Machu Picchu: A Natural High

A Natural High - Machu Picchu

The shaman met us at our hotel in Cusco, after all the other guests had gone to bed.

He was small with dark skin and a broad open face typical of the indigenous Quechua people. He was dressed simply with a baggy wool sweater and a colorful alpaca hat and he exuded a humble calm. He smiled easily and often, revealing a mouth of teeth stained from years of chewing coca leaf.

Jill Cruse and I were leading an Olivia expedition of 20 women to Machu Picchu, and Julien had been recommended as someone who could help us connect with the local traditional culture. Julien spoke little english so I translated, explaining that we were a group of lesbian travelers, hoping to set up a traditional ceremony for a few of us. We were traveling with professional tour guides and had a full itinerary of visits to archeological sites and cultural experiences, but we also wanted to give our guests an option to access the more sacred, spiritual side of Machu Picchu. We explained that our guides had dismissed this idea when we brought it up, and that we had been informed by multiple sources that ceremonies were impossible. We were told “you just can’t do that kind of thing anymore.”

Julien listened calmly, occasionally chewing on the coca leaf he held between his teeth and gums. He seemed at ease with the idea of a bus-load of lesbians and undaunted by the rules against ceremonies. He smiled a slow coca leaf smile and told us, “If the right people go there with the right energy, anything is possible.” He asked us only to make sure that we kept the group small, so that it only included the people who really wanted to be there and who would hold the right intentions in their heart. We agreed and made plans to meet him in a few days in Aguascalientes at the foot of Machu Picchu mountain.


Our adventure had started in Lima, Peru. This Olivia group consisted of women from the U.S., Canada, Australia and beyond so everyone arrived at different times. I bonded with some of the group at the hotel bar that first evening over the local specialty, Pisco Sours. We connected with the rest of the group at breakfast the next morning, just before the short flight that would take us all up into the Andes mountains.

We flew from Lima, the modern-day capital of Peru, to Cusco, the ancient capital of the Incan empire. Landing in Cusco, we found ourselves at an elevation of over 11,000 feet. Though I was in decent shape and had been careful to eat lightly and drink lots of water, I admit that I felt a little light-headed upon landing. The local remedy for altitude sickness is coca leaves so I bought a little packet of leaves for a dollar from a woman standing just outside the airport and I shared it with some of my new Olivia friends. It takes a ton of coca leaves and a lengthy process to produce the drug we know of as cocaine, so this wasn’t about getting high. Coca leaves are not only legal in Peru, they are part of the local heritage, a tradition going back thousands of years. The locals in Cusco will get a big ball of leaves going inside their cheeks and will suck on it for hours on end. For me and my Olivia friends, all it took was a leaf or two. At first the taste was quite bitter, but it mellowed out quickly and within a few minutes I found that my tongue was a little numb but my altitude symptoms had subsided.

After a brief rest at our hotel, which featured a big container of coca tea in the lobby, everyone was ready to explore the Cusco area. Cusco was considered the center of the world both by the Incas in the 13th century and by the Killke tribe who came before them. The Spaniards arrived in the 16th century and it is their colonial architecture which now dominates the city. In fact, the churches and monasteries were built directly over the remains of the great Incan temples.

Just outside the city, we were able to visit some of the local ruins. Our first stop was Sacsayhuaman, a citadel of stone walls and terraces constructed with massive interlocking stones. Though no mortar was used, the stones were fit together so tightly that you cannot slide a single piece of paper between them, and the walls that were not removed by the Spaniards still stand despite the centuries and earthquakes that have devastated more modern buildings. Nex,t we visited Qenko, one of the largest holy places or “huacas” in the region. Here the structures were built around naturally occurring rock formations including some natural underground spaces believed to be used for sacrifices and mummification. Finally, we visited Puka Pukara, also known as the red fortress, with its view of the valley and lime rich rocks that seem to glow red at dusk.

That evening I joined some of my new Olivia friends for dinner. We found a charming little restaurant with a view over the Plaza de Armas. Someone at our table was brave enough to order the local delicacy, Roasted Guinea Pig. In the spirit of adventure, a tasted the teensiest morsel, and washed it down with another Pisco Sour.

The following day, we headed off to the main attraction of our trip —Machu Picchu. There are no reliable roads, so to get there you must either hike for days on the Inca trail or you can take the train. We opted not only for the train, but for the luxury Orient Express train. The “Hiram Bingham,” named for the explorer who “discovered” Machu Picchu in 1911, reserved two train cars just for us, and we were spoiled with a sumptuous brunch served on white tablecloths and fine china. I felt a brief twinge of guilt that we would arrive at the ancient city so easily and comfortable instead of earning it with an endurance testing trek, but as I sipped a mimosa from a crystal glass and marveled at the stunning views flying past the window, that guilty feeling faded fast.

Several hours later we arrived in Aquascalientes, the little town built up around the river at the base of the sacred mountain. A bus met us at the train station and we went immediately up a winding road to the entrance of the ruins. We divided into groups, each with our own local guide, and got our first introduction to the legendary landmark that had inspired us all to make this South American journey.

Machu Picchu is an ancient Incan city that is awe-inspiring for its scale, condition and beautiful location. It is unique in that it was spared the looting and destruction of the spanish colonizers which ravaged other sites across the continent. In the case of Machu Picchu, the city was vacated at the time of the conquest and so was able to remain discreetly hidden in the mountains. The rainforest grew up again around the stone walls and terraces, and it remained a secret for centuries to all but a few locals until a farmer led explorer Hiram Bingham there in 1911.

The site is believed to have been used as a royal estate, with sections clearly designated for agriculture and religious use. Our guides led us through the most important features, from the sophisticated irrigation features to the earthquake defying architectural feats. We visited the temples of the sun and the condor, the royal residences and the guardhouse. Our two groups linked up fortuitously at the Intihuatana Stone, a ritual stone believed to be an astronomical clock whose name translates as “Hitching Post of the Sun.” As we all placed our hands on the stone, we swore we could feel it vibrating.

That night over dinner at our hotel in Aguascalientes, Jill went over the next day’s itinerary with us. She explained that the official tour would return to the mountain after breakfast to explore more of the site. A few of us could opt to go up early to attempt to sneak in a local ceremony on the sacred site. We expected a handful of adventurous souls to volunteer and the majority to opt for extra sleep and recovery. To our surprise, all 20 guests wanted to go, even the ones with sore ankles and knees.

The next morning, almost our entire group was waiting in the lobby at sunrise. Our shaman, Julien, was there too and as he took in the size of our group I saw his eyes go wide for just a brief moment before settling back into his usual sleepy-eyed grin. I asked him again if he thought we would be able to pull this off. “Anything is possible,” he repeated, “if we have the right people with the right energy.”


Our bus snaked its way up the mountain through the early morning mist. The park was just opening for the day, yet the parking lot was buzzing with visitors eager to explore the ruins. As we reached the entrance, the early morning mist turned into a persistent rain. Some of the other visitors started to turn back and head back to the nearby lodge, but Julien urged us to press on. After a short walk, he ushered us into a small one room stone structure. It was of indigenous style and material, but had obviously been restored as it had a sturdy roof for us all to shelter under. Once we were safe inside, Julien directed our attention to the single large window looking out onto the mountain peaks in the distance. He explained that though these peaks were not as famous as Machu Picchu, they were just as sacred and important to the indigenous people. As the rain fell on the stone roof above us, the clouds played peek-a-boo with the peaks, revealing them one at a time in seeming perfect synchrony with Julien’s stories of creation myths and the sacred mountain deities known as Apus. By the time we had been introduced to each of the monoliths in the distance, the storm had blown over and we emerged from our cozy shelter to find we were seemingly alone in the misty fog covered ruins.

Julien had brought along his brother, and the two of them led us directly down a small hill and around a rock outcropping. We emerged onto a lower terrace, nestled close into the hillside out of sight of the main path and with a clear view of the most sacred of the peaks, Wayna Picchu.

As Julien and his brother prepared for the ceremony, some of us took turns stepping out onto a narrow rock ledge that jutted out from the mountain and over a terrace below. The ledge was big enough for one person at a time and, though it was only a few yards above the terrace below, it did require some balance and faith. Those brave enough to step out onto it were rewarded with a blast of clear mountain air on their faces and a sense of floating above the valley.

When it was time, we gathered in a circle around Julien and his brother for the ceremony. We started with the Pachamama Ritual, one of the most precious practices within the Andean culture. This is a practice of giving thanks to Mother Earth and involves creating a special offering or despacho as a payment to the earth. Julien had brought some special items including food, colorful confetti, herbs, candy and wool. He explained each item and their significance to us before carefully laying them on the corn husk which would serve as the base for our despacho.

Next, we each chose three perfect coca leaves from the large pile of leaves he had brought for us. Coca leaves are sacred to the Andeans, and considered a symbol of community and respect. We were instructed on how to hold the leaves to our hearts and mouths, imbuing them with our own personal blessings or petitions. Some of these were added to the group despacho as a gift to the Pachamama, others were offered individually.

The final part of our ceremony was a spiritual cleansing and blessing from the Apus, or mountain spirits. One by one, we each stepped into the center of the circle to receive our blessing. Valerio stood a few feet away singing the sacred chants while Julien came in close with his rattle, low words and tobacco smoke. Though we all came from different backgrounds, religions and beliefs, everyone seemed to drop into a reverence for something greater than themselves.

I was the last to step into the circle, and had gotten just about half way through my blessing when we started hearing other voices. As Julien reached for his tobacco pipe, a guard came into view on the ledge above us. He yelled down at us angrily, admonishing Julien to put out the tobacco and stop immediately. “It is prohibited,” he said. Julien took one final puff of the ceremonial pipe and blew it around me to complete my cleansing. We smiled at each other, grateful in the recognition that we had been given just exactly enough time to complete our Pachamama ceremony and to receive our many individuals blessings from the Apus. We had been told that it was impossible, and yet it happened naturally and easily for us. By Julien’s logic, our entire group must have come with the right energy and intention. That was when I realized the greatest travel lesson of all. It is not about where you go or how you get there—it’s all about who you travel with.