On Top of the World

Photo I took October 1999, on a ledge overlooking Machu Picchu. That is Huyana Picchu in the distance.
Photo I took Oct. '99, on a ledge overlooking Machu Picchu. Huyana Picchu in the distance.
Confession: I’m fat in one of my favorite photos, and I’m not afraid or embarassed to share it with you today. The photo you’ll see in this entry means the world to me, embodying everything I want to be–regardless of my size.

The fall of 1999, I studied abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina, one of the most amazing experiences of my life. While I loved every inch of Argentina, my host family and my university, I wanted to explore more of South America.

I’d dreamed of traveling to Peru and visiting Machu Picchu ever since I started taking Spanish classes my freshman year of high school. Everything about it just mesmerized me, and when the opportunity to go to Peru arose that semester abroad, four friends and I jumped on it.

We plotted and planned for weeks, and before we knew it, we were on a Lloyd Air Boliviano flight from Buenos Aires to La Paz, Bolivia, where our trek to Peru would begin (via Lake Titicaca, straddling both Peru and Bolivia, and Cuzco, the ancient Incan capital).

They call Machu Picchu a spiritual vortex, and to be honest, I didn’t believe it until I was actually there. Something literally transforms you.

Machu Picchu stands nestled high in the Peruvian Andes, a hidden Incan village until only the 1930s. There are only three ways of getting there from Cuzco: hike the three day trail, take a rickety 5-hour train ride, or take a 20-minute helicopter ride. Due to lack of time, we opted for the helicopter, and found ourselves with our noses pressed against the glass windows, our hearts thumping as the pilot skimmed the mountains, hurling us toward what appeared several times to be an imminent death. (Let’s just say visions of the book and movie ALIVE weren’t lost on any of us!)

Upon landing, we walked about a mile to the station where buses make a 40-minute trek from Aguas Calientes, the pueblo at the foot of the mountain, to the top of Machu Picchu. Imagine the most narrow, winding road your mind can ponder, and picture it on the bank of a mountain, bending and twisting all the way up to the top. Now imagine a packed, jerking, wobbling bus carrying you there. My heart was going a mile a minute.

Having just read The Celestine Prophecy, I had a feeling this entire experience would be particularly amazing. As we crested the mountain peak, I saw Huyana Picchu (the monstrous mountain opposite Machu Picchu) in the distance, and I just knew I was in a sacred place.

Mist rimmed the tops of the mountains and it felt like it could rain at any given moment, yet the sun would peek its head out of the heavy clouds, flirting with us as they day went on. It looked like there were people up on the terracing atop Huyana Picchu, but I couldn’t fathom how the hell they got up there. Little did I realize later that day I would have climbed to the top myself.

We had been signed up for a tour in English, but the guide was not the best and after walking around the ruins for about a half hour completely lost in our own thoughts, she announced that anyone leaving for the hike up Huyana Picchu had to go right away. She estimated travelling time up and back to be about four hours. None of us had heard about this option, and since we were fed up with our guide, we jumped at the chance.

Hiking up Huyana Picchu; I\'m in the green T-shirt
Hiking up Huyana Picchu; I'm in the green T-shirt
I wasn’t in the best physical shape so I admit I was a bit hesitant, but then thought: carpe diem… this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. And I knew the view at the top would be worth every bead of sweat dripped. I ran after them and never looked back.

The hike is not easy. People have died, as they couldn’t find correct footing and have fallen off the mountain. It is required that every single person attempting the hike signs in a log-book, with his/her vital stats. After logging in, we began the hike.

We were not in hiking attire, and we only had one small bottle of Peruvian water for the four of us. We hadn’t eaten all day, and Laura’s one ‘Milka’ chocolate bar was our only form of sustenance. But damn it, we were gonna do it. Huyana Picchu, the huge mountain directly across from Machu Picchu, was our challenge.

On top of the world\" at the highest peak of Huyana Picchu
On top of the world. At the highest peak of Huyana Picchu.
After two hours of solid climbing, physically and mentally drained, we finally got to the highest peak where I took this photo, my favorite. I call it “On Top of the World” because in so many ways, it was how I felt, and where I was.

Never before had I been so awe-struck with my surroundings. I soaked it up like a sponge, not wanting to leave. Never before had I felt such gratitude for my body, which had carried me to this peak. Or my mind, which had encouraged me to keep going, when my legs were aching and my back breaking.

We stayed at the top for a good hour, staring out in disbelief at these ancient ruins whose very existence high in the Andes literally defied all logic. It was hard to say goodbye.

The hike down was equally challenging, and we were dripping by the time we reached Machu Picchu and the ruins again. We were the last group to return that day and as we signed our names back in the log-book, pride radiated off my damp skin. I had done it. We had done it.

Because it was so late in the afternoon, much of the tourist scene was already gone and we were pretty much the only group left. We ambled around the ruins for a bit, and I pulled out my journal.

Engorging myself in the dream-like world around me, I wrote furiously and snapped photos, including the one at the start of this entry. It was, indeed, a spiritual vortex, and I finally understood it.

That day, I vowed to myself to return, and hike the whole Incan trail next time. I haven’t made it back yet, but I know I will.

I just keep thinking, if I could always embrace that body-love I felt climbing Huyana Picchu that day in October, 1999, I think I’d be a much stronger, healthier woman.

That day, I wasn’t a “fat” girl. I was girl who just climbed a mountain. And I had never felt prouder.

How about you? What was one of your proudest moments?


16 thoughts on “On Top of the World

  1. I love it! What an awesome story, and definitely something to remember when we aren’t satisfied with how our bodies look – what they can do is much more important!

    I hope to have the same feeling on top of Mt. Fuji this weekend, even if it is scheduled to rain – once we get above the clouds it won’t matter, right? 🙂


  2. Yasmin you inspired my post yesterday when you told me about Mt. Fuji. It reminded me of the mountain-climbing experience I’d had that changed my life–and it had absolutely nothing to do with my weight. Take tons of pics and share them, my friend!! 🙂

  3. Wow this is a wonderful story! Way to go, it shows that you had what it takes to go all the way, to face an obstacle and to overcome it. I love reading your blogs. Thanks for sharing that!

  4. Thank you, NoStarvingArtist!! I am glad I was able to reflect on that experience here. Odd how something 9 yrs ago can be so poignant now.

  5. Very cool story. We live a the base of some mountains in Haiti (which means Mountainous land) we take teams up the mountain behind us and I can honestly say that being able to do it is often a life changing experience … one time a girl was literally puking her guts out from the heat (always hot here) but she refused to quit — she made it to the top that day. It was a neat thing to see someone gut through it and watch it become the mental game of “I CAN do this!!!”

  6. Oh that is quite the story,Tara! Glad you were able to be there for such a big moment in her life (despite the sickness!)

  7. I’m 26 and 36 weeks pregnant tomorrow. I just wanted to say that no matter how young or old you are no matter how little or much you weigh, going to the doctors and standing on that scale and “officially weighing more than you ever have in your life” is a really hard thing. No matter how you look at it… “Oh but you are creating life…” blah blah blah… it’s still really very hard. I have gained 43lbs so far. I keep telling myself she will be worth it… and I know she will be. I do have to say that being pregnant has been a great experience and I wouldn’t give it back for anything in the world… even my pre pregnancy weight. I wish you all the best of luck when you do get pregnant… Just remember… hormones are a bitch. Try not to let the weight get you down… I know it’s easier said than done but being pregnant is amazing… and sooo very worth it!

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