Staff Spotlight: The Inca challenge

Sam Hughes

Hughes standing 11,000 feet above sea level in the ruins of Pisac, an Inca town and fortress destroyed by the Spanish in the 16th century.

Besides family and writing, two passions that have a place Sam Hughes’ life are Peru and fitness. In his office at The Pennsylvania Gazette, where he’s the senior editor, two walls lurk behind enormous Peruvian paintings, dating from a 1976 trip to Peru. And a Nordic Track ski machine takes up the space on one side of his desk.

So when the Alumni Society asked him to try out a trip to Peru—a 10-day hiking/biking/rafting trip that might appeal to younger alumni—you can guess Hughes’ response: He would leave his sons Tristan, 12, and Jesse, 9, in his wife Pat’s capable hands. Only Tristan was fiercely envious, he said.

Then he dragged out his old hiking boots that had survived his prior trip to Machu Picchu, and discovered they were over the hill.

At 48 years, Hughes wondered, if his boots couldn’t make it, could he? He thought about his dicey back. He considered his digestive system.

To his usual fitness regimen, Hughes added jogging. Plus he began bicycling between his Narberth home and his campus office. “That only prepares you so much for five hours of mountain biking on rocky trails and through villages, streams and fields,” he said. He credited the mate de coca (a tea made from the coca leaf—the same leaves which are used to make cocaine) served at the airport with protecting him from altitude sickness, if not from some initial breathlessness. He declared he felt no interesting effects from the tea.

Although Hughes bought anti-malaria medication—part of $1,000 worth of vaccinations and medications for the trip—he decided not to take it when he learned the drug can cause vivid dreams. “Mine are vivid enough,” he said. Besides, Machu Picchu’s altitude, at 8,000 feet, was above the malaria zone, he reasoned.

The trip lived up to his youthful memories and then some.

On the bike path, he said, the group encountered cows, donkeys, pigs, turkeys, chickens, and goats. “You really get the smell, tastes and textures of the area,” said Hughes. “Sometimes you hear native music. You feel immersed.”

The hiking along the Inca Trail, at times so strenuous “you don’t want to waste breath talking,” paid off in spectacular scenery. Clouds hung low on the mountaintops and vegetation ranged from jungle and orchids to cactus. The group climbed switchback trails and crossed Dead Woman Pass, almost 14,000 feet above sea level.

Nor was Hughes, who was the eldest in a crowd that averaged 30 years old, the slowest. He paced himself in the middle, after the alpha males who tended to get everywhere fastest. “I wanted to make sure I came back,” he said after his return in September.

The trip reaffirmed his admiration for the Incas, whose trapezoidal doorways are earthquake resistant and whose 30-foot retaining walls along the mountain trails still do their job although built without mortar.

Hughes traveled at the behest of Penn Quaker Voyages Tour Coordinator Tammy Jordan (CGS’05), who is looking for ways to attract younger alumni to the tours the Alumni Society arranges. “The audience for these new tours skews younger and more active,” she said.

When Hughes returned, he gave it the thumbs up. “It’s a great adventure; you push yourself hard,” he said. “You really feel like you earn your Machu Picchu.”

For information on young alumni tours, call Tammy Jordan at 215-573-3711, or go to www.alumni.upenn.edu/travel.html on the Web.

Originally published on October 3, 2002