I still remember vividly. I was eight. I was wearing cute faded blue shorts, and brown flip-flops with the word Puerto Rico spelled out on one of the straps. My shirt was white and my chubby stomach was forcing its way out of my shirt as if it felt suffocated. I was convinced my shirt “shrunk” in the washing machine. But I didn’t care. It was my favorite. Somewhere between putting a Toston in my mouth and sipping on my diet coke, I told one of my relatives I wanted to go to Machu Picchu.
Her response: ““You can’t go there sweetie, you have asthma. The altitudes can make you really sick and can kill you”
Those words and the pitiful look she gave me when she said them were more disturbing that all the cursing going on at the domino’s table.Then and there, I was ready to pack the $3.50 fortune I had saved up, and bail the hell out of there. I promised myself that one day I would visit the beautiful Inca city in South America.
30 years later, I met Tom and guess what. He wanted to go too.
On August 9th, Tom and I boarded a plane in Los Angeles with destination to Peru. We traveled from sea level to 11,000 ft. in 10 hours. Immediately after we got off the plane in Cusco, the super dry and super cold South American winter’s air hit my face. A 60-something oddly tall, fit, and dark man with grayish hair greeted us at the airport and drove us to Cusco Plaza Hotel.
Going up the stairs of the tiny, aged, and cozy hotel was the first time I felt the altitude. By the time we made it to the third floor, my heart was working harder than a generator during a blackout. Opening our room’s door felt the same way it felt when I crossed the finish line at the half-marathon I ran. We were very thankful for the nice hotel’s staff; they gave us cocoa tea to alleviate the altitude queasiness. The tea was not tasty, but it sure was effective.
We spent the first two days of our trip exploring the streets and mountains of Cusco. Among the most interesting sites we visited were: Plaza de Las Armas, Santo Domingo Church, and the Temple of the Sun.
On day 3 in Cusco, we joined our Peruvian guide Pedro and the rest of the team: Abby and Justine (from Australia), Laura and Natalie (from England), and Brent (a fellow Californian from Los Angeles). We introduced ourselves, and we headed to Lares town to begin hiking the Lares Trek with destination to Machu Picchu. Lares town was the beginning of an unbelievably harsh, but beautiful 3-day journey through the Andes.
Day 1 was challenging, but not as challenging as Day 2. On day 2, the altitude began to take its toll on us. The hotel’s steps were now a memory of flat sidewalks compared to the Andes’ steep and harsh terrain. Nevertheless, the gorgeous scenery, the team’s companionship, and our interaction with the locals were worth every bit of the demanding 8-hr. hike.
Mid-point during our hike, a woman, perhaps in her mid-40’s, let us inside her home. The house was isolated on top of a mountain at almost 13,000 ft. The tiny home was as big as the average kitchen in a 3-bedroom home in San Diego. We squatted through the 4’ tall door and sat inside the house. The walls, barely 5’8” high, were built of large rocks and roofed with long dried weeds held in place by dried alpaca skin. A family of 8 and multiple guinea pigs lived there. The guinea pigs were pets, but became dinner for big festivities such as weddings.
The lady seemed happy to describe the traditions, culture, rituals and ways of Andean living. Pedro was happy to translate the lady’s Quechua dialect. It was really cold inside the home, so we asked Andean lady how her family of 8 dealt with excruciating cold Andean nights. As the lady modestly pointed at a tiny fireplace to answer our question, my thoughts drifted to the previous week when I was mindlessly complaining about my dishwasher. My chest felt tighter, not because of the altitude, but because of the ruthless reality check.
The happily lived technology-free life, the simplicity, the humbleness, and the politeness of this family were beyond belief.
We thanked the family for the hospitality by giving cocoa leaves, bread, and milk, and we took off to complete the next 4 hours of our hike.
When we reached 15,000 ft. in altitude (the highest point of our hike), Pedro guided us in a ritual to thank Mother Earth for letting us get to that point safely. The ritual (my favorite so far), consisted of prayer, shots of rum for us, and sprinkles of rum for the soil where we were standing on. After couple of camera and rum shots, we headed down to our next campsite. That night, we celebrated the closure of the hardest day by eating delicious food, sharing (more) rum, and playing cards. We felt like champions!
Next morning we woke up to Cocoa tea and headed to our last 3.5 hours of our hike after breakfast.
We arrived in Aguas Calientes and we boarded the train to Machu Picchu Pueblo, where we spent the night celebrating our accomplishment. That night we ate, drank, and danced off the exhaustion from the last 3 days. Peruvian Pisco Sour was the beverage of our choice. Next morning, a brutal (but well worth it)hangover took over our exhausted bodies. But, my “I drank too much” blues came to a halt when we arrived to Machu Picchu. It was a magical moment.
Walking around the city felt as if I was walking inside the pages of the books I studied 30 years ago. Every step, every stone, every corner, every door and every room in Machu Picchu was sweating engineering brilliance and Inca history. It felt amazing to breathe it. Being there was fairylike; the views were breathtaking. Pictures do not come close to show how gorgeous and incredible that place was. We couldn’t get enough of it, but after a day there, we had to go.
The last couple of days in Cusco were very interesting. Day 1 post-Picchu, Tom and I hopped in a taxi with our crew and went to Pedro’s hometown, Coya. We spent the next 6 hours enjoying very interesting religious festivities. The next day, there was a transportation strike in Cusco, so Tom and I opted to enjoy a horseback ride.
On the 10th and last day of our journey, Tom and I decided to tour Lima before heading back home.
We were tired, but we were overwhelmed with happiness and accomplishment.
I realized my camera was missing.
Mind you; the realization came as the plane was taking off. Magical journey’s pictures magically disappeared. So did Tom’s magical happy face. No bueno.
I searched my bag. I cried. I searched again. I wept.
For weeks, I mourned the loss of the 500+ pictures of our amazing trip. Until one day, when I was loading my dishwasher, the Andean Lady’s graceful face, her humble home, and her multi-use fireplace crossed my mind. At that time, the camera and the photos became irrelevant. And I was outright thankful for the experience, the memories, and all the people I am blessed with.
Thank you Natalie, Laura, Brent, Justine, Abby, and Pedro for sending us more pictures that we could have taken! I truly hope we see you again soon!
All photo credits go to these amazing three.
To this day, and with a hint of hope, I still wonder who found my camera. ~