the earth’s embrace: huayna picchu

words & images davina prabhu

The sun stung my eyes and cast a lasting heat on the crown of my head as I gazed up at the tall, pointed peak. "How was I going to find my way to the base of the mountain?" I wondered. I quickly traversed the ruins of Machu Picchu, taking abbreviated mental notes of all that I wanted to explore once I achieved my desired feat, the top of Huayna Picchu.

In Quechua, the native language of the Incas, Huayna Picchu means “young male mountain.” Hiking Huayna Picchu is a purposeful journey and a gift from mother nature, which the Incas call “pachamama." To preserve the land and the current state of the climb, only 400 people per day are allowed to climb Huayna Picchu. One group of 200 begins at 7am and the second group of 200 begins at 10am, and everyone is expected to finish the climb up and down by 2pm.

Purchasing tickets through the website is almost impossible, so I had made plans through a travel agency. It was early July, mid-winter in Peru, but the sun was still aggressive when I had arrived at the entry of Huayna Picchu before my scheduled 10am start time. I adjusted my layers of clothing and lined up with my fellow hikers. At seven minutes past 10am, I signed my name into a large book that recorded those who started, returned, and embarked on the pilgrimage.

Then I licked my lips, already salty from sweat, and entered the earth’s embrace: The dirt crumbled and my body pressed into the rock as I fit my limbs and fingers precisely into the grooves of the mountain. It was a physically strenuous climb and, in the moment, I could only think about what I was doing. I relished the rock, dirt, and plants as I relied on them and trusted them to get me to my next step safely. I focused on one breath at a time and one movement at a time, grateful to have prepared for the altitude by drinking tea made of fresh coca leaves.

Huayna Picchu is steep, but there are small surfaces every so often to take a break and let others pass. During these moments, I watched as those in the first group of 200 people descended past me, indicating how difficult the way down would be.

Finally, a sweep of wind alerted me to a break in the mount, and I hoisted myself into a wide, open space. At the top of the mountain, my body felt exposed and vulnerable, no longer in the cradle of Huayna Picchu. Hovering over the edge, I inhaled the view at 8,290 feet overlooking the lost city of the Incas and spoke a few deep wishes. And then it was my turn to head back down.

The narrow stones that paved the pathway down the mountainside were not fit to stand on independently. I had to slide down using my hands, feet, and backside. The anxiety and intrigue I felt on the way up had turned into peace and calm on my return, despite the fact that I was afraid of heights and had to look down. I started to move to a rhythm and at a steady pace, almost as if I were in a trance.

At the end of the passage, at twenty-seven minutes past noon and perched on the side of Machu Picchu, I signed my name again in the record book to mark the end of my journey. In that moment, I felt the unexpected emotion of being bound and embraced by the earth—I had connected with Huayna Picchu.

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