Finding More Than Ruins on the Inca Trail
Confession time — my favorite part of hiking the Inca Trail wasn’t Machu Picchu.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s a reason it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the people that voted it as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World knew what they were talking about. The scope of Machu Picchu is incredible, and having seen it in person through the fog of a rainy Friday morning, I can tell you that photos and videos simply can’t capture the expanse of the site. There’s no way to get a sense of the epic undertaking the Incas took in building it, nor is it possible to truly understand the remoteness of the location and the ruggedness of the terrain until you are surrounded by the jagged peaks of the Andes.
But I think the visitors that buy a ticket, take a bus to the top, and snap some classic photos are missing out on the entire point of the place.
We’ll never know if Machu Picchu was a research facility, a vacation home for the Inca emperor, a religious sanctuary, or — most likely — some combination of all three. But after walking the 45ish kilometers that make up the Inca Trail, it’s impossible not to see that the route was built as a pilgrimage.
The nameless people that laid the stones we still walk today were placing them to last for millennia, creating a path that blends perfectly with the natural world around it. Almost every step of the way hikers can hear flowing water, and every blind turn in the route seems to reward travelers with an epic view. Like one of my fellow hikers said, it seems more like CGI than reality, impossible to believe unless you see it with your own eyes. Every stone, from the layers of worn rock making up the Trail itself, to the massive, intricately built archaeological sites that cling impossibly to the sides of mountains, are seamlessly integrated with their surroundings. The Incas were more than just engineers or architects — they were artists in granite, expressing reverence to their gods in the form of structures undisturbed by the passage of centuries.
It’s also harder than I thought it would be, and I think that’s kind of the point.
Now, I have to admit, I think the climb to the highest point of the trail, Dead Woman’s Pass, is overrated. Its reputation for difficulty has been exaggerated by people without hard experience in the mountains. But even with the years I’ve spent carrying heavy loads in rough terrain, when I reflect on the route as a whole it seems designed to slowly wear down even the fittest hikers. The trail passes along exposed ridges where the alpine sun burns your skin and dehydrates your body. My shirt bore streaks of salt from my sweat at the end of the first day, and after that first day’s final ascent my quads twitched from exertion. The second morning dawned cold and stayed cold; a late morning rainstorm turned to hail as we hiked down from a pass. I shivered and my hands went numb as I raced to throw on my puffy, missing the heat from the day before.
I’m sure to some extent this description is a romanticization of the facts, and I hate to be that guy that talks about the spiritual journey he experienced on the Inca Trail. But the long hours of hiking and the short hours of sleep each night really did serve to soften me and drive me to introspection. I found greater joy in smaller things, from morning cups of tea to taking off my pack at the end of each day and enjoying popcorn before dinner with my friends. I found common ground with people that were different from me, and learned more about the why of things instead of just the thing itself.
That’s why I don’t think this essay is really about Machu Picchu, the same way hiking the Inca Trail isn’t about the famous destination at the end. It’s about the process of making a pilgrimage. No matter what that means to you, I think there’s a reason every major world religion encourages its adherents to undertake a spiritual journey. I also think there’s a reason very few Westerners undertake their own pilgrimage. Who wants to risk being broken down, even with the vague promise that you’ll be rebuilt in the end? Life is hard enough as it is, without adding additional difficulty, right?
I’ve said it before, but I think it’s worth repeating: the point of these posts isn’t to try to tell anyone how to live their lives. But I will tell you how I want to live mine — I want to do more things that reignite the part of my spirit that seeks to do difficult things for good reasons.
I’m not talking about doing a Tough Mudder alone just so I can post a picture of myself on Instagram. I’m talking about intentionally breaking myself down so that I can come out the other side as a better version of myself. I’m talking about doing challenging things with others so that I can find a more vulnerable version of myself. I’m talking about building friendships through shared hardship and shared victories, so that even if something is easy for you, you can celebrate its difficulty — and your friend’s ability to conquer that difficulty — with others.
So, what was my favorite part of the Inca Trail? The second night, after dinner, staring up at the bright streak of the Milky Way across the dark sky, flanked by one friend that I’d known for a decade and a half and another friend that I’d known for a day and a half. I realized it was the first time I’d paused to truly wonder about the stars for as long as I could remember. And it was the moment I realized I’d become a better person from doing the hike.
People tend to think of the Inca Trail as a single vein leading to Machu Picchu, the heart of the empire. That couldn’t be further from the truth. The heart of the Inca Empire was in Cusco, and the Incas built not one Trail but thousands, a spiderwebbing network of routes that mostly remain buried in the jungle, still undiscovered. And that means that maybe, somewhere out there in the Peruvian Andes, there’s another Inca Trail for me to hike. At least that’s what I hope.
Regardless I know I’ll be back, one way or another.
Note: all of these phenomenal photographs are shared from my friend Steven Gray, a photographer based out of Pensacola, Florida.