Grinny's Peruvian Adventure
The Best of Peru 2002

Facing my fears in Peru

By Michael Nejman 2002

I'm deathly afraid of heights, so imagine my surprise as I stood in front of Huayna Picchu - the towering mountain that overlooks the world famous archeological site Machu Picchu -  ready to scale it with three friends and our guide, Carlos.  

Huayna Picchu is pictured below in the background of Machu Picchu, where I met the most charming llama.

Our climb would be a steep, difficult ascent made more challenging by the high altitude.  This would not be a technically difficult climb because there's a well-maintained trail to follow; but for someone practically paralyzed by steep drops, the next couple of hours would be spent with my heart in my throat and a constant strain to fill my lungs with oxygen.  

My friends, Steve & Katie Nowik (of Elk Grove, IL) and Jim Robinson (of Urbana, IL), and our local guide Carlos, started our climb at 9:30 am on the morning of June 12.  Our climb began with our signing in at the control point.  Our guide reminded us that if someone is determined to be "missing," the local park staff doesn't look for the person on the trail, but rather at the base of the mountain.

The trail was thin, winding, and really damp, so the slick rocks made for an extra challenge.  Back home, I work out six days a week, including running, jogging, biking, and weightlifting.  None of this advance training prepared me for this grueling sixty-minute vertical climb.  When I first heard that the climb was only about an hour, if we kept pace with our guide, I felt some relief.  It didn't take much time though, for me to realize how long an hour actually could last as I constantly stopped to catch my breath.  

As I approached the mountain and craned my neck to see it's top, I kept thinking that I'd go as far as I could and return if it got too scary.  No harm in trying, I thought.  In the back of my mind though, I had little confidence that I could make it to the top.  I felt this goal was far too challenging for someone with my fear of heights and apparent limited lung capacity due to the high altitude.  I would soon learn though, that dealing with fear is being able to outwit yourself.

Here I'm standing in front of the Royal Tomb, just below the Sun Temple at Machu Picchu.  Note the intricate carving of the stones in the background, which fit perfectly between the pre-existing granite rocks.

As our group trudged along the trail, I took the climb step-by-step, never thinking too far ahead and NEVER looking down.  In fact, I spent a good portion of the climb with my eyes glued to Carlos' brand new, bright red Converse gym shoes, as he stepped up the rocks just ahead of me.  This was Carlos' 37th ascent on Huayna Picchu.  

At about the half-way point, the view of Machu Picchu became more distant and the snow-capped Andes, on the horizon, were more visible.  The view distracted me and my fears started to wane.  One member of our group, troubled with altitude sickness, stopped along the trail and found a place to enjoy the view, rest up, and journal.  The rest of the group made it to the top after squeezing through a cave that was so small and tight, it was like being re-born.  I had imagined the top of the mountain being flat and plateau-like allowing one  to walk about.  Instead, it was just a series of big boulders you had to carefully negotiate.  At first I clung to the rocks and "spider-walked" around, still not quite confident with my ability to cope with the steepness of the mountain.  But after about ten minutes, my confidence grew and I was actually able to stand up to shoot some photos.  Then after about fifteen minutes, we started our descent, so that we could catch our ride back to town.  The climb down took about 90 minutes.  One would think, with the assistance of gravity, the climb down would be faster than the climb up.  But the slippery rocks dictated a very careful, slow descent.  

During this entire episode, the soundtrack of Peru, specifically the song "El Condor Pasa," played in my head.  This song is the definitive Peruvian anthem that every local group of musicians performs daily at restaurants and town squares throughout the country.  The first hundred or so times you hear it, it's charming.  After awhile though, it becomes a tortuous tune similar to those annoying, infectious ice cream truck ditties.  Luckily, it hadn't achieved that status in my mind just yet.

Below is one of the largest known Incan cemeteries in Peru, located in Pisac.  Like the Valley of the Kings and Queens in Egypt, this cemetery is a series of caves where early indigenous people  buried their dead.

Just like in Kenya, where some of the tribes harvest the skulls of their ancestors and store them in caves, many Peruvians do something very similar.  The photo below was taken in a home near the Inca Fortress of Ollantaytambo, one of the few places where the Spanish lost a battle during the conquest of Peru.  The family had two alters within their home.  Each had the a pair of skulls, one of the paternal and the other the maternal grandparents.  The skulls were adorned with flowers and offerings and lit by candles.  A warm, wonderful reminder of those family members who passed this earth before us.

While in Lima, I visited the catacombs of the Monasterio de San Francisco, a well-preserved colonial church finished in 1687.  There was once 25,000 to 30,000 monks and people buried in this underground massive tomb, but now only a few bones remain. 

I want to close this Peruvian account with the image below of an Incan mummy on display at Lima's National Museum of Anthropology and Archeology at Bolivar Square.  I somehow felt a connection to this poor soul as his grimacing face reminded me of my workload awaiting back home.

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