Reflections on Adversity While Backpacking in the Andes

A confession: as much as I enjoy hiking in mountain ranges, I also enjoy hot showers, flushable toilets, and cleanliness. I had never heard of backpacking until moving to Colorado for college, and I don’t know if I’ll ever fully feel comfortable in the wilderness. That’s one of the best parts of the backpacking trips I’ve taken, though—pushing myself outside of my comfort zone allows me to learn and grow, as opposed to traveling to a big city where I could take hot showers twice a day. My most recent backpacking trip, on the Inca Trail in Peru’s Andes mountains, reminded me of the power of adversity.

While debriefing our four-day trek on the Inca Trail, one of my trip leaders brought up the topic of adversity, sharing his beliefs on how adversity makes us stronger. In relation to our trek, the difficulty of hiking in rain, wind, and sleet, with steep uphills, downhills, and nearly a 4,000-foot gain in elevation, made the first glimpse of Machu Picchu worth all the challenges of getting there.

The Andes as seen from the Inca Trail
Views from our last summit on the Inca Trail

Our group began our second day of hiking amidst rain, heavy winds, and the daunting knowledge of an uphill climb. We moved from our camp at around 10,000 feet to the top of Dead Woman’s Pass at 13,800 feet—our largest elevation gain on the trail before heading back down toward the valley of Machu Picchu. I had previously hiked at similar elevations in the Rocky Mountains, yet struggled to move forward on the trail when I could only see hills ahead of me.

Any experienced hiker or backpacker I’ve talked to says half the struggle of the climb exists only in your head. Despite not physically preparing for the trek as much as I could have, I told myself I would complete it. Throughout the cold and miserable weather on our second day, I reminded myself that reaching that night’s camp meant food and comfort. After the second day, we reached a halfway point on the trail where turning around wasn’t a realistic option—but this also meant we had covered over half the ground we needed to, and Machu Picchu suddenly felt much closer.

Incan ruins on the third day of hiking the Inca Trail
An Incan ruin site along the trail

Adversity also presented itself through the local people with whom we interacted prior to starting the trail. On a visit to the local Ccaccaccollo Women’s Weaving Co-op, the women who worked there sat outside with no jackets, bare hands, and sandals. In contrast, our group huddled in our Patagonia jackets, leggings, and warm socks. Many buildings in Cusco didn’t have indoor heating, even though June temperatures dropped to the 30s and 40s at night. Conditions such as the cold that made us uncomfortable seemed of little significance to the locals.

After four days on the Inca Trail and a few hours at Machu Picchu, a bus took us from the site to the nearest town, Aguas Calientes, where we then had to catch a train back to Cusco. The uphill walk to the train station only took five minutes, but felt like an enormous strain on my body. Post-trek, the Inca Trail’s physical demands manifested in my shaking legs, aching feet, and sore calves. Yet both the hike and our time in Cusco taught me that I could push past the limits I had previously set for myself, travel minimalistically and non-luxuriously, and appreciate cultural differences.

If I had the chance to do it all again, I still would.

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