Travel and Healing Silver Winner: The Healing Heights of Machu Picchu

by Erin Byrne

The Healing Heights of Machu Picchu is the story of how, on a trip to Peru, I emulated Pablo Neruda’s style of travel which his poem reveals, and received a promise in return.

Then up the ladder of the earth I climbed
through the barbed jungle’s thickets
until I reached you, Macchu Picchu.
Pablo Neruda, The Heights of Macchu Picchu

“And now we will go up to this temple of the Inca,” said Eddy, our crinkly-eyed guide.  Quick and agile as lizards my husband and two sons scuttled after him, their backpacks swinging, and disappeared around a corner.

My foot refused to move.

The trail, about eight inches wide, was carved into a cliff high in the Andes Mountains.  This was a place called Pisac where the air is dry and thin and chases the heartbeat like a wild animal.  My foot reached out invisible tentacles and clung to the stone step from which it was supposed to spring.  I tugged; it stayed.

I might have known.  I am the woman who, twelve years earlier in the wilds of Anaheim, gingerly crept up the steps and wobbled across the rope bridge to ascend the steep incline of Tarzan’s Treehouse—and froze in this same way.  Kellan and Brendan’s eyes were astonished rings as I, their mother, rapidly returned to solid ground.

It is I who suffered shaking spasms and cursed aloud when they leaned over the guard-rail at Yellowstone Canyon, climbed slippery rocks under Yellowstone Waterfall or dangled from the railing of Yellowstone Bridge to spot a jumping fish below.

I am the one who clung to the front rail of the chairlift with one hand while the other twisted the collar of Kellan’s ski jacket for a firmer grip; who waited impatiently below among roving pickpockets while Brendan climbed the steps of the Eiffel Tower; who flatly refused my husband’s invitation to join him for a whirl on the London Eye.

I am pretty sure I have Acrophobia, an irrational fear of heights.  Psychologists advise against avoidance, advocating slow exposure or even virtual reality, which has shown “significant progress when patients are confronted with real height circumstances.”  Exaggeration, they say, is common in acrophobes.  Eighteen inches, for example, could shrink to eight.

I’d planned this trip to celebrate both a high school and college graduation and to honor John’s dream that began when he was four years old and saw the cover of National Geographic.  I had been consumed with planning a flawless itinerary (Cusco, The Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, then Brazil), and worrying about the symptoms of altitude sickness or contaminated water or my terror of spiders.  It had somehow slipped my mind that I was horrified of heights.

Until the first hour of the first day of the first week up there on the precipice in Pisac when in my marked distress I suddenly recalled a line from Pablo Neruda’s poem, The Heights of Machu Picchu:

point out the rock on which you stumbled.

One good sneezing spasm, an earthquake, or a hefty gale might evoke Pablo’s musing to his imaginary Inca brother:

… the most consuming death:
from crimson cornices
and cataracting aqueducts
you plummeted like autumn
into a single death.

Neruda, the Nobel-prize winning Chilean poet, was suffering from his own malaise in 1943.  He’d been isolated and cynical, sunk deep in a hollow-eyed depression, sulking about man’s ominous dwindling each day like a black cup, sea of death.  He paced the world alone, dying his own self-obsessed death, losing his poet’s heart, until he reached a dead end:

I had come to the cut of the blade, the narrowest
channel in air, the shroud of field and stone,
the interstellar void of ultimate steps
and the awesome spiral way

Then he traveled to Machu Picchu.

The Heights of Macchu Picchu, which he wrote two years later, inexplicably adding an extra “c”, reveals how he surrendered to the stone citadel in the sky: he first opened himself up and sensed it with every antennae in his body, then he imagined the Inca people living, laboring loving, and finally he praised the place like a lover with two-phrase bursts of pure adoration.

We would be there in a few days.  Meanwhile on our tour through the Sacred Valley of the Urubamba River, dry-mouthed and wild-eyed, I hugged walls of granite willing myself not to look down and tensed in terror as I rounded every corner. My body in a state of high alert, I was wearing myself out with worry and missing most of what Eddy was teaching us about the sacred sites of the Inca.   The thought that this was the only chance I’d have to be in Peru for a very long time, possibly forever, made me fume with frustration.

Obviously it was far too late for slow exposure or simulated heights.  I don’t do drugs, but in quest of any kind of relief I cast off my motherly mantle and began to slurp cup after cup of coca tea—I didn’t know it would take roughly two hundred times as many leaves to even begin to resemble the drug.   My nerves were too frayed for the invigorating effects of coca tea anyway.

Finally, desperate, I decided to emulate Neruda’s process: be open, sense, imagine, praise.  I did not expect to receive a promise in return.

We visited places where the agile Inca hauled, shaped, and molded rhinoceros sized boulders weighing as much as one hundred metric tons.  We scaled more inclines at the Sacred Temple of the Sun at Ollantaytambo and explored the stone circle of terraces at Moray which formed a kind of amphitheatre.  We crossed walkways that felt to me like balance beams above the salt pools of Maras.  All the while Eddie pointed out dozens of incredible enigmas:

“There is the quarry over there (pointing across a ravine to another mountain two and a half miles away), and we don’t know how the Inca got the rocks up here to make the temple.  The wheel was sacred to them and they would not have used it for transport.”

“They had enough grain in the storage structures built in the side of that mountain to last five years (pointing to a series of alcoves built directly in the side of another mountain).”

“These blocks have no mortar between them; the Inca engineers designed them to fit together with room to move.  During many major earthquakes here in Peru the colonial and modern structures collapsed and these remained.”

“The Inca people cut the rock and shaped it this precisely, (he stuck the corner of a credit card in a tiny crevice to show how tightly they fit, a bit like Lego blocks) and the only materials they had were gold, silver, copper and bronze.  That’s all.  How did they cut into the stone?”  His booming laugh echoed across the expanse of space as he slapped a stone.  “We don’t know!”

These sacred ruins presented so many vivid images and unanswerable questions that I found myself consumed with the mysteries, following Eddy and my three lizards eagerly if awkwardly, scampering up skyward staircases, only occasionally clutching at someone’s belt-loop or shirt collar.  By the time we boarded the train to Machu Picchu, the fear, although still there, had begun to fade into the background.

Interstellar eagle, vine-in-a-mist.
Forsaken bastion, blind scimitar.
Orion belt, ceremonial bread.
Torrential stairway, immeasurable eyelid.

We climbed off the train and boarded a bus that careened up to the place that had dwarfed Neruda’s human condition, where the condor’s shadow cruises as ravenous as would a pirate ship.

We faced Huayna, “young peak”” in Quechua, the ancient language of the Inca.  It looked like the sleeping back of a wooly green alpaca.  Off in the distance clouds sauntered past snowy peaks against a backdrop of deep royal blue.  We stood on Machu, “old peak”, a gigantic fortress of geometric precision.  The stones were stacked in the outlines of a city, and grass and wild orchids grew on  terraces that had once held corn, peppers, squash, potatoes and lupine.

This green-blue kingdom in the air seemed to exist in a new, elevated dimension I’d never visited before.  There were people scurrying around everywhere: men strained as they carried heavy loads on their backs, mothers ushered children away from a group of llamas, a few elderly women leaned on their walking sticks, laughing.  The very second Eddy mentioned details, these scenes of the Inca appeared in my mind and the atmosphere of the place (that essence which can never be shown in photographs or described in mere words) emerged for me.

“The roofs were once thatched, and the cooking fire would have been here in the center.”  A woman gazed out the trapezoidal window cradling a bowl holding ingredients for a meal, yellow peppers, potatoes, cuy (Guinea pig).

“Families lived and worked in community.”  Children laughed and shouted as they jumped down steps, splashing in the stone-carved canals that carried water from mountain springs.

“Careful planning included architects, engineers and astronomers.” Men huddled together around a torch, talking and gesturing with wide sweeps of their bare arms.

“Here is the Intihuatana, The Hitching Post of the Sun.”  A crowd gathered in the chill of the morning.  As the sun lit in a bright triangle upon the exact spot on which their eyes were riveted, a collective gasp hissed, followed by the whoosh of an exhale.

“There was a fountain here, and here, and here.”  The soothing sound of tumbling water trickled and licked at the stone in a steady rhythm that never slowed or stopped.

While my being was busy being in this place, I could feel the remnants of my acrophobia float off like feathers: I stepped without measuring the distance to the edges and I quit calculating cliffs.  It was odd that it happened so fast, but I didn’t even notice; I climbed without resistance.  In my state of reverie, I rose above the confines of my body and traveled beyond the jagged peaks into the sky.  The higher, the better.

That was when that thing I had previously thought of as the mystique of travel—all that stuns, shakes and shrinks the self—transformed itself into a promise that if we open our senses and imaginations to a place, we can be flung far back in time, or sent spinning beyond our weak selves or even sometimes healed of that which we hold on to that holds us back.

On those difficult heights, among those glorious, scattered ruins, I had found the principles of faith I needed to continue my poetry.

– Pablo Neruda, Memoirs

It was a mystery to me how it happened, but Machu Picchu seemed to have cured my fear of heights in the same way it had changed Neruda.

Then we traveled to Brazil.

Dusk was descending at Posada Bromelias, a cluster of bungalows high on a hill in Matá Atlantica, the Atlantic rain forest.  I peered down the path into a deep, green universe burgeoning with sound and movement: choruses of chirps and croaks, buzzing and bizzing, glops and glugs and distant splashes and crashes, rustling, crunching, spinning, and swooping.  The last threads of daylight revealed darting movements on vibrating feathered fronds and dark wings flapping and stretching.  Through the fading light I could make out trunks rising up and vines hanging down.

The air was thick and moist with the heady scent of orchids and some kind of sweetness that slowed my blood and turned it to syrup.  I imagined thousands of eyes in the form of dots, rings, slits, some heavily lidded and reptilian, some miniscule and beady, peering out at us from the foliage; and monkeys swinging from their tails on branches high above; and intricate, lacy webs that would glisten in the moonlight.

I felt the cold approach of another fear extending its eight letters towards the edge of my consciousness:

a r a c h n i d.

But it didn’t creep in; it stayed stuck in an insignificant misty fog outside of importance while I exalted in the overwhelming rhythm of this astonishing orchestra’s grand performance.

My foot did not hesitate as it stepped into the jungle.

Erin Byrne is a writer whose work explores travel, cultural and political themes. Her essays have won numerous awards including five Solas Awards from Traveler’s Tales Best Travel Writing, and the Grand Prize at the Book Passage Travel, Food and Photography Conference. Erin’s work has appeared in Everywhere magazine, World Hum, The Literary Traveler, Brave New Traveler, Traveler’s Tales, and a variety of other publications.
Her essay about Winged Victory is included in the anthology Best Travel Writing 2011. A new piece about van Gogh will be in the upcoming issue of Crab Creek Review. Erin is a guest instructor of the Evening Writing Workshop at Shakespeare and Company Bookstore in Paris.

Erin is currently working on Wings From Victory, a collection of essays about Paris, Solange, a novel of the French Revolution, and Siesta, a screenplay to be filmed in Spain. She lives with her family in the Seattle area. A complete list of awards and links to Erin’s work can be found at

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