On the third day of my week in Peru, I woke up to the sound of firecrackers. I was staying at a small Inn in Cuzco, the traditional stop for travelers readying themselves for the four-day hike along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. I was headed for the Lost City of the Inca Empire myself, but I had a gentler, more solitary exploration planned, and the firecrackers fit in perfectly. The pop-pop-pop could only mean one thing. I confirmed my hunch with the woman behind the front desk. "Sí," she said, "Santa Rosa."
Santa Rosa of Lima was the first person to be canonized in the Western Hemisphere, so she holds a special place for those in Peru, where her feast day is celebrated as a public holiday. I scurried down a flight of stone steps onto a narrow sidewalk just in time to watch a neighborhood procession of the faithful disappear down a thin thread of a street, balancing the bobbing icon of the saint on their shoulders, the sound of tinny horns blasting their tribute.
I’m attracted to the serendipity of solo journeys, so when another traveler told me that if I stayed in Cuzco an extra day I might see the town turn out for their saint, it seemed too good to pass up. I continued my walk down a street of wooden balconies that sagged from the weight of their own carvings and past tiny stands that offered film, water and candy for turistas.
I know it’s fashionable to decry tourists, but I embrace my inner tourist when I travel alone. "Here I am," I want to say. "Tell me everything. Show me everything."
Here is what I saw from the back pew of the Santa Catalina church, in the San Blas neighborhood of Cuzco: a man and a woman fussily arranging white gladiolas to be placed around the altar. A woman with dark hair swept back from her lined face kneeling in the front pew. A gray-haired man pushing open a groaning glass door, the sun shining through its panes. The sound of trumpets returned, and, to my delight, the procession I had seen only from the back marched into the church, led by a posy of girls, their dark hair in ringlets and placards of the saint tied around their necks with ribbons. Flashbulbs popped as parents took pictures. A little dog zipped down the aisle, barking reprimands, quickly followed by a stout nun with an Andean face, her gray habit flapping behind her. I couldn’t have been happier.
First, Some History
I had reached a point in life where an empty vacation week loomed more as an accusation than a giddy prospect. No clamoring family had made me pine for uninterrupted days; a recent move to New York had separated me from the friends I could usually coax into going on one trip or the other with me. In fact, the last time I had traveled by myself for pure pleasure, I had been only a year out of college, a travel stripling convinced that if I didn’t go to Europe right away, I might never get there. So I blithely charged a two week trip to London and Paris, and after a lonely seven days in England, I boarded the ferry for France.
When I arrived at the Gare du Nord, I mistook craftiness for kindness in the ministrations of a man who helped me get through a sticky turnstile in the Métro. He did more than that, of course, by making off with my cash. I walked out into a light rain and realized that my turnstile acquaintance had even taken my Métro pass. I began to cry, more out of shame than anything else.
And that’s when I felt a tap on my shoulder. "Excuse me," I heard in plain Midwestern English. "Are you American?"
Thus began my first tutorial in the joys of solo travel. I was handed off from helpmeet to helpmeet—an American expatriate who gave me a Métro ticket, a French high school student, his Swiss university girlfriend, a handsome gendarme wreathed in the smoke of many Gauloises. By dusk, I had a renewed faith in fellow travelers, a hotel room for the night and 10 francs, the latter quickly invested in a half-bottle of red wine, a baguette and a small disk of Brie. I leaned out the window of my hotel room, surveyed the street below and knew what it was like to be the observer of the fabric of other lives, not sure where the thread of my own adventure would take me.
I remember enjoying that feeling, akin to waiting for the curtain to open on a stage, and wondered whether I could find it again in Peru. I had never been to South America, but that was precisely what I liked about going to Machu Picchu: I had never been to Paris before either, and that trip transformed my sense of the possible. Twenty years later, I was due for an adventure tune-up. I liked the idea of a ghostly city wrought by hand out of stone and then abandoned, the idea of walking around a set of mystical ruins called the Lost City. I was feeling a little lost myself. Who knew what I would find there?
A Sister Solo Traveler
One of the first things I did in Peru was hail a cab. No, really. The taxis in Cuzco are cheap, and I bargained with a driver to take me to the nearby town of Pisac. New Yorkers take note: I’ve had more scares on 34th Street than I did on the winding mountain roads that led to the famous Pisac Sunday market. I was too late to attend Mass—performed in Quechua, the language of the Inca Empire—which was followed by a procession through the town square, led by the mayor waving his ceremonial silver staff.
But I was there in time to wander the market. The vibrantly colored wares that choked the stalls would come to seem ubiquitous on my trip, but what I cherish now are my memories of the moments of daily life and trade, the sacks of potatoes and corn that peeked from underneath the tables, evidence that someone had come to buy their weekly groceries as well as sell sweaters and rugs to the whey-faced representatives of the Gringo Trail. I purchased an ear of freshly boiled maize—big, sweet, almost silver-white kernels dripping with green salsa—and longed for a reason to justify the purchase of some of the powdery bowls of dyes a wizened woman was selling at her table, jewel-like tones of sunset and russet and fuchsia and gold.
It was nice to linger over a late breakfast of fresh fruit and yogurt the next day in the courtyard of the Niños Hotel, where proprietor Jolanda van den Berg promises to "give you a story to tell." Van den Berg first came to Cuzco as a Dutch tourist in 1995 with her boyfriend, Titus Bovenberg. She came back by herself six months later, determined to do something for the local street kids, who know just enough English to break your heart. Today she and Titus are married and parents of two daughters and 12 adopted sons. They also run a foundation funded by their two hotels and four restaurants, which ensures that another 500 children get hot showers, warm meals and homework help every day.
The courtyard was so fetching—red and pink geraniums lining a stone floor, waving ferns echoing the green-painted woodwork—that I wanted to meet the woman who had created this respite for both tourists and street kids. I was also curious to know what she had gleaned from her own solo travels, from the step she took 10 years ago to return to Cuzco with nothing but a notion to help at least one child. Van den Berg is newly 40 and refreshingly frank. "It showed me that I could go to China if I wanted and live there too," she said. "It showed me that security isn’t everything. Just yourself is."
In the next few days, I would also put that notion to the test.
I suppose this is where I should make my failings plain: I did not hike for four days as part of my pilgrimage to Machu Picchu. I took the bus.
I count several hardy world travelers in my circle of friends, the kind who love to recall in what part of the world they received stress fractures or jellyfish stings. Not me. Athletic endeavor and I have long had an uneasy relationship—Michelangelo could have based the grief-stricken visage of Mary in his famous Pietà on my face in the Franklin Elementary sixth-grade softball team photo—and I wasn’t sure whether I could acclimate to the altitude and make the hike in less than a week. Plus, who wants to be the person in everyone’s snapshots remembered as "that woman who fell down the mountain"?
Clearly, I wasn’t alone. When I tore myself away from the luxurious confines of the Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel to catch the 6 AM bus in the center of town, every seat was filled. The goal was to get to the citadel early enough to see the sun rise over the mountains and to avoid the rush of day-trippers who’d soon flood the site. I was in a group led by Alberto Rengifo (or Beto, as he told us to call him), who took us on a 15-minute hike up a stone path to the Watchman’s Hut, the best place to take in your first view of the citadel.
It was hard not to wonder what the city looked like when American explorer Hiram Bingham first saw it in 1911—it was then covered in the vegetation that had kept it a secret for centuries. What remains is this: a phantom city of about 200 buildings pieced together with 18 different kinds of walls, a citadel marked with fountains, quarries and temples, all built on top of a remote mountain.
It was also hard not to wonder what the ancient inhabitants of Machu Picchu would have made of today’s trail revelers. While curtains of thick mist swept in and out, revealing the citadel and then concealing it, I could hear the shouts of those who had hiked the Inca Trail and arrived at their goal. "We made it!" I heard over and over. Beto smiled and told me that people wait all their lives to make it to Machu Picchu, that it is the culmination of a dream. "And I get to be there," he said, "when they reach their dream."
The hills that surround the city are ridged with terraces—some for agriculture, some for defense—and I sat on the edge of one, waiting for the fingers of light that played over the mist to brighten. "I’ve been here thousands of times," Beto said, "and it’s always different." Then the light grew stronger and the citadel shone before us, laid out like a treasure. When you’re there, you can’t help but think that it is a secret place, a sacred place, that maybe it wasn’t meant for whooping backpackers and bickering couples and a grumpy, middle-aged female traveling alone.
But when Beto assembled the group to move on, I was ready to get closer to the city, to touch the gray stones and the mountain that looms behind it, Huayna Picchu.
Falling Into Revelation
A few hours later, I was covered in dust and howling in pain, splay-legged on the path leading to the craggy green peak of the mountain.
You may be asking how I got there.
During the tour of the citadel, I found my gaze drawn more and more to the challenge before me: a mountain to climb. Only a few hundred people are allowed to scale Huayna Picchu each day, and you must register at a small booth, listing your name and age. The first time I had to pause and catch my breath, I started to question why they want to know how old you are—so they can tell the authorities when you don’t come back?—but the reward for being winded on this path is that you can stop and look around. And I didn’t want to stop looking around me, mesmerized by the green folds of the neighboring mountains, by the emerald tracery of the Urubamba River at the bottom of the valley.
I began to feel a sense of accomplishment as my feet pressed on the next rocky hold, as I grabbed and swayed with the rope banisters. As I got closer to the top, a white-haired man with sunglasses and a walking stick paused to appraise my fitness on his way down. "It just gets worse," he said, cackling. "It goes straight up! And there’s a cave!" I grimaced and kept climbing. But I must admit that he had a point: It did get steeper. And there was a cave. With hikers behind me, I didn’t have much time to think, so I shimmied my way through the small opening and came out the other side, dust-covered and resplendent with my achievement. I hate heights and small spaces. What was I doing here?
The answer was on the top of the mountain. At least, that’s what I thought. I drank in the overview of the citadel city, its elegant stones shimmering in the sun, and when I was rested, I began my descent. I was feeling good, a little cocky even, as I swung on the rope banisters like a character out of The Jungle Book. At one point, there was a blessedly fl at plain of path and I charged onto it with relief—and that is when I fell, hard, on both knees and my right thumb, the pain so intense that I couldn’t right myself. I sat for a while, contemplating the fact that I had fallen on the only level portion of the path.
"This is so like me," I finally say out loud and laugh. If I had wanted to find a home truth on this trip, it would be this: It’s rarely the stuff you think will be hard that gets you. It’s the stuff that’s supposed to be easy. And I find, as I limp back down the mountain, that I am already crafting the stories I will tell about the llamas that blocked my path at Machu Picchu, about the Catalan woman who sells sweaters in Cuzco, about the orchids I saw at the tea plantation in the village of Machu Picchu.
On my next trip, I would like to see the Amazon. Solo.
Originally published in More magazine, December 2005 / January 2006.