The Andes, the world’s longest mountain range (longer than the continental United States is wide by 1,000 miles), finds its midpoint in Peru, whose Incan ruins first captured my imagination in college. Eight years after that “Art of the Americas” course, my brother and I are in the Andes, plodding along their narrow rocky paths, stopping regularly to inhale oxygen from the thin air, a precious resource at 12,000 feet above sea level. And I’m cold—and getting colder.
We are taking the Lares Trek to Machu Picchu, a labyrinthine city hidden from the plundering conquistadores of the 1500s by green mountain ranges and good civic planning. Unlike its main rival, the Inca Trail, it offers no camaraderie with other Westerners, save others in your tour group. (Our group comprised me, my brother, and a young British couple.) We have trekked for two days, and the only people we have passed are Andeans. They live in the Sacred Valley, surviving by farming and selling simple wares.
Packing as I had been in the muggy Midwest, it was hard to imagine pulling on fleece thermal underwear in the middle of August, as REI’s “Lares Trek gear checklist” recommended. But the end of summer in Chicago is the end of winter in Peru. And now, on this second day, our porter is taking us through Condor Pass, at 15,150 feet the highest segment of the trek. As we approach, we look up, hoping to see Andean Condors riding the thin air above us—but raindrops, then snowflakes, then hailstones spit into our faces. We keep our eyes down, on our boots hitting the ground in front of us, lest the wetness slip us off a cliff. Damp and cold, we reach the top and snap a few photos before quickly descending ...
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