Forging friendships at Machu Picchu
When I saw my itinerary included Peru in month 9, I began planning my trip to Machu Picchu. I didn’t realize all the ways you could arrive there – everything from one, two, and four-day hikes, the classic Inca Trail, the short Inca Trail, the Salkantay/Inca Trail combo and more.
As I read about the effects of higher altitudes and was honest about my current level of fitness, I decided the best route for me was to take a train, then a bus, then explore the actual ruins.
Five girlfriends and I boarded a plane in Lima and took the 1 hour 15 minute flight to Cusco.
Although I typically don’t take medicine unless absolutely necessary, I gave in to my friends concern and took an altitude sickness pill before landing. (Cusco’s elevation is 3,400 m or 11,200 ft.)
We checked into our hotel and headed off to find lunch. As we walked along, we noticed we were all short of breath and our energy was low.
We stopped at a nearby restaurant to give ourselves time to acclimatize.
Part way through our meal, one of our friends pushed her plate back and said she wasn’t feeling well. All the color drained from her face and we barely caught her as she passed out.
Our waiter came over quickly and began fanning her, another staff person brought some rubbing alcohol and slowly our friend came to. But then just as quickly, her color faded again but this time her lips turned blue and she started convulsing.
I’ve never been so terrified in my life.
We got her on the floor, one person called International SOS to find us a hospital, someone else called a taxi, someone paid our bill and I grabbed all her belongings. We got her in the cab, two friends jumped in with her and they sped off.
Adrienne and I stood on the sidewalk shaking like little leaves.
What just happened?
Was that altitude sickness?
Could it happen to us at any moment?
We showed each other where we kept our medical insurance cards, confirmed we both had the SOS app on our phones and made a plan in case one of us passed out.
Then we slowly walked to the textile museum to check out the ancient art of weaving, and hopefully calm ourselves down.
Eight hours later, the hospital released our friend and gave her permission to carry on to Aguas Caliente, which is a lower altitude. (She had high-altitude cerebral edema – which can be fatal if not immediately treated!)
Exhausted and relived, we boarded the train for our 4.5 hour journey to Aguas Caliente (aka Machu Picchu). The train ride was stunning, with a full glass roof so we could see all the mountains, rivers, valleys and towns.
Too excited to sleep in, we were standing in line at 5am waiting to be whisked up the mountain to see our first glimpse of Machu Picchu.
The bus ride may seem like the easy choice compared to the steep climb up, but it had its own element of danger.
The drivers roared up the mountain like race car drivers, fish-tailing the bus around each switch-back, and leaving us hanging on to the seats for dear life. The dirt road is only wide enough for one bus in most spots, although we somehow squeezed by when an approaching bus came barreling downhill.
With no guard rails and a long way down, I kept my eyes on the horizon and the sunshine hitting the peaks of the mountains.
20 minutes later, we got off the bus and joined the line to enter the main gates.
Our guide led us along the path and made a quick left – up a series of stone steps, climbing higher and higher. Some stairs were a small step up, while others were a big step up and required a helping hand from friends.
Finally, we were at the top. I walked around the corner and there it was – the Machu Picchu you see in all the photos. Only more beautiful in person.
The sun was shining, the sky was blue and all of Machu Picchu laid out before me in lush greens and smooth sand-colored rocks. It was breath-taking.
I stood there and stared. I breathed in the fresh mountain air and marveled at the series of events that led me to be standing in this very place.
The dreams you have, the planning you do, and then the moment it all comes together. It’s magical.
Of course we took hundreds of photos – photos of Machu Picchu, photos of just me, photos of our group.
We carried on for three hours, our guide explaining the history, the culture, the purposes for each section of the citadel, the perfect placement of windows and rocks to line up with the sun and stars. It was fascinating.
Then our group divided, half deciding to climb Machu Picchu Mountain (4 hours of gruelling stone stairs) and the other half continuing to explore Machu Picchu.
(Guess which group I chose? Yup, no more stairs for me!)
We wandered through the ruins looking for the perfect spot to do a meditation together. We found a room we hadn’t explored before, sat down on rocks that seemed meant for the purpose and closed our eyes.
Warmed by the sun, lulled by a gentle breeze, I soaked up every sensation and felt my heart full of love and gratitude – for the journey, for the women I shared it with, for this beautiful place.
The next day Amy and Adrienne headed back to hike Huayna Picchu Mountain and the other girls stayed in town. I decided to head back to Machu Picchu citadel and explore more on my own.
Taking my time, I chose which path to take, found quiet places to sit and enjoy the views and made friends with the local llamas.
I learned that most of the llamas on Machu Picchu are female and many of them were pregnant. How fun would it be to come back when all the babies are born?!
Waiting for Amy and Adrienne to return, I made my way to a spot beside two ladies. They told me their husbands had gone off to explore but the stairs were too difficult for them.
We laughed and chatted and swapped travel stories. They were from Austria and had traveled all over the world, but this was their first time in Peru.
My friends arrived and I gave the ladies a hug goodbye, inspired by their adventurous spirits.
The next day we took the train back to Cusco, and we were fortunate to be sitting with a charming older gentleman from Denmark. He had the most beautiful smile and infectious laugh.
He was so full of life and told me that ever since he was a little boy, he had dreamed of seeing the world. At 85 years old, he was still traveling – on his own! – and planned to keep going until he couldn’t walk anymore.
My trip to Machu Picchu taught me several lessons:
~ It’s okay to lean on friends for support, they’re happy to help
~ Surround yourself with powerful women and let those friendships lift you
~ Trust your intuition, the right people will show up exactly when needed
~ The energy you put out gets returned to you
~ It’s never too late to pursue a dream
~ The world is small and full of good people
If Machu Picchu is on your bucket list, do it now! You won’t be disappointed. Give yourself plenty of time, take altitude sickness medication and be prepared to feel humbled, curious and grateful.