The Inca Trail is actually part of a 20,000-mile network of trails that once crisscrossed the entire Incan Empire. According to our guide, scant but unmistakable remnants of ancient roads still run south through the Atacama Desert in Chile and out into the Amazon.
Most of the trails have been forgotten, but thousands of trekkers still walk one particular 28-mile stretch every year. It's the pilgrim's route to Machu Picchu, the mystery-shrouded Incan ruins that somehow managed to elude the Spanish conquistadors. Yale historian Hiram Bingham "discovered" it on a National Geographic expedition in 1911. It was shown to him by a native descendant of the Incas, whose people had always known of its existence.
Today, the Peruvian government requires you to travel with a guide to reach it, and the outfitter must secure a trekking permit for you ahead of time. At the most popular time of the year (May through August) permits can sell out months in advance.
I was surprised and happy to discover we'd have a female Quechua guide. Every other guide I'd seen in Peru until then was a man. Flora was barely five feet tall and had a soft lyrical voice, but she'd led at least 50 Inca Trail treks and she spoke four languages.
The first day, she told us, would be the longest and the hardest. We'd start around 9,000 feet at the Urubamba River, and climb steadily upwards for more than 10 miles until we reached our first camp at 12,000 feet. Before we set off, Flora made us all do a big group hug, a "circle of love" she called it, and told us to send the love to the 19,000-foot Veronica Mountain, whose shadow fell over us. It was only by Veronica's and the other mountains' good graces that we'd have the strength to make the trek. Some people rolled their eyes, but I smiled. With so many strong women pulling for me, how could I fail?
Talking with Flora while watching the porters and the scenery roll by helped me forget the difficulty of what I was doing and just keep marching forward. Jen and I made steady progress up the carved Inca staircases, passing through a cloud forest dripping in moss, and then up a steep valley. A silly looking band of Muppet-faced alpacas escorted us to the yellow tents that had been set up for us. It was a few hours before the others in our group began to trickle in, haggard and bent over. One of our companions asked Jen and me our secret. "We've been doing this sort of thing together for a while," she said. And it was true, even though I'd taken a major detour earlier in the year. Somehow, I'd gotten back on track without realizing it.
On the morning of our last day, we left camp in the dark in order to reach Machu Picchu's Intipunku, or Sun Gate, by dawn. There was a sense of urgency among all the headlamps bobbing down the slope. No one spoke, and as the sky shifted from black to dark blue, we broke into a trot. By the time the light went pink-gold we were there. The city lay below us, empty of all visitors but a few stray llamas. Bigger than I'd imagined, its orderly rows of stone houses stood out against hills around it, which had now taken on towering, Suessical shapes.
The view was marvelous, of course, but knowing that I'd carried myself there was the best feeling of all. I didn't envy any of the tourists who arrived later after taking the train, decked out in their brand-new safari pants and hiking boots. I'm sure they had a good time at Machu Picchu, but I doubt they got much more out of it than some nice pictures.
I came away smelly, dirty, and tired, but that's exactly what I wanted.