I assumed that lesson would be taught somewhere around 9,000 feet, on the Inca Trail. But before I even board the plane, the security agent tells me, “Sir, you need to remove those items from your shirt pockets” — forcing me to explain that those “items” can be removed only through diet and exercise.
Admittedly, one of the bonuses I’m anticipating from this trip is the excess body baggage I hope to leave in the Andes, as there’s no escaping the extreme physical effort required to hike repeatedly over mountain passes, some higher than 15,000 feet, for almost three weeks.
The Inca built many of these trails 500 years ago, and they’re still the only way to reach all of our destinations — Machu Picchu and also a few seldom visited yet equally impressive Inca sites, such as Choquequirao; the water shrine Picha Unuyoc; and Vilcabamba, also called Espíritu Pampa, the last city of the Inca.
Our guide has arranged for tents, food, supplies, mules to transport our gear, mule handlers, cooks, and — as insurance — a couple of horses should anyone need the assistance of an equine taxi. In spite of these amenities, we will for the most part be sleeping on the ground, using rivers for baths and laundry, and surviving without phones, Internet, and electricity.
We’ll also be facing a high probability of occasional rain, maybe even snow, at altitudes where we sea-level dwellers have difficulty breathing. Inexplicably, my 22-year-old son, Taylor, and two couples agree to join me. They think it sounds like fun.
My wife and many friends react differently: “That sounds like the worst trip ever.”
Near the end of our first full day on the trail, I have a gnawing fear I will be forced to confess to my wife the three most difficult words in any relationship: “You were right.”
I had expected the beginning to be an easy warm-up — all downhill, from the village of Cachora to the Apurímac River, and then a short climb to camp. But after eight hours and some 5,000 feet of steep descent, I remember that downhill is worse than uphill on old knees with no cartilage.
Still, spirits are high. Adrenaline levels are, too, as we approach the Apurímac, where we will be pulled a hundred yards across while seated on a small metal plate swinging from a steel cable that is suspended high above a river whose name loosely translates to “god that roars.”
Five minutes after that rush, as we head up the other side of the canyon, the reality of where I am — both on the mountain and on the scale of high-altitude cardio fitness — hits with an unexpected thud. My legs announce that they’ve put in their eight hours and are through for the day.
Unfortunately, we are fewer than a hundred feet into a 2,000-foot climb to the next campsite. No pumping adrenal glands speed to the rescue, so I have to concentrate on each step, willing my body forward like a toddler learning to walk, as the air hangs hot and heavy without even a whisper of a breeze.
I’m sweating so profusely, I have to dry my ears with a bandanna to hear, though the only sounds are my own noisy gasps for air. Taylor has also hit the wall, and neither of us can afford the energy to offer encouragement. When we finally collapse into our tent after 11 and a half hours on the trail, Taylor summons the strength to ask, “Are you as embarrassed as I am?” “No,” I reply. “I’m just relieved—the day’s over and we made it.”
I assure him that tomorrow and every day after will get a bit easier, as we acclimatize. And they do, at least cardiowise, with Taylor practically running the trails by day three. But there are unexpected setbacks, any one of which, when later described to friends, elicits that familiar response: “That sounds like the worst trip ever.”
We endure ten straight days of rain, which occasionally transforms the trail into a mud slide. On day five, we stop for lunch on a beautiful pass, but my knee locks up and I’m forced to descend the next 2,200 feet using trekking poles like canes. (Taylor suggests it could be a new episode of Locked Up Abroad.)
On day seven, the rain becomes a heavy snowstorm as we make our way up and over a 15,000-foot pass. The snow further complicates the process of going down 3,500 steep Inca stone steps, tricky enough with my bad knee.
Then on day 13 we’re crossing our tour’s highest pass when, for a solid hour, BB-size hailstones pelt us. And did I mention the fighting that breaks out between the Peruvian Army and the Shining Path guerillas, in the valley near Espíritu Pampa? For that, we reroute the second half of the trek.
Still, wherever we go, the scenery is breathtakingly beautiful, and when heavy rains trap Taylor and me in our tent for hours at a time, we have no choice but to talk — father and adult son discussing everything that’s ever happened in our lives. At one point, Taylor turns to me and says, “Suffering is not fun, but it makes you a stronger, better person.”
I’m not sure that’s always true, but for us, the accomplishment of not only surviving but also being able to laugh about our struggles at the end of each day left us both saying this was “the best trip ever.” Oh yeah, and I also lost 15 pounds.
Boyd Matson is one of Traveler‘s editors at large and pens the “Unbound” column for the magazine. Follow his story on Twitter @boydmatson.
This column appeared in the April 2013 issue of Traveler magazine, but there’s a lot you can’t get online. To see all we have to offer, subscribe to the print edition for $10 a year or download a digital copy to your iPad.