Santa Maria to Santa Teresa…
After a fitful sleep, I’m feeling decidedly empty and drained in the morning and in no shape to face the 7-8 hours of hiking we have been told it takes to reach Santa Teresa. What makes things even worse is that within half an hour of leaving the hotel, we are rather lost and when we ask the locals for directions, we are given a variety of different, contradictory responses;
“You must go back the way you came from! Santa Teresa is the other way!”
“You see that bridge across the river over there? Cross it and follow the road for a few hours and you’ll be there. It’s easy!”
“You going to walk to Santa Teresa? It’s many many hours of walking my friends! You cannot reach it in one day.”
So we stand on the hot tarmac discussing our options and I’m secretly hoping we give up and stay in town for another day but of course, that’s not going to happen with Mikel deciding that enough is enough.
“I can’t believe nobody knows how to get to Santa Teresa around here. Back in Spain, we would never let a foreigner get lost like that.” He baits a local shop-keeper and she rises to the challenge gallantly, leading us personally into the roadside brush and depositing us at the dirt path which she says if we follow will eventually lead us to where we want to go.
We thank the woman and set off and we pass small villages where old, wizened men sit by shop fronts and greet us with their eyes and I wonder if they have ever walked this way to that most famous landmark of their country but my Spanish is no good yet to ask them the question.
Just before noon our path unfairly decides to turn into a series of rugged stone stairs climbing up a steep, densely forested hill and as we soar higher the vegetation seems to trap all the heat and humidity and there is no air here to breathe and my legs which have heroically been carrying me all morning grow leaden and painful until I begin to wonder just how much more of this I can take.
I’m exhausted and drenched in sweat and in spite of all those motivational quotes I’m trying to remind myself of about keeping on going when you are going through hell, I’m ready to admit that this particular hell is just a little too much for me. I collapse on my knees; I’ve reached the end.
A Hero’s Journey…
I’m on my knees when I hear a reassuring voice ask if I’m okay and two strong hands help me up and carry me toward a house set in a small clearance on the hillside and there is a wooden bench under a thatched-roof where I can lay my weary body and when the lady of the house, whose face is as old as the path we are on and kind, hands me a wet towel and asks me if I need anything, a sudden feeling of contentment washes over me and I’m thinking to myself whether I reach Machu Picchu or not, now I have a story to tell.
A few hours later we are back on the path and one of the French lads is offering to swap his smaller backpack with mine and although I’m still the slowest, everyone still reassures me that “we are a group and we either go all together or we don’t go at all.”
We traverse for hours through timeless valleys and dramatic contours of the land, looking out for condors – perhaps the most sacred of the mythological trinity in the Inca culture, said to represent the heavens – and although we never see one, I feel like the ancient Gods have finally granted me passage to their lost kingdom.
From Aguas Calientes to Heaven…
It’s pitch black and there must be dozens, if not hundreds of us racing out of Aguas Calientes and heading for the hills. Mikel and I are ahead of the others when we hear Nick’s muffled yelp. We stop frozen in our steps and we know something really bad has happened and I begin to wonder if we will ever reach Machu Picchu.
We turn around in a haste and find the others clustered around Nick who seems to have stepped on a loose stone with his bad foot and agitated his already hurt ankle to the point where he can barely stand.
It doesn’t come to me as naturally as I wish it had, but I know I must reciprocate the kindness I have been shown over the last few days and so I offer him my walking sticks even though I still feel weak and give him a light pat on the back; “You are alright mate. We either make it together as a team or we don’t make it at all. Remember?”
Machu Picchu and All That…
It’s early afternoon and the thick layers of clouds which stood guard above the ancient ruins all morning have finally exhausted themselves and passed, leaving the towering stone walls of Machu Picchu glistening in the bright sunlight.
We have found a narrow ledge overlooking the main citadel and a spliff is being handed around as we toast our arrival at the fabled site. There are people tiny as insects far below and there are llamas and I wonder who is the star of the show as people jockey for positions to ensure their Machu Picchu photos feature a cheeky llama or two.
Later this afternoon we will descend and walk among the walls of history and perhaps I’ll wish for a llama to appear in one of my shots too. But for now, I’m simply rejoicing being in the company of heroes; strangers who’ve become dear to me; people I may not ever see again once we have gone back, but without whom I could have never come this far.