasons unfathomable to us, had decided not to get in the hot springs. He stays with Carlos and Ciro and the three of them get drunk in the hot afternoon sun and hail-fellow-well-met the day into evening. We join them, all puckered and pink, and drink our beers and lick salty Pringles from our fingers.

Next up – the bonfire. The bar is open, Pisco Sours, tequila shots, chilly cervezas. The fire is large and warm but the snap of the burning logs will not be heard over the disco. We do not recognize the songs, but all the Spanish speaking people do. They sing along, and a beat is a beat. Soon we dance in a circle and take turns in the middle. Mitze dances in the middle and this seems to me another broken barrier for her. I love to see this. Michael is drunk and happy and dances with all the girls, considers the middle his personal limelight. He remains unwashed but it looks to me like everyone likes him, this Old Man of the Sulkantay, and it is indeed his night to shine.

Day 4 Sulkantay Trail

I wake up absolutely pissed off at my backpack. It’s too heavy, it makes me mad. I should have stuck with my little green nylon sling. It’s killing me. I’m telling Katie this and she is not even really awake. She has no idea what I’m taking about and just wants me to shut up. And then we start laughing and pack up for the day.

Last night we were able to decide on an option to miss two hours of walking and go zip-lining. Carlos explained that we would be missing out on walking a busy road with a disaster of construction.” I opted for the Zip, which I have done before in Mexico and loved. Well I don’t love it anymore.

I will never love it again, and I hate it.

When we caught up with our walking faction, Michael showed me his photos. Carlos exaggerated the disaster, I am sure because he received a cut of each zip fee. Michael wisely says, There is always something to see.” I remain angry until I walk it out, but mostly I think I was walking out my zip-fear. By lunch I am recovered. We stop at a train station in a warren of restaurants with shady vine-covered patios, pots of flowers, soccer on outdoor TV screens. It’s busy and the local dogs ask politely for our scraps.

This day we follow a trail beside the narrow-gauge train tracts up to Aguas Calientes, the gateway town to Machu Picchu. Mountains are on both sides, green-hot jungle just beyond the trail, river-song and birds. The narrow old-fashioned train passes us from time to time, steam and whistle, stand back, stand back, the wheels clack.

At a rest stop, judging by thigh-to-thigh, it seems that Mariana has grown an interest in Joshua. I learn that he is an archaeologist, and he digs around his memory to share intelligent facts about Peru. He’s not a dirty-hippie-wanderer; his assignments move him. But this keeps him from forming relationships and he is tired of the loneliness of a long-distance career. He wants a home.

At last we make Aguas Calientes. It should be a town of great prosperity, and indeed the main square and steep side alleys jingle-jangle with hotels, restaurants, trinkets and travelers. It’s a high-energy hub. But just beyond the money district, the barrio begins with outdoor cookfires and laundry on a string. I see it out of our sixth-floor hotel window.

We could have stayed in the group lodging included in our tour. But we booked hotel rooms for ourselves in advance, the kind with fruit bowls and coffee service. Water so hot they named the town after it. Ours is a suite with a Jacuzzi on a pedestal and whatever size bed comes after King. Emperor?

Michael and Chris immediately ruin their room by taking off their shoes. Poor Mitze.

Day 5 Machu Picchu 7,970. Machu Picchu Mountain 10,010 Feet

The vortex tree at Machu Picchu.
The vortex tree at Machu Picchu. 

3:30am. Up again. It’s whisper-dark and misty on the streets. Mitze is not sure we are headed the right way, but she forgets Michael’s Marco-Polo-gene. He leads us out of town, and other walkers begin to shadow in. We reach an outdoor church with ash benches and a thousand spears of blooming gladiolas decorating the alter. But the rainbow of petals are placed in five-gallon plastic buckets, like Home Depot buckets, and it wrecks the holiness for me. This is the entrance to Machu Picchu and the line is growing, waiting for the 5am opening of the gates. We hold our tickets. Don’t lose your ticket!

The way up is 1,900 moss-edged stone steps, zig-zagging through a canopy of leaf and vine. When we reach the top, we fan out on the open sward and turn circles to see this lofty croft, this lost city that was never really lost. Built in the 1450s, it’s not so very old. While it was being built, the monks at Notre Dame were blowing holy smoke, while the Mings Forbade a City, and Columbus was creating a national holiday. Machu Picchu is primitive in comparison, but so very, very perfectly primitive. Untouched by the bastard Pizarro, Machu Picchu slept for 500 years, Sleeping Beauty behind a thicket of thorns. I only half-listen to Carlos tell the story of the Inca emperor Pachacuti and of Hiram Bingham, who “found” the city in 1911. I am overwhelmed with the feeling that Machu Picchu is a Vortex, a powerful place, and I am listening to the ground, touching the polished dry-stone walls, feeling the groves where water fountained, imagining the crops crowding the terraces. Hearing the voices of children playing on the wide-open central space. The past is alive here, there is no past. Look in the eye of the llama, 500-year-old black eyes.

View from the top of Machu Picchu Mountain 2,000 feet above the ruins.
View from the top of Machu Picchu Mountain 2,000 feet above the ruins. 

I am in love with the color of the grass. Haught-house chartreuse. Perhaps it’s regular grass deprived of oxygen. Set in this lovely grass is a lone tree against the backdrop of the muscular cone of Huayna Picchu mountain.

This tree seems to me to be the center of the Vortex and I hope it lives forever.

We have additional tickets to climb Machu Picchu Mountain. Katie and Chris make it like 17 hours before Michael and I, and Mitze wisely gives up and takes a nap back on that magic grass. Even Dustin, who injured his knee on the Sulkantay Pass, passes us by – Go Canada! Michael has to practically drag me up the 2,500 (true!!!) stone steps to the precipice top. The narrow ledge looks back down on Machu Picchu and the curves of the Urubamba River. It’s spectacular. If I close my eyes I will forget I’m human, I will be certain I can step off the ledge and fly.

View from the top of Machu Picchu Mountain.
View from the top of Machu Picchu Mountain 

The 2,500 steps back down suck. Then we walk the 1,900 sucky steps back out of the park. Partway down we see, scratched into a rock, the words, I should have paid for the bus.” We are exhausted, so this strikes us as hilarious.

Back in Aguas Calientes – Oh My God We Made It! – we have a victory dinner with everyone we like at a four-Piscos-for-the-price-of-one restaurant. France, US, Brazil, Argentina, Canada and Ecuador. Michael offers his final Snickers (he brought 36 bars) to the person who comes closest to guessing the number of steps we all climbed today. Euouard wins and Justine says she is going to save the wrapper and put it in her scrapbook. Another quarto-round is delivered. I think Mariana and Joshua will go home together. Daniella will travel with us back to Cusco. It’s hard to say goodnight, goodbye, see you on Facebook!

Later, we board the narrow-gauge train to return to Cusco. Inside, it’s the 1950s. Outside, velvet dark. I have that traveler’s castaway feeling that I don’t know for sure where we are, we could be riding this train into Vladivostok or the Twilight Zone. But then I look at Katie and Chris, sitting across from me, earphones and closed eyes.

I know exactly where I am because Im with them.

We’ll be home soon.

Laura Newman is the author of the short story collections, The Franklin Avenue Rookery for Wayward Babies, and soon-to-be-released The Darling of the Black Rock Desert, Delphinium Books / HarperCollins. Her stories have been printed in The Saturday Evening Post, Literary Hub, and the Reno News & Review. She was a finalist in LitMag’s Virginia Woolf Award for Short Fiction, and is many-time winner of the News & Review Short Fiction contest.


  • Jennifer Davis
    August 6, 2023

    Oh my gosh. Laura, your writing always brings me into the story. I’m part of the journey. Such a talent you are, my friend. I just love you.

    • August 7, 2023

      We agree 100% and we’re excited that Laura was willing to share her talent (and adventures) on our site!


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