Peru - The hairy, spotted pigs running around my feet make me temporarily forget about the ache in my limbs.
Just this morning, our group of 11, accompanied by two local guides and a half-dozen porters, began trekking the 45-kilometre Inca Trail through Peru's Andes. Plenty of rest stops are required if we're to reach our goal of Machu Picchu in four days' time.
We're still in the heart of farmland, and domesticated animals run everywhere. Flat terrain and grazing horses lull us into a false sense of what the trail holds. Soon, though, horses are replaced by grazing llamas and a path that often clings tenaciously to the side of sheer cliffs. One misstep can make you puma lunch.
Coca tea is served at every turn, helping us adjust to the altitude. The porters constantly chew coca leaves to suppress their appetite and boost energy; there's 20 kilos strapped to each of their backs. My attempt to chew the leaves only results in puking all night and a bad case of gut rot. I blame the altitude, which soon becomes the convenient excuse for all sickness throughout our journey.
Hiking the trail is like climbing an endless flight of stairs. Foot-high, crooked rocks underfoot have one traveller cursing the day he paid money for this torture. I keep reminding myself to look up at the scenery instead of staring at where I place my feet on the path to avoid twisting my ankle.
Machu Picchu is our final destination, but there are plenty of other archaeological complexes along the way. Our guide gives us a hard time for referring to these sites as ruins, since, according to him, "Inca would never make anything in ruin - only the Spanish do that."
I see now why the Spanish never found Machu Picchu to conquer it. The rugged trail takes us through tunnels carved into the mountainside. We pass wild orchids and traverse waterfalls fresh from glaciers high above. The highest point, at 4,200 metres, is Warmiwanusca, or Dead Woman's Pass. With my pounding heart and wobbly legs, I can appreciate the moniker.
There's no relief when the trail finally plunges downward. The stairs are even steeper and more jagged. The agony of lifting my legs for each step is now replaced by the agony in my knees going down. It wouldn't be so bad if our toilets weren't porcelain holes in the ground requiring you to squat. Bracing my arms on the stall sides is the best way to avoid falling in.
Despite the pain, I enjoy the early morning mountain landscapes and the sounds of nearby birds and flowing water. Every half-hour an off-and-on misty rain brings relief.
Each morning, the porters wake us up with a cheerful "Buenos dias" and a tray of teas and coffees delivered to our tent door.
Luxury is alive and well in the wilderness. Hot water is laid out so we can wash before meals, and drinkable water is prepared at the start of each day. We even talk the porters into a round of hackey-sack before afternoon tea is served with guacamole and chips.
When they start feeding us three courses at every meal, I know I'll be coming home with great legs and a pot belly. Soup and garlic bread precede each lunch and dinner. Breakfast consists of flatbread and jam, pancakes, yogurt with granola, and scrambled eggs, to name just a few items on the menu.
One dinner has seven courses, including roast beef and veggies, deep-fried cauliflower, tuna and broccoli salad, and decorative fruit cups for dessert. Served spaghetti one evening, I gripe jokingly about freshly grated Parmesan, only to be presented with a heaping plate of it.
To begin the final stint to Machu Picchu we're awakened at 4:30 am. I've never been more physically exhausted, but the excitement of reaching our destination today guides my legs over the ancient stones. It's not long before we reach the Sun Gate and I catch my first glimpse of the ancient site in the distance, nestled in a mountain landscape. Some savour the moment by sparking up a joint, while my group sucks back on lollipops provided by our gracious guide. Mine is green apple.
Buses of tourists begin to arrive after us, fresh from their hotels and hot showers. It strikes me as slightly unfair. I'm standing there in the same clothes I've worn day and night for the past four days, and I smell fouler than the llamas dotting Machu Picchu's many agricultural tiers.
I'm suddenly overwhelmed by a sense of accomplishment for having taken the road less travelled. We ceremoniously discard our walking sticks, which are sure to be recycled, sold by locals to the next batch of hikers.
I've reached my goal only to discover that what really matters is the journey that brought me here.