Bucket List Travel: 40 Years to Reach Machu Picchu

By refusing to give up a lifelong dream, I finally had my Peruvian peak experience

By Suzanne Gerber
Originally Posted On July 24, 2013

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Suzanne Gerber is the editor of the Living & Learning channel for Next Avenue. Follow Suzanne on Twitter @gerbersuzanne.

Courtesy of Suzanne Gerber
I was 10 or 11 when I first learned about Machu Picchu and the fabled Inca empire far to the south. The images of that city of stone 8,000 feet above the Earth, hugged by jagged mountain peaks and shrouded in clouds, set my grade-school imagination reeling. I didn’t know when or how, but I knew that one day I would see that marvel in person.
 
I finally got my chance in 1989 — or so I thought. A friend was as keen to go as I had been for 20 years, and we started planning a trip. I was in my early 30s and figured I could handle all the trekking and climbing as well as the rustic sleeping accommodations necessitated by our modest budgets.
 
This was in the pre-Internet days (how did we make travel plans back then?), yet our primitive sleuthing still turned up two disturbing facts: The Shining Path terrorist group had grown active in Peru, and the country was in the clutches of a cholera outbreak. Machu Picchu would have to wait.
 
Over the next two decades, almost everyone I knew and their plumber was going to Peru, and my longings grew stronger. Yet some alchemical blend of wrong timing, limited funds and no one to travel with prevented me from making the trip.
 
Three or four years ago my son did a "gap year" in South America, working on organic farms in Argentina with WWOOF then traveling to five other countries, including Peru. Every time we’d Skype and I’d Google-image his locations, I swore that I’d meet him there, with the ultimate goal of joining him in Peru. Somehow seven months flew by: He was back home, and I’d never made it south of the border.
 
Boomer Bucket List: Machu Picchu
 
Earlier this year, a funny thing started happening. A number of new friends were all going to Peru: to the Amazon River, Cusco and the Sacred Valley. I’d hear their tales, see their photos, and my old yearning started bubbling up. This time it wasn’t a “wouldn’t it be nice” daydream. This time, something deep and powerful inside me was clawing its way to the surface. The pull to this place was strong, but stronger still was a newer element, one that hadn’t ridden shotgun with my travel urges before.
 
This new thing had a voice, and it said: “You don’t have forever anymore. Even if you could make the trip, you might not be physically able to do it the way you really want to.” I took heed, and started doing research — a lot of research. I was finally going to go to Peru, and I wasn’t about to compromise.
 
There’s a lot to see in that amazing country, and no shortage of ways to do them. While making my plans, I had a little talk with myself. I said to the value-minded part of my brain that when I had raised my son, I never denied him any toy, electronic gadget, article of clothing, vacation or summer-enrichment program his deserving little heart desired. Even when I didn’t think I had the money, I always found it. We never went broke, and I never went into debt. After crunching some numbers, I concluded that my once-in-a-lifetime ultimate dream trip, done in total grown-up style, would cost less than half a semester of his university education. Cut corners? Not on this trip. 
  
Taking the Dream Seriously
 
Once I cleared the money hurdle, I had one last biggie to overcome: getting in shape to climb my personal Everest, the monster of a mountain behind Machu Picchu, Huayna Picchu.
 
The trip was coming together fast, and I didn’t have a lot of time to "train." My (fit, twentysomething) son told me it was a piece of cake — and for him, it was. A friend who has climbed it several times told me that before every trip she resolved to get in shape for it, but she never did — and she never had a problem. But she’s 12 years my junior.
 
I started taking daily walks in the hilliest areas I could find. At the gym, I shifted my cardio workouts from the Elliptical to old-school Stairmasters and treadmills, set to the maximum incline levels. Each time, I upped the intensity and added a couple of minutes until I was easily logging an hour or more per session.
 
For me, part of the challenge was the mental endurance. So my last full day before the trip, I took a three-hour, 10-mile hike through multiple Brooklyn neighborhoods, including a loop around the slopey park. It felt great mentally and physically. I was ready to go.
 
I had also cut out wheat, dairy and alcohol for 10 days. They happen to be three of my main food groups, but I know they slow me down. In the service of getting stronger and healthier for the trip, it wasn’t hard at all to give them up.
 
Twin Peak Experiences
 
Before I headed to the Sacred Valley, I wanted to spend some time exploring the Upper Amazon. I’d read a classic book about a native healer from that part of the world, and felt an equally strong draw. Yet a big cruiser on the Brazilian Amazon never appealed to me. I wanted something smaller and more intimate, a boat that could worm its way into tiny tributaries and get me really close to wildlife. I booked one of the most grown-up trips of my life, with Aqua Expeditions. For four unforgettable days and nights, exotic tropical birds, lizards, monkeys, sloths and fascinating bipeds from the United States, England and Japan were the stars of our floating jungle safari.

Every morning we'd leave the luxurious "mother ship" and venture out in small, well-built skiffs. Each day we had a different guide (all of them hail from the Amazon) who had qualities of the very animals we were looking for: eyes like a hawk, a sense of smell like a kingfisher, hearing like a howler monkey. From 100 feet away they could spot a three-toed sloth hanging from a high treetop or a lazy lizard basking on a branch. For many of us, a highlight was the day we found the pink river dolphins and tried to swim with them. (No luck, but we did get to paddle with locals in their hand-carved dugout canoes.)

In between excursions, we feasted on gourmet treats and bottomless pours of wine. (I was back to my old habits, but because, technically, we never asked for refills — they were automatic — we joked that we only had one glass of wine the entire trip.) And in the evenings, we'd table-jump to chat with all our new friends. One night we learned to make Pisco Sours, the national drink. The last night some of the crew displayed their other talents — musical — and we boogied till the wee hours in the air-conditioned lounge.
 
I wanted to extend the boat trip, but Machu Picchu beckoned. I didn’t have time to do a proper altitude acclimation in Cusco, the way most people do, which would have been a good idea. Instead, I got up to the town closest to the ruins and treated myself to five-star luxury at Inkaterra hotel, which was a mini-vacation in and of itself, with its 500-plus orchids on the property, bird- and bear-watching excursions, world-class spa, soul-soothing furnishings and Peruvian-French fusion fare.
 
It was early bells the next morning. I boarded the bus that would finally take me to my goal. When I stepped foot on the citadel of Machu Picchu, the clouds were just rising like smoke rings between the Andean peaks. The sky was an impossibly bright periwinkle blue; the air was as light and fresh as spring water. I drank it in, did a 360-degree look around me, and burst into tears.
 
Four decades I had dreamed of this day. Eleven-year-old me, 32-year-old me, 45-year-old me, as well as my present self stood together on the citadel and surveyed the magnificence of this ghostly place. It was more beautiful, more evocative, more humbling than I could have imagined. For maybe the third time in my life, I was speechless.
 
My guide and I headed straight to Huayna Picchu — only 400 people are permitted to climb it per day (reservations are required). I didn’t race up the steep, punishing mountain slope like my son had. Carefully, like a wise old goat, I planted one foot after another, stopping frequently to catch my breath. (The altitude was affecting me a bit more than expected, but only enough to slow me down, not stop me.)
 
When I reached the top, the sense of accomplishment was as if I had actually scaled K2. I heard a woman’s voice saying to an unseen companion, “My husband and 27-year-old daughter didn’t want to do this, but I wasn’t going to miss it, so here I am.”
 
But for some reason, though she had gotten within 10 feet of the tippy-top, she didn’t feel she could scramble up the rock I was perched on. I extended my hand. “C’mon, let me help,” I offered. She demurred, but I encouraged her to take the final few steps. “You’ve come this far. Bragging rights are up here.” I pulled gently as she stepped up and gained the perch. Then we fiftysomething women sat together on the rock and surveyed the peaks and ruins way up there in cloudland.
 
What Happens After You Live Your Dream
 
Climbing down was no denouement. In some places it was harder than the ascent. We passed an older couple: a fellow with a NASA cap and his silver-haired female companion. My guide told me earlier that the oldest person he had escorted up the mountain was 70. He was curious how old they were, so he asked.
 
“I’m 71,” the man told us proudly, and my guide commented that he was probably the oldest person on Huayna Picchu that day. “Nope,” he said with a broad smile, pointing to his partner. “She’s 76!” Everyone within earshot stopped for a second and flashed them a smile or a thumbs-up.
 
The rest of my time at Machu Picchu was sublime but impossible to describe as it sparked feelings I have no language for. It was everything I had ever hoped it might be, and 100 times more. Now that I’m home, I’m not sad that it’s over. I feel like I’ve added something new to my life and my way of being in the world. The mighty Amazon, the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu are part of me now. I have only to close my eyes and breathe deeply to return to those places of unspeakable grandeur. I know I’ll be back, yet at the same time, I know I never really left.
 
5 Tips to Make the Most of Your Bucket-List Trip
 
1. Do lots of research. Guidebooks and the Internet are invaluable, but talk to like-minded (and -abled) friends to find out what they most enjoyed and what you can skip. To get a flavor and more background on where you're going, read historical or literary books. I read about a curandero in the Amazon and Hiram Bingham's rediscovery of Machu Picchu. Both brought the places so much more to life for me. 
 
2. Treat yourself to quality. I cannot emphasize this strongly enough. I have done budget travel all over the world: I’ve camped, hitchhiked, slept in train stations and eaten out of vacu-sealed bags. But now in my 50s, I have finally reached the stage of life where I don’t feel guilty about a little self-indulgence. Boats like the M/V Aqua, hotels like Inkaterra and Monasterio, the "destination hotel" where I stayed in Cusco, make all the difference in the world. Not just their beauty and comfort, but the kind of service you want (and need!) after long days of travel. I've heard of people starting "bucket list savings accounts" just for this purpose, sometimes cutting out a single expense (e.g., taxis, restaurant dinners) and reallocating the funds for the future vacation.

3. Be prepared. Like a good scout, you don’t want to be caught off-guard. Don’t let wishful thinking influence your planning. Bring rain gear, walk in your hiking shoes before packing them. Prepare for all kinds of weather and contingencies. Bring medicines, snacks, printed materials and more backup batteries and chargers than you think you might need.
 
4. Have realistic expectations. I was proud of myself for being able to climb Huayna Picchu, but it’s not for everyone. Find out what all the different activities entail, and be honest about what you can handle. And don’t try to cram everything into one vacation. Think quality over quantity.
 
5. Take photos, keep a journal, make a legacy album. It’s a fine line between “being in the moment” and preserving precious memories you’re not likely to repeat. I think the trick is choosing your moment to take photos or journal (awkward as a verb) about the experience but not becoming obsessed with chronicling every second. But even if you’re camera-shy, force yourself to snap at least a few images. As one of my friends says, “If you don’t like a photo of yourself, look at it again in 10 years.”