For middle-aged adventure-seekers, summitting Peru’s most famous peak can challenge their manhood, but also strengthen their bonds and handsomely reward their perseverance in the face of fear
MACHU PICCHU, Peru – You’re going to climb Huayna Picchu?!
Brimming with what would later prove unwarranted brazenness, I ignored the inherent trepidation in my Limeño amigo Martín’s repeated, almost incredulous prompts during the weeks preceding my first trip to his native Peru. I’m thankful today that I did, though, for had I been fully equipped beforehand with the knowledge Martín possessed, I might have beaten a cowardly retreat from one of my life’s most thrilling experiences.
See, I’m normally as prepared a traveler as you’ll ever meet. Whenever I’m planning to go somewhere – new or familiar – I hurl myself down a rabbit hole of exhaustive research, to include learning at least a handful of essential words and phrases in the local language. Yet, this time, I allowed a consequential kernel of truth to fall through the cracks.
To reach Machu Picchu, 8,000 breathtaking feet up in the Peruvian Andes, travelers can either take a train to the base and drive up, or go on foot, usually via the famous Inca Trail – an arduous, somewhat treacherous path popular among adventurous outdoor enthusiasts. Both options provide picturesque if perilous panoramas, the latter much more so, my research informed me.
Walking takes four or five days from sanctioned starting points, depending on which you choose. While the Inca Trail intrigued me, the group of 14 strangers with whom I’d be journeying was booked on the train/bus route, far quicker, more convenient, and less taxing on the body. Once there, though, we’d have the option of a half-day hike up to Huayna Picchu, the gigantic lemon squeezer of a mountain that photobombs every classic image of the ancient stone-and-terrace city. How could I resist?
Interpreting “hike” to mean a pleasant walk on a safe, spacious trail, I conducted no further investigation. Instead, I scoffed in response to Martín. “Of course I am. Sure. Why not? After all, I’m in good shape for a 40-something.” Meanwhile, my family kept pestering me to promise them I wouldn’t go “up that narrow mountain path, the one with the steep, tiny steps and nothing to grab onto.”
I honestly believed I wasn’t, because I assumed they meant the Inca Trail, which I knew for certain I wasn’t doing. Just turned out I had no clue that the way to the top of Huayna Picchu and this terrifying route my family kept mentioning were, in fact, one in the same. Not until I found myself on it, with nowhere else to go but up.