This story is a continuation and the culmination of the previous two entries. So I suggest you read those first…
The rain is so warm I don`t even bother with a jacket. The river we are following is flowing full force. I cross the tributaries via logs spanning the white turmoil. Dense clouds tail me and overtake me, depositing sheets of water in the surrounding basin. After a few hours the trail turns into a road and we are hiking three-wide along the banks of the Salkantay. Unkempt hair knots together in oily clumps and repels the showers. Steam from armpits smells seven days old and the red elbow-bumps still itch underneath Merino wool. We are miserably dirty but undeniably proud of this state. We wear our filth like a badge that says, “We hiked Choquequirao.” Onlookers stare with hanging jaws. Children run after us waving tiny American flags. Grandmothers cry in the street. Security guards hold back the swarming crowds. Every raindrop is a piece of ticker tape. This is our parade.
“I mean this is just a road. Can you imagine hiking on a road for two days? The Salkantay is weak,” I say.
“I know. Cars passing every couple minutes. Dirt bikes. Strollers. I`m definitely glad we did Choquequirao,” says Mike.
“Yeah, they might as well be taking a bus,” says Kelly, talking about the people who hike the Salkantay.
This has been an amazing trek, but it hasn`t been an easy one. We only encountered two other parties on the Choquequirao trail. One solo Frenchman was carrying an enormous external-frame backpack and hiking very slowly along the trail. Every time we passed him he said he was hungry. After the fifth day, we stopped seeing his footprints. There was also a group of four young Argentinians, two men and two women. On day three, Mike noticed one of the girls limping around camp with her hands gripping a forked walking stick. The next morning we heard that they had left their shoes outside the tent and that they were going to spend the entire next day letting them dry. We never saw them again.
Now, hiking along the last part of the Salkantay trail, we are shocked to hear the sound of a television. The village of La Playa is a conglomeration of miniature stores and outposts, which cater to the hikers that pass by. We stroll between two parked mini-buses and are immediatly badgered by the drivers. They ask us over and over again if we need a ride. Our reply, no gracias, trails behind us as we continue on.
After lunch, we say goodbye to our muleteers. Jesus smiles widely as he shakes our hands. I tell him that we cannot thank him enough for his service and hard work. The group has nominated me official tip-giver-outer, probably because my Spanish is a bit better. He seems almost embaressed to recieve the bills, but thanks me over and over again, nodding his head and smiling. We wave at them as we walk down the hill and cross a rickety bridge on foot. The mini-bus follows us across and we watch with horror as the boards bend from the weight of the fully loaded vehicle.
An Ecuadorian woman is driving. She obviously does not know how to drive a stick shift because she keeps the car in first gear for half an hour, revving the engine to a high RPM. We are traveling down a steep hill when a car approaches from the other direction. There is a turnout behind us but the woman does not know how to reverse. She turns the wheel the wrong direction and nearly drives us off the side of the cliff. Everyone in the car screams. She cannot figure out which direction to turn the wheel. Our cook, Alfredo, finally takes over at our bidding and does a perfect job of getting us out of the precarious situation. He drives the rest of the way to Santa Rosa while the original driver sits in the back, watching.
Immediatly after setting up the tents we all hop back in the car for the ten minute trip to the hot springs. Alfredo drives again. The pools are huge and beautiful. Pebbles carpet the floors, the water is crystal, warm, refreshing. It feels so good. The last vestiges of sun have disappeared and Orion`s Belt glints above us before we get out.
We share wine, rum, and beer at dinner. Afterwards, Felix builds a fire in the driveway and we sit in wooden chairs drinking and telling stories. A Peruvian man with black dreadlocks and huge eyes joins the party and offers us San Pedro cactus and Ayahuasca. He promises a transendental experience with pachamama. No one accepts the Mystic´s offer, but we are happy to have him sitting in the circle, drinking his fermented corn alcohol from a long-necked gourd. Soon, everyone gets drunk, and when the pouring rain starts again, we hide in the hostal`s store. It is past midnight by the time we stumble to our tents. The zipper on my rain fly is broken again and the foot of my sleeping bag is soaked. Kate lends me a dirty t-shirt to sop up the mess, but I hardly care. This is our last night of camping anyway. I fall quickly into a deep, life-giving sleep.
An hour long cab ride takes us to the edge of the train tracks. We carry all our luggage to a nearbye storefront where Alfredo and Tigre will wait for the afternoon train to Aguas Calientes. This is where we say goodbye to the men who nourished us with gourmet combinations each night. Besides the overabundance of white rice, which is typical to Peru and Ecuador, the meals were absolutely amazing. I pass them a generous tip and tell them that I do not know how to say “thank you” enough times. Their smiles illuminate our receding figures as we hike with Felix along the railroad ties.
In a few hours we reach the town of Aguas Calientes. We are shocked by the sheer number of white people we see. There must be more tourists than locals. The ruins of Machu Picchu are visible on the towering ridgeline. The Urubamba River looks like it is ready to flood the town. A blender of red-brown water churns along the foundations of the brightly colored hotels. Mike and Kelly have a room that looks down on the roiling mass of collected rain. With the window open, we can barely hear each other speak.
We find a place for ice cream and play cribbage to pass the time. Groups of Japanese tourists snap photos of every little detail. German backpackers trundle up the train tracks with determined looks on their faces. Australians drink beer. Americans speak loudly in horrible accents and point from one restaurant to another, unable to decide on pizza or hamburgers. “Jeesh, we`re in tourist town now,” I say.
“Gringoville,” says Mike.
“Well, at least we took the scenic-bus to white-boy-city,” says Kelly. This is our newest form of completely mindless conversation . Its a riot. We`re pretty much in tears.
Felix buys us dinner. We cheers with glasses of boxed wine. To a successful trip! Faces are clean, hair is combed, the stench of oily sweat no longer berates us. The hotel has hot showers and we are sitting on the balcony of an actual restaurant. There is no mess tent, no canvas camp chairs, no bugs. The novelty doesn`t wear off. Mike orders pizza and assparagos soup to start. I have the same, except my appetizer is a stuffed avocado. “How`s yours?” I ask.
“Its like the cheese-bus to dough-hood,” he says, grinning. “How`s yours?”
“Not sure yet. I`m too busy in avacado-land. The beef-train to stir-fry-pueblo may be delayed.”
Tomorrow, Machu Picchu.
Someone knocks on my door at 4:30am. I am downstairs by five o`clock, eating a breakfast of white bread and red jam with coffee and sour juice. The six of us are walking to the bus stop by 5:20 in order to catch the first group of buses to Machu Picchu. There is only a hint of sunrise as we round the corner and are confronted by chaos. Hundreds of gringos are standing on the sidewalk milling about, walking up and down the street with their daypacks on, shuffling their feet on the pavement, listening to iPods. We squeeze into the middle of the line where Felix has been waiting. The buses arrive shortly. The Mercedes Benz logo is on the front. We get on the fifth bus and sit with our backpacks on our knees for the 20 minute ride.
Finally the clouds have disappated. A fresh sun bakes the line at the entrance to the enormous ruins. When we are inside Felix asks us if we want to climb Wayna Picchu in the morning. Wayna Picchu is the jutting precipice that provides the stunning backdrop to the ruins. In almost every photo of Machu Picchu, the bald peak resides in the background. Since the weather seems so perfect and since we all have plenty of energy, we say yes. Felix hurries us along trails and through passageways towards the opposite end of the ruins. There, we wait in a short line that slowly filters through the entrance to the trailhead. We are the 42nd, 43rd and 44th people through the gate, as it says on our tickets.
The trail is more like a stone staircase. There are cables attached to the white granite walls that provide at least the illusion of security. The staircase winds steeply around the peak until, after about 45 minutes of climbing, it ends at a viewpoint that overlooks the Lost City. From here, we crawl through a tiny cave that leads to the summit of Wayna Picchu. We bask in the sun on top of some enormous boulders, share a candy bar, drink some water. More tourists eventually find their way to the top and the area soon becomes uncomfortably crowded. We offer our perch to others and make our way down an extremely steep and narrow staircase. “These Incas had tiny feet.”
After a few hours on the mountain we decide to descend. Felix meets us at the entrance, and from here, we begin our guided tour. We spend two hours exploring many different parts of the city. Felix tells us more stories and theories than it is practical to relate. Suffice it to say that we are all awed by the skill with which the city was built. There are stones so massive, with so many corners and angles, that it is impossible to imagine how the Incan sculptors could have put them together so perfectly. The joints are hardly even visible.
We are getting hungry by the time the guided tour is over. It is past midday and the baking sun has made us lethargic. Mike, Kelly and I find a corner to hide in and eat lunch. We rest in the shade of some enormous boulders as tourist groups hobble by, snapping photos of every blade of grass. It is another few hours before we have had our fill of the city. Tamed Alpaca block the exit, but we squeeze by their soft flanks and stroll to the bus stop, satisfied with our experience, still wide-eyed and in shock that we actually made it. After countless difficulties in airports and bus stations, after eight days of gruelling hiking, after soaked sleeping bags, near death car rides, Jurrasic sized wasps, we finally made it to the Lost City of the Incas.
Still, for me, the intricate towers and endless terraces can´t compare to the lush valleys and churning riverbeds of the trail. Thousands upon thousands of people visit Machu Picchu every year. It is the low season now and yet the temples and passageways are teeming. But on the trail, I was alone for hours, lost in the rhythm of my moving body as it mixed with the song of the bees. The pattern of veins on a leaf that brushes my shoulder, the emmaculate yellow of a budding orchid, the eternal rushing of the river, the invisible beats of a hummingbird´s wings. These things are all perfect and they are more amazing to me than polished stone could ever be.
As I sit on the train back to Cusco, I am lost in thought. My mind wanders over the woven stone walls, the polygonal architecture, the narrow steps and trapzoidal doorways, but it invariably returns to one image: in an emerald valley at the foot of a crystal glacier a butterfly with orange wings alights on a pile of dung. It waits there for a moment, pulsing it´s amber sails as I watch, before an incomprehensible breath of wind pushes it into the lapis sky and it is riding an effortless current towards the weeping saddle between the mountains.