The view from Machu Picchu.

Mischief and Misery in Cusco

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

 

I woke to the uniform moan of the thousand roosters’ call, a symphonic cacophony; dull, but uninterrupted. There was a thick fog that lay over most of the river bed, the floating moisture licking the rocks wet. There was no sun, and I didn’t seem to want there to be one. I labored to pack the tent. My pack was set. I stared at it. It looks so unchangeable…

After walking several hours outside of Nazca down the Cusco highway, I stopped and sat on my pack, careful not to squash the small netbook buried within. Few trucks passed, and the ones that did blew their bighorns crashing through the otherwise peaceful air. They passed so close to me. If I came near to death, would I go back?

In Mexicali, Chava, short for Salvador, was my friend. I had spent a week camped in his outdoor restaurant, supposedly protecting the plastic chairs from theft. He had travelled as far as Panama. In the San Blas islands he rented a kayak and became lost in the maze of tropical islands. He feared he would die. When he found his way out, he returned home. He went back. There, he would find happiness among friends.

Happiness. Happiness is a tall order. A man needs his basic needs met, a cheerful company, good comfortable surrounds, a feeling of worth for immediate others, and the desire to discover satisfied. The last one is particularly true for transients. Do I feel way-worthy?

A truck stopped for my false smile. The guys inside peered out, “how much you pay to get to Cusco?”

“Not a penny!” I said.

They looked at me, “Alright hop on in!”

Into the mountains we rode. The two truckers were Ferior and Jacinto, and they had no intention of stopping to sleep. One would climb into the bed behind the front seats to sleep while I would talk with the other to keep him awake. At an alpine lagoon we stopped and they treated me to a meal of trucha, trout. The orange meat slid from the fish bones, and the steamed potatoes followed it down my gullet.

Vicuna grazed and ran along the road in the pampas. Children with purple gums and ragged clothing begged the passing trucks for something, for anything. I threw them bread and oranges, and we continued onward. Night fell and the glacial freeze gripped my bones through the cracked window. I thought about Lima.

Gone was the House of No Ends. Gone was the hookah and endless nights of hallucinated worlds. Gone were Camilo and Franco, my friends Andres and Catalan, Mavi and all the others. Gone was Mayra. Gone was her warmth and smile. But no, it was I who had actually gone. What a bastard. What a fool.

18 hours slid into the past and I farewelled my benefactors at 5am from the outskirts of Cusco. The sun’s rays burst from behind a far mountain range like a crown of light. The walk took me uphill, the weight of my pack like someone pulling at my shoulders, trying to drag me backward. The old straps were thin and hard, and it felt relentless.

Cusco, the heart of the Incan Empire, lay before me. After over 5 months of time in Peru, I had finally made it to the cultural hub of the country. Unfortunately, it was the tourist hub of the country. No matter. Sometimes tourism is.

The central plaza of Cuzco, Peru.

The central plaza of Cuzco, Peru. Source.

 

I walked the busy streets until the pavement became cobblestone, and the building facades changed from run-down modernism to preserved colonial beforeism. I strolled under the long stone arcades beside the Plaza de Armas, the tall earthly churches hovering over the streets. I found the ancient pedestrian walkways, where the age-old Incan stone foundations support “newer” Spanish constructions. The stones were something impressive, cut to a precise fit with neighboring stones.

The perfect cuts of the Incan foundations in Cuzco.

The perfect cuts of the Incan foundations in Cuzco. Source.

 

The streets were narrow, and the parallel whitewash colonial buildings seemed to smile at each other, somehow aware of their significance in the eyes of us foreigners. The city seems to exist as testament to the ferocity of the Spanish conquest. Every Incan temple and civic building had been demolished, the Spanish leaving only the sturdy foundations to support their own houses and public offices. The amazing irony of the devotion to Catholicism that most Peruvians display is not lost on me, which seems to inhibit me from arriving to a strong level of empathy when I look back on the deathly history of the Americas. So it goes.

From Plaza San Francisco I went south to find the Cusco Pariwana. Alonso had said I could continue work on the blog from there, so I’d get to stay free once more. Inside, I found the old courtyard of a 16th century Spanish residence. Two floors of arches lined the square, open space. The ping pong table and colorful bean bag chairs were there.

I strode up the wide stone stairwell to the second floor, passing my hand over the rutted banister and thinking, how many people have touched this cold stone. Three of the second-floor terraces were indoors and one stretched out over a wooden balcony looking down on the courtyard space. Wi-Fi; how great. The lounge area was filled with upholstered seating and computers. Next to it was the bar, complete with German beer fest-esque long wooden tables. I felt quite the same here as in the last one… part of the cycle of supply and demand.

The Pariwana Cuzco hostel.

The Pariwana Cuzco hostel.

 

I had been in touch with my friend Sammy from the day he left the House. He had taken the Andean road I initially planned to ride, through Huancayo and Ayacucho, and it just so happened that our Cusco adventures would coincide. I had also worked out with Alonso that I would do double the blog work in exchange for a second free bed for my friend.

Walking the streets of Cusco gives you a measure of delight that few cities can offer. The experience is like wading through a labyrinth of diversity. Small women with broken teeth haul heavy satchels on their backs, and young people in sparkling shirts and shiny gelled hair jostle their friends. Tourists always tout their cameras and look out-of-place among the paraplegic beggars, those with outstretched roughened hands, hoping for a sol. I push through it all, hoping to look anonymous.

I found Sammy’s hotel, and he came to his door shirtless and rubbing the sleep from his eyes.

“Hey man!” I said wide-eyed.

“Hey,” he replied with a tired voice.

I helped him relocate to the Pariwana, and I wrote a few quick articles to cover the day’s accommodation for the both of us.

“Thanks a lot for this man, I owe ya one.”

“Don’t mention it man, the articles are easy things, blog posts,” I said. “I just have to write 5 or 6 a day. I’m done with it by 10.”

“Right on. There are a few things I wanna show you around town. I’ve already been here a week waiting for you.”

“Yes yes, well we’ll make that worth it. We have some serious business to attend to the next few days you realize.”

I was talking about mischievousness in the Incan ruins, but we’ll get to that.

We continued to reminisce about Poitiers France, where we had lived together for a month and spent 6 months together. The chocolate and French television, the discoteques with our mutual Chilean friend Francisco, the FAC where we took classes and walked the halls with Frenchies.

With Sammy I walked up the steep hill to the Jesus statue and Sacsayhuaman, the Killke and later Incan fortress that overlooks the whole urban sprawl. Here, the stones are particularly interesting. They might be described as mammoths. Cut as precisely as every stone foundation in the city center, the fortress is mind boggling in that stones as large as cars seem to have found their way to the hill summit, and that without the aid of beasts of burden, since the pre-Columbians had none.

I kicked the dirt at my feet as we sat to watch the city lights glow. The altitude clogged my nose with gook, and my eyes felt the evening’s chill. I wanted to feel appreciation for it all, the whole thing. Everyone does, anyway. Cusco is it. This is where it all came to fruition for the Spanish, the entire conquest of the land; everything controlled for right here. The significance of it all should have felt overwhelming.

“Sammy man,” I said, “how often do you have to deal with sulking friends?”

“It doesn’t bother me. You can sulk all you want.”

At Pariwana we played Scrabble like fiends, and foosball like addicts. Sammy has a bizarre talent for sportsmanship, and if he gets frustrated by constantly losing foosball to an egomaniac like me, I couldn’t have noticed. It reminded me of our travel together in Morocco and Spain, a trip that convinced me he was one of my few friends I could probably travel with.

As long as I can remember, I’ve limited myself to traveling with others for no more than two weeks. I remember Toinon, in Nicaragua. Two weeks we travelled together. I could feel my frustrated self coming out at times. Wow, it seems so long ago… Toinon is still in Costa Rica, where I left her with my father’s friend Denise. In fact she’s pregnant now. Has it been so long…? I spoke recently with my parents and they informed me that a book called “I am a Backpacker” came in the mail. Alas, perhaps you might recall a certain day when, walking in Granada Nicaragua with Toinon, a Dutch girl came up behind us to ask for an interview. She gave us each ten dollars. More than a year later, the book came out in Europe. So our faces are being looked at by who knows who.

“Sammy, is it ok to use the word ‘nox’?”

“What does that mean?”

“Nitrous Oxide.”

“It’s short for something, so it doesn’t count.”

“Yea but it’s a word. No one says nitrous oxide. If they want to add a little power to their street racer, they buy a can of nox.”

“Is it in the dictionary?”

“Man it doesn’t matter, it’s a word.”

Sammy and I bent the rules of Scrabble to fit our individual belief systems about language. Of all my friends, Sammy is the best schooled in the English language. He has heard of most words, and in a conversation with him, I usually have to ask the meaning of a word or two. In Scrabble, my linguistics formation comes out, with me insisting that a word does not have to be in the dictionary for it to be a word.

“It’s a word if you know what I mean,” I said, “ain’t it?”

“We’ll make some exceptions. And yes, ‘dewy’ is a word, Chael.”

One day I was on the internet, and Sammy came into the lounge. He looked at my screen briefly, then meandered to the window.

“Chael.”

“What?”

“Come look at this.”

Sammy was looking down the street. I went to the window. There, standing in the coffee shop entrance, was our French friend Yann, with whom we had taken super pedro, and who had been in the House for its last weeks.

Needless to say this led to a reunion when we surprised Yann from across the street. None of us believed that this moment just happened upon us. Sammy said, “I aspire to be the guy who does things like looking out a window at the right moment.”

That night we decided to check out the weekly CS meeting. It was in an expensive bar. The atmosphere did little to convince me. Yann bought me a mojito and rented a bowl of hookah. Unfortunately it was all for show, as the barmen seemed to have little clue how to arm a hookah. Nonetheless it was good to be smoking again.

The CSers present were painfully normal. There was the energetic and deceptively humble egomaniacal guy who went to great lengths to make CS meetings an organized and routinely boring event. I felt like I could write the script for the night, as the conversations revolved around what are you doing, and where are you going next.

Back at the hostel it was much of the same. Sammy and I seemed cut-off from the rest of the hostellers. Hostellers and backpackers… am I a backpacker? Everyone was on the same voyage. Everyone had the same damn story. Nothing seemed interesting. I didn’t want to have that monotonous conversation over and over again. Hostel culture is something I feel distinctly apart from. I would be interested in meeting these people in their lives, in their jobs, in their lifestyles, but travelling from one conventional hostel to the next seems to put everyone into one big all-encompassing category of backpackers. Alas, that’s the way of things.

On the third morning we checked out of Pariwana and began walking across town to a street called ‘Puputi’, where a purported bus would take us to the town of Pisaq. The road wound around small Incan ruins, but we were on a mission for one of greater grandeur. 45 minutes later we were let out in the town of Pisaq. We craned our necks to look up to the spiny mountain at the top of a latticework of steep Incan terraces.

“Man, there was no way we were going to be able to hitch here. Every car was a taxi or minivan or some other gringo-transport service,” I said.

It was true, the Sacred Valley, as the valley north of Cusco is known, is the tourist capital of the country. Yes, yes, if we were stubborn enough we would have probably eventually get picked up by a delivery truck or something, but the hitch would have taken so long and felt so shitty that we would’ve repented it all. Besides, the few sols it would cost us to make the journey would be accommodated by our mischievous intentions at the ruins.

The Sacred Valley it was, then. Giant hills cornered the small town of Pisaq, the crossroads of three distinct valleys. The Sacred Valley was the Incan holy land, so to speak. Countless ruins and monuments dot the whole of the area and attest to the ingenuity of the once powerful empire. I suppose that’s all quite interesting.

“Taxi amigo, ruinas, 10 sol 10 sol amigo!”

The drivers yelled to us as we walked out of town in the direction of the ruins. My pack was a fraction of its normal weight, since I’d left most of my gear back at the hostel with the intention to return in several days’ time. Sammy carried his one-strap bag, keen to set himself apart from “backpackers.” I understood. Despite having a backpack, I feel decidedly non-backpacker… also, I suppose, despite having shown up in the book “I am a Backpacker.” Irony.

We made our way up paths that cut through the switchbacks made by the road. We could see the terraces climbing high over the mountain across the river. There was a light mist in the air and the sun was doused by this welcome refreshment.

When we came to pass by a farmer chopping wood, I stopped to ask him a question.

“Excuse me, hello. We’re just wondering how we can get to the ruins quickly by walking.”

He smiled and gave us directions to follow the footpath after the geological fault, to cross the river and climb up through the ancient terraces. When we continued on, I suggested to Sammy something.

“You know, it’s always the locals who give me the low-down on how to get into sites without paying.”

“Yea I wouldn’t have expected that,” Sammy replied.

We found the path and followed it down to the small river, where eventually we cross the rickety wooden foot bridge and began an ascent up the stairway of the terraces. Each terraced level was as tall as we were, but they were obviously no longer used for agriculture, completely overgrown with beige wavy grass.

The Incan ruins at Pisaq, Peru.

The Incan ruins at Pisaq, Peru. Source.

 

We climbed without a care, using the jutting stones from the wall itself to hike over each terrace.

Sammy stopped and looked at the height of the stepping stones. “I’m wondering, how the heck did someone that tall,” motioning a short stature with his hand, “use these as steps?” It was a just observation, as the stepping stones required 6’2 Sammy to exert himself, and the Incans were shorter than 5’!

Eventually we followed one terrace around the hillside to a legitimate staircase, which we followed to its end. Now we were above it all; the whole world down below, and us up there in the crisp air, which we sucked in vehemently.

Fifteen minutes later we were in view of ruined houses at the top.

“We’re almost there!” I exclaimed.

Then we heard voices, and could see a number of figures at the top. We ducked down behind the terrace, unsure if they had seen us. Shit… we were about to get caught. But wait, there they go, they’re not paying us any attention. Maybe they didn’t see us. Maybe they’re not guards!

We climbed the rest of the way to the top, and found more footpaths. We saw people higher up the mountain walking probably similar footpaths.

“Man!” I said, “we’re in! We just snuck into Pisaq.”

And so it was that we had circumnavigated the entrance and come in on the complete other side. During a short downpour we hid under the thatch roofs protecting the ancient adobe of Incan buildings. Then we began to walk to the far pinnacle of what later we would discover was a decidedly thin complex.

The whole of Pisaq, which encompasses several different sites, is perched along a narrow mountain ridge that snakes out toward the town itself. The sides are steep slopes or veritable cliff faces. There is a footpath that skirts around one side of the mountain ridge and returns on the other. Sam and I climbed up through a narrow staircase in between a cliff and old adobe houses precariously perched on the mountainside.

We eventually came to what was obviously once an Incan guard tower. The sinking feeling in my chest signaled the honest awe I felt upon taking in the view of the triple valley corridors. Sammy took a picture with his 1980 SLR.

One of the lookout towers at the Pisaq ruins in Peru.

One of the lookout towers at the Pisaq ruins in Peru.

 

We spent the rest of the day in the Pisaq ruins, walking all the way back to the side where most of the tourists admired the site in droves. The majority never seemed to make it to the guard towers on the opposite side, which made us feel paternal toward our secluded spot.

The day suddenly became frightening when I realized that my left knee had stopped working. I had to walk step by step to keep my leg stiff for fear of the shooting pains that would otherwise ring my joint. We decided to descend the ruins at the far end, whose footpath would end in the very town center of Pisaq.

Thousands of steps later, Sam and I were approaching a guard house. A man came out.

“Tickets please,” he said.

I said one thing and Sam, who actually had a ticket, said another. The guard was confused but I simply kept talking and grasping my knee. I began to shake slightly. A second guard came out and they asked what was wrong with me.

“The ruins killed my knee, I need to get some medicine,” I said.

The whole thing distracted the guards and they completely forgot to double check if I had a ticket. Sammy and I went into town, ate a meal, and I bought some Aspirin. We tried to hitch to the next town with a crummy feeling of inopportunity. We took a bus.

By the time we arrived to Urubamba it was dark. We walked-I hobbled-toward the far end of this larger town. We found a suitable gated field to camp in-for two sols. My leg was no better despite the drugs. This was worrying—how would I be able to sneak into Machu Picchu otherwise?

The early morning wafted over us. Tent packed, tarp packed, and we were off before the keepers could charge us the four sols. That fucking knee…

We tried to hitch for a couple hours, and different people gave us different advice about buses. Finally we opted to take a combi to Ollantaytambo. Whatever priority standing in line seems to give you, once the doors open, it’s a contest of shoving and budging to get a seat. Sammy and I made it in, and thirty minutes later we were walking the small town streets of Ollantaytambo.

Everything was damp from the morning mist, and the dark ruins on the hill towered closely over the tiny municipality. The combi drivers told us that a bus to our destination of Santa Maria, at the end of the paved road, had to be boarded back in Urubamba. After asking around, we heard otherwise.

“That’s a good strategy,” said Sammy, “ask around until you hear the answer you want to hear.”

A giant bus with those bug-like side view mirrors eventually arrived, and I shouted “12 sols!” when the crew wanted more. The 12 soles brought us after 5 hours sitting in the aisle to Santa Maria.

We got out and stretched. It wasn’t so much of a town as it was a street. We inquired about transport to the last town before Machu Picchu itself, Santa Teresa. The taxis here wanted 10 sols for a 30 minute ride. Of course, being the negotiating cheap bastards that we are, Sammy and I weren’t going for it. Some of the townsfolk suggested that we could get a ride from a pick-up truck for 5 sols. Alas, we began to walk.

10 minutes down the dirt road we crossed a bridge over a raging river. We stopped halfway across to stare down at the rapids.

“I’m not such a good swimmer,” said Sammy.

“Yea, man I hope that’s not the river we’ll have to cross.”

“What did you say you friend did?”

“Lucas, you remember reading about him in my posts? I was with him in Barranquilla, Bogota, San Agustin and Quito,” I said. “He and a buddy jumped on rocks to cross the river. They got into Machu Picchu along the stone wall just beneath the entrance, but in the morning they got caught. The headman made them pay.”

“Yea well dry season seems pretty done,” Sammy pointed out.

“Andres and Bridger also snuck in. They say they found the old Inca trail, something about it being behind a rest stop on the Picchu ascent, but then had to climb a wall and find a place to hide until morning, when they blended in with the tourists. They didn’t get caught.”

“Yea, but they got caught the first night when they tried to sneak past the guard hut across the bridge,” Sammy reminded me.

Before we’d left Pariwana I reread the information my Venezuelan friend Andres, you know, from the House, had given us on how to sneak in. Sammy had written some of the information down.

“Yea they did get caught the first night. The second night he said the guards had let them cross the bridge after they gave them a big speech about the Chilean company owning Machu Picchu and none of the profits really benefiting the Peruvians,” I said.

Sammy eyed me, “I really don’t think they’ll do the same for us.”

“In any case, I’m not spending 50 dollars just to get into the place. We have to sneak across the bridge. Andres said we’d have better luck sneaking across the one on the right.”

“Well, as long as we don’t have to swim in that.”

The raging water below us pounded itself and rumbled down its way. We continued walking, through an abandoned enclave of buildings called San Pedro, which must have been left to ruin after some great flood.

Not long passed before we hailed a passing pick-up. The driver wanted 5 sols to Santa Teresa, but I told him 4, since we’d already begun the walk. Sammy smiled as we were underway in the bed of the truck.

“First time in the back of a pick-up?”

He shook his head. The world rushed by before our eyes. Cliffs leaned over the road above us like a warning. Those rocks could fall at any moment. The road climbed into the barren hills, the driver snaking dangerously close to the vertical drop into the valley below.

Santa Teresa was in the sunlight. Taxi drivers cried out “hydroelectrica!” Our pick-up driver had unwillingly accepted 6 sols instead of 8, but disappeared before we could get him his change.

“Lucas told me the walk to the hydroelectric power plant was a good 2 hours. 2 hours more down the train tracks and we should arrive to the entrance of Machu.”

“Sounds good,” said Sammy. Always quick and to the point he was.

We were underway. I had bought more drugs but I could still feel the pain in my knee. The walk took us up higher into the desolate hills. Machu Picchu was in jungled mountains, from what I knew… the whole thing made our walk seem endless.

Two hours passed, and a half hour more saw the darkness fall over us. We’d finally arrived to the hydroelectrica power plant. The train tracks began where the road ended. The nighttime was lit brightly by a near-full moon. The whole landscape was draped in the somehow effusive glow of the midnight orb.

“2 hours more, apparently,” said Sammy. “Shall we?”

Walking the traintrack to Machu Picchu from Santa Teresa.

Walking the traintrack to Machu Picchu from Santa Teresa.

 

We climbed a few stairs to detour the switchbacks, and found the railway once more. Two hours passed in the silence. Sammy and I were already on guard, and were hiding from any sound, despite the fact that we were in the right to be walking there.

The scene was beautiful. The train tracks trudge alongside the river, and massive hills build into their jungle surrounds. We could see perfectly, and we were alone. The whole thing was ours. We had thought we’d camp before dark, but something kept us going. We went, we walked and walked. Finally, several orange lamps signaled something significant.

There were some people wandering around the area, but it was pretty quiet. We were at what seemed to be a train station.

“What time is it?”

Sammy looked at his watch, “10 o’clock.”

“You think this is it?” I asked.

“I have no idea. They said we’d get to Machu Picchu’s entrance before Aguas Calientes.”

“Stay here, I’ll go on recon.”

We were disgustingly sweaty. The hike into Pisaq had done us in, and I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to even make it to the hydroelectrica. Alas, my adrenaline kicked in when I decided to walk down the road beside the tracks to see about where we were.

I found a staircase and could see some more lamps through the foliage. Every step I took was intentional and silent as death. I stuck to the shadows and was acutely aware of my form. At the bottom of the steps I peeked out to see a site that made my heart race; there was the guard hut, a fluorescent green glow coming from within, and the silhouette of a man in the open doorway. On either side of the hut were the two bridges Andres had told us about. This was it; the entrance to Machu Picchu.

Sammy and I walked a bit further down the tracks to hide out at the switches. A train passed us, but the conductors didn’t seem to care that we were there. The chill of the evening thickened and we donned a few layers more. It was 11. We’d make our attempt at midnight.

 


 

We had both fallen asleep sitting up, our hands stuffed into our deep pockets.

“We have to stash our bags,” I said.

We found a suitable rock up the hill to hide our gear. The moonlight was dulled by the thin layer of cloud that had formed; a good thing for us. We walked back toward the train station.

“Ok, here’s the deal,” I said. “The stairs open up in clear view of that hut. There’s no way we’re going to risk jumping rocks to cross the river; like you said, it’s too big. I think we can walk a bit further down that way, and come up alongside the bridge from below.”

We followed the train tracks, retracing our steps. However, the news was grim; the slope we’d have to descend was simply too drastic, and there would be nothing to stop our falling into the frigid rage of the river.

“Not a chance,” said Sammy.

“Damn… shit. Ok. I dunno. Ok let’s go scout out that hut again.”

I led the way back down the stairs. Both bridges had high fenced gates closing their access. The green light from the hut was out. A tall orange lamp lit the space directly in front of the right bridge.

“Well, I guess there’s nothing left to do but go. Let’s go, just follow me.”

We strafed and crouched low as we ran up to the hut itself from our hiding at the staircase. My heart beat a thousand beats per second. A foot above our heads was the guardhouse window. Is he inside, what’s he doing… is he awake or asleep? We had no way of knowing, but it didn’t matter. We tip-toed to the edge of the hut closest to the bridge, and then quickly moved to it, skirted around the gate and to the side.

Sammy was right behind me, but we made it to cover. “Man, Sammy dude, I feel like some Black Ops commando, only we don’t get the luxury of knocking out the guard!” I whispered.

There was a grid fencing blocking our way onto the bridge. The steel beams below looked slick, but they’d have to do.

“Alright, dude, are you ok with this?”

“Yea, let’s go.”

Thirty feet about a rocks and water, we squatted down on the steel beam that supports the bridge. One misplacement of a hand or foot and we’d meet oblivion. Shuffling down the beam, we were mostly out of view of the hut, if the guard was looking. I double-checked my footing as I shimmied down along the outside of the bridge. When I had cleared the fencing, I crawled through the opening in the beam and onto the bridge, careful to stay within the shadow. Sammy did likewise.

We crawled prone along the bridge, then crouched and began to sprint across. Oh shit if we’re gonna get caught it’s now, it’s now it’s right fucking now! Sammy and I made it across and hid in the shadows, staring back at the guardhouse. I looked at Sammy and wondered if his chest was pounding as mine was.

Sammy looked at me and a smile shot across his face. “That was fun.”

“Hell yea,” I agreed. “Now the climb.”

Sneaking into Machu Picchu

The route sneaking into Machu Picchu. Source.

 

Machu Picchu sits at the summit of an incredibly steep hill that is covered in slippery jungle. The road cuts back a dozen times, zigzagging its way to the top. The footpath that cuts up the middle of the road is not a path at all; it is a damning staircase of thousands of stairs. I wouldn’t be surprised if Led Zeppelin had these stairs in mind when writing their song.

So began a three hour climb up this stair. My knee was no better despite double the Aspirin. Each of us carried our sleeping bag compression sacks packed with food and water, and I with my ever-handy umbrella to support my injury.

The moon provided us just enough light to see our way. Flashlights were out of the question. As we climbed I began wondering the same thing thousands of tourists visiting Machu Picchu every day wonder; why the hell did the Incans build this thing so high up? Apparently Machu Picchu was the personal summer retreat for one of the Incas and his family (“Inca” refers to the emperor). I thought it an abuse of power, but I suppose I have such absolution to thank for giving Sam and I our adventure.

The switchback road up to the Machu Picchu Incan ruins.

The switchback road up to the Machu Picchu Incan ruins.

 

Up, up, up into the heights of the jungle. We looked down and saw the lights from the bridge. Half way there…

More orange lamps peeked through the brush. We’d reached the top.

“Ok, I’m gonna go check it out.”

The parking lot was just above the final wall. There were several buildings, a guardhouse and a restaurant. This is where Lucas had snuck in.

“Ok, Sammy, what do you think?”

“Let’s go find that trail Andres was talking about, and if that doesn’t work we can come back here and try your French friend’s way in.”

So it was. We descended a few hundred meters until we returned to the second rest hut that we’d seen. We found matted down plants hidden behind it; the trail.

It was a wet trek through the tangling bush. Our pant legs were soaked. The trail was not much of a trail and we lost it several times. It had us walking along dangerously steep precipices and ducking below thorns and unknown flora. Finally, there came a wall.

It was 12 feet high and perched beside a veritable drop.

“Man it’d suck having to invade this place,” I offered.

“I’m not sure that they ever had to invade it. Seems easy enough to lay siege here.”

We took care to scale the wall without falling. The trail continued slanting upward for a while more, and finally it emerged to a very welcome sight; the bottom levels of Machu Picchu’s terraces. We found the terrace stairs and made our way up and over, moving ever away from where we knew the front gate had been.

We passed stones the size of VW Beetles, and the terraces like man-made steppes cut into the sharply inclined hillside. We came to a small courtyard of some ancient significance. In the distance behind us we spotted a flashlight high on the hill, not far from where the entrance was. Sticking to the shadows, we continued onward. Several times the view opened up and a rush of awe flowed through me; here we were, alone, with a moonlit wonder of the world.

At a large stack of stones we climbed and found a small slit in some monolithic rocks. There was a tiny forest inside, and we decided this would be where we would stay for the night. We donned what clothes we had, and lay to sleep on the dry leaves and sticks.

I blinked open my eyes to see Sammy looking at me. There were voices nearby. Daylight had come, but we didn’t know what time it was; Sammy had lost his watch. As we were unsure of the time, we decided to wait longer.

Eventually we cracked some sticks and snuck back out through the rocks. After climbing down the stones we were on a path. Some tourists nearby were staring at us; but there was no worry.

“Sammy, man. We did it.”

“Yes we did.”

And so it was. The morning had come, and the site was filling with some 2500 tourists let in daily. We saw the hordes dotted the far hill where we’d seen the flashlight. There were guards everywhere, but we didn’t look any different from any other of the tourists. We’d done it. We snuck into Machu Picchu. I’ve been to the Coliseum in Rome, and had already snuck into Chichen Itza in Mexico. I suppose I can start keeping track of these new wonders…

The view from Machu Picchu.

The view from Machu Picchu. Source.

 

We spent the day wandering around the grounds admiring the awesome stonework and allowing bewilderment to subside as we listened in on tour guides’ explanations. The city had been built from a stone quarry that sat at the top of it all; stones were not hauled up from the river below. The feat would have been impossible otherwise, or so I think. I drew part of the site, and finally we were satisfied.

Travel Sketch of Machu Picchu

This is a travel sketch of Machu Picchu, the famous Incan ruins near Cuzco.

 

The descent took a third of the time, and my knee was miraculously healed, at least for a short time. We decided not to see Aguas Calientes and instead returned to the hydroelectrica. In the day we were able to admire the awesome rapids that were created in the river as the water rushed between solid singular stones as large as houses. We crossed the metal rickety railway bridge and were back at the plant before long. There, we hooked up with three other travellers to get discounted taxis and buses.

One of the three was Ecuadoran Carlos, and he knew Diego, my CS host from Loja. The others were a bizarre German and a linguistically-challenged Japanese guy. Sammy and I later agreed that we both wanted to talk more with Toshi, who showed an amazing tolerance with the local kids who wanted to play with us as we awaited the bus.

10 hours after descending Machu Picchu, Sammy and I wandered weary back into the hostel. We slept in the TV lounge so as not to have to write articles for that half-night. The next morning I scorched myself in the shower to purge my body of the ache and fatigue of the previous days’ exertions.

The days passed slowly then. We spent 5 more days doing essentially nothing in the hostel. We went twice to a hidden-away family restaurant that served us alpaca pizza and bread baskets fit for kings. The pure lemonade was some kind of liquid goodness, a refresher that made me pay close attention to the act of drinking it.

The nearby market was built by Gustave Eiffel, of the Tower fame. We drank fresh-squeezed juices and ate lomo saltado. In the days we played Scrabble and foosball, and walked the streets, strolling in order to give countenance to our conversations. I need to cherish our conversations. We remade the world in a number of respects, rarely coming to any profound conclusion, but insisting that the questions at least be asked. It seems folly to try to reproduce them here.

I wrote 60 articles for Pariwana. The blog is set for some time to come. I might check in from now and again to see how many hits they’re getting. The hostel gave Sammy and I a chance to relax, but we are both quite ready to continue onward. This is the last night in the hostel. The bar is packed and the music is to be expected. There was a pub quiz that asked predictable questions, and our team (consisting of Sammy and I) won, which won’t help our egos find humility. Now we’re to travel with our prize of a big bottle of rum.

Tomorrow morning. The road again. Always, the road. Where it goes, no one knows. To Puno I suppose. We go together, and then I continue onward to the Bolivian border to cause more mischief and leave the country before my visa expires in 3 days. The road looks awfully wide this time around. A daunting road, a road without a care. A lonely road, and bastard road; a piece of shit road. A frightening road, a friendless road, and a road that takes me further from happiness, but supposedly, hopefully leading to a new kind of joy. It’s just a hard road to bear.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

2 thoughts on “Mischief and Misery in Cusco

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *