Much has been written about hiking the ruins of Peru’s Sacred Valley. But my perspective may be a bit different. This is the perspective of a middle-aged woman who hasn’t really exercised in nearly a year, who is about 100 lbs overweight, has a stupid autoimmune disease, has hot flashes whenever it’s inconvenient, and who doesn’t like to go up in order to go down.
While planning my somewhat last minute trip to Peru I was really torn about whether to visit the Cusco region because I knew I wouldn’t have time to trek Machu Picchu - and who goes to the Sacred Valley and doesn’t hike the big MP? I spoke to enough people who convinced me it was ok not to do it this time (thanks, friends), and was also advised that in Pisac there were ruins just as old and significant as Machu Picchu, if not quite on the same scale.
So off I went. I almost missed 3 of my flights because I had to take my bags from baggage claim, leave the terminal, go back inside to check in again, then go through security again. FOR EVERY. SINGLE. STUPID. FLIGHT. So by the time I got to Pisac, about 17 hours later, I was completely wiped out.
The altitude here is no joke and it’s part of the reason I came to Pisac for my first few days rather than stay in Cusco (which is where I landed). Cusco is about 500 meters higher and I wanted some time to acclimate. To combat the onset of altitude sickness my hosts recommended coca tea…yes, the kind that comes from the coca tree…yes the leaf they make cocaine from. No, it didn’t jack me up, in fact I napped very soundly after each cup of tea.
My first day I took it easy and just walked around town. The second day I decided to brave the ruins of Inca Pisac. I was dressed in good walking shoes, workout pants, and long sleeves with a long-sleeved cotton jacket on top. Looking at the weather atop the mountain my host convinced me to not only bring my heavy sweater but also a rain poncho. I wish I would have listened to my gut; I’m from Alaska. I now live in Oregon. 50 degrees and drizzly does not require cold-weather wear or rain gear. And by the way, those inconvenient hot flashes? Well of course I’d get them while hiking. OF COURSE. Yet I was still convinced to bring along the extra layers, which only proved to piss me off throughout the day.
My host also recommended taking a taxi to the top of Inca Pisac and hiking to the lower parking lot, which takes about 1 hour. This plan seemed solid and I had every intention of following it but my sense of direction and ability to read a map are severely impaired on a good day, much less at an elevation of 3 kilometers. Dutifully I started at the parking area, as instructed.
I checked out the citadel and the cemetery. The cemetery is built into the side of a cliff, which is now off limits because the graves have been plundered of all the Incan spoils.
It’s a really majestic view and it looked like a beautiful walk down through the terraces.
I began my stroll down the well-manicured path, stopping here and there to take photos of the incredible scene.
I kept walking and consulting the map, and though there were no signs indicating where I was headed there were landmarks and I really thought I was on track.
All things being equal, I was bound to miss the turn to the lower lot. Seriously - I’ve lived in Portland for 16 years and I still get lost and have to call my husband to help me get places (yes, even with GPS). So I’m not sure why I was so cocky about hiking a mountain in a foreign country where I know no one. As I made my way down a rocky staircase I came across a woman with a guide heading towards me and I asked if I was on the correct route for the lower lot. They said no and pointed me back the way I came.
The guide told me that I was on the route to Pisac and it would take about 1.5 hours. So in my genius brain I thought, well that’s only 30 minutes more than my original plan and I don’t want to go all the way back up, just to then head down to the parking lot.
So I keep going and the well-manicured trail slowly becomes a foot path with the mountain on one side and a brush-filled cliffside on the other. Those Incans really did not want unannounced visitors.
As I’m walking (very carefully), I get passed by a group of Germans who are moving at a pace just short of running. Whatever. I’m taking my time and enjoying the things you clearly can’t see when you’re sprinting. Like desert blooms and shells along the trail. Beautiful and unexpected.
When there was “assistance” provided in the form of a handrail, the prospect of a handful of splinters kept me from using them.
There were little spots along the way that it appears things happened but there aren’t signs so I don’t know what these structures were for. But they’re cool and obviously very old.
About an hour into my wrong turn the terraces start to loom in my periphery and I start feeling a little vertigo coming on. I can’t quite explain it and I definitely didn’t stop to take photos because I’m not going to be one of those people who die taking a selfie. I won’t sugar coat it, the dizziness was scary. I had to coach myself into gingerly making my way down because I’m also not going to be one of those tourists who has to get a life flight because I wasn’t careful. My solution was to create my own blinder: holding my hand up beside the eye exposed to the terraces so they wouldn’t flicker in my peripheral vision. I also stopped a lot and sipped water. I inhaled the Breathe essential oil blend in my bag. And I talked to myself because the sound of a voice (any voice) was distraction from my predicament. After a short while the vertigo-ishness abated and I was able to walk without trying to hide from the terraces.
After the Germans left me in the dust I didn’t encounter another person for the rest of the trek. When the dizziness came on, being so alone was scary. When the dizziness was gone it was magical.
As I made my way down while cursing my own lack of judgment, a few things occurred to me that made me wonder if my wrong turn was really a right turn. I realized I was doing something completely on my own for no one else but me. Yes, I made some mistakes but I powered through all by myself. I felt brave. I knew the hike wouldn’t have been so hard if I was in better shape and this issue has kept me from trying many things over the years. But this time I didn’t let my shame keep me from trying something I knew would be incredible. I felt proud. I also realized my knees don’t bend like they used to. I felt old.
The hike never got easier. Even once I was off the mountain, the long path down to the village was “paved” with terraced cobblestones that really wanted to break me. But I stayed focused and didn’t stumble, which is rare for me - physically and emotionally. When I got to the street I turned to look at the sign and realized I was just a few blocks from my hotel. At least I saved on cab fare.
I’ve heard people speak of how life-changing hiking Machu Picchu can be. I’m not sure if Inca Pisac changed my life but I never cried, I kept going, and have a good story to tell. I won’t claim I enjoyed the journey but I accepted it, in the moment. Not an instant life change, but a step. One step at a time.