During my 18 month world trip in 2007 and 2008, I spent 8 months traversing South America, and 6 weeks gallivanting around Peru. Peru was one of my favorite countries on that trip (after Bolivia and Colombia), but I was on the backpacker trail back then, living at a constant state of party with a bit of hiking mixed in from time to time. When I found out a few months ago that a group of my friends from upstate New York were planning a spiritual/trekking trip to the Sacred Valley in Peru, I was in.
This time, we spent much of our experience learning about Incan history, ruins, and culture, and exploring the sites of the the Sacred Valley at Chincero, Moray, Pisaq, Sacsayhuaman, and Machu Picchu. We also checked out Lima, Cusco, and Aquas Caliente, the town neighboring Machu Picchu. I have decided to share one of the highlights of the trip– an unexpected hike to meditate on the top of mountain called Putucusi.
I had never heard of Putucusi (which means “Happy Mountain” in Quechua) before this trip. Putucusi is the lush, green mountain right next to Waynapicchu mountain, directly across from the Machu Piccchu site. It overlooks the Machu Picchu ruins from a high vantage point, and tops out at about 2500 meters (7500 ft). The trek was supposed to take a couple of hours, and we would (or should I say “thought we would”) be hiking up through dense jungle on a switchback trail (a zigzag path that progresses up at a steep incline). The 12 of us navigated the first part of the trek at the base of the mountain without any problem. We were all carrying day packs and planned to scale the mountain to do a sunset mediation overlooking the Machu Picchu site.
Everything was going really well until we rounded a turn and ran smack into a sheer cliff wall. This kicked off a series of “oh shit” moments. I am not exactly sure how high the first part of this cliff face was, but lets just say it was at least 40 yards, and close to a full football field straight up between all five parts of the cliffface (which included a series of ladders after the initial ascent pictured below). In all of my days, I have never attempted anything quite like this.
Somehow I drew the short straw (or maybe it was the long straw as I got to get it over with) and I got to go up first. That is yours truly pictured above on the bottom of the cliff face. Our guides were staggered along the ascent, talking us through where to put our feet, instructing us how to navigate the slope. They said over and over again to not let go of the cable. While about 30 feet up on the cliff face, there came a spot where there were absolutely no foot-holes– and the instructions came swiftly (they neglected to inform us of this at the bottom) that we needed to lean straight back and go flat footed at this part. Leaning back and trusting was the only way to navigate this part of the wall- which brought on thoughts of, “oh shit, I’m suspended 30 feet in the air over rocks!”, “oh shit, I’m not strapped in”, followed by “oh shit, I’m doing it”, “oh shit, I just slipped”, and “oh shit, I made it”. The experience was a leap of faith and equal parts terrifying, and exhilarating by all accounts. Now I had the pleasure of watching my other 12 friends do the exact same thing from above–which was nerve racking–and in many cases much more scary then doing it myself. Some of us had a much easier time than others.
The next part of the hike involved a series of ladders–4 in total– that continued to go straight up the “happy mountain”. In many places where the rungs were washed out we needed to put our feet on nails that were put in there place. Apparently, the bottom part, that we climbed with the cables, used to have ladders as well, but were long ago washed away by heavy rains.
Once we got to the top of the ladders the switchbacks actually started and we continued our slow ascent rising above the jungle into open areas with high grasses and wild purple orchids. The key was not to step off the stone path as the grasses released onto steep inclines (which I actually learned on the way back down where I nearly bit it)–and to chew a lot of coca leaves for the altitude. Coca chewing, is highly encouraged (and very much legal) throughout Peru for its medicinal properties in relation to altitude sickness. It is a sacred treasure of the people here, and really does make the altitude bearable.
The quickest of us got to the top in about 2 1/2 hours or so, while the slowest took closer to four hours. We all made it in one piece, with the exception of one sprained knee and one bump on the head from a fallen rock. The exhaustion at the summit was widespread, but the satisfaction vibrated much higher than any pain we were feeling. We had no idea what we were in for when we started, but the fact that everyone made it largely unscathed was a powerful statement from the universe.
That evening during the meditation, sitting high in front of Machu Picchu ruins, from a perspective and vantage point that very few people get to see, an extreme feeling of gratitude overtook me. The day hike was the single toughest (technically) I have ever attempted and completed. At that moment, overlooking one of the most beautiful ancient sites in all of the world, I felt (and still hold this feeling) such an extreme, overwhelming gratefulness for my family, my friends, my job, and my life back in New York City. Moreover, I felt extremely grateful for having the good fortune to be able to continually experience moments like this.