( video editing by Eden Tokatly)
Let’s start with the fact that I have mixed feelings towards the term bucket-list. Long before the popular term ‘bucket-list’ was invented – (according to Wikipedia, it was coined by American and British screenwriter Justin Zackham in his screenplay for the 2007 film ‘The Bucket List’) Machu Picchu was on my list. Now, this was way before thousands of annoying posts were dedicated to ‘bucket-list goals’ on Pinterest and Instagram. In my opinion, I don’t think we need thousands of bucket-list articles, do we? It’s just a list of things you want to achieve – so go achieve them already! I just had a list – in my head – of where I wanted to go in my lifetime and on top of my list was Machu Picchu, Peru and it took me 26-years to get there. Here’s why!
How it Began
I was sixteen and had just won the award at school for being the top achiever in Ancient History. These days, there would be an assembly or ceremony where a framed plaque would be handed out along with your name splashed across the pages of the school blog website and newsletter. Back then, it was simple – if you achieved the highest marks in the school in a subject, you received a friendly pat on the back and a paper certificate, and in my case, neither, I got a book. I loved history. I loved dreaming of ancient civilizations that had come before me. I would get lost in daydreams of wanting to be an archaeologist who would travel to far away remote lands and dig up pieces of ancient pottery and study ancient architecture of lost civilizations.
It’s funny, now, because if you read my bio, you’ll find my career was nothing further than this, as I ended up being a Fashion Editor taking notes from front row fashion weeks about the latest shoe trends instead of perusing an archaeological dig. But back to the book. My Ancient History teacher, (Mr. Hillier) who I still remember today, (shout out to great teachers BTW) inspired me to travel before I even knew what real travel was. He gave me a book on Machu Picchu with the image of the famous lost city of Machu Picchu splashed across its’ cover.
With its cobblestone pathways, mosaic stone ruins and open windows it was one of the most awe-inspiring panorama views of magical mountains and valleys I had ever seen – I was hooked. It took my breath away, and I knew instantly at that moment I was going to get there one day, somehow.
It’s All In The Timing
I’ve been lucky enough to travel to many countries in my life, around 48 at present, and yet I still hadn’t had the chance to get to Peru for all sorts of reasons. As with everything in life, timing is essential, and it wasn’t until recently that the timing was right to go. Life had thrown me in a different direction. I had finished up from a very challenging but rewarding job as an Editor-in-Chief of a publishing company in China, and we received the news that we were moving from China to Texas with my family very unexpectedly.
I didn’t think about it until I moved there, but I was now a very close flight away, and the travel dream started sparking in my head like a lightbulb that wouldn’t switch off. A small gap of time in my crazy, chaotic family life opened up in January, and it was the rainy season which wasn’t ideal. But the timing felt right. At this point in my life, I had the money, my health and the opportunity to travel solo and I knew the adventure that had been in my head for 26-years was going to become a reality. Read more about my tips on why I choose to occasionally travel solo even while married HERE.
For me, it was essential to trek the Inca Trail so I could have the complete experience. If you have some questions about whether the trek is something for you, read HERE, where I answer some questions in more detail. While there is a train to Machu Picchu, and you can also stay the night at Aguas Calientes and take a bus the next morning, I’ll argue it won’t be the same rewarding experience as trekking to the sun gate yourself. Anyone who has done the trek knows the feeling.
While most people agonize about what type of trek to take, there was no question in my mind I was going to make the 4-day Inca trail. It’s the only trail where you can hike into Machu Picchu through the sun gate, and for me, it was more about the entire journey than reaching the top itself. The trek isn’t just about reaching the Inca ruins. The trail is a mysterious and transformative route with sacred wonders around every corner. When you see the suns’ rays hit the mountains, and you feel the breeze whistle up from the valleys you can feel the pulse of life with every step.
Along the way, you’ll find local farmers still tending to their land much the way their ancestors did to produce cocoa, corn, potatoes, and quinoa. Women weaving vibrant coloured handicrafts and clothing on wooden looms by hand and children laughing while playing in the fields while their parents work. Along the zigzag pathways towards the top, there are plenty of other ruins along the way all with their own sense of wonder.
Craggy walls of ancient ruins are peppered with holes of Inca graves, and the maze of pathways of ancient dwellings are spotted along the trail to the top. As whimsical and romantic as all this sounds the trek is hard and challenging. It was the rainy season when I went, and it did rain, a lot. Somehow this is a place that even in the rain has a mystical quality to it with with the views of low-lying clouds.
Physically, I didn’t find the trek too overwhelming. I’m not overly fit; I have never run a marathon, but I do work out three-four times a week. I’ve had three children, I’m in my 40s, and I made it pretty easily but out of breath at many points. Saying that – it was far from easy. Its’ a tough hike and you need to prepare yourself for that mentally. I think because I have completed a 21-day trek to Annapurna previously, I mentally knew what I was in for, despite my body being fifteen years older this time! If you’re looking for an honest account of someone’s experience who didn’t complete the trek, read this blog post by Practical Wanderlust, https://practicalwanderlust.com/?s=hiking+machu+picchu.
Disappointment At The Sungate
I’m not going into the trek day-by-day, as there are plenty of articles on this on the internet but I did want to share that the final part of the trek was disappointing and I’m not going to sugar-coat it. We started the trek early in the morning in the dark after a long night of heavy rain, and we already knew it was a long shot if the clouds were going to clear in time for us as we passed the sun gate. As we trekked to the final steps, my heart was pretty heavy as all we could see were clouds. Deep low-lying clouds and not an Inca ruin in site. It was not at all the image I had in my head for 26 years.
Breathe and Enjoy the Moment
It was at this moment, that I stopped, took in a deep breath and felt my entire body sigh. Physically my body was exhausted, my mind was disappointed, but my soul was soaring. It was at that moment that I tuned into what I had achieved. I was so exhilarated and humbled just to be standing in a spot where I had always dreamt of being, that all of a sudden the clouds didn’t matter. We trailed down to the looking platforms to the ancient Inca site, and my group and I stood and watched the clouds, hoping they would lift. I was just hoping my 4-day trek was at least going to allow me to see something that resembled the image from the cover of the book.
The Joy of Travel and My Why
Around forty minutes later, the clouds started lifting, and ‘THE’ view appeared. While I didn’t get the iconic photo, I was hoping for upon approaching the sun gate, the feeling of conquering this lifetime goal was more profound than I had expected.
When you first see Machu Picchu, it’s hard to explain the feeling. It’s an entirely overwhelming scene of whimsical mystic clouds, roofless temples, crumbling buildings, overgrown gardens and terraces, wrapped by the majestic guardian peaks of the mountains. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime journey that I was indeed humbled to be able to experience. It’s why I travel, and why I’m drawn to off-the-beaten-path travel experiences. It’s ‘my why’, and I can’t explain it any other way.
After the Trek
After the tour of the Inca ruins, everyone can take the bus back down the mountain to the cute town of Aguas Calientes. As we regroup in Aguas Calientes and meet up with the people on our tour, who trekked a different trail, the feeling of accomplishment is overwhelmingly satisfying. We’re all tired, dirty and sticky from dried sweat. We swap stories of the best and worst moments along the way which is slightly different for all of us, but the journey of completion is the same. We drink a celebration beer, we laugh, we exchange numbers, and we know it’s an achievement that was life-changing in some way for all of us.
For me, this journey was the top of my bucket list completed – tick! It’s why a bucket list needs to be yours and not copied from a favourite blog post just to get somewhere for a selfie shot to boost your following. It was very different from the vision in my head of how it was supposed to be and yet so much better in real life than I could have ever imagined. That’s travel for you…
“It leaves you speechless and then turns you into a storyteller!”
Now to the next item on my list… Any suggestions???