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Death Road to Machu Picchu

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When I was in sixth grade I went on a school field trip to Peru.  When I say it out loud it sounds like I was one of those kids that everyone loves to hate; some spoiled brat who went to a high dollar institution with tasteful school uniforms.  In reality I lived in the quaint meth lab town of Chino Valley, Arizona, and went to school in a converted mini-mart.  It really all came down to my mom being totally rad.

See, in sixth grade my mom was my teacher.  And my mom, being a totally rad teacher, marches to the beat of a different drummer.  She figured our class ought to have a theme for the year.  Our math would be themed, our science would be themed, et cetera, and she decided that the theme of every subject would be the rainforest.  It’s kind of like that Our Lady Peace album on which every song is written about the novel The Age of Spiritual Machines.  And what better way to keep a bunch of hyper kids focused on learning about the rainforest than by giving them an incentive to actually learn something?  Our incentive was that we would actually go to the rainforest at the end of the year to experience what we’d been learning about.

But how do you send a bunch of sixth graders to the rainforest when they don’t have parents with the income to even send them to a high dollar institution with tasteful school uniforms?  Two words: child exploitation.  As a part of our math and physical education classes, we spent the year organizing bake sales, bike-a-thons, silent auctions, and other fund raisers with the goal of raising $1,800 each.  At the end of the year we held a benefit dinner at John McCain’s house and auctioned off a Jaguar automobile to finish off our fundraising.  We earned every penny without parental funding.

When school ended, we all flew Iquitos, Peru, and took a long boat trip down a tributary of the Amazon until we reached a lodge, where we would spend a week hanging out with scientists, fishing for piranhas, learning from indigenous people, and meeting with jungle tribes.  And who said teachers can’t make a difference?

Years later my mom told me that for $800 more we could have stayed another week and gone to Machu Picchu.  “Eight hundred dollars!?” I exclaimed, “Why didn’t we do it?”  She explained that she didn’t want to dishearten us with such a big number.  Twelve year olds are fickle, after all, so she just let it be.  Now, seventeen years later, it was time to make things right.

Unfortunately, over the last seventeen years something happened: seventeen years of inflation.  Now $800 will merely earn you the privilege of walking the Inca Trail to the ruins.  The tourist train from Cuzco to the town of Aguas Calientes at the base of the mountain on which Machu Picchu sits would run us close to $400.  We would clearly have to find a better way, and this time child exploitation wasn’t an option.

We decided we would go to Machu Picchu, but we would forego the welcome mat and enter through the lesser known broken screen door behind the grease pit in the alley.  Machu Picchu, deep down, has all of the ingredients of a great adventure, and we were ready to stumble face first into it with our eyes closed and our hands tightly clasped behind our backs.

Following our idealistic vision of Andean adventure, we found ourselves sitting on the sidewalk under the excruciating sun waiting for an unlikely bus during a surprise bus strike.  The few collectivos that passed by our roadside outpost in the town of Ollantaytambo were covered in the splatter of used motor oil, thrown by the striking transport workers as the minibuses charged through the picket line in Cuzco.

“Your bus will never come!  HA HA HA!” The taxi driver across the plaza had tried to convince us that we should pay him $100 for a ride to the next town, and seemed to think that laughing at us would convince us that it was a good deal.  I scowled at him like a mean high school girl, and swore to Sheena that we’d skip going to Machu Picchu before we’d pay him for a ride.

A small indigenous woman with droopy shoulders and a funny Yosemite Sam hat sat on a log, waiting for the same bus.

“Will the bus come?” I repeatedly asked as the hours ticked by.  She shrugged her shoulders each time. We were waiting for the one local bus that went to Santa Maria each day, but were unsure if it had made it out of Cuzco.  It was already two hours late.  This was the first step in getting to Machu Picchu without using the tourist train.

The ruins at Machu Picchu are located at quite an inconvenient location for tourism.  No roads go there, and the train is a relatively recent addition.  It used to be that the only option was to hike for five days to get there.  Given the agonizing price of the hike, we decided to take a medley of local transportation routes to get us close, and then walk the rest of the way.  The transport strike was putting unneeded strain on our already shoddy travel plans.

All at once the Yosemite Sam lady jumped up and sprinted into the street, her plastic shopping bag flailing behind her.  “This is the bus! Run!”  Two ladies from a shop were yelling at us, not wanting us to miss the only bus of the day, which, as we found out, only slows down in Ollantaytambo long enough for those at the ready to jump aboard.

Inside the bus we found every seat full, with a few unfortunate latecomers sprawled out in the aisle.  The bus driver’s assistant snagged Sheena as she went by and told her she could sit in the front with them, while I clambered into the back and found an open place in the aisle for the four hour ride.  The bus was too short for me to stand comfortably, so I crouched down and jammed my elbows into the seats on either side, giving me a somewhat sturdy restraint for the winding mountain road ahead.

Scouring the bus, I realized that we were off to a good start in eschewing the tourist trail; on a bus of fifty passengers, we were the only milk faces.  Indigenous women sat with bags full of sheep’s wool and vegetables, while men stared blank-eyed at the seat in front of them.  A small yellow sign on the front wall of the bus read “Viajar como rico, pagar como pobre“: Travel like you’re rich, pay like you’re poor.

I made friends with Ricardo, the man to my left, who ran a small kiosk that sold things made of plastic.  “All types of things,” he told me, “as long as they’re made of plastic.”  We chatted as the bus wound upward into the mountains, but after a half an hour the bus driver’s assistant came to find me.

“You can come sit in the front,” he told me, and then turned around and walked back up the aisle.  I saw that the people sitting around me were excited for my good fortune.  I’d been cherry picked out of the group for the privilege of a front row seat.  The driver, it seemed, was proud to have tourists on his bus, and wanted to show us a good time.

The front of the bus was separated from the rear by a wall and a door.  The driver and two assistants were visibly excited to be able to entertain us for the trip over the mountains.  The driver pointed to the landmarks and archeological sites that dotted the roadside as we ascended the mountain.  “See that rock?  It is shaped like the Virgin Mary.  See that one?  It’s shaped like a condor!”  He told us that he used to be a tour guide.  “On the right you see agricultural terraces from the Inca!”  He pulled a USB drive from his pocket and plugged it into his stereo deck.  The vivacious pulse of Andean polka filled the small compartment as we wound up the switchbacks into the clouds.

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At first the music was normal enough.  I imagined the band as a group of Peruvian men wearing matching white suits, stepping in time to a simple dance while they sang and played their xylophones and accordions.  And then the eagle squawking started and I broke into an uncontrollable laughing fit.  These things happen at the most inopportune times.  The music was just too gosh damned hilarious.

Amor….mi amor….

(simple tinkle of xylophone)

Yo quiero que me quieres, y te quiero que sí te quiero

Tu me quieres? Tu me quieres? Mi amoooooooooorrrrrr!

(eagle squaaaaaaawk…simple tinkle of xylophone…accordion jam)

Tu me quieres mi amoooooooooorrrrrr?

(majestic echoing eagle squaaaaaaaaaawk)

At the most dramatic xylophone riffs  and eagle squawks the young assistant would pound his fist on the railing while bobbing his head to the beat.  My efforts to hide my uncontrollable laughter from our hosts while listening to a mixed tape of majestic eagle squawks and xylophones prompted Sheena to shoot this short video.

After a couple of hours the bus ascended into the clouds and finally pulled over at the top of the mountain pass.  A cold wind drove rain pellets into the passengers as everyone disembarked for a leg stretch.  The driver motioned for me to follow him, so I walked with him away from the group and toward a small chapel next to the road.  As we entered the chapel, he turned to me and whispered the exact phrase that every unseatbelted bus passenger fears most:

“I must pray so that we make it down the other side.”

My body spasmed in fear, but a quick response from my lower abdominal muscles somehow kept me from soiling myself.  I managed to enter the church without spontaneously combusting or being struck by lightning, which put me in an awkward situation; I wasn’t sure what to do.  Did he expect me to pray with him?  Our safe passage down the mountain was really none of my business, and I wasn’t interested in dabbling in the world of the superstitious.  I stood there awkwardly in the middle of the church as our driver lowered his head in front of the flickering candles of the shrine.  He whispered in Quechua for a minute while I shifted my eyes between him and the door, still not sure what to do.  As he finished I coolly swiveled on my heels and joined him in stride.

“So, we safe now?” I said, only half joking.  Before boarding the bus I bought some wafer cookies from a lady at a kiosk to share with Sheena, the driver, and his assistants.  A hastily chosen last meal.

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The prayer must have worked, as the trip down the mountain went off without a hitch.  The bus careened around switchback after switchback to the soundtrack of xylophones, accordions, and majestic squawking eagles.  We ate wafer cookies and nuggets of puffed corn while the terrain transitioned from treeless high Andean mountaintops, to high elevation forest, and finally to semitropical jungle.  When the bus stopped at the muddy roadside in the tiny Quechua village of Santa Maria the bus driver flashed a huge grin and shook our hands.  We said goodbye to the assistants and thanked them for their kindness.  I ran quickly into the back of the bus and said goodbye to Ricardo, who beamed a giant smile when he saw me coming, and gripped my hand firmly as he wished me good luck.

We had gone into this ordeal as anyone should enter any kind of adventure: without all of the necessary information.  We only knew that we needed to find a ride from the tiny village of Santa Maria to the even tinier village of Santa Teresa, an hour and a half away by dilapidated dirt road.

“Santa Teresa?” The toothless man looked homeless, and his battered minivan looked like the minivan of a homeless person.  “I’ll take you there.  Get in!”  He seemed eager for us to get in his van, already full with indigenous people and workers from the hydroelectric dam.  After a three minute rest from the last leg, we tossed our backpacks aboard and squeezed in between the indigenous ladies in the back.  The clapped out minivan whimpered to life and we lurched forward, along with our dozen fellow passengers, onto the rocky dirt road.

From the back of the jankety minivan we watched helplessly as the sides of the road dropped away into escarpments, terminating in the river far below.   The indigenous lady’s goat hide jacket tickled my ear.  I longingly considered the comfort and luxury in which our fellow visitors traveled the primary route in their tourist train.  The men with their trimmed and coiffed moustaches and double breasted suits, custom tailored and freshly starched.  The women in their silk gowns and tightly strung girdles; their clean, curly locks whimsically brushing their powdered faces as they laughed at all of the dapper men’s funniest jokes.  They would just now be ordering their second round of Scotch, sagaciously disputing investment strategy while occasionally pestering the peasant help for an extra napkin, or a fresh cube of ice for their drink.  Or perhaps my discomfort and the smell of rank goat made me imagine that the tourist train was some kind of luxurious flashback to the roaring 20′s.

Without incident the jalopy van dropped us in the middle of Santa Teresa – a tiny village perched on a crumbling geographical shelf with a commanding view of the river below.  At this point we slid into the back of the death taxi; a tiny white hatchback piloted by a teenage Peruvian kid, all jacked up on coca leaves.  And why take just two measly tourists when the car can legally seat four?  After the seventh passenger was crammed aboard we were thudding and slamming our way out of town, the suspension completely bottomed out, the gears grinding, the driver continuously fiddling with the stereo in his jacked up state.  From here it would be a forty five minute ride to the hydroelectric dam, and would be as far as we could go by car.  From there we would walk, if we ever made it that far.

Not long after leaving town I realized that we had made a grave mistake.  Coca Boy liked to drive his car fast like it was a video game.  And to make matters worse, the road was a one lane, rocky as hell, level 9 death road.  After a short but very fast section of forest, we emerged from the trees and clung to the edge of a sheer cliff face in a full-on Tokyo drift.  I began to wonder how we had come to find ourselves in another death road situation in the span of only a few short weeks, but fear kept me from thinking about much other than our impending demise and how much it would hurt.

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The road had been carved into an impossibly steep and inaccessible rock face, and as such the single lane was tight and narrow.  Its outside edge terminated at the cliff; there was no shoulder or berm, and there was certainly no room for a guard rail.  There were no straight sections, most corners were blind, and the road’s surface was rough and littered with marble-sized gravel.  My pesky engineering degree keeps me thinking of silly things like coefficients of static and kinetic friction on roads like these, and I subconsciously choose a safe speed so as not to cause my tires to switch from one to the other.  On this road, a safe speed would have been around 20 or 25 miles per hour, but even then it would have been quite scary due to the exposure.  If I were driving Nacho, we would stay in second gear and under 20 miles per hour.  Clearly our coca-jacked teenage driver knew nothing of coefficients of friction, as evidenced by his exceedingly fast video game driving speed.

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Coca Boy approached every blind corner with the driver’s side tires only inches from the cliff edge, driving on the wrong side of the road.  This, we assumed, would allow him to see ever so slightly farther around each blind corner to increase his reaction time to oncoming traffic.  Before long my whole body felt fatigued and realized that every one of my muscles was flexed; my fingers were like pencils, digging into the armrest on the door, my teeth were grinding, and my abdominal muscles were constricted like someone with terminal constipation.  Each time we drifted into a corner I involuntarily swallowed hard, as if constricting my airway could somehow help to reduce the severity of my injuries in the impending car crash.  I reached back and zipped my rear pants pocket shut so my identification wouldn’t be separated from my remains during the accident.  I forced myself to look at the speedometer: it read 60kph.  We were traveling around these tight corners,  on this single lane rocky road, along this cliff, hundreds of feet in the air, at 45 miles per hour.  I swallowed hard.

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Just then, we flew around a blind corner and found ourselves staring into the grill of an oncoming collectivo van at full speed.  I watched our driver hesitate, not knowing whether to put it into the cliff wall or take the head-on collision.  The whole world became silent as he slammed his foot to the floor, sending the car into a skid.  Rocks and dust enveloped us and I could see baseball-sized stones flipping into the air all around us.  I stopped breathing and my throat started clicking, as if trying unsuccessfully to utter the word “uh”.  In the dust we could no longer see, but we knew that we had come to a stop.  When the dust cleared we were staring at the van’s grill, only a couple of inches from our hood.

“Slow down, pendejo!“, the other driver yelled as he pulled around us.

Coca boy, embarrassed by his near “Game Over”, tried to save face by fiddling with the radio and driving even faster.  When we were deposited at the hydroelectric dam we knew we’d cheated fate.  We also agreed that a long trip across the continent, such as the one in which we were engaged, would never be survived on public transportation.  We slung our backpacks across our backs, found the railroad tracks, and walked into the jungle.

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Some time ago, a hydroelectric plant was built into the side of the mountain adjacent to the one on which Machu Picchu was built.  By chance, the train tracks going to Aguas Calientes – the tourist town built to serve the ruins – pass right by the hydroelectric plant.  By walking into the jungle and finding the tracks, we were able to walk like a couple of hobos toward the village; the final step in creating our own Huckleberry Finn style adventure.  Without the floating down a river.  Or the racism.

Two hours after putting on our hobo hats we emerged at Aguas Calientes.  The sun had set and darkness was settling in.  As we entered town I grabbed the business card from a fast talking hotelier and continued walking.  It would be my silver bullet in winning us a cheap hotel room.  As we entered the town plaza we identified a nice hotel and waited for the hotel shark to latch onto us; every business in Aguas Calientes comes with its very own hawker out front, who tries anything to get you inside.

“Hotel?  You want hotel?  100 Soles!”  With dozens of hotels to choose from, these people will get desperate, and I knew that.  I pulled the business card from my pocket.

“Actually we’ve already chosen a hotel.  Here’s where we’re staying, and it’s only 30 soles per night.  You said yours was 100?”  It was a white lie, and the place on the business card was actually 75 soles per night.

“They told you 30 soles?  It’s all the way down by the river.  There’s nothing to do down there.  For you, I can do 35 soles.  But don’t tell anybody, okay?”  My scam had worked!  We were shown to our private room with three beds – clean, nice smelling, hot shower, and on the town plaza – for which we would pay $17.

Next it was time to eat dinner, and I was beginning to have fun.  Most of the restaurants in town had been empty at dinner time.  We’d heard many a story of people paying $100 in Aguas Calientes for crappy pizza and beer, and we, being in the middle of Operation Cheapskate, weren’t ready to submit.  I decided a bidding war was the best approach.  I approached the hawker in front of a nice restaurant.

“How much for the set dinner?” I asked.  Each place had a set meal price with various options for main dishes, and they were all exorbitantly priced.

“Dinner menu for 75 soles each.  Free pisco sour!” At this point she did what every food hawker does, and spouted the contents of her menu at lightning speed.  “Hay alpaca, hay cuyes, hay gallina, hay bisteck, hay trucha!”

I thanked her and walked two steps across the walkway to the closest restaurant and asked the same question.

“Dinner for two 75 soles each! Free pisco sour! Hay alpaca, hay cuyes…”

“Wait!” I said, interrupting her.  That lady says she has the best food, but you’re the same price.  Can you go lower?

“For you, 65 soles, come inside! Table waiting!  Free pisco sour!”  I thanked her and walked the two steps back to the other lady.

“She says 65 soles.  Can you go lower?”  It was a dirty trick, but knowing that these meals could be had in any other place in Peru for a few soles made it feel all right.  In the end we managed to get our $75 dinner down to $28.  It was still double what it should have been by Peruvian standards, but good for this place.

At the end of the meal our sneaky waiter tried to tack on a 20% “fork tax”, which I outright refused to pay.  Not knowing what to do with me, he relented.

KerCHUNK…tick…tick…CLUNK…kerCHUNK

Five o’clock in the morning was announced by the metallic clunking of the amusement park turnstyle at the park entrance, clunking away like a time clock admitting hordes of people into the ruins like the dull minutes of a workday.  We had woken up before dawn in hopes of beating the first tourist train and salvaging a bit of peace and quiet for ourselves within the ruins.  Several hundred others had the same idea, and the turnstyles admitted us one by one like United Auto Workers clocking in to build Cadillacs.

The ruins at Machu Picchu are impressive, but not because of the ruins themselves.  When compared to those at Palenque or Tikal, they pale in comparison.  They aren’t grandiose or awe inspiring in their size, scope, or detail; what makes them interesting is the setting in which they were built.  They are perched atop a mountain ridge, surrounded by shear peaks on all sides.  Looking out at the ruins is awe inspiring not because the ruins are amazing, but because the mountains are amazing.  And because there happen to be ruins in such unlikely and awe inspiring mountains, and because of the photo.  You know the one; the signature photo of Machu Picchu that shows up just about everywhere.

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For me, the best part of the ruins was the Inca Drawbridge.  This bridge is accessed by a long cliff side trail that terminates at an overlook of a wooden bridge built over a crevasse, clinging precariously to the side of a thousand foot vertical rock face.  It had Indiana Jones written all over it, but more importantly it was far away from the rest of the ruins, by now already crawling like a human ant farm.  We stared at the bridge for a few minutes, and then decided we’d better rejoin the hordes.

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While we were away the ruins had become a zoo.  Park officials walked the grounds holding traffic whistles.  Whenever someone touched the wrong thing, they blew their whistles, giving the place the feel of Picadilly Circus at rush hour.  On the path through the ruins, tourists are only allowed to walk in one direction.  At one point we decided to go back and look at something a second time, but were scolded by a park official and told only to walk forward.

“But we wanted to see…”

“NO! ONE WAY ONLY!”

We invariably found ourselves sandwiched between tour groups led by Peruvian guides, who, by my best estimation, were making up most of the information that they fed to their groups.  After a while I became more entertained by the tour groups than by the ruins, and my focus shifted to a Machu Picchu study in sociology.

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“My fraings,” one guide said using his best enchanted forest voice, “you are standing…in the most magestic place… on earth…(wait for it)…Machu Picchuuuuuu (fade to whispering silence)”

We rounded a corner and found a group huddled in a circle, the guide getting ready to speak.

“My fraings, have a look at that mountaing…what do you see?”  The tourists looked at the mountain.  A young brunette looked intently, perhaps hoping to unlock the secret before being told by the guide.

“My fraings, this mountain is a condooooor…”  His enchanted forest voice was quite, well, enchanting, especially when saying things like condor, or Machu Picchu.

“Oh yeah!  I see it!  See, Hank?  That hump there is a wing, and I think that other one could be the head!”

“Yeah, a condor!”

“My fraings,” the guide was just buttering them up for the grand finale.  “Who has a map?”  Someone provided a map.  “Please, my fraings, gather around.  Yes, gather around.  Do you see this map?  It is a map of Machu Picchuuuuu.  What do you see? (silence/confusion) These ruins are shaped like a condoooor!”  I swear, to this man everything looked like a damn condor.

“Oh yeah, Hank, see?  If you twist the map like this it kind of does, right?  I could see that.  Yeah, like a condor!”

Next we followed the group to a big rock sitting on the ground.

“My fraings, this is a rock.  But it is not just a regular rock.  This rock is an energy roooocccckkkk.  Please, my fraings, let me explain.  From this rock the Inca got eeennnnneeerrrgyyyyy.  If you rub your hands together very fast and then place your hands near the rock you can feel the eeennnnneeerrrggyyyyy!”

At this point the tourists rubbed their hands together and got serious with the rock.  One tourist forgot to rub her hands together, but was still able to feel the energy.

“Oh yeah, I can totally feel it, right?  This is, like, so awesome.”  At this the guide interrupted her.

“My fraing, it only works if you rub your hands together first!”  He pantomimed what to do, at which she tried it and continued to feel the placebo.  Doh!  I mean the energy.

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We continued walking and found another tour group in a regular looking room with blocked out windows around its perimeter.  Each window, it seemed, may have been a place to put something on display.  The tour guide had made up his own story though; one that would make the place seem much more enchanted.

“My fraings, please, do you see these holes?  Please, place your heads inside.”  At this the tourists seemed to think the guide was out of his damn mind.  He persisted.

“Now, please, my fraings, place one of your heads inside each hole.  Yes you, and you.  Head in the hole.  All right, everyone ready?” The tourists stood there like ostriches with their heads inside of the display cases.  “Now everybody at the same time, say ‘ommmmmmm…ommmmmmm’ “  He made a sound like a stereotypical Buddhist monk meditating.  The tourists all made this noise in unison.

“You see my fraings?  This room is very maaaagicaaaallll.  When everybody meditates at the same time, the whole room hums.  This is the meditation room, my fraings.”

To leave the ruins we pushed our way through the entry/exit tunnel against the flow of hundreds of new tourists streaming out of fresh buses from Aguas Calientes.  We had found our Andean adventure all right.  And for that I owe Coca Boy a thank you letter.  Oh, and thanks for the motivation Mom; as twenty nine year olds we’re still fickle.

For my detailed description of how to do Machu Picchu on the cheap, click here.

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About Drive Nacho Drive

At the end of 2011 we quit our jobs and set off in our 1984 Volkswagen Vanagon, "Nacho". Our plan? To circumnavigate the globe, slowly, while discovering culture, food, recreation, and emergency roadside Volkswagen maintenance. We are Brad and Sheena. Just wingin' it.

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