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Dreaming the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu into Reality

Turning my travel dream into reality changed me
Turning my travel dream into reality changed me

Updated July 16th, 2020

Seeing the mist lift over what has become a culturally relevant landmark of finding oneself made a mark on me indescribable by my mother tongue. For years, I'd dreamed of reaching the end of the exhaustive but intensively rewarding Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and opening my eyes to the citadel, and Huayna Picchu—the mountain that rises above it—with its surrounding Andes; experiencing the sun rise from its gate.

Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
Inca Trail to Macchu Picchu

Footsteps of the Past

I've always found more to life than what was before me. My first venture to Venice, I ignored the ripe scent of the romanticized waters to think back on how many lives had crossed these same aquatic paths.

Before that, the streets of my hometown were fascinating. I would find myself lying on the ground, like the main character from the French classic, Amélie, attempting to absorb the vast history and long-since-forgotten personalities that may or may not have done it before me.

Once, when I was around sixteen, I loaned my brother's camcorder to record the clouds. I intended to speed it up to mirror the vapid speed at which the days can pass, but that there could be beauty in merely existing.

I Dreamed a Dream of the Incas

The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is South America's most iconic and legendary trek and one of two that will take you to the lost city. I had imagined tracing these footsteps for years; of the capital of Cusco, through the Sacred Valley, the Ollantaytambo ruins, and then, at long last, the aptly named Sun Gate.

Inti Punku means sun gate in Quechua, the most widely spoken language in the highlands of South America. The Sun Gate is the final hurdle of the trail, and it is from there that you first see the site that has been photographed a thousand times. It is from Inti Punku, at the end of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, that you see its core.

I had read so much literature about Machu Picchu for so long that I knew all of the names, and suspected wrongly that I may know how to navigate the hike without the aid of a guide. I wanted to see Huayna Picchu, Huacay Huilcay—the holy tear—and Machu Picchu mountain. I wanted to scale Dead Woman's Pass—the Inca Trail's highest summit—and to let a stranger know not to worry about the name. (It gets its name from its resemblance to a reclining woman).

I had read so much that could not prepare me for the spiritual journey I was about to take.

My Time in the Land Before Time

The weather was good to us—to my group and I—blessing us with the brightest of and clearest of skies that made me wonder why the general consensus says that blue as a color clashes with green.

The nights were crisp. As well as helping to make it intensely difficult to breathe, the high altitude made them colder than I had imagined they would be, but we had many-a-blanket to wrap around our shoulders, and there was no amount of gooseflesh that could keep me from seeing the stars. From idly picking out constellations, sharing my minimal knowledge that consisted of Cassiopeia and Ursa Major alone.

In my tent, I thought of the similarities between the Incas and the Ancient Egyptians, and how they both built structures in accordance with astronomy. How they somehow knew more than we did now, with our cell phones and our computers and our nuclear defense safeguards.

I also barely slept thanks to my excitement. I felt nauseous, though I'm not sure if that was the excitement or the altitude. Maybe a little of both.

The End of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

We got ourselves moving on the edge of dawn. No matter where you are in the world, dawn brings its own special feeling. We were so close to the ancient citadel that I could feel it in my bones.

Our guide gave me a cocoa leaf; a traditional medicine that's been used for centuries. I had seen him chewing something, but my pride in thinking I knew everything about this culture that I was a visitor in, wouldn't let me ask.

It is sort of like gum or healthy tobacco, usually, but you can get it as a tea, too. I thought (or hoped) it would taste like cocoa. It did not. It did make me feel slightly better, and I dusted off my boots to join my group in conquering those last few kilometers.

Morning Light

Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is more rewarding when you do it, though there are trains that fetch tourists, those trains don't start running until a while after first light.

We wound our way up to the Sun Gate slowly but surely, watching the backs of the strange friends and friendly strangers in our group that we became strangely bonded with.

When we reached the gate—designated the "official" entrance to the ruins—I saw it. I saw them. I saw the sight I had been waiting a lifetime to see. And I felt sick again. But it wasn't the altitude this time. No, it was the supreme, ultimate, and otherworldly beauty of this sacred remembered land.

Onto the Next

I may have conquered the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, but the Andes still lie in wait. I don't know how the Incas found a place of such natural beauty, but it is a journey of discovery that I will not hesitate to take, starting with my next journey: the Salcantay trek.

One simply has to watch the way the hazy rays of sunlight transform the buildings and the rolling canopies of trees and valleys, to see why they were connected not only to the expansive, blinking blanket of stars but their own mountains and the mystic secrets that they hold.

I will remember the moment my dream came true for the rest of this life, on to the next.


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