Author: Valerie Paolucci

Exploring the Lost City of the Incas – Macchu Picchu, Peru, South America

As a self-proclaimed travel addict, I’m always looking to embark on the next crazy adventure. But with an irrational fear of commitment, a very
short attention span and extremely limited free time, I can never research or plan anything in advance. That’s why when I spontaneously signed up
to hike the Inca Trail in Peru two weeks, I wasn’t sure what to expect. All I knew about the country was that it boasted the world’s
longest mountain range, and that a Uruguayan rugby team crashed there in the 70’s, had to eat each other for survival (as depicted in in the film,


Whatever skewed expectations I may have had, they were far exceeded. As I watched our plane skim over the snowcapped Andes Mountains,
I knew this trip would be like nothing I’ve experienced before.

The countryside of Peru is absolutely astounding. The views are breathtaking – literally. At an altitude of up to 14,000 feet
above sea level, we often found ourselves short of breath. To combat altitude sickness, we had to chew cocoa leaves and hash – not
as fun as it sounds! At such a high elevation, the weather can also get pretty cold any time of year, especially at night. Luckily,
there are vendors selling fuzzy warm alpaca gear everywhere (and at a fraction of the prices you’d find in the States).

Views of Cusco

Views of Cusco

In order to acclimate to the altitude (read: party), we spent four nights in Cusco, the Southern Peruvian city that served as the capital of the Inca Empire
five centuries ago. For a place I had never heard of, Cusco had it all. Amidst ancient stone temples and natives tending llamas and
sporting traditional Andean dress, we found a ton of trendy cool restaurants and an awesome nightlife scene that doesn’t die down ‘til 6:00 AM on any given night of
the week.

The real fun started when we hit the trail. It’s hard to imagine four days of climbing mountains from dawn to dusk, in hot and cold
weather, through sunshine and rain, could be enjoyable, but it was, both physically and emotionally rewarding. Of course, there were times I couldn’t
believe I was voluntarily putting myself through such agony, however (at the risk of sounding like a cheeseball), being in a completely novel territory and able to
spend time with friends, uninterrupted by cell phones and television and other daily distractions, made for some real bonding. (Plus, there’s nothing
quite like laughing from your gut when your prissy friend falls into a muddy ditch at 4:00 in the morning.)

In fact, the Incas regarded the trail as a spiritual journey. They would usually walk it barefoot throughout the night for two days straight. Although my thoughts focused more on the number of minutes left until lunch than the delicate balance in nature, being in such an ancient peaceful
setting really offered me a new perspective. As a Westerner (and as a New Yorker in particular), it’s strange to be in a place where no one hurries,
where instead, people live in mountainside shacks, tend to their livestock and sell Gatorade for a living. I felt lots of mixed emotions, but above
all, I felt privileged to have had the opportunity to leave my chaotic life behind for a short while and experience such a different world.

Huayna Picchu towers above the ruins of Machu Picchu

Huayna Picchu towers above the ruins of
Machu Picchu

Just when we were sure we would die of exhaustion in this third-world country and that no one back home would ever find us, we arrived to the fascinating
Machu Picchu – one of the greatest marvels of South America, and the most visited tourist attraction in Peru.

Because the Incas did not possess a written language, not much factual information is known about Machu Picchu. It is believed to have served as,
among other things, a university, a country retreat town for Inca nobility, and a preparation place for women who were about to be married. (According
to our tour guide, there is also speculation that it was the site of sexual escapades between the Inca people and – that’s right – llamas). When the Spanish
conquered Peru and the Inca Empire in the 1500’s, they never found Machu Picchu. It was discovered in 1911 by American professor Hiram Bingham (who is
also notorious for robbing the place) and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983.

We explored the ruins in awe for hours and absorbed all we could of the Pre-Columbian culture before finally heading home (actually,
before heading to Costa Rica, but that’ll be covered in my next account). What had started out as a haphazard last-minute trip ended up being a
phenomenal experience and one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. So grab some Powerbars (and personal hygiene products, and hit the
trail for an experience you’ll never forget.