Saying goodbye to Sach’a Munay was more than a little sad. Our group’s retreat center (near the upper part of Peru’s Sacred Valley) had become a comforting home for the first 8 days of our two week writing and yoga workshop. The spacious rooms, healthy food, inviting gardens, and super friendly staff were hard to leave, but we all shared an excited anticipation for what was coming next: a visit to Machu Picchu! For many, including myself, this was the main draw of the trip, in addition to writing classes with Laura Davis. The truth was that being part of the community that grew from Laura’s writing prompts and other experiences we shared — as well as meeting several endearing Peruvians — were actually the main contributors to the constant smile and joy emanating from deep inside my being. And yet, I was really looking forward to what would come next!
We piled back into the bus while our sweet driver, Juan Carlos, climbed the aluminum ladder and pulled our larger suitcases onto the roof, then covered them with a large tarp and strapped them down. He always had a big smile on his face and drove us around with such care. I remembered briefly the trip I took to Ecuador seven years ago when our driver went way too fast along a highway in the Andes…
It was raining and he was passing people like a crazy man, even around blind curves. I was tense and nervous, but tried not to look as that’s just the way people seemed to drive there. Suddenly he slammed on the brakes as another car came around the curve just as he was passing someone. We slid sideways and fishtailed, and then I realized we were going to roll — I was sure it was the end of my life! I thought of Kira and Shawn and how hard that would be for them. I wasn’t ready to go! I held on to my seat (only one of us had a seatbelt on, and it wasn’t me), but finally the momentum of the van slamming into a hill on our side of the road created a force so strong I could not hold on. That hill prevented us from tumbling down the steep slope to our certain death. I landed with a thud on top of another participant, trying not to hurt her as she laid against the windows on the side that had ground along the asphalt. Someone popped the windshield out so we could exit the van. The one man who had his seatbelt on was dangling from it and had to be released by his granddaughter. We were all shaken up and a bit bruised, but otherwise not physically harmed except for one woman with a large bump on her head. It ended up being a very bonding event for us as we did some healing with a Quechua shaman the next day and he led us in calling our souls back into our bodies (Quechua, pronounced ket-chwa, is a predominant indigenous culture in the Andes of South America — the Incas were Quechua). We felt we’d all gotten a second chance at life!
I know I appreciated the gift of every moment for most of the rest of that trip. But still, I think about it whenever I’m in countries where people drive fast and don’t follow the same rules of safety that I’m used to in the US. I was so thankful that Juan Carlos was a cautious driver.
We were dropped off at the train station in Ollantaytambo, but not before getting stuck in a major traffic jam just before we entered the town. Apparently there was some sort of festival happening and the main road was closed. Cars and tour buses began to line up behind us, and many people got out to walk to town across the cornfields and up the steep, terraced slope to town. Drivers tried to pass and some went off on a side street that also got blocked, which resulted in a bit of chaos as vehicles were stuck going in both directions with no one wanting to move. It was all over in about 20 minutes — somehow the drivers all magically worked it out, and we still had plenty of time for our train.
The train to Aguas Calientes was a surprising delight! Large windows next to our seats provided a constant view of the glistening Urubamba River and curved windows in the ceiling invited gasps and sighs at the mountains looming overhead. We chugged and whistled and gently swayed through the middle of the deep, narrow canyon. Aguas Calientes enticed us from the beginning with colorful textiles, gleaming silver jewelry, and luxuriously soft alpaca items which we passed in the market on our way to the main street. Brenda, our guide, had said, “No shopping until we get to our hotel!”, so we all just drooled and oohed and aahed as we walked single file through the narrow aisles. Once on the main drag, we were treated to delicious scents from the many restaurants lit up on either side of the street. I saw signs for French, Italian, and traditional Peruvian foods—this town certainly caters to tourists! Our group went to a French restaurant that had some of the best food I’ve ever had, though I could say that about several of the restaurants we went to. I had no idea how much I would like Peruvian cuisine! This one offered desserts, and since it was the first time I’d had a dessert in 9 days, other than the birthday cake we had at Sach’a Munay one night, I savored every bite of my creamy chocolate mousse. I even had a little fine wine from Argentina, which I also had not consumed in over a week. I walked back to the hotel happily satiated.
The next morning we woke at 4 am, ate a quick breakfast at the hotel’s bountiful buffet, and then booked it up the hill to the bus stop for Machu Picchu. Early dawn light was just beginning to stream through the mist swirling around the steep gorge downriver from our hotel. We were surrounded by towering vertical green peaks, and could hear the Urubamba River rushing over large boulders and birds singing their morning greetings. Though we came down in elevation since our stay at Sach’a Munay (at about 9000’), it was still fairly high (almost 7000’), so we were all quickly panting for breath as we marched up the sidewalk. That is one thing that comes and goes: sometimes at night I notice I just can’t seem to get enough air and I have to slow my breathing down and concentrate on relaxing in order to breathe normally again. It gives me a good appreciation for what it might be like for someone having an anxiety attack… We had backpacks filled with sunscreen, insect repellant, lots of water, rain gear, hats, our little notebooks, cameras, and many of us carried hiking poles as we trudged up the uneven road and sidewalks of Aguas Calientes.
As we neared the bus stop we saw the line of people waiting: it wound up and around the curved sidewalk as far as we could see. Oh no! Even this early?! We must have walked another 3 blocks before we finally came to the end and claimed our place. After about 45 minutes of creeping back down the hill we’d climbed, we boarded the bus and began ascending the steep slope, one hairpin turn after another. At the entrance we waited in line to use the bathroom, which we had to pay 2 soles (about $.60) to use, and then passed through the gate to enter.
We walked up and up a dirt path surrounded by a thick mist, and settled on a wide terrace rimmed by another rock wall. Our guide, Celinda, said legend predicts that someone with an August birthday might be able to blow the fog away. Karyn stepped forward and started blowing and within a few minutes, the mist magically cleared just enough to reveal the golden top edges of a perfectly lined up maze of walls. Soon the darker rock sides also came into view and once again, I gasped at the unbelievable beauty and intricacy of what spread out before me.
Sitting on the grassy terrace, we listened to Celinda explain Incan spirituality and customs while we watched the mist come and go, revealing a clearer and clearer picture of the ancient settlement below. I became more and more endeared to the Incas the more I heard about their deep reverence for and connection to Pachamama, their name for Mother Earth. I was told previously that Pachamama not only refers to the Earth, but all living beings through all time, signifying our interconnectedness to the natural world and responsibility to consider future generations of all living beings when we make decisions. This devotion is evident in the symbols woven into their textiles and jewelry. We walked through a maze of terraces and paths as we circuited temples and dwellings of royalty near the ridge, and what was probably housing for the common people in the lower buildings. The most incredible component was the velvet green spires jutting up from the deep valley below and some in the distance that were capped in snow. Since it’s so close to the equator, there is no snow below 15,000’, so when you see snow you know it’s high! Eventually we could see the distinctive horn of Huaynu Picchu which rises up to the far side of the ruins. The gradual revealing of the total site made it even more mystical, and sparked my intrigue as to what life was like during the height of Incan civilization. They had a complex system of irrigation, were successful in genetic engineering of agricultural crops, and had control over many other indigenous peoples in a short time, but where did they all go so quickly once the Conquistadors took over? And the ruins of Machu Picchu were gradually overgrown with vegetation, only to be uncovered and appreciated once again for its magnificence 400 years later. The details of that “discovery” are also steeped in unanswered questions. I enjoyed reading Turn Right at Machu Picchu to learn more about that complex story.
By 10 am most of us were hungry and needed to use a bathroom (there are none inside the gate to the ruins), so we exited the grounds in order to meet for lunch just outside the entrance. I was exhausted from only an hour of sleep—I’d found out the night before that my credit card was hacked and was having a hard time contacting my credit card company, so the chance to sit and replenish was most welcome. We all enjoyed sharing stories and photos over a lengthy gourmet buffet lunch.
Most of the group went back to the hotel, but eight of us wanted more, so we re-entered to hike up the Inca Trail to the Sun Gate for a different perspective of Machu Picchu. We agreed to walk in silence to give a spiritual, inward quality to the experience. The Inca Trail is a wide path paved with flat stones and lined with a tall rock wall on the uphill side of the mountain. I loved the sense of walking along this path that had seen so much history and am amazed at how many ancient paved trails and rock wall terraces there are in Peru! As we hiked—slowly, slowly because we’d get out of breath easily—we encountered many people with accents and languages from around the world coming down the trail. They often glowed with enthusiasm, announcing something amazing we were about to see: “There’s a huge rock ahead that’s the Women’s Temple!”, or “You’re coming up to another temple that’s a nice rest stop!”, and “The Sun Gate is just ahead. It’s totally worth the climb!”. When I finally arrived I was soaked in sweat, but elated as I turn around to take in the view. I had to pause and breathe it in: the bright green plaza and walkways burst forth against the contrasting rock walls, which glowed golden in the afternoon sunlight. I found a place to settle and sat with my thoughts and my notebook for about a half hour.
Walking back down the trail was fast, with a different magnificent view of the ruins around every bend. I noticed the thick vegetation cascading down the steep slopes of Machu Picchu Mountain and tried to imagine what it looked like when Hiram Bingham first arrived in 1911, when the forest had reclaimed this unique broad ridge between the Dr. Seuss-like spires. I wandered again through the ruins, enjoying the different angles of light as the sun lowered in the sky and having less people around—the big rush is in the morning to watch the sunrise (which is rarely seen due to the frequent mist). Reminded of Valentin’s comment about how my ticket to see Machu Picchu would buy fine wine for the president instead of going to the people of Peru, I marveled at how much money is generated each day from so many people coming to check a wonder of the world off their bucket list. I’m so grateful I came, but I’m also glad that most of our excursions were contributing to local people putting their kids through school, feeding their families, and forming connections between different cultures.
Our retreat continued with a return trip on the train—this time with musical entertainment and a fun fashion show of gorgeous and adaptable alpaca clothing (see video below), an enlightening visit to the women’s weaving collective near Ollantaytambo (see the video below to watch a young girl weaving by hand), and three more days in picturesque Cusco for writing, visiting more ruins, and exploring the ancient capital of the Inca civilization, said to be the navel of the world. I was sad to leave the close friends I’d made and the welcoming culture of Peru, my mind full of stories and impressions and my heart with love and connection. I will miss the smiling faces, the jubilant “Buenos días” greetings, practicing Spanish, the commitment to reciprocity and reverence for the natural world, and the strong sense of community that I experienced. These are things I want to bring home—wherever that ends up being some day.