Cusco from Plaza San Blas
Bleary eyed and muddled after an overnight journey from the capital Abril and I grabbed each other as we made our way through Cusco’s bus station disturbed by the image that lay infront of us. Cusco bus station, Terminal Terrestre, was not a forgotten backwater like I had expected but a chaotic jumble of long distance coaches, some with complementary smashed windscreens to a backdrop of burning trash, stray dogs and red brick walls topped off with upright broken bottles acting as a deterrent. Inside, the windowless terminal was no better. A drunk man made his way through the waiting passengers insulting anyone who made eye contact with him while others (who set off alarm bells in me) lurked, their only interest the luggage of others. In the middle of all of this a young woman with expressions of suffering and silence lovingly pushed one of her breasts into the mouth of a wailing infant, like two fallen angels the scene and it’s beauty seemed out of place in the battered bus station. On a large flatscreen television above their heads Peruvian music blared out, the singer rapping while pointing to a naked woman, the person behind the camera focusing on her twerking plump bottom immodestly covered by the most miniscule strip of cloth. On a balcony above all of this police watched the passengers below, now and again blowing on whistles and shouting at the unruly, giving the bus station the feeling of being a prison that was on the verge of a riot.
Although we were practically strangers who had met during the journey from Lima, passing through the bus station it was comforting to have Abril. An Economics student in her early twenties, bookish and insecure she was typically the type of woman who had in the past latched onto me while travelling solo. Sometime in the night Abril had blurted out her life story while sobbing into a hankerchief, how her youth had been ruined by an overdomineering mother whom she had suspected of being a nymphomaniac and how, feeling insignificant in her mother’s shadow, she had decided to escape, to flee Mexico City overland to Bolivia where she heard that her father, one of her mother’s quick flings and whom she had never met, was working in a mine. I decided not long after meeting Abril that she was not neurotic or unbalanced but had simply snapped due to the endurance demanded of long distance bus journeys, this chance encounter giving her a moment to unload her emotional baggage. Feeling protective and putting her under my wing I suggested we share a taxi up to the neighbourhood of San Blas where I had booked a hotel, maybe she could find a room there we decided.
My first moments driving through downtown Cusco were not staring dreamily out at streetscapes of llamas and cobbled lanes but having a glossy brochure for daytrips to the Sacred Valley rammed in my face by an dangerous looking man dressed sinisterly in a black leather jacket who must have been unsure whether he was a tour guide or a taxi driver. After I politely declined he had continued with his hard sell when (as I was employing him to drive me) I had labelled him as rude and ignored him altogether. Abril on the other hand seemed upbeat and unburdened and began blurting out again, this time promises and enthusiasm her expressions changing to momentary confusion when I told the taxi driver vaguely that I didn’t know where I was staying. Later I advised Abril not to tell so much personal information to people who obviously had alterior motives.
Carmen Alto Street, my hotel has the white flags
View of Saksayhuaman from my hotel room.
San Blas was everything I had hoped for. Bohemian, colourful, eccentric and not quite hippie or hipster. Artisan galleries and artsy eateries seemed to thrive on every street corner, hole-in-the-wall travel agencies offered trips to the Amazon jungle, deserts and mountain peaks while small grocery stores were thankfully targeting the foreign traveller with Western and European products. It had a transient, exciting feel like one of my favorite neighbourhoods, Paharganj, only without the Delhi-belly and food poisoning. Abril had decided at first glance that my hotel was out of her price range and we decided to meet later that night. I never saw her again.
On the steps of San Blas Church
Most travellers advise taking it easy when arriving in Cusco with it’s high altitudes and spend the first day lounging around the hotel. I knew that I still had enough oxygen in my blood to keep going for a few more hours. I decided I must attempt to get to Machu Picchu, the infamous Incan citadel. Being a thousand metres lower than Cusco it would be an ideal remedy should I be struck with altitude sickness.
Some travellers book a trip to Machu Picchu months ahead worried entrance and train tickets sell out which they often do. Following my intuition and hesitance about what the “World Wonder” was really like I realised I was not so keen on visiting myself. I had decided to leave it in the hands of fate and resigned myself to the fact that if I did indeed find an entry ticket then I must go or forever wonder if I had missed out. I walked into the first travel agency I found and announced that I wanted to visit Machu Picchu the following day. Typing into the computer quite manically the woman working behind the desk looked worried and told me to give her $250 before saying something in Spanish that I couldn’t quite understand and bolting out the door. The travel agency was little more than a desk in a room, the tiny space shared by a currency exchange and another counter selling cigarettes, postcards and other knik-knaks. After seeing the scams in Delhi I did wonder if it was all some sort of elaborate hoax but the woman selling cigarettes assured me everything would be okay. Half an hour later the woman who had my money appeared with a grin from ear to ear proudly waving my train and entry tickets in the air. She told me I had got the last train seat available for the following day and that I should set my alarm for 3am.
1am. I never panic but I did when I woke in my hotel room. The day before had been a daze due to lack of sleep so I don’t think I really had time to process where I was. I remember waking confused, all I knew was that I was in a dark room unable to breathe properly and worried that I might have been in a bar sometime the previous evening where my drink had been spiked. I was aware of lying on a mattrass half naked and unsure if someone else was in the room. Panicking I stumbled around the swaying room trying to find a light switch unable to remember anything about the layout of the room, stubbing a toe on furniture increased my panic even more so. As the memories of the day before began to seep back into my consciousness I realised that the pounding noise was actually a headache, a symptom of altitude sickness along with disorientation and breathlessness. I realised while brushing my hair lethargically that my arms were unnaturally heavy, weakness being another symptom.
6.30am. After a two hour drive in the back of a freezing minibus through charming Peruvian villages on the cusp of dawn the other tourists and I arrived at a town called Ollantaytambo where we would catch the tourist train to Machu Picchu. The trip from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu village is billed as one of the world’s most incredible train journeys but the two German speaking women arguing in the carriage were distracting me from the scenery which was from what I noticed pretty but could not compare to the landscapes the bus had travelled through the day before. At the railway terminus we were led through a tourist market, the stalls stacked high with rainbow-colored textiles to a backdrop of bright Quechua smiles before crossing a rickety bridge and into the village itself. The location of the village, Machu Picchu Pueblo, was stunning. Nestled like a sleeping baby protected in the arms of small but steep sugarloaf mountains the village seemed to exist without a care in the world only now and again stirring to gaze towards it’s magnificent river which was too busy tumbling down from the High Andes to notice anything at all. The barrage of water sped around the rocks like salmon, rushing and glistening like a bolt of lightning determined to follow it’s own course before disappearing dramatically around the base of a mountain. Although the village looked modern I wished I had opted to stay just for the location itself. The bus drive up towards the ruins was one of the most memorable drives I have ever taken in my life. At every turn in the steep switckback road the bus climbed higher before the pueblo and river were enveloped in a thick blanket of mist which was travelling quickly through the valley. My attention was now drawn towards the emerald green birds, swooping through the dense vegetation they would meet on branches chirping no doubt about the latest gossip that was sweeping the jungle and it’s fauna.
My photos of Machu Picchu
I decided my first view of the ruins would be from the vantage point high above the site with the complete complex below like you see in all the tourism photos so after passing the entrance area I broke away from the crowds and took the narrow pathway immediately to the left slightly concealed between bushes where I started the steep climb. Gasping for air I would pause, clutching onto walls and bushes at one point letting a llama with her cria pass by. At the end of the trail I came out into an area which can only be described as the innards of a cloud, nothing but thick white mist in all directions my only connection to Earth the path on which I was standing. I found a large boulder and sat for quite a while eating a breakfast of apples, Dutch cheese and some Dutch chocolate like an excited child waiting for a pantomine show to start unsure whether the whims of Mother Nature would let it begin at all. Slowly Machu Picchu began to appear like the most incredible theatre production imaginable. Full of suspence a tug-of-war played out between man and nature, mist and stone, before the clouds were shooed off stage and behind the high ridge of Huanya Picchu giving the citadel, a treasure of our world, a chance to bathe in the spotlights. The three excited girls from Uruguay who were sitting near me for once stopped talking and just stared down towards the site. I was aware that we were all taken aback, unsure, awestruck, speechless. Before I could fully process what I was seeing one of the Uruguyans laughed nervously, squealed, jumped up and grabbed her phone with selfie stick. Earlier I thought her quite pretty but now she distorted her face and pouted like a grimmacing, psychotic serial killer, jostling through a French tour group she flipped her hair to the side adamant to show that she was the real star of the show. My view was blocked by the tour group and I knew that the moment was over. Stepping over plastic trash and through rude school groups I made my way down to the site’s central area where a woman lay crumpled on the ground with blood streaming from her nose. Her companion, a middle aged man, helped her to her feet while reminding the unfortunate woman that it was all her idea to come to what he described as “this God forsaken country” and that he would have been happier staying at home in Boise.
I realised with World Wonders that my experience has little to do with seeing them (as their images are repeated everywhere) but has more to do with the experience of being there which often, unfortunately, is like being at a circus full of boisterous testosterone-fueled spectators. As I passed wardens blowing on whistles and shouting at people who were climbing on the ruins I couldn’t help but admire some of the elder travellers, the ones who oozed elegance dressed sensibly in khaki. Like something out of an old Katharine Hepburn movie they seemed to appreciate and understand the site far more, surveying what our ancestors had left us most probably aware that they were themselves about to bow out of life, leaving everything in the hands of the Instagrammers. Machu Picchu not only has to do with the past but has everything to do with the present. There you begin to understand that it acts like a viewing platform into the society of now whether you like it or not.
I realised that it was time to leave and pausing at the Sun Temple I touched the grey walls one last time remembering that first awestruck, silent, moment I had witnessed earlier in the day. Clutching onto those thoughts like a precious jewel forever saved as a golden moment in my memory, in the timeline of my life, I followed the crowds towards the exit.
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