Machu Picchu (Thibault Houspic/Flickr)
It’s 4 a.m. on day two of my trek from the Salkantay Pass to Machu Picchu, and I’m unable to lie down or sleep. My head is throbbing, and my chest is starting to ache.
“I’m getting our guide,” my roommate Jennifer, a Salt Lake City nurse, says. “You’re not getting edema on my watch.”
I hadn’t slept much in four days, and I was nauseous. This was not the adventure I had envisioned. It was the holidays, and I was alone on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Peru.
No one travels solo over the holidays without a reason, and I was no exception. Divorced, single, and alone, I headed to South America to forget that I was a childless mother this Christmas while my daughters were with their father.
I arrived in Cusco, elevation 11,021 feet, two days prior to our departure for Machu Picchu and wandered through the San Pedro Market, watched an afternoon storm roll in over Qorikancha, and enjoyed a quinoa soup at Greens Organic. By nightfall, I showed the first signs of altitude sickness.
At the trek briefing (I booked with REI and Mountain Lodges of Peru.), I met my Peruvian guide, Pepi, and my travel companions for the next seven days and six nights. We were a band of misfits — five women and two men ranging in age from 23 to 60, all American. The next morning, we journeyed out of Cusco, where stray dogs scavenged trash dumps, up a winding, one-lane road to the start of our Inca pilgrimage route. Pepi had us take one slow step after another as we inched our way up to the Salkantay Lodge, our thatched-roof home at 12,690 feet.
Fleming and her oxygen. (Melissa Fleming)
That evening, I was at Pepi’s door pleading for help. He told me I was dehydrated, even though I had drained my 3-liter camel bag, and that I should never have taken Diamox for altitude sickness because it’s a diuretic. After struggling to fix a leak in the oxygen tank, he thrust the mask over my face for 10 minutes. The pain eased, but by 4 a.m., I needed a second dose.
I awoke worried that if my body didn’t adjust soon to the elevation, I would not be able to continue, but I was also feeling determined. I had purposefully picked an adventure that would challenge me physically as an adult, one that I could not have taken with an 8 and 10 year old, one I had to take alone.
The next day was the test: a 5-mile climb up to the Salkantay Pass. There was no shortage of huffing and puffing as we trudged up the taxing switchbacks. I was thinking only of moving myself forward and not stopping. Locals dressed in regular clothing and chewing on coca leaves rode or walked past us with ease.
Sometimes you have to just keep climbing. (Melissa Fleming)
I was at an elevation of 15,213 feet, surrounded in all directions by clouds. I made it to the top, I thought. Screw you, altitude! Owing to the chilly rain and clouds, we missed the views of the snowcapped peaks of the Vilcabamba range and Salkantay, but even so, I was intoxicated by my sense of accomplishment. I was standing higher than I ever had before in my life.
Slowing for my now gurgling stomach, I gingerly made my way down to our secluded lunch spot, where, dry and out of the rain, hot soup awaited. I dropped my pack and spent most of the break in the tented bathroom. When I returned pale-faced, my guide asked about my latest ailment. “And yet you’re still smiling,” he remarked.
I had suffered many setbacks recently with a financially and emotionally devastating divorce that turned me from a full-time parent and caregiver into a part-time one, from well-off to bankrupt. I had learned the hard way that I could not control everything. Altitude sickness, stomach distress, and dehydration — all potential risks, and some unavoidable — were not going to hamper my journey even if they hit me all at once.
Every step counts. (Melissa Fleming)
The next day, I felt stronger with each step as we descended into the oxygen-rich rainforest accompanied by butterflies and yet-to-bloom orchids. I was in entirely new terrain. For Christmas Eve lunch, we feasted on a Pachamanca meal, a traditional barbecue cooked underground by covering meat and vegetables with hot stones, plantain leaves, and Andean grass. I even sampled the guinea pig, a Peruvian delicacy that tasted salty and a little tough. (My daughters did not approve when I told them.)
Although I missed my kids and spoke with them during the trip, I wasn’t sad like I was during our first Christmas apart. That year, I had gathered with the rest of my family pretending it was Christmas as usual. This year, I was in an unfamiliar place with no memories of time spent together there, on my own adventure far from the customary holiday mayhem.
There were no presents on Christmas morning, just a fruitcake that was as unappetizing in Peru as anywhere else. Like any other day, we packed our bags and hit the trail, crossing rivers on crumbling wooden bridges and passing banana and avocado orchards along the way. A rockslide had washed away part of the trail at Loreto, forcing us to traverse the valley along a cable in an oversized crate, two at a time as Pepi pulled the rope.
Fleming on her journey. (Melissa Fleming)
On day six, I caught my first glimpse of Machu Picchu, across the way from the unexcavated Llactapata ruins. From there it was a two-hour walk downhill through rain, mud, and horse manure. Splattered and soaked, we caught the train to Aguas Calientes for a luxurious night at Inkaterra.
By 6 a.m., we were on the bus to Machu Picchu, or the “old mountain” in Quechua. It was easy to see how the city was lost for so many years: It was invisible from below, and little below was visible from the site. We had an unusually clear day with only scattered clouds over the distant Andean peaks. Our guide took us around the site for two hours before the crush of visitors arrived.
At my ticketed time, I entered Huayna Picchu, part of the archaeological site that is limited to 400 visitors a day. After climbing up the steep, slippery, stone stairs, grasping at the steel cables for assistance, and squirming through a narrow cave up to the top perch, I took a moment to pause, alone only briefly before a Spanish couple came and took my picture in exchange for theirs. I towered 1,000 feet over the enchanting Machu Picchu and the grazing llamas on the terraces below, feeling like a badass for coming on this trip by myself, for choosing the more difficult path to Machu Picchu, and for pressing onward in spite of a few physical setbacks.
I hadn’t had a chance to write as much in my journal as I expected or even reflect daily on the experiences. For the first time in my life, I simply enjoyed each moment, good or bad, as it happened. This was my first solo adventure in more than 20 years. I had once believed that my ex-husband was my source of adventure, not realizing that I had it in me to do it alone all along. I had found my strength again, far from everything familiar. I walked through more than 40 miles of horse droppings, mud, and water and came out smiling on the other side.
Video: Hiking Machu Picchu