Published on February 5th, 2018 | by Ciara Johnson
Why hiking the Quarry Trail to Machu Picchu was the toughest thing I’ve ever done
Read time: a bit over 4 minutes
I’m the girl who can hardly breathe after walking up a flight of stairs. I’d never describe exercise as “fun”. I don’t hate physical activity, but it’s certainly not my favorite pastime; there are just other things I’d rather be doing.
At least, this used to be my mindset. After quitting my job and setting off to travel full time, I knew I wanted to challenge myself mentally and physically. I had plans to backpack through Central and South America for three and a half months, experiencing all that I could. This would be my first long-term solo trip, so I wanted to push myself outside of my comfort zone and do things I’d never done before. When I originally made plans to visit Peru, I knew that trekking to Machu Picchu would be the ultimate activity to cross off my bucket list; it would allow me to explore an ancient civilisation while pushing my self-imposed physical limits. So, I decided early on that this was something I wanted to do, no matter how much of a challenge it proved to be. At the time, I didn’t know hiking the Quarry trail to Machu Picchu would be the best decision I’d ever made.
I think I can, I think I can…
I told myself that I’d prepare for this 16-mile hike ahead of time by exercising more, but that never happened (but good intentions, right?). The night before the trek, I tried to give myself mental pep-talks as I stuffed my pack with liters of water and layered clothing, while battling with two very strong emotions: excitement and dread.
I’d arrived in Cusco only 24 hours before the trek, so my body didn’t have time to acclimatise to the drastic increase in altitude (we’d be hiking up to 4,450 meters). Nearly 15 minutes into the hike, I wanted to quit, as the air got thinner with every step I took. My muscles began to tighten, and I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to make it through the next three days without taking a mule up. But slowly, my body began to adjust; breathing became easier, and the soreness in my legs began to ease. I realized that I could do this if I stayed positive and kept going, regardless of how much I wanted to give up. I took breaks often, and began to trust that my body would do its job, and I found myself amazed at its physical capabilities, even when I felt incapable in my mind.
By day two, and to my complete surprise, I was actually starting to enjoy it, and I realized why people get such a kick out of hiking. Despite my desire to quit more than once, I felt both physically and mentally empowered. Once I silenced the doubts in my mind, I was able to connect with my surroundings and the people around me.
How good is nature?!
As soon as we hopped out of the van, I was amazed by the beautiful sights and sounds of the Sacred Valley. We’re often bombarded by SO much noise in our daily lives, which doesn’t allow much room to be truly present and connect with what’s going on around us. For three days, I was left without a phone and only a small portion of my belongings (kind of a rarity these days). I was able to truly observe and take in what was happening around me. I could appreciate things that I rarely see in my daily life: the foliage under my feet, the cool breeze that hit my face, the snow-capped mountains, the constant stream of water heard from afar, nearby villagers going about their daily activities. The fresh air that filled my lungs and the sight of varying landscapes aided in my desire to keep going. Although there were tough moments, the environment completely elevated my senses in ways that I never imagined.
That’s what friends are for
Hiking with strangers for three days could either be really good or really bad. It turns out that spending every minute with someone really speeds up the bonding process, and having others around me really raised my spirits when I felt defeated. I’d look at the people ahead of me and remind myself that I could keep going if they could. There was one girl who held the same pace as me the entire time, and I found her presence to be a real source of comfort and encouragement. She also admitted that she was happy to have me alongside her. We’d only just met, yet we were checking in on each other and cracking jokes as if we’d known each other for years. Tackling this challenging journey together allowed us to really connect with each other.
Despite my initial concerns, my decision to trek to Machu Picchu was second to none. It was the highlight of my solo trip throughout Latin America. I connected with nature, myself, and those around me in such a unique way. It showed me that we can almost always conquer anything, regardless of any self-doubt we may have. I completed the hike feeling inspired, connected, and rejuvenated, and I was finally able to understand why people find power in pushing past their physical limits. This was an experience I didn’t know I needed.
All images by Ciara Johnson.