Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

I had no idea what we were in for! This four day hike to Machu Picchu was really my first backpacking trip. And for a first backpacking trip I’m pretty proud of going 43km and climbing up to 4000m through the Andes on steep Incan steps while carrying 25 kg! But what I’ll really remember is the terribly exciting, overwhelmingly anxious, beautifully motivating thought that consumed my mind step after step: “When we get to Machu Picchu, I’m going to propose to Shalynn!”

DAY ONE

It didn’t start out too well because Shay was very sick. She got food poisoning from a tourist restaurant. I felt terrible for her. We woke up at 3AM to get picked up by InfoCusco and she woke up vomiting. We were late and had to meet up with the van on foot a few blocks away with our bags because Shay was feverishly declining to digest last night’s burrito. But I thought the drive was beautiful. Driving above the Inca Sacred Valley we accompanied the red sunrise across the fresh snow. We were there the day before and saw rainbows and lighting in the same mountains that were now majestically pink. I can really see why it was Sacred; it is divinely beautiful.

We drove through Ollantaytambay, where Manco Inca led a rebillion against the Spanish and flooded the valley to drown their horses… and I got some Skittles. Epic place. Another short van ride and we were dropped off at Kilometer 82 to start the hike. Shay went to the bathroom, feeling a bit better, and while she was gone I told Anna, from Massachusetts, that I was planning to propose and asked her to film. We entered a checkpoint and got a Passport stamp for the Inca Trail, then crossed the Urubamba River and began hiking. It was a stroll along the river at first. We walked by several small villages with farmers carrying loads of hay on their backs as they have been since the Incas used these roads. The valley collected the heat like a high desert complete with flowering prickly pear cacti, and we chatted with our group: Andres from Germany, Pia from Austria, Jorge and Conchi from Spain, and Carl from Indiana. We walked by some ruins that was once a checkpoint to keep vagrants off the path – only those of the nobility were granted the honor. Talking to our guide Pablo it seemed to me that the Incas had more control over the trail than Peru has had up until the last ten years when they made it mandatory for tourists to go with a guide; before that he said Israelis made the Inca Trail a pilgrimage rite complete with tons of booze and eating the mescaline pumping San Pedro cacti along the trail. Shay’s boss this summer stayed overnight at Machu Picchu in the seveties, camping in the Sun Temple.

We continued along one valley, up hills, and left the Urubamba’s side. We waited for several donkey trains to pass; they carried tons of clay to prevent erosion in the Patallacta Ruins, which we reached from across a canyon. It sits between two valleys and offers a magnificent view. From there we continued up to our campsite, which had a view of tomorrow’s challenge: Dead Woman’s Pass. Our tents were already set up thanks to the porters who were also cooking us a gigantic meal. We had coca tea to help adjust to the altitude, gazed at the clearest stars I’ve ever seen, and went to bed around 7pm.

DAY TWO

Today is the day of the climb. The infamous day. The tough day. We woke up with a five hour uphill climb to 4200m (13,550ft). We had a burrito made of an omelet tortilla, put on sunblock, and left for the summit around 7am. It was slow going. I listened to an audiobook called “The Last Days of the Incas” while walking on Incan stairs. Their empire consisted of taxing labor on all of their subjects and had a huge bureaucracy to ensure everybody was doing their part. The annual payment was three months of working for the Empire, which sounds pretty bad but to think that we pay about 40% of our time worked to the government they make out better than we do. They would take entire family units to work and so the women would feed and take care of the men, traveling with them whether they be soldiers conquering new tribes or carrying stones up the Andes.

I really got tired a few hours in. I started to resent that Shay was sick and that I had to carry most of the weight. I snapped at her a few times for not sharing water or other inane reasons then punched myself in my head, reminding myself that I was going to propose in two days and to be on my best, most chivalrous behavior. I joked to some guy who asked me what all I had in that big bag of mine that I was carrying her stuff as her personal porter, and he told her to marry me quick. I liked that.

Toward the end I was sitting down every 30 steps. But it wasn’t the end. Mountains are so deceiving in their eternal diagonal up and away. We still had an hour left when I was desperately trying to convince myself “any minute now.” But the landscape was gorgeous. We were side-hilling halfway above a light-green valley lined with yellow grass perfect for exhausted hikers to pull themselves along.

Around noon we made it to the top. I changed to some motivational music and tried to dig in and push myself, and sitting at the top I think it was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done. In 5.5 hours I climbed 1300m carrying 50lbs. I was exhausted, then pissed that we had to climb down 600 meters! But we took a group photo, then a nap, then a huge lunch and dinner.

DAY THREE

Today our porters woke us up and gave us warm coca tea like every day, and today we wake up and watch the sunrise on snowy peaks. Today we head uphill for three hours more, only its not as steep. Our first stop was at Runkurakay – another checkpoint shaped like a ceremonial surgical knife. The Incas used to reconstruct battered skulls by cutting out the broken dome and filling the hole with a plate of gold. Their anesthetic was merely coca.

We reached the second pass after stopping by a pond reflecting the mountains. Tiny stone towers littered the top of the hill where Peruvians hikers have made an offering of thanks for reaching this far on the trail. More descent. More climbing. We stop by Sayaqmarka, a castle made for providing pilgrims with provisions, and went down some more. We had lunch at the third pass, then watched our porters run past us another mile down the trail after they packed up the camp. The three year old  porter’s law prevents them from carrying more than 25kg of gear, but they still wake up at 5 to make us breakfast, pack up camp, run to set up and cook lunch, clean up and run to set up camp and today when we arrived during a rainfall they had dry tents set up and warm popcorn. We were climbing the thousands of steps of Wiñay Wiñay when the rain began, and hundreds of meters above the Urubamba valley we watched lightning and saw the peak of Machu Picchu. Our porters introduced themselves formally as they’d leave in the morning, and we thanked “David Copperfield,” our chef, for the best meals of our trip so far with great foresight in planning ingredients.

DAY FOUR

I woke up just before 3am because I had the happiest dream of my life and was too happy and excited to stay asleep. I dreamt about making the proposal – which I had been obsessing over for the whole hike – but this lady (in the dream) kept insisting I do it from this side of the building and not the other. We were arguing and she was ruining it all and finally Shay found out but told me she didn’t care that she knew and just wanted to get to Machu Picchu to do it right. We started running through the town and then biking up this muddy hill. We finally got to the coast and I had to prove myself with some riddles and kept making my way across the dock on a perfectly calm sea. I climbed past the last challenge and then Shay was there and I ran to meet her and we just looked at each other and held hands and knew what each other was thinking. And then an orca breached and I said look it’s Keiko! And a humpback whale breached and a pod of dolphins swam by and it was the best dream ever. I was ready. Today, in a few hours, I would ask the love of my life to be mine forever.

 

I saw a star over the red mountains and felt even more destined to make our love known over Machu Picchu. We said goodbye to our porters and then got in a giant line. The trail didn’t open until 5:30am but we had to get up so early because our porters had to hike down to catch a train before 6. When the gates opened several hundred people comprising the all the tour groups at our campsite raced toward Machu Picchu. We walked with the sunrise warming us up, along the curve of Machu Picchu mountain, and I kept saying nice things to Shay. I was so excited and had decided to propose at the sun gate, Inti Punku, where we’d have our first view of Machu Picchu. As we walked along I felt so sneakily elated to be in the know against her perfect naivety of what I’d do in the next hour. In the next quarter mile. In the next 30 steps.

We reached Inti Punku after a steep and decent climb. I was pretty sweaty and my heart was racing. I was out of breath from the hike and from my mind going over what I wanted to say; all the love in the world to profess. I barely noticed Machu Picchu bathed in its first morning sunlight far, far below us, far removed from my sole purpose. I took out a towel, wiped myself down, and asked if I looked memorable and posed for a picture and kissed and then dropped to one knee:

“HOLY SHIT!!”

“You’re the most incredible woman I know, and you’ve taught me so much and made me the man that I am. You’ve passed on your compassion and your love for everything. There’s so much joy we share together that I think we can make our journey last forever. So… Shalynn McKenzie Pack, will you marry me?”

“YES!!!”

We kissed and hugged and kissed and I fumbled to put the ring on her finger. Suddenly there was an applause and some people were crying. Dude who said Shay should marry me right away for carrying her stuff witnessed and congratulated. Everybody in our group congratulated us and asked to come to the wedding and Shay and I walked hand in hand down the last short bit to Machu Picchu, me telling her how anxious and excited and nervous I was, and her how she had thought it would be cool… but no… but maybe at Machu Picchu?

We were incredulous the whole day. We’re at Machu Picchu. We’re engaged. We’re engaged! Pablo told us some theories about Machu Picchu, how the Spanish never found it, how Hiram Bingham did find it, about the doors and toilets and normal things that are so special here. Inevitably we split from the group and were incredibly lucky to get tickets #394 and 395 out of 400 to climb up Wynu Picchu, the mountain in the background of the classic Machu Picchu picture. Another 1200 steps and we overlooked the whole complex and shouted the names of everyone we know. Shay put her ringed hand against the stones and we wandered around all day, finally sitting above at dusk and watching llamas trek by in front of the most famous scene in South America.