LIMA -- Call me ridiculous.
We had met little more than a month before, but we had chemistry, the kind with sparks that could easily ignite. Things moved quickly, and we both saw the glimmer of potential. Enough that commitment-heavy words started slipping off each other's tongues.
With infatuation often confused for love, I wanted to know whether our feelings had depth, whether they could survive the isolation of a desert, the climb up a mountain, the dislocation of an unknown culture.
I wasn't being hyperbolic; I wanted a reality check.
So I proposed a test of sorts, a trip, preferably to somewhere in the developing world where we might find ourselves stuck on long, unnerving bus rides or risk food poisoning or altitude sickness.
Less than 10 weeks after we met, and both fluent in Spanish, we agreed to spend 10 days together in Peru. It would be a journey covering thousands of miles, with transportation including irritable, poorly trained horses, which took us from the highest navigable lake in the world to the deepest canyons, from icy rivers to hot springs, from the capital's seaside skyscrapers to the cobblestoned streets of centuries-old colonial cities.
It would also, of course, be more time than we had ever spent together.
She's a lawyer accustomed to long-term planning and glitzy hotels. I'm a reporter used to spontaneity and sleeping at hostels. The trip would require compromises, such as our accommodations, which would range from the presidential suite of a five-star hotel to mangy inns where showers didn't guarantee hot water.
Both in our early 30s and set in our ways, we might have driven each other nuts and ended up flying home separately. Neither of us knew what to expect.
. . .
Flying in from different cities, we met in Lima, where I found her curled on a couch in the regal lobby of the Country Club hotel -- our first compromise -- her hazel eyes struggling to stay open after 2 a.m.
The next morning, we set out on a tour of the capital, a sprawling metropolis of 7 million people. Through the mist, we saw a city bounded by a coastline of cliffs, colorful shanties crisscrossing denuded hills, and a canopy of dark clouds overhead, all of which made the August cool winter air feel heavy, damp, and stagnant. We devoured crusty empanadas at street-side panaderias, strolled across broad potholed boulevards and large plazas, where a small army of street vendors hawked everything from sugar cane juice to fresh papaya, and learned about decades of Marxist-inspired violence at an exhaustive seaside museum. At the end of our one day there, we sat for a meal that included Pisco sours, a grape brandy mixed with egg whites, and a platter of Anticuchos, cow hearts sprinkled with salt.
Then, after a few hours of coping with interminable lines and other chaos at the airport, we left the cacophony of Lima for Cusco, the oldest continuously inhabited city in South America.
At more than 10,000 feet, I immediately detected something strange about the capital of the Incas, the millennium-old indigenous empire eventually crushed by Spain. As we passed the ochre-roofed churches built on Incan ruins and browsed alpaca sweaters and the juicy peppino and granadilla fruits at the crowded markets, the bag on my back seemed to weigh more, my feet felt like cinder blocks, my head like a tightening vice. The altitude sickness eventually subsided, the result of tender care from my hardier companion, the magic of coca leaves (to which I developed a mild addiction), and the benefits of the most luxurious room at our five-star hotel.
A 300-year-old former seminary, the Hotel Monasterio has a breakfast buffet that is about the best I've ever seen. In our first room, an elegant duplex, the staff sent us a platter of local fruit and a bouquet of roses and lined the bathroom with candles. They also drew us a bubble bath, which, with all the salts, oils, and multicolored rose petals scattered about, seemed like soaking in a latte, with whipped cream and sprinkles on top.
The next night, a concierge asked whether we were on our honeymoon, an illusion possibly cast by the beaming grins fixed on our faces since we had checked in. Then, to our amazement, the staff upgraded us to the presidential suite, which typically costs $700 a night. We found the entrance at the end of a corridor filled with Renaissance-style paintings, the only suite with its own doorbell. Inside, beyond a living room with more fruit, flowers, and a bottle of champagne, we found cherubic figurines above a bed that could have fit a family of four, a marble bath with towel warmers, a private room with toilet and phone, and a patio overlooking a courtyard with a gurgling fountain.
It was hard to leave, but with the US ambassador checking in after us, we reluctantly shipped out, assuming it would be downhill from there.
. . .
For $50, we hired a driver to take us through the Sacred Valley, a region of towering peaks, ancient salt mines, and a range of awe-inspiring Incan ruins, many carved into the land. We spent the next day on horseback, fording rivers and inspecting mud huts in a dry, rocky valley. Then we took the early-morning train to Aguas Calientes, the base for all trips to Machu Picchu. The two-hour ride took us past arid plains that resembled a desert, snow-capped glaciers that seemed to promise tundra, and the dense, verdant foliage of a jungle.
When we reached Aguas Calientes, we had a choice: Take the bus up the spiraling road to the legendary ''Lost City of the Incas," or climb on foot.
Of course, we made our decision on level ground, well before eyeing the first of more than a thousand stone steps. As we trudged up the popsicle-shaped mountain, our water dwindling, our white skins turning bright red, and my sweetheart glowering and groaning about how I should leave her behind, that she would be better off jumping or lying down and waiting for wolves to relieve her misery, I kept thinking, ''A crisis binds, doesn't it?"
When we finally reached the summit, the well-manicured plateau and all the impossibly assembled boulders appeared like heaven after ascending through hell. In short, we found a grandeur only hinted at in photos. About all the mysterious moss-covered arches, baths, and fort-like homes, I jotted this in my journal: ''Beyond the $20 tollbooth lies the reality of some despot's dream / A heaven on Earth / Where the firmament is carved in stone / Where orchid gardens are groomed by llamas / Where pillowy clouds and daunting heights both camouflage and exalt / One peoples' attempt to create its own eternity."
The next leg of our trip landed us near Peru's southern border with Bolivia. From the airport, we took a colectivo, or small bus, which slowly crowded with an impossible number of passengers, who squashed us between the lumpy seats and our bulky backpacks. Then a storm began, unleashing hail and lightning, and the dark, narrow road made imminent death seem possible. The two of us shared good, morbid laughs as we bumped along to Puno, the gateway to Lake Titicaca, the world's highest navigable lake and the reason we had come.
Early the next morning, after a breakfast of cantaloupe smoothies and fried eggs at a less-than-luxurious inn the gold-toothed colectivo driver had recommended, we boarded a tourist-packed powerboat and watched the shore's toxic lime waters turn sapphire as we approached the center of the lake. We learned how the surrounding sand-covered hills produce some 6,000 varieties of potatoes. We saw how the indigenous Uros walk on water, literally, by piling reeds in the shallows and building floating islands, complete with tepee-like homes. They live much the same as centuries before, with a few innovations like solar panels to power their stereos.
After a frigid day on the vast lake, which spanned 3,300 square miles at an altitude higher than 12,000 feet, we longed for warmth.
. . .
A half-hour flight later, we landed in Arequipa, the nation's second largest city, where many buildings are made of a white volcanic rock called sillar and an enormous snow-capped volcano dominates the horizon. We rushed from the airport to the bus station, to wait only long enough for a lonely teenage vendor to slip us a note suggesting we adopt her.
When we eventually left for the Colca Canyon -- at 11,333 feet nearly twice as deep as the Grand Canyon -- we didn't realize it would make all the other trips seem, in comparison, like swan boats gliding across the pond in Boston's Public Garden. As the city gave way to the desert and the pavement turned to dirt, the old Greyhound-style bus chugged along the winding cliffside road, sometimes gaining air as we passed more than a few crosses, each indicating a quicker path to the bottom. The nausea set in only after the driver blasted the local version of country music, a screechy fusion of Mariachi ballads and Asian arias that every few minutes featured a woman's piercing screams.
The four-hour jaunt ended when we arrived at a rustic row of huts perched above a shallow river, where we found a better cure for dizziness than coca leaves. The round pools of steamy water made us feel as if we were floating, the star-studded sky seemed like a glistening sea to stretch into. The hot springs brought us so much peace that the next morning, we skipped a condor excursion and spent much of the day soaking in the liquid bliss.
. . .
When we returned to Arequipa the next night, our last in Peru, we found a smoky bar, drank the local beer, and listened as a squeaky band laid waste to the Beatles.
After they cleared out, the salsa started. It was then that I looked closely at the petite woman with the big smile in my arms. We had shared a range of highs and lows over 10 days. Everything from tears and death wishes to long laughs and deep solace.
Alone on the dance floor, we peered at each other through the smoke, and our gaze deepened. It felt as if we were on a stage, under a warm spotlight. We hugged and kissed, and as I twirled her around, her smile widening with each turn, I realized my questions now had answers, that what we were experiencing went much deeper than infatuation.
Watching her dimples expand, her mussed hair bounce off her shoulders, I couldn't escape the thought: I was in love.
David Abel can be reached at email@example.com.