A Birthday Hike To Machu Picchu: visiting a wonder of the world

Taking that first step inside the gates to Machu Picchu, I move to the side and test my blood glucose levels before the day of exploring and hiking begins.

The timing of this adventure to Machu Picchu is towards the end of an 8-month solo adventure traveling through Latin America. The date of this excursion is specifically set to April 28th – the day of my 28th birthday.

The clouds roll over the mountain peaks at Machu Picchu for Amy's 28th birthday

The clouds roll over the mountain peaks at Machu Picchu for Amy's 28th birthday

I am in two worlds leading up to this day. One full of excitement, adrenaline, and enthusiasm to see what all the fuss, photos and stories are about. The images come from numerous travel blogs and stories from friends and family.

The other side of me is slightly anxious about the trip; alone in a foreign, remote place with very limited medical care.

What would happen in the event if anything happened with my health? Oh, and the chronic disease I have been living with for the past 16 years - type 1 diabetes.

The benefits of consistent walking have me thanking the gods for blessing me with good control on my birthday.

By now you would think after 8 months exploring remote parts of the world, I would know what I am in for at Machu Picchu with regards to diabetes management. I had been hiking in the Amazon in Ecuador and finished a 3-day trip on the Salar De Uyuni in Bolivia.

Machu Picchu brought with it not only some steep climbs but the challenge of hiking in altitude.

High altitude is infamously known to affect blood sugar levels. This commonly causes insulin resistance that causes elevated blood glucose levels. Bringing these levels back into range can be hard until you reach a lower elevation.

A diabetic may feel unwell with symptoms of high elevation:

  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Dehydration
  • Diabetic ketones

This potential challenge is not going to stop me from venturing to one of the seven wonders of the world.

Thankfully, I have the benefit of starting the first leg in Cusco (11,150 ft). Unknown by many, this city sits at a higher altitude than Machu Picchu (7,972 ft).

This pit stop allows me to get accustomed to the thin air. Short runs in Crusco burn the lungs.

I feel as fit as I could be for the climb up Machu Picchu.

I also do not notice any dramatic change in my blood glucose levels. This is a great sign.

The adventure to Machu Picchu begins….

The sound of rain wakes me up at 4:30 a.m. with a blood sugar of 120 mg/dl. Perfect.

Breakfast is 2 bananas, 2 passion fruit, puffed quinoa and a lemongrass tea: 100grams of carbs, 3 units of insulin.  I walked to catch the bus to the entrance of Machu Picchu, as the rain subsides.

There is always a sense of magic on your birthday – and 28 is not exception. I step foot into the sacred grounds of Machu Picchu slightly after 6am. The whole place is all to myself.

I walk around the ruins in the lower part of the mountain while the rain fell at a constant pace. I spot llamas wondering the grass areas higher up in the mountain through clouds disappearing off the peaks.

You pause to speculate at the incredible Incan ruins built by hand for the sole purpose of farming and agriculture.

The thought that labor was done on such a large, steep mountain is mind-blowing.

The views, even with the clouds, are out of this world. My heart rate is definitely higher than usual as the soles of my shoes grasp for traction on stony, slippery paths. 2-hours in and it’s time to test my BG — 90! Walking is winning!

The other side of me is slightly anxious about the trip; alone in a foreign, remote place with very limited medical care.

I snack on some dehydrated bananas and figs with no additional insulin (about 40gms of carbs). The climb continues along a pathway leading to La Puente, which translates to “The Bridge.”

Along many of the paths I am alone. The silence is perfect and add to the magic of the mountains. I make it to the bridge hanging from the sheer edge of the cliff! How the Inca’s crossed it, I have no idea! 

Another BG test before I walk to the “Gate of the Sun” up the other side of the mountain, and I’m sitting at 127!!

The benefits of consistent walking have me thanking the gods for blessing me with good control on my birthday. I set my pump on a 2-hour reduced temp basal of 50%, throw in some more dried figs and an apple, and set off again!

The 40-minute cliff scaling walk to the Gate of the Sun is worth it. To look down upon the Machu Picchu ruins minutes before the clouds blocked my view – I had found heaven!

I take the steep, slippery walk back down and thankfully manage to keep my balance — else I’d be off the edge! 

The sky clears as I am ready to finish the 4-hour adventure and I got some photos with the famous ruins in the background!

A must do tourist shot.

Amy McKinnon captures the 'must-do' tourist shot at Machu Picchu

Amy McKinnon captures the 'must-do' tourist shot at Machu Picchu

As I get back to the entrance to empty my bladder and rehydrate, I’m sitting with a BG of 100 so I eat a banana and some more dried fruit. I decide to run the 5+ miles back down the road to Machu Picchu pueblo.

As I ran through Machu Picchu, the sun begins to hit the back of my neck and it seems like butterflies were putting on a show for me.

Okay, I made it! Sweaty, exhausted, sore legs and super hungry, I’m back from what feels like hours in a mystical, magical, fantastical place.

A hot shower is in order. To fuel myself after this journey, I combine quinoa cereal, a banana, dried figs, soy milk and a few sneaky vegan gluten-free cookies crumbled on top. Mmm.

With a lot of carbs in my tummy and some relaxation in bed my BGs crept up a little to 250ish….some extra insulin and they shot back down to 120 by the time I was ready to head out to dinner. 

The only restaurant in this tiny town with decent vegetarian options is a French/Peruvian fusion restaurant with a very tourist priced set menu.

Happy birthday. Today has been the best gift.

Full day adventures with type 1 diabetes

That day was an incredible, magical, and quiet start to my 28th year. My diabetes control on adventures like these reinforces that healthy eating, consistent exercise, and a lot of finger pricking are the best way to take control of diabetes in uncertain situations.

Confidence and control walking into the unknown has been key to my success. This holds true for the many other ventures during my travels.

The three things I learned from exploring the city of Machu Picchu:

  • Always expect the unexpected
  • Be prepared for anything
  • Birthday magic is real – the blood sugar gods answer prayers!

Written by Amy McKinnon

Amy is a 29-year old type 1 diabetic, nutrition coach and marathon runner.
She specializes in coaching people with type 1 and type 2 diabetes to gain better control of their diabetes and health through nutrition and exercise.

She also ran the Boston marathon and is running her first ultra-marathon later in 2017.

Find her at amymckinnonnutrition.com or follow her journey through pictures @amymckinnonutrition on Instagram