They say a journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step. What they don’t tell you is that you’ve already started.
They say leap and the net shall appear. What they don’t tell you is that sometimes a leap is made by hundreds of small steps. This is what I found to be true as I made my pilgrimage to Apu Huascarán, the highest mountain in Peru.
I traveled to Peru alone on the 1st of May, 2019. I took a day in Lima to explore and soak in the culture before getting on an overnight bus to Huaraz, a town in the north central region of Peru. Lima was beautiful, crowded, beautiful, and dirty. The bus was harrowing. I had heard about the hairpin turns and crazy drivers, but it wasn’t until I was on the second floor of a double decker bus hurtling up the mountains that I understand what kind of crazy this was. I got up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom (a mistake I would not repeat) and had to hold on for dear life while on the toilet as the bus hurtled around turns. I nearly got sick until I lifted my own prayers for help and heard a voice remind me that I never get sick on boats and just to pretend I was on the water. My body instantly relaxed as I surrendered to the bumps and sways of the machine. When I woke up again, I was 10,000 feet higher than I had been the night before and I was moving slowly. I had planned to spend the day and night in Huaraz to acclimate to the altitude, allowing me to begin my trek the next day, which turned out to be a very good idea.
I should note here that when I did my research about Huascarán, I read a lot about el Parque Nacional del Huascarán, or in English, the Huascarán National Park. I thought that, like in the US, the land would be protected and there would be signs and probably an entry fee. I figured we would drive in, do a hike to one of the designated camping places, and then my guide would lead me away from all the people into an isolated and magical area where I could do my ritual and offering.
I was wrong.
My guide told me it would be a 5-hour trek and while that seemed more than I was expecting, I was up for it. I was all in for whatever lay ahead of me and I was already so far away from anything I knew that the only way to go was up. Literally.
We left my hostel at 6:20am, drove about an hour, stopped for some supplies and then continued to drive past humble buildings and a man tilling his fields with a wooden hoe and two oxen. We continued on another half hour and finally stopped in an eddy of the road by a cemetery.
“Oh,” I thought to myself, “how appropriate.”
We got out of the taxi, everyone adjusted the bags, packed up the few supplies we had just gotten and then bid farewell to the driver until a few days later. I didn’t have hiking sticks but was assured we would find some on the path, so with little to no breakfast in my body but a lot of faith, I laid down a kintu before departing and then began the climb UP the mountain.
After 10 minutes I was completely winded and tired. I was unsure if I was going to be able to accomplish this hike, but it didn’t really matter what I thought at that point because the taxi was gone and I wasn’t going to stop just because the air was thin. I had a liter of coca tea that the kind man at my hostel had suggested I make the night before, and that kept me from getting nauseated and suffering from headaches. So, although I wasn’t sick, I was lightheaded and tired. Light headed, tired, and determined. There had been months and months of weavings and unravellings that brought me to be in the position I was in that day and I was not going to blow it. In the words of Lin Manual Miranda, I was not throwing away my shot. So on I went, poco a poco, up the mountain side. I am proud to say that I accomplished the 5-hour trek in 8 hours, step by step, up to impossible heights.
A paqowachu is traditionally done alone, but as I had been called by this Peruvian Giant, I needed a guide. As spirit never fails, I was actually alone most of the time on the mountain because I couldn’t move quickly, or even at a normal pace, my guides were often so far ahead of me that I could not see them. It’s worth noting that they were never judgmental or annoyed or rushing me. Every time I caught up with them, they reminded me to go slow: “despacio, despacio.…” I was very grateful for their unfailing patience and kindness.
All photos by Amy Isakov
I tried to listen to music in order to help me regain some energy or motivation, but it actually made me nauseous. The only option was to listen to the mountain itself, to the waters tumbling down, to the birds, to the flowers, to the sound of the leaves rustling.
The beginning of the climb took us on “trails” through Eucalyptus Forests. I say “trails” as sometimes I couldn’t tell at all where the trail was.
As we passed through, I was grateful for every breath and for what I knew was the healing power of these amazing trees. Eucalyptus has healed me, my family, and my friends so many times, it felt like walking through the forest with an old friend. Eucalyptus is oxygenating and I felt the much-needed support in the high (and getting higher) altitude.
The first day was long yet I knew I would finish it in my tent on the mountain. No matter what, I would be laying my bones down in a warm and dry space on this incredibly beautiful bit of Earth. But not yet.