“Each day we went from stages of absolute misery in the mornings as we pulled ourselves up on our aching legs to euphoria as we passed through an ancient ruin site or reached a new peak.”
Almost exactly a year to the day, I set out on what would turn out to be a five-month-long adventure around the world with one of my closest friends. Like many young New Zealanders, we’d both been bitten by the travel bug early on and worked hard after graduating from university to get the funds together for our big “O.E.” (overseas experience to non-Kiwis). But, we didn’t want to follow the traditional formula that has become so characteristic of our generation—a few months partying around Europe then settling in London for the two years our Commonwealth membership entitles us to. Instead, we craved something more exotic, challenging and eye-opening, and as an ecologist, I also wanted to explore some of the many incredible ecosystems that I’d spent years learning about from books.
With this in mind, we decided to spend the first six weeks of our backpacking journey in South America, making our way from Santiago, Chile down to Patagonia, north through Buenos Aires, Iguazu Falls and the Pantanal, and finally head west to the Peruvian Amazon and the high altitudes of the Andes mountains. As we suspected from the outset (but unfortunately couldn’t change due to financial and time constraints), six weeks was nowhere near long enough to satisfyingly explore all corners of this continent.
We travelled at a rapid pace from city to city, often involving 20-hour bus rides or 4 am flights, and as we reached our fifth week, despite the many amazing experiences we’d had, we both had a severe case of ‘traveller’s fatigue’. This sounds like your quintessential first world problem, but I think it’s important not to gloss over because I’m positive that anyone who has travelled for an extended period has had similar feelings. It’s certainly not a reason to avoid extensive travel; rather adventurers should expect a certain level of travel-weariness and be prepared to deal with it when it comes along.
In our case, we moved through it in the best way possible—by throwing ourselves head first into one of the most challenging experiences of our lives—walking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. We’d booked our Inca Trail trip well in advance and had planned it to be the last leg of our South American travels. Though the timing and early organisation were necessitated by the limited number of permits the Peruvian government issues for tourists to walk this trail each season, I am extremely glad that this was our final experience on this continent.
Walking the Inca Trail and reaching Machu Picchu was an utterly invigorating journey; it reminded me of all the reasons why we’d embarked on this trip in the first place, and why I know I will have itchy feet for the rest of my life.
We started out from the beautiful town of Cusco, and after spending a few days drinking coca tea and slowly walking around town as we adjusted to the altitude, we headed out late at night to our first campsite. The next morning, we set out towards the official checkpoint along the Urubamba River which marks the start of the Inca Trail towards Machu Picchu. Part of an extensive series of trails utilised by the Inca, the path to Machu Picchu is particularly unique; there were other trails the Inca used to get to and from Machu Picchu for commercial purposes, but this one was deliberately set aside as a road of pilgrimage. It is of great religious, spiritual and ceremonial importance, and this historical sense of ritual made this special journey all the more incredible. Over the course of three days, we hiked over 80 kilometres to a maximum altitude of 4,125 metres above sea level and ultimately arriving at the ‘Sun Gate’ which sits in direct east-west orientation overlooking the Machu Picchu ruins.
Our emotional and physical experiences on this hike in many ways mirrored the trail’s characteristic sequence of intense climbs and descents. Each day we went from stages of absolute misery in the mornings as we pulled ourselves up on our aching legs to euphoria as we passed through an ancient ruin site or reached a new peak. We walked with an amazing group of fellow travellers—families, friends, couples—and were accompanied by an utterly fantastic group of guides, porters and cooks who managed to pitch a tent and cook dinner while halfway up a mountain better than I ever could at home.
For the duration of the journey, we were also completely cut off from any outside communication—cell service and WiFi were not a priority of the Inca for obvious reasons—and it was a surprisingly great feeling to not have the worries of reality on our minds before bed each night. Instead, we were able to fall into the deepest of sleeps—made possible by our complete physical exhaustion.
As we arrived at Machu Picchu and were able to explore this phenomenally well-preserved city, I was struck by the number of people surrounding us. For days, we had gone with only seeing those in our hiking group, but we were now joined at the ruins by those tourists who were shuttled to and from Cusco by train. Despite the immense pain in my knee joints and fatigued state, I never for a second wished that we had just taken the train to Machu Picchu.
Walking the trail gave us so much more of an experience and sense of appreciation, we felt like we’d really deserved to see the ruins by the time we got there and were exhilarated to continue our journey of exploration. And in these days of easy travel and mobility, I think that such a feeling is worth writing home about.
Author - Justine Atkins
Justine Atkins is from New Zealand. She is currently completing her PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University and travels to Mozambique for her field work. Her most recent trip was to Laikipia, Kenya.