How Hiking Machu Picchu on My Period Taught Me the Power of Gratitude

Photo: Getty Images/Ruben Earth
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I was in the middle of the Peruvian jungle when I finally started feeling like myself again after slogging through life on the heels of a recent heartbreak. Then I unexpectedly got my period.

Let’s rewind: After my boss returned from hiking Machu Picchu with her husband, she kept saying how magical the experience was and that I should plan to visit soon. Not expecting her to say yes, I jokingly responded: “Okay, can I go next month? Will you give me the week off?” She paused for a second before replying, “Get your work done in advance, and go for it!” So I worked, and then I went.

Energized by the last-minute trip I now needed to plan, I spent hours every night researching and soon felt like an expert in altitude hiking, Peruvian customs, and archaeology. I cashed in all my frequent-flier miles for a business-class flight, booked lodging at hostels, and built myself a custom weeklong itinerary packed with cultural experiences, adventure, and relaxation. My solo-travel goal was to heal and to reconnect with myself.

I spent the first couple of days upon arrival in the main city of Cusco, Peru, acclimating to the altitude and then I was ready for my four-day group trek to Machu Picchu. Despite my best-laid plans, after two full days of hiking, mountain biking, and white water rafting, I woke up on day three feeling heavy and off. The plan was to go zip-lining in the morning before taking a final stop in Aguas Calientes, the last city before hiking Machu Picchu. My intuition told me to skip zip-lining, so I stayed behind and explored the small town near our lodging. While posted up at the only coffee shop around, I learned why that inexplicable force asked me to skip one of my favorite activities (I do really love zip-lining): To my complete shock, I got my period.

Ultimately I decided I didn't travel so far to let my period stop me from experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime moment. If I could do this, I could do anything, I said to myself.

Full disclosure: I’m not on birth control, but my period is pretty historically consistent. Yet, here I was, in a Peruvian jungle, menstruating six days early and unprepared for it. I panicked.

But, after my heartbeat slowed and I realized I was experiencing a natural function I've been living with for so many years, I took a moment to consider my next steps. I could be angry at the universe for getting my period early or I could be thankful that my intuitive energy led me to an open store with a box of tampons. I chose option B, which set the tone for the rest of my trek. I committed then and there to approach each successive challenge with gratitude. Thank goodness I skipped zip-lining to find this tiny Peruvian village. Thank goodness I was fluent enough in Spanish to buy tampons with ease. Thank goodness this happened to me the day before hiking Machu Picchu, so I didn’t have to free-bleed against my will during a 12-hour hike.

And then it was time: Armed with a handful of tampons, snacks, and a liter of water, I felt more empowered than ever about hiking Machu Picchu. I was bleary-eyed after a 4 a.m. wake-up call for a steep, hour-long hike in total darkness from Aguas Calientes to get to Machu Picchu at sunrise (I could have taken a 20-minute bus at 7 a.m., but no sunrise), but, wow, was I excited. I was admittedly anxious about bathroom logistics at the sacred archaeological site because there are zero bathrooms on the grounds, and to use the single facility in front of the gate, you must exit and re-enter—and no more than three times in one day with the daily permit I had. But I resisted the urge to curse my period for forcing me to take more bathroom runs than I typically need, and I ended up totally okay.

In addition to exploring the archaeological site at Machu Picchu, tourists have the option to apply for advance permits to climb Machu Picchu Mountain, adding an extra three-hour round-trip hike and an extra 2,000 feet of elevation to the whole experience. With a "when in Machu Picchu" mentality, I signed up to experience it all…before knowing I would be hiking on my period, that is. I was struggling between wanting to take it easy on my body and proving to myself that I'm limitless, even while menstruating. Ultimately I decided I didn't travel so far to let my period stop me from experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime moment. If I could do this, I could do anything, I said to myself.

So, I went for it. I'm physically conditioned from teaching fitness classes, but it was adrenaline that helped me push past my lower-back cramps and menstrual-related sluggishness. And with every step, I noted what I’m grateful for: my legs, my lungs, my back, my resiliency. Next thing I knew, I was surrounded by clouds, in awe of what my body just did, and that knew with certainty that I can handle so much more than I initially thought.

Too often, we underestimate our power. It was at this moment, while overlooking the world wonder, that I realized appreciating what we have already can effectively motivate us to accomplish more than we thought possible.

After hiking Macchu Pichu, I committed to always travel with a just-in-case menstrual cup—no matter when I think my period is expected to arrive. I can’t be prepared for everything, but I'm grateful that I am resilient to handle nearly anything. I'm grateful for my past—lessons from which help me move forward; I’m grateful for the end of a relationship that didn’t serve me; I’m grateful for my strong body taking me up mountains. And, yes, I'm grateful for Peruvian tampons.

Here's how elephants in Thailand helped one writer feel strong as hell. And how another found scuba diving in Central America to be surprisingly meditative.

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