I Hiked The Inca Trail After Losing My Dad

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This article was created for The Travel Project by Sara Straw, a 31 year old part time event planner and part time adventurist.

For many years the idea of going to Peru and hiking the Inca Trail was in my heart and on my mind. I would occasionally test my endurance by hiking local trails, check flight prices, refresh my Spanish and seek advice from friends who had gone on similar journeys. However, anytime I would get close to booking, something would come up causing me to not go.

Finally, in September 2016 I booked it.

I officially was going to spend 10 days in Peru including a 4 day trek to Machu Picchu with Contiki. My solo trip would be in September of 2017. I had a full year to prepare. Trail runs, stair steppers and dieting became a way of life. After all, if I was going to push myself to what I thought would just be my physical limit – I was going to be prepared.

Little did I know, my preparation would be derailed and my life would completely fall apart. On June 24, 2017 my father passed away.

After 8 years of constant health battles and scares, lung cancer ultimately took his life. I didn’t care about waking up, going to sleep, eating, let alone going on some trip. I was at the brink of cancelling when – after talking with family & friends – I realized that cancelling this trip would be the last thing my dad would have wanted. In fact, he would have been so disappointed if I had put my dream aside. So I decided to keep my plans, and make this trip more than just proving I could physically do it. I wanted to use this trip to awaken my heart, my soul and to feel again.

RELATED: I STARTED HIKING AGAIN WHEN LIFE GOT TOUGH AND IT CHANGED EVERYTHING

It was crunch time! I had 2 months to get back on track. What do I wear? What equipment do I need? I had no idea. Luckily, there are a lot of blogs out there with great packing advice.

RELATED: WHAT TO PACK FOR A MACHU PICCHU ADVENTURE

The day had finally arrived. My 23 hours of travel was about to begin and I couldn’t be more excited! Okay, sure…I wish the amount of time spent eating airport food was less but I was heading to Peru! Greeted with Coca Tea, I made my way to the hotel in Cusco where I would spend the next couple nights getting acquainted with other solo travelers on the tour, acclimatizing to the high altitude (this is no joke) and touring this beautiful city.

Coca-Tea-Inca-Trail

There were 5 of us in our group. Our guide was a Cusco native and you could just feel the love he had for his home. The passion, knowledge and excitement that would radiate from him while he would teach us about the culture, history and archaeological sites made the experience even more priceless. I already knew this was going to be the best trip of my life. As we crossed the Amazon River, I was in awe of everything I was seeing.

The men with their mules. The llamas, just doing what llamas do. The vegetation. The mountains. The river. Everything was perfect. I could’ve stayed forever, but I still had 25 more miles and 10,000 ft of altitude to get through before I reached my destination. The hike itself is tough. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s not at all easy. You need to be in somewhat decent physical shape and even then, you’ll struggle. As you start your journey through the Andes to your first campsite in Huayllabamba you will learn all about Inca steps. Jagged stone steps on steep inclines.

I cried, and it would be the first of many tears today. Not because I was sore, not because I wanted to give up: I cried because I was doing it. I was feeling again. This is what I set out to do.

The next day would test me. Not only was it physically demanding – you hike up those lovely Inca steps for 4 to 5 straight hours. But, mentally you really learn a lot about what you can handle. As my knees began to buckle and my breathing became faint (you hike 4,000 ft in elevation in 4 hours) my will to keep going was swiftly decreasing. Thank God for the amazing women in my group, for the most supportive guides ever and the insanely, bad ass porters that would jet by with all our luggage and equipment. Because of them, I was able to put myself in check and “get ‘er done”.

At one point on the mountain, I started crying and saying I was over it. It felt like it would never end. Then, a white butterfly – where there shouldn’t be any because we were so high up – flew around me and landed on my shoulder. Dad was looking out and trekking right along with me. We were doing it together.

RELATED: MACHU PICCHU WAS THE BUCKET LIST EXPERIENCE I NEVER KNEW I NEEDED 

I found a rhythm: stop to breath every 25 steps, drink water every 50 and keep positive. After 4.5 hours of uphill, passing through breathtaking cloud forests, we made it to Dead Woman’s Pass. It was an accomplishment that we were all so proud to have achieved. As we rested at the highest peak of the trail, we took in all the surroundings and prepared for what was next. Three hours down hill. Down Inca steps. If you think going up was hard, going down was a whole new challenge.

As we made our way down to our next campsite the views got even more amazing. From cloud forests at the peak to bamboo-filled, sub-tropical jungles in the valley – I never thought I would see all that I was seeing. On the fourth day, rise and shine was at 3:30 AM. Why? So we could get first in line at the check point when it opened at 5:30 AM – to be the first to start the 2 hour trek to the Sun Gate. We wanted to see the sun hit Machu Picchu at the perfect time and…we did. We made it to the Sun Gate within 1.5 hours.

We did it. I did it. We made it to Machu Picchu. The view from the Sun Gate brought me to tears. I had never seen something so beautiful, so breath-taking in my life. Was this real? Did I actually make it?

After the trek, we toured the ancient site and then I enjoyed a nice Apu burger and many, many beers. Hey, I deserved it. The next few days we would spend celebrating, touring more of Ollantaytambo and Cusco and enjoying our last moments together.

It’s been 2 weeks and I still can’t get over the fact that my body, my mind and my soul actually did it. I couldn’t have asked for a better group of travelers to have experienced it with either. They all were amazing and I was so proud of each one of them. Peru, you are a beautiful, diverse, rich, historic city. I will always cherish the time I spent exploring you.

Most of all, thank you for making me feel again.

Has travel helped you to learn to let go, or challenged you in some way? Share your stories with us here and you could see your work published on six-two…

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