It’s the final day of our amazing trek and we are all awake at 3.30am. It’s pitch black and the porters are already busily preparing to make us breakfast before they make the trek down the mountain to Aguas Calientes to catch the 5.30am train back to Cusco. If they miss it.. they’re walking. It’s the only one they can take for the day.
Breakfast is served at 4.00am and we assemble in the food tent, a little bleary eyed, with our head torches firmly attached. It’s a table of mixed emotions. The excitement of finally seeing Machu Picchu in just a few hours and a tinge of sadness that our trek is coming to an end. I don’t want it to end. I thought back to Kokoda and how I just wanted to turn around at the end and walk all the way back to the start. There’s a kind of rhythm you fall into… a rhythm of life for a while, that is like no other. The camaraderie with your fellow trekkers, the personal challenges and achievements, the wilderness speaking to you…and basically escaping the chaos of life as it is today. I just want to stay, and be at peace with the world.
It starts to rain as we assemble with all of our packs.
The ponchos come out and we’re all leaning up against the wall of the building that is in the middle of our camp, waiting for daybreak. The porters are fussing about, packing up the food tent and everything that was going back to Cusco with them. We watched the rain come down steadily through our torch lights until the darkness became a very faint, misty light. The clouds were low and that’s pretty much all we could see. We hadn’t had a drop of rain for the past three days and now it decides to make an appearance. Timing couldn’t have been worse.
As the day broke, the rain eased but the clouds were still amongst us. It was time to set off and with our guide’s familiar call “Vamos!” (let’s go!) and with that, we followed him out of the camp and into the mist below. We reached our final check-in point about ten minutes walk from the camp. There were
lots of other groups lined up, all dressed in ponchos, waiting to go through as we arrived. The processing was swift and it wasn’t long before we were truly on our way to Machu Picchu!
We walked a steady incline through the clouds. It was quite beautiful. I felt as though we were characters in some kind of fairytale. Enid Blyton’s ‘The Faraway Tree’ came to mind for some reason… I half expected to see Mr Moonface appear on the track! Every now and then the clouds would part and we’d get a glimpse of a mountains below.
The rain was sporadic, but very light. We passed lots of beautiful orchids along the way. One of them was the native orchid,
Winaywayna (meaning forever young) as Paul pointed out to us. That was also the name of our last camp. I stopped to take photos of them all, I just couldn’t help it.
The path was steep in parts, but mostly gentle undulations for about 2 hours until we reached a set of stairs. They were no ordinary stairs.. they were vertical! It was straight up to the heavens, well almost. Paul told us to leave our poles behind and climb up. Some of us did, others decided to use theirs. I climbed without mine.. clinging onto the steps with my bare hands, heavy breathing all the way. We eventually all clambered to the top and were on our merry way once again, albeit a bit breathless.
It wasn’t long before we reached the Sun Gate, and we came across the group of students again. It looked as though they were all sitting around waiting for something… Turns out the view of Machu Picchu below was nowhere to be seen… we were completely surrounded by a thick blanket of clouds. After a while, the students decided to leave and we had the mountain top to ourselves, except for the odd tourist coming up the other way from Machu Picchu. Paul decided to talk to the clouds… it seemed to work for a while.
We decided we couldn’t wait any longer and started our final trek down the mountain to Machu Picchu. It was a leisurely walk, all the while we passed tourists going the other way, who had come from Cusco by train, climbing up to see the view from the Sun Gate. We had plenty of time to stop
and take photos and there was plenty of banter amongst the group. It was to be an easy day…. or so we thought.
We eventually arrived through the rear section of Machu Picchu and our peaceful trekking ended right there and then. It was almost as if we had been placed in another world… thousands of tourists and
thousands of mosquitoes! It was difficult to comprehend the chaos and the heat and then there were the llamas just
wandering around the madness like we weren’t even there.
It was an assault on the senses after four days in the wilderness, with barely a mozzie to be seen or heard. It was hot and crowded but we were all in awe of this unbelievable city. It was the picture postcard view…
Trying to get a photo of this beautiful sight, without thousands of tourists was no mean feat. We managed a few, then we had to make our way back to the official entrance of the site to line up, check in and do the two hour tour of the ruins with Paul. We stopped at the cafe for our second breakfast and a little rest before heading off to the turnstiles to become a tourist and blend in with the masses.
We wandered about the ruins for two hours in the unforgiving heat. Some of us were prepared with insect repellant and sunscreen. Others not so much. The price would be paid later.
The city of Machu Picchu was planned and built around 1450 and was in response to the need of the Inca State to have a religious, political and administrative centre within a sacred space that was considered the link between the Andes and the Amazon. It was abandoned during the second half of the sixteenth century, but it was never actually ‘lost’. It was visited and inhabited by local farmers over the years, and in 1911 Professor Hiram Bingham visited the site
and was so impressed with its beauty, he returned a year later with a team of people to conduct research and investigations. Since the 1930s the Peruvian government has been promoting the conservation, research and enhancement of the site. It has since been declared a “Cultural and Natural Patrimony of Humankind” by UNESCO (1983), making it Peru’s first archaeological monument. It’s certainly a highlight of the Incan culture and serves as an amazing example of the Incas’ architectural genius…
With all of this in mind, our tour came to an end as as we were making our way to the gate to catch our bus to Aguas Calientes we could hear drums and chanting. I thought it was some kind of Peruvian celebration or parade but as we got closer we realised it was a protest. The buses were all at a standstill, the exit was blocked by a crowd with placards and the shops were all closed. We couldn’t even use the bathroom or buy water.
After a quick conference with Paul, we decided to walk down the mountain to the town of Aguas Calientes. We were all very tired and hot and not many of us had any water left, but we let out our final war cry “Haku” and set off on the downhill run… It took us about an hour to make the extra 400m. It
was mostly stairs, with the odd road crossing in between. Bus loads of tourists passed us on the way as we walked into the quaint little town. We figured the protestors must have finally let everyone go, but what we didn’t realise, they were back in town and forcing all the businesses to close. They were gathering around hotels and restaurants with their placards and loud hailers yelling and chanting until they closed their doors.
We were dirty, sweaty and running out of patience by this time… and as we made our way to the restaurant (Apu Salkantay) we were booked into for lunch (3 hours late), we could see it was closed, as were all the other restaurants and shops in the main street. Paul knocked on the door and we were met by the owner who hurried us all in and closed the door behind us. The restaurant had two levels and the chairs were all up on the tables downstairs, so it certainly looked like it was shut! We were told to go upstairs and as we did, we were met with a bustling room full of tired and dirty trekkers all drinking beer and eating delicious food! It was the place to be! Seated at a long table, we were finally able to relax and have that well deserved beer… oh my goodness, it tasted so good!
We later found out that the whole town had been closed by the protestors, but a lot of the restaurants were trading in secret. What were they protesting about? Something about the government trying to privatise Peru’s national parks and monuments. It was such a shame that the poor people of Aguas Calientes, who were trying to make a living out of tourism, were the most significantly impacted.
After a few hours of beers and wonderful food, we tipped our guides and said our goodbyes and went off to our hotels. Some of the team were leaving on the train that night to go back to Cusco, the rest of us had one extra night in the town. We thought that was the last we would see of Cheri, Nick, Swetha, Sundeep, Galina and Slava and our guides Paul and Omar. But alas this was not to be..
We awoke to find that everyone was still in town… the trains were not going anywhere. By this stage we were communicating via Facebook messaging and we decided to meet to discuss our contingency plan for getting out of the place. Our train was originally due to depart at 3.30pm, but the station was full of people who had failed to leave the day before and there were hundreds more around the town looking to get on any train in the next 24 hours.
The protestors were still in full force, walking the streets and standing outside cafes, restaurants and hotels where they could see tourists inside. We’d heard through the grapevine that the protest was to last for 48 hours which meant our train in the afternoon would also be delayed, or not happening at all.
We wandered the streets, with money to burn, but nothing was open. We could see many other tourists wondering what to do with themselves, so we ended up back at our favourite place, Apu Salkantay for lunch. We had a reunion of sorts, with the rest of our trekking crew. What else could we do but drink beer and wait for the next train out of town. I could have written a song about it… maybe someone has. Cold Chisel comes to mind.. “the last train out of Aguas Calientes is almost gone..”
After going for a short stroll after lunch,
we were back relaxing and chatting in the restaurant when a mini cyclone ripped through the town. All hell broke loose as roofs were uplifted, sheets of iron were flying about as the storm descended upon us. Everyone was out on the balcony trying to catch a glimpse of the chaos. What else could possibly happen in this quiet little town??
About half an hour later, Paul said we must move quickly and collect our bags from the hotel and get to the train station as he had heard that some trains might be leaving. We all bolted back to our hotels and met on the corner in the rain with our bags. We travelled as a pack now and headed for the station, only to be met by hundreds of others, all with the same idea. So we got in line and waited. It was 3.30pm.
There was no train action at the station for a few hours and as it started to get dark, we could see that the restaurants were all opening again and we were stuck in the middle of the station with hundreds of people, both locals and tourists alike, all patiently waiting. Our wonderful Condor travel representative was staying in touch with us throughout. She would appear occasionally through the window of the station, her phone stuck to her ear and each time she indicated to us that we should stay put and she was working on a solution. I didn’t quite believe that there would be a solution, but kept the faith in any case.
After about 3 hours of waiting, Rosemary appeared again, this time with a crumpled up note which she pushed into my hand and told me to keep quiet. I looked down at the note and it said “Please can you come, one by one and ask for toilet”. All seven of us had to leave the line up, one by one (and pretend to be going to the toilet) so as not to attract attention and cause a riot…
We ended up in another line with locals trying to get on their domestic route which was a little scary as there was much pushing and shoving and shouting. I could see us getting crushed in the panic, but Rosemary was calm and she kept us safe until we got through the gate into another terminal. There were more crowds in there, all sitting on seats, ready for the next departure. It was to be another hour before it looked like we were on a train. The lovely Rosemary guided us to the door and spoke to the conductors in Spanish. Other tourists were asking us what dates we had on our tickets but Rosemary told us not to say anything. The last train was leaving and we managed to squeeze out that skinny doorway onto the platform. I couldn’t see Lindsay and Katie and began to panic, thinking they were left behind, but they eventually appeared, grinning from ear to ear. We were all so excited! Finally.. we were on our way.
The train trip was long and tiring. Some of us slept, some of us passed the time playing cards (with dodgy Russian rules!) until we reached Ollantaytambo again where it was absolute madness. Hundreds of people and buses trying to leave the station to get back to Cusco. Another hour or so in the bus and we finally reached our hotel in Cusco after midnight. This didn’t leave us much time to pack before our flight back home the next day, but at least we had the morning as we were due to depart at 12.45pm… or so we thought….
I’ll end this little blog here with the story of us going to the airport. Sounds like any other boring story really. You get on your airport transfer bus, you drive to the airport, you check in, wait and then get on a plane. Simple really, except that’s not how our story went.
As we were checking in at the counter, the attendant takes our bags after weighing them. She also has our passports at this stage, so we think we’re sweet. Just waiting for our boarding passes and passports to be handed back and she puts up a sign on her counter which says “closed” in Spanish. Then we notice ALL the other attendants are doing the same on all of the check in counters. She still has our passports. Thankfully our guide is still with us and she tries to get some information from the airport employee. All she could decipher from the conversation was something about a plane crash and they all had to go and have a meeting…
So we wait.. and we wait, and wait some more. Eventually she returns and tells us that the airport is closed and there will be no further flights leaving today as a plane has crashed on the runway, blocking it to all other traffic both incoming and outgoing. Turns out it wasn’t quite as dramatic as that, the plane basically lost its landing gear, but hey… that’s scary enough for me.
To cut a long story short, we ended up spending an extra three nights in Cusco as we were unable to get a flight out any sooner, due to the whole world trying to do the same thing… I’m flat broke and due to start work again on the Monday (we were originally due into Sydney on the Sunday) so things were looking a bit dire. I panicked for a while and wondered how I would survive, but I’m grateful for a generous, kind hearted daughter (“Hi it’s Mum, can you please send money” – yes that’s a bit of role reversal) and lovely travelling companions who were happy to help in my financial emergency!
Once we had secured our accommodation and flights again, I felt a thousand times better and thought why not make the most of the extra time and boy did we have some fun! Living is cheap in South America, we ate like kings for the next three days, rendezvouing again with our Russian trekking buddies who were also caught up in the delays and we even let our hair down with a night out on the town. We finally got to hang out at the highest
Irish Pub in town (we’d previously missed the opportunity), witnessed a fireworks festival, saw the beautiful lights of Cusco from the top of town, danced in the street with the locals and drank too many Pisco Sours in a live music pub until the wee hours of the morning… You only live once right?
Who cares if it took us five flights, six cities, four countries and 40 hours of transit to actually arrive back in old Sydney town.. it was all worth the memories.