That one place in Peru

We met Walter outside the hostel at 3:30 a.m. on Monday morning. (Walter being our soft-spoken 1459795_10151914186118355_1638315973_nIncan trail guide on behalf of United Mice.) We both had our small backpacks with toiletries and pyjamas, but not even a change of clothes. We were also heavily loaded down with water, as we weren’t really certain what to expect from the trek.

We hopped into a bus being driven by a guy being directed by a woman who yelled impatiently into her cellphone throughout the entire trip. I have no idea who there is to yell at on your cellphone at 3:30 a.m., but it caused her to give very bad directions and more than once we had to stop, back up, and make a turn we hadn’t been aware of until we had passed it.

We drove until about 5 a.m. at which point we boarded our first train of the trip at Olytantambo. Despite being incredibly tired, I didn’t sleep during the hour and 20 minute trip. The views were too incredible. The Urubamba River raged to our left despite the fact that it’s not yet the rainy season. In point of fact, the rainy season was set to begin any day, and we were hoping it would choose any day after we had made our trek. The vegetation was lush and tropical, which surprised me. I had been expecting pine trees and the kind of forest cover I see at home in California. The air was humid and fragrant, and utterly exotic to me.

At a seemingly random point, around 6:30 a.m., the train stopped and six of us clambered off. We were going to walk the Inca trail. Everyone else was riding the train to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu, where they would board a bus that would take them the additional 20 minutes to the top of the mountain.

Walter told us we would be walking 18 kilometers which meant little to us since we tend to operate in feet, yards, and miles. At 20 minutes until 7 we began our walk, having already signed in with the rangers at the ranger station. The ground was damp and it was raining slightly—just enough to require a jacket and provoke Walter into lifting up our packs and tutting that they were too heavy. He spied Gravity’s Rainbow sticking out of my pack and seemed concerned about it, so I obliged him by wrapping it in a plastic bag to protect it.

The walk was not easy, but neither was it terribly difficult. Because we’d already adjusted to the altitude at Chivay and Lake Titicaca—which are actually higher than the mountain range we occupied—we weren’t suffering from the effects of altitude sickness. And our recent 20 mile Big Sur hike, which had made me completely miserable at the time, also served as a valuable experience along the trail. In fact, we set off at a brisk pace, despite the fact that Walter insisted that we rest whenever we felt tired and frequently offered opportunities to take a break, most of which we turned down. I took the lead with Colin behind me and Walter behind him.

Walter kept pausing to point out orchids which, while beautiful, frustrated me because I had entered _MG_7721competitive hiking mode, which mostly involves wanting to get to the end of the trail as rapidly as possible. I am not a stop and smell the orchids hiker. But as we walked and Walter delivered a constant stream of information about the Incas and Machu Picchu, it became apparent how deeply he loved both, and I mellowed a bit. Interesting job, walking tourists to Machu Picchu twice a week. He’s been doing it for seven years, it turns out, walking this trail. And he studied tourism in college to help prepare him for this career. He speaks English, Spanish, Castellano, and a little bit of Qechua, but he is also learning French and Portuguese in order to stay competitive as a guide. Walter grew up in Cusco, and plans to die there. He has a girlfriend, and it happened to be their one year and one month anniversary on that day. He mentioned that he has missed two major concerts in his life: Paul McCartney in Lima because he was working and the anniversary concert on Machu Picchu on account of the fact that it was hailing and he was trapped on the trail.

Walter is clearly very much a product of his culture, and yet constant exposure to tourists has had the effect of opening him up to ideas and lifestyles that a lot of Peruvians don’t seem to approve of. He seemed to accept Colin and I’s relationship without concern or question. He told us stories of Peru’s corrupt politicians, including a past president who is now in jail, and then innocently enquired which of our past presidents were now in jail. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, laugh and cry, or just cry, but we had to explain that no American president has gone to jail. “They’re not corrupt?” “Oh no, they absolutely are. They’re just sneaky about it. No, actually they’ve just rigged the system so they can’t.” Then he told us about his second trek, which coincided with one of the tourist’s birthdays, so everyone went our drinking the night before they were supposed to visit Machu Picchu. Walter wound up so drunk and hungover that he had t hire another guide to assist the tour. Then he told the story of the Irish trekkers. The Irish seem to like to drink a lot, he told us with a knowing nod, as if we had not yet been exposed to that particular stereotype. The Irish trekkers who, when their guide arrived to pick them up in the morning, had not yet returned to the hostel from drinking the night before. And when they did arrive they were still drunk. Though they set off to Machu Picchu they apparently returned soon after because they were too hungover and in too much pain to continue. My favorite of Walter’s stories, though, was about the blind trekker who walked the entire way with his hands on his wife’s shoulders to guide him. As I said, it was not an easy walk, even with perfect vision (which I don’t have but, y’know glasses help). The fact is, I was in awe of the fact that I was walking this mountain range toward this mecca of travel destinations. The fact that a blind man had the courage and determination to make the trip made me wonder what else I might be capable of.

Walter clearly loves his job, but he did joke at one point about the possibility of returning to Machu Picchu as a tourist in a future life, and I wonder whether he really considers that a step up from his own life. It’s an uncomfortable social hierarchy.

We encountered three sets of ruins on  our walk and trekked through two of them. The Inca’s trademark _MG_7748terracing—creating agricultural microclimates from which to grow fruit, flowers, and grains—was everywhere. As were fountains, aqueducts, and elaborate stonework. They still don’t know how the Incas accomplished much of what they did.  Walter brought up the fact that a man apparently wrote a book claiming it had to have been the work of aliens—along with the pyramids, and a couple other marvels. Apparently the prospect of an advanced civilization harnessing its greatest minds and creating something beautiful is too much to consider.

We also saw airplants. They clung to bare rockfaces, and were gigantic and rich with color. Walter was amazed to hear we actually buy them in the United States. I’ve got a half-dozen of them sitting on the_MG_7822 _MG_7778 kitchen windowsill with Colin’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle collection. But none of mine can compare to the ones we saw while trekking. There were lots of butterflies as well, cutting across my path as I walked and in one case running into me.

We pushed passed the first and second proposed lunch spots, instead arriving at the Sun Gate an hour and a half to two hours ahead of schedule. Walter was impressed with our speed, as was his boss Fernando who had called to check on our progress and was stunned to hear we had already arrived. It took Colin and I a moment to figure out that we were actually looking out at Machu Picchu, which was one of the more surreal experiences of my life. I’d wanted to see it for so long that I had almost come to believe that it was an elaborate hoax. That I’d arrive and some people in llama beanies would yell “ha!” and play some pipe music.

While we sat at the Sun Gate eating the lunch Walter had packed for us, and that Colin had carried, Walter exclaimed loudly for us to look at the rabbit. Which turned out to be a chinchilla just hanging _MG_7802out near the ruins where we were sitting. Apparently Machu Picchu is littered with chinchillas and we saw one spring out of the stonework to scare the crap out of a group of tourists the next day. Our lunch consisted of fruit, Oreos (eating Oreos while looking at Machu Picchu was the fulfillment of a dream so immense that I didn’t even have the courage to dream it until the moment came), innumerable ham and cheese sandwiches (despite the fact that we’d told the people at United Mice that we are vegetarians), juice boxes, and energy bars. When Walter first handed me the bag with our lunches, I was so astounded by its size and weight that I’d been curious about its contents ever since, and I was not disappointed despite the vegetarian mix-up (which happened so frequently in Peru that I’ve begun to wonder whether some people just didn’t understand what I meant).

After lunch, we caught the bus down to Aguas Calientes. At that point, the experience began to take on a Disneyland feel. They packed us into the bus that wound its way down steep switchbacks, frequently encountering buses traveling in the opposite direction. When this occurred one or the other of us would have to back up to make room for the other to pass.

Aguas Caliente is a tourist town with extremely high prices and extremely aggressive hustlers trying to lure us into their restaurants. Many women offered Colin and Walter massages, and Walter explained to Colin, with a sheepish grin, that some of these masseuses even offered a happy ending for extra money.
We parted company with Walter and made our way to the famed hot springs. Which turned out to be brown pools of water filled with elderly people standing along the edge of the pools. The water was so dark we couldn’t see the bottom of the pool and the smell was sufficiently bad that I felt better about my own trekker stench. We stuck around 15 minutes to be polite and then fled.

We met Walter at 6:30 for dinner and he took us to a restaurant where the only occupants were tourist groups and their Peruvian guides. It felt like the kind of place rich old men take their mistresses—except instead of mistresses, it was Peruvian men with shy smiles and a lot of information about the Incans.

After getting back to our hotel, we watched really bad Peruvian television—American television with Spanish subtitles—for about half an hour before I fell asleep (sometime around 8:30 p.m.).

We got in line for the bus to Machu Picchu at 4:50 a.m. The first bus left at 5:30 a.m. and there was already a lengthy line. There were two women selling sandwiches and coca tea to the line of tourists—one sole for a cup brimming with coca leaves, which Colin purchased and had difficulty drinking around.

We didn’t make the first bus, but were among the first on the second bus, which doesn’t matter too much because the buses dump everyone off at the top of the hill, and the gates don’t open until 6 a.m. There was a crazed crowd at the gate, all nationalities gathered together jostling one another to get in a little bit early. It was beautiful, truly.

We finally got in and hustled to put as much distance between ourselves and the other tourists. It was 1457675_10151914186453355_150939522_n 1459350_10151914186313355_1173651043_nindeed a splendid sight—Machu Picchu, the ruins, with banks of fog flitting around, draping ancient stonework. All sans hordes of loud tourists fighting their way through, sweating their way up the steps. That would come later. Walter made us sit and explained some details to us, about the difference between the rustic building style and that used for buildings occupied by Incan royalty; the existence of the sundial—a rock that mimics the southern cross; the presence of altars where black and dark llamas were sacrificed; a spot where a bed was carved into stone (it would have been covered with straw and llama hides); a building with mirrors carved into stone, which would then be filled with water to reflect the constellations. Meanwhile, llamas wandered the grounds, happily chewing grass. They apparently function as groundskeepers and also ambassadors. People swarm around them taking photos , _MG_8007 1456615_10151914188138355_1894090373_nsquealing when one ambles by or appears on a terrace above their head.

Walter took us on a tour for about an hour and then left, meeting up with the other guides who seemed to have the same deal. We wandered up to the Incan bridge—a real challenge for Colin, who is afraid of heights. Then we wandered through the ruins one more time—dreaming of concerts and quidditch matches at Machu Picchu. Walter estimated that 600-800 people had lived there in the mountain’s heyday, and it would have been a great artistic or cultural venue. And when it was “discovered” by an archeologist there was, in fact, a woman living there. Seems to be a theme for the Americas. Of course, the site had been stripped of most of its valuables by the people living on and below the mountain. All in all, it was a surreal experience, from the mountain of fog which moved with anthropomorphic purpose to the long line of Japanese tourists following their guide and blocking off a stairway for 10 minutes in the process, like baby ducks with cameras.

It was really difficult to say goodbye to Machu Picchu knowing that we might never see it again. But the swarms of people, and the opportunistic town of Aguas Calientes below, we were only too happy to _MG_7869leave behind.

Our train left at 2:50 p.m. and the cars were divided with tourists in some cars and native Peruvians in others. Which seemed a little strange, and possibly a little racist. The train ride was loud, with a car full of boisterous English kids on the same tour, all loudly planning to meet at Paddy’s in Cusco when they arrived. It was raining when we got off the train, and we found a guy holding a sign that said BUS LUCY. We followed him to a corner, along with a couple dozen harried looking people. He shouted “Bus Lucy” a couple times and then took off at a brisk pace with the rest of us chasing after him, for some reason jockeying to be at the front of the line. Judging by how agitated people seemed, I worried there wouldn’t be enough seats and hustled Colin to the front of the line. It turned out, I was correct in my assessment. We were two seats short, and the driver pulled two men off the bus. They disappeared into the rain together and he returned alone. I hope they’re not dead.

The bus ride took about two hours but felt longer. It was raining pretty hard and the driver kept having to pull over to wipe condensation off the windshield. They dumped us off in the Plaza del Armas, where we were immediately cold and wet, and thus ended our Machu Picchu adventure.

(First, seventh, eighth and tenth photos by me, and all of the rest by Colin Rigley, with the exception of the photo of Colin and I which Walter took.)



  1. I loved peru, great post

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