Daybreak in Machu Picchu

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It was six in the morning, the light from behind the mountains touched my cheekbones gently and the air was sharp, as if full of the ancient dirt and broken rocks. I saw hundreds of people below me beginning to mill about the entrance to the ruins, and I turned my gaze to the still empty majesty of Machu Picchu. It stood eerily silent and yet I could hear the wind whistling through the cracks of the carved stone like the souls that had once inhabited these sacred grounds. The sun rose higher, bathing the silver rocks in gold.

In the days leading up to that moment, I had – with a group of 13 other individuals from all over the world – spent a week hiking and camping in the jungle and mountains of the surrounding country. Each day at dawn, the tour guides awakened us with steaming cups of hot coca leaf tea to ease the waves of altitude sickness as we climbed higher and higher. We ate salty meals of rice and beans from tin, hollow sounding bowls, then gathered our sacks and sleeping bags to carry while the porters loaded the heavy equipment onto the horses. Sometimes I could barely catch my breath in the needle-thin air.

The day we climbed the mountain was extreme. Without stopping, we hiked for 17 miles on snow and brittle rocks. We took a moment at the top of the peak to pay our respects to the mountain, stacking flat stones into a small tower as the wind swirled with heavy snowflakes. Our guides whispered a prayer in Spanish. As we all slowly walked down the mountain’s other side, my knees ached, but the pain was distant, in the back of my mind, hushed by the hauntingly beautiful ceremony.

We spent the evening before reaching Machu Picchu in a jungle town nestled at the bottom of the ruins. We met other groups with people from myriad places, and the night hummed with the lilting melody of many languages, a tune that blended with tree crickets like a song born in my bones. Wine corks popped with bits of pattered laughter. There was a feast that night, anticuchos and exotic fruit, crème caramel and scorching black coffee. We danced around the fire while the locals strummed guitars and sang into the pitch-black night.

The night we reached the final stop of our trip was full of sleeplessness; we finally had a hotel, but I had become accustomed to the ground and so the bed felt too much like a cloud, as if I weren’t careful I could sink into nothingness. I was bursting with excitement, my body was full of pain and bruises, like the hike had branded me with its pattern without even asking, but I pulled on my mud-addled boots and boarded the bus. The road up to the entrance was a switchback, and my heart stuck in my throat as we swayed dangerously close to the edge of the cliff, certain death inches away.

Later, as I stood there, finally, on top of that incredible piece of human history, I could only think, This is what I was born to do. For all the pain and lack of sleep, in spite of the overly seasoned food, regardless of language barriers, and a week with a group of strangers, I was leaving with an incredible memory, with new friends, a stronger body, and with Spanish now slipping from my tongue with an ease I had never known.

My wanderlust will never be sated. I will always sail forth, to seek and to find. Go, do, see. Be moved in ways you never imagined. ACN

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