As we crawl out of our tents this morning, we are greeted by the sight of a thousand colorful prayer flags flying above us. The red, blue, green, white and yellow flags welcome us into a new day. They remind us to live today with passion. If diamonds were as plentiful as grains of sand they would be worthless. If we lived forever, wasting a day of our lives would be trivial. But we don’t live forever and these prayer flags demand of us that we live today to the fullest.
We take down the prayer flags and put them back in our packs. They will return home to us and be given back to the families who made them. Our guides, Carlos, Guido and Alben gently fold the prayer flags that they had make and put them in their packs so that they will continue to accompany us on our journey.
Today we are headed for Aguas Calientes. It’s the town at the base of Machu Picchu. First, we will hike up and over the ridgeline above us. From that ridgeline we will have our first view of Machu Picchu across the valley. We will then descend down the valley to the river and catch a train to Aquas Calientes.
This hike up the mountain is on a path that is part of the original Inca Trail. It was built by the Incas in the 14th and 15th century. It’s series of stone steps that form a path through the rainforest up the steep and lush hillside. At one point in time, these Inca trails crisscrossed much of western South America providing a “highway” grid system. The hike up the mountain is strenuous, but we are rewarded with amazing views of the adjacent mountains and the lush vegetation.
As I hike along the stone pathway through the vegetation, a sudden splash of orange pink color catches my eye. It’s a succulent flower that grows unexpectedly up from the side of the trail. I learn that it’s a type of Peruvian begonia. The color is unlike anything else on the mountain. The Darwinian part of my brain wonders about the purpose of this unusual color. It must serve the species in some way. Perhaps the bright and unusual color attracts a certain species of insect or bird that is involved in an intricate ecological connection that helps with survival. I think about the interconnectedness of all living things. It dawns on me that many of us go through life without a true knowledge of our purpose. I’m sure that this individual begonia at my feet does not know its purpose, but that does not prevent it from carrying out its purpose in the world. Similarly, as we live our lives and strive to find a purpose, our lives play out. I have no doubt that each of us is part of a connection to the universe.
As we reach the top of the ridgeline we encounter an Inca ruin. It a portion of a structure composed of perfectly cut stone with trapezoidal windows and doors. It’s a preview of what we will see at Machu Picchu tomorrow. There is a broad open green “lawn” between the structure and the steep mountain-slope. As we look across the valley we can see the village of Machu Picchu perched on a flat plateau surrounded by lush green peaks. The clouds wrap the village in obscurity and then lift again to reveal the beauty once more. It’s clear to all that Machu Picchu is a sacred space and we can’t wait to enter its midst tomorrow. Today we take photographs from across the deep valley.
It’s a beautiful sunny day. We take a break at this majestic spot and enjoy each other’s company and the fellowship that flows freely. Many of us were strangers a week ago, but we are now all friends, truly. As we bask in the Peruvian sun on a mountain top overlooking Machu Picchu ten miles in the distance, I share a reflection from John O’Donohue entitled, “For Friendship.”
“May you be blessed with good friends, And learn to be a good friend to yourself, Journeying to that place in your soul where there is love, warmth, and feeling. May this change you. May you be brought into real passion, kindness, and belonging. May you treasure your friends. May you be good to them, be there for them and receive all the challenges, truth and light you need. May you never be isolated but know the embrace of your anam cara.”
We linger a while longer at this special spot before heading down the hill a bit to enjoy lunch together. While we are eating lunch the skies cloud up and it begins to rain. Ahead of us, we have a steep two-hour descent on a very muddy mountain trail. Each step is an adventure. Each step is like a game of Russian roulette as the steep slippery mountainside challenges the soles of our hiking boot to find a stable spot.
Wham! I feel a blow to my body from behind and I go spilling down the mountain. My teammate, Joseph lost his footing on the slippery steep muddy trial and takes me out. We nearly start a domino effect as I nearly knock Kyle off his feet. Kyle offers me a hand to help me up, but the his tug on my arm only manages to make me slide on my butt through the mud farther down the hill as the falling rain increases the slipperiness and the mud. I role over on my belly, manage to get onto my hands and knees and slowly find my way to a standing position. Step, slide, step, slip, slide, step.
I’m near the back of our line of 31 trekkers heading down the mountain. The trail is steep and narrow. There is lush vegetation on either side of the trail and it’s difficult to see to far ahead. Sometimes I see someone ahead of me slip and fall; sometimes I just hear someone let out a gasp of surprise followed by a thud and usually followed by laughter. Each step is an opportunity to challenge oneself to a test of balance and luck.
Sue, a 46 year-old breast cancer survivor takes another fall and gets back up again. As we get to the bottom of the trail and it begins to level out we take inventory of the group. Everyone is wet and most of us are covered in mud. Sue has the record for the most falls. She claims seven and a half falls during the descent. She’s uninjured and in good spirits. Sue’s experience on the muddy slope reminds us that it’s not how many times you fall that matters, it’s how many times you get back up. She got up one more time than she fell and is continuing on the trail.
The muddy trail really slowed our pace. We have to get to the train station by three or we will miss our train to Aqua Calientes tonight. We pick up the pace now that the trail is flat and less slippery. We are nearly running on the trail that parallels the river. All of a sudden I see David, a 64 year-old prostate cancer pass me in a sprint. I can’t believe my eyes. A little further back he had been experiencing a lot of knee pain. Dr. Charlie Lozier, our team physician, had apparently given him a “magic analgesic cream” to rub on his bum knee a few miles back and it has worked. It is amazing to see how the challenge of the situation fosters strength.
Our lead guide, Carlos and our tail guide, Guido are in contact with each other via radio. It’s going to be a race to the finish to catch the train. Carlos has warned us that the train will not wait for us and we pick up the pace as we near the tracks. Carlos assured us that if we didn’t get to the train in time we would have to walk along the tracks for 2 hours since there is no other way to Aqua Calientes. I’m with Mary, our team trainer, and Amy, a breast cancer survivor from California. We are bringing up the rear. Ahead, we can see the train station. We get on the tracks and keep on trucking. We can see some of our group boarding the train and we let out a sigh of relief. Then, unexpectedly, the train begins to move. Suddenly, it departs the station with 19 of our group on board and 12 of us looking on in disbelief.
Our guides engage the train station staff in a rapid conversation. It’s been a long day, but we are resigned to the fact that we will need to walk a few more hours before we get to destination. I’m not sure what exactly happens next. After much discussion, the train staff tells Carlos that they will arrange for the 12 of us to get on a train that will depart in one and a half hours. It’s not clear if they’ve added a new departure to the schedule out of pity for us or if it was always an option. At any rate, we thank our lucky stars and take the opportunity to relax at a rail side cafe as we wait for the next train. We enjoy a Cusquena beer and share stories of muddy falls from earlier in the day.
Eventually we board the next train for Aguas Calientes. It’s a 40-minute ride through the rainforest along side the rushing river. As we pull into Aguas Calientes, we are greeted by the rest of our group. We are reunited once more. Tonight we will be staying in a hotel in the center of town. The rest of our group has already checked in and have had a shower and look refreshed. There’s nothing like a few days in the mountains to make each of us appreciate the luxury of a shower and a dry bed. Tomorrow we will waken early and head up the mountain to enjoy a magical day in Machu Picchu, the Lost City of the Incas.