No, that header photo above is not a stock image.
When I travel, I usually scour travel blogs and review sites online to learn as much as I can about a given destination before I arrive. The planning is half of the fun. Sometimes, seeing things in person can be disappointing compared to the fantasy you’ve created for yourself after years of movies, newspaper articles, and hearing stories about a certain “bucket list” destination. Like, what do you mean, the Mona Lisa is that small? I can’t even see if she’s smiling or not over the hoard of tourists! But.
But the views of Machu Picchu were absolutely not like that. That iconic shot you see above? It’s even more beautiful when you see the jungled mountain ridges surrounding it from every angle, like this –
Matt and I decided to climb the 1,000+ steps to the ridge overlooking the citadel. This experience is where my expectation – wiping the sweat off my brow after being one of the first to arrive at the famed ruins, smiling as I took in the sunrise views – began to diverge from reality. In reality, I had spent the past two nights collapsing immediately in bed following our hikes, skipping dinner due to the overwhelming nausea and migraines I was experiencing, and nearly passing out when I attempted a shower.
Yet, I woke up at 3:30AM, strapped on my hiking boots, and insisted on finishing out the hike. We were one of the first people in line at the entrance (doors open at 5AM, and we got there early to hopefully be one of the first to ascend). So when I thought I would vomit, faint, and have my legs collapse all at once during each of those 1,000 steps, it felt like the entire population of Peruvian backpackers were passing us along the way. Matt should win an Oscar for his “I’m-not-annoyed” face when I asked to sit down and take a break approximately every other switchback.
I persisted. When we arrived at the top, we were the last ones to summit, and our guide looked surprised to see me on the stairs. No wonder – Matt had spent the night before attending the planning meeting on his own, and running all across Aguas Calientes in the rain to secure a morning bus ticket for me, just in case.
Once we made it to the top, I had a second wind from the exhilaration of finally making it to the beautiful site, after all that hiking and dreaming for years past. We soaked it in and took photos of ourselves, sweaty, tired, and messy-haired from hiking after an early wake-up call. Not the Instagram-perfect photos I’d seen on social media before, but nonetheless perfectly representing the moment. After our guide gave us a rundown on the site and left us to explore on our own, Matt and I decided to split up. He went to explore the Sun Gate with a few other travelers from our group, I went to find a shady place for a quick nap, since I could feel my illness coming back on.
I woke up in the blazing sun of early morning, feeling dehydrated and weak. I slowly made my way back to the entrance – regretting every stair I descended, knowing I’d have to head back afterwards – in search of a water bottle. Unfortunately, my water-bottle excursion (which took nearly 45 minutes at my sick snail’s pace) coincided with Matt’s return to our rendezvous point. We eventually found one another, just as I was reaching a point of desperation. In my heightened state, that hour and a half of separation felt longer than the six months we had just spent apart.
We still had three hours left on our ticket after that, so we spent the rest of the time exploring the ruins at our own pace, happy to be reunited and exploring the ruins together. We eventually ran into and met up with our larger trekking group, who helped sneak us to the front of the bus line back down the mountain. To say goodbye to our Peruvian adventures, we shared huge pizzas and pisco sours at an extra-touristy restaurant. We managed to make it off the mountain just as the formerly cloudless sky erupted into a sudden rainforest downpour, covering everything in site with a thick fog. Despite my exhaustion that morning, if we had arrived any later, we likely wouldn’t have seen anything at all.
The rest of the photos speak for themselves, so I’ll share them below:
I hope you enjoyed my vacation photos and stories! I won’t be heading outside of Ecuador/the United States again until at least May, so until then, expect updates from my different projects here in Cuenca!