by William Karkowsky and Hasya Pearlman
Romance was the last thing my newly married wife and I were looking for when we planned our honeymoon. Honestly, we never thought of ourselves as the type to lounge on the warm sands of a tropical beach, umbrella-garnished cocktails in hand. Instead, we decided to book a trip with “Peru for Less” for what promised to provide some rugged, off-the-beaten track memories of a lifetime. On paper, our itinerary included a stint in the historic city of Cusco, hiking the famed Inca trail, and traversing through the misty cloud forest to reach the famed entrance of Machu Picchu. Like all good trips, we only thought we knew exactly what to expect.
After landing in Lima with an uneventful connecting flight to Cusco, we were greeted with open arms, warm smiles, and hot cups of coca tea by our driver and our unassuming tour guide, Edwin. Our first days were devoted to settling into our hotel and taking in the luxuries that our accommodations had to offer. We spent our mornings and evenings walking the streets of this historic capital, marveling at the sights, smells, and tastes of a truly new culture and way of life (our favorite of all three being a small falafel stand tucked in an alcove off the main square). Native Quechua women, with small children bundled close, sat on woven mats selling various sundries and famed Cusco winter hats. At their side, young, smiling children tended to the occasional llama. Suited businessmen and women walked purposefully side-by-side along these natively dressed Cuscoans, lining the wide boulevards and busy Central Square. Here, in this ancient city, the beauty of a thriving metropolis and the rich history of a past continental empire stood in beautiful harmony. Impossible to believe, until you actually see it.
Days before our hike, we prepared for our upcoming trek along the arduous Inca trail by ingesting questionably legal quantities of Coca Tea. Travel blogs and friends had all raved about the miraculous effects of this herbal remedy – “believe me” a friend mentioned “if you don’t, the hike and altitude, will take your breath away”….
We began our trek by van, snaking our way to Ollantaytambo by gravel roads, passing tiny villages, rolling hillside landscapes, and stopping for an occasional rogue llama along the way. The trip was quick, with Edwin our guide making thoughtful remarks about the history of Peru, the Incan people, and the archaeological significance of our upcoming adventure. We made a single stop, at a small quiet village – the apparent home of our porters. A group of 4 men, with the words “Wayki Treks”, our tour company, emblazoned on stiff- fitting baseball caps, waited outside the van. A few hugs, handshakes, and Quechua goodbyes were exchanged to those remaining family members seeing them off. The oldest among them, a gentleman in his early 60s with leathery skin and a toothy grin, kissed his son paternalistically on his head, before jumping into the car’s cabin, closing the the door with a resounding slam.
Early that afternoon, we arrived in Ollantaytambo, a favorite stop for gathering supplies for the rigorous hike ahead. Piles of fresh fruit, fantastic meats, and cheeses sat piled high on a canvas tarp in front of our van. My wife and I smiled, looking at our backpacks full of energy bars packed in anticipation, now – undoubtedly a waste of space– given the meals in store.
At the Pascacucho trail head to the Camino Inka (the Inca Trail), my wife, Edwin, and I stood sandwiched between a rushing river and railroad tracks, all of us heading the direction of Machu Picchu. Our porters rushed ahead, in an attempt to make camp. As we waited in line, I felt privileged to have obtained one of many highly sought permits allowing entry into the park, feeling as if we were about to enter into something amazing.
The hiking was long and, at times, arduous. Edwin and our small group traipsed up stone carved stairs, speaking little, but sharing our energy bars – a real favorite of our guides and our porters – while we walked. Truthfully, this first day, little conversation was made, but, the sights of the panorama and sounds of the wildlife filled the void. Our first night, we camped under the blackest sky with clear stars overhead. Dinner was an intimate affair, with an almost first-date quality. Our guide and porters, asking questions about our respective lives –the basics really: where we came from (Maryland); what we did in the states (just finished grad school); and what brought us to Peru (our honeymoon). Translations between English and Quechua occurred through our guide, with good humored laughter indicating clear, but multiple, misinterpretations by our porters.
On subsequent days, our hikes increased in intensity, but also in pay off. Climbing the Abra de Warmiwanusca on day 2 (“Dead Woman’s Pass”), the natural beauty of the Andean mountains stood in the distance, contrasting sharply with the green rolling pastures just days before. Rich archaeological sites lined our trails, with any extra time spent discussing of the rich Incan civilization that once flourished there. Exhausted from tough travels on this second day, we made camp by the cascading waterfalls at the foot of Pacaymayo Valley. That night, we learned even more about our guide and our porters. Conversations broadened, as we talked about a wide range of topics, Peruvian and non-Peruvian alike, learning not just about the past of the country, but also its present, and its future.
Our last full days of hiking were slow and methodical. Calf muscles ached, Achilles tendons burned, and shoulders cramped. However, regular breaks at each of the numerous Incan ruins interspersed along the path, made the time move quick. Our tour guide’s descriptions about the Incan’s pervasive understanding of math, science, medicine, art, and agriculture, helped take the mind of our day-to-day aches and pains. At each stop, we rested, joked, laughed, and partook in cups of warm coca tea.
The last evening was spent in anticipation, as we prepared to for the highlight of our journey, a twilight trek to the sun-gate, the royal entrance to Machu Picchu. As we started to bed, however, out walked our elderly porter, his toothy smile spread wide, with a single tiered cake held out in both hands and frosted with the word “Wayki Trek” – per our guide, an honorary cake for our wedding and our accomplishments. Edwin and our 4 porters stood around, singing a Quechua wedding song, with this elderly man concluding the tune with a kiss on my wife’s forehead. That next morning, we crested the hill, overlooking the mountain inset with Machu Picchu. The sun was overhead illuminating the breathtaking city. At that very moment, almost more than our wedding itself, it dawned on me, a new chapter in our life had begun, one with new adventures, new experiences, and new friends. What could be more romantic than that?