Peru between the Sights

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It was a dark restobar with a wobbly iron staircase, terracotta floor tiles and stacked Coca Cola crates.

Two old men were having a one-sided fight outside. The first lurched onto the street and hit the other on the shoulder in the way that you might greet a friend. The second took it badly, started shouting and pummelling the drunk man’s shoulders. He kicked him in the arse and he fell over and lay as helpless as a beetle on its back. A policeman saw them, strode over, helped the drunk man up and sent both of them on their way.

Aguas Calientes began, a century ago, as a camp for railway workers and still looks as if it might be abandoned on half a day’s notice. The buildings seem to have been put up in a hurry and occupied before they were finished. The only road out leads up to the mountains. The railroad alone links the town to the rest of Peru.

The tracks serve as the high street and shops and restaurants open straight onto the platform. When the train approaches, a man in a cap strolls out of a bar and onto the track and waves a red flag and pedestrians shuffle aside. The train passes and whistles and the man with the flag goes back to his drink and the pedestrians pick up their journey.

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I had reached Aguas Calientes the hard way, via the Inca Trail, and seen a glimpse of Machu Picchu at the end. I got back on the bus to the mountains in the morning to see it properly.

There had been a landslide a few days earlier and there were rocks the size of houses at the side of the road. A team was working to clear them but progress was slow; sledgehammers made little impression on rocks of that size. There were more rocks overhanging the road and it seemed as if a sneeze might dislodge them and if one had fallen with the bus underneath there would have been nowhere for the driver to swerve.

There was a boulder in the middle of the road near the top, blocking it to traffic. The bus stopped and disgorged the passengers and we walked round the corner, up the hill, to another bus which took us the last few hundred yards.

Around lunchtime, then, I took the two buses back to Aguas Calientes and bustled onto a train to Ollantaytambo, just as it was about to leave, and gazed out the window at the angry river, an Amazon tributary, and the verdant mountains either side, and adobe villages with political slogans painted on walls, and Quechua ladies leading llamas, and tethered donkeys and free-ranging pigs, and a dog trying to face down a bull which was roped to the ground from a ring in its nose.

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The station was a chaos of bewildered travellers and persistent vendors:

“¡Taxi! ¡Taxi! ¡Cusco! ¡ Taxi!”

“¡Choc-o-late!”

“¡Cusco-Cusco-Cusco!”

“¡Empanadas!”

“¡Taxi, amigo! ¡Taxi!”

I forced my way through and got on a bus to Cuzco. I had stayed there before but had only seen the Centro Historico and the scenic route out past the Incan ruins of Saqsaywaman. The western suburbs are nothing like that, with rubble and weeds where the pavements should be and houses of unpainted concrete and rusty rebar sticking out of roofs and people buying provisions through bars on the doors of the shops.

As so often, the bits which the tourists see have little to do with the lives of ordinary people who live there.

© Richard Senior 2015

The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

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The train rattled alongside a furious river hemmed in by mountains as Andean flute music wafted from speakers above. Then it stopped, nowhere, just like a British train…except that this one was meant to.

Excuse me, sir, you need for to get off

What?”

You do the Inca Trail, no?”

Oh, yeah.

There was no station, no platform: we just opened the door, dropped to the track and crunched through the gravel until we got to a bridge more rickety even than any I saw in Laos. It swayed and creaked as I hurried across the rotten slats, expecting, any minute, that one would give way and leave me dangling over the river.

It takes three or four days to walk the length of the Inca Trail, but we were cheating and starting two thirds of the way in. That still left a long day’s hike. The trail led relentlessly upwards, snaked round the mountain, and continued upwards, until we had left the valley we started from way below and the river was but a scribble and the train track a toy shop display. We scrambled up Incan terraces, passed waterfalls which plunged gorgeously down the face of the rock, and looked across at the neighbour mountains carpeted with trees, and paused to contemplate flowers which erupted from the ledge in shocks of yellow and orange, and pink and red. Once we saw porters from the four day trail, running down the mountain with mules-worth of weight on their backs. They carry the tents, the chairs, the stoves, the gas bottles and food so the tourists need not worry about weight.

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It started to rain and the clouds slipped down and filled the valley like expanding foam and, for an hour or two, we were walking above them.

Bepe, the guide, kept stopping so we had a chance to catch our breath and he had a chance to share his passion for orchids; but I wanted to press on and did, until I came to a sign with a picture of a bear and some text I did not understand and jumped to the wrong conclusion. I had just read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, in which he worries his way along the Appalachian Trail thinking about bear attacks. But there are no grizzlies in Peru, it turns out, just the spectacled bear: a shy little thing you would expect to have petite-bourgeois manners from the fifties and a bag full of marmalade sandwiches. The sign was urging the walkers not to bother the bears, not warning the walkers that the bears might bother them.

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I went ahead again, and passed a hard-looking man who glared from a step, and I remembered something I had read in a guidebook about muggings along the trail. Three more men emerged from shelter when I climbed up the steps of Inti Punku, the last but one of the ruins on the trail. “Buen’ dias,” one growled and I looked back with relief to see Bepe and the others at the foot of the steps.

Who were those dodgy buggers?” I asked after we turned the corner.

“The rangers,” Bepe said.

“Oh.”

“They’re making sure that nobody is still walking when the trail closes.”

“Ah.”

We would, he said, have had a good view of Machu Picchu by then, if it were not for the clouds. I thought he might have kept that to himself. But as we walked on, the clouds dissolved and the iconic image materialised before us, just as it is in the brochures. It was a magical effect.

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© Richard Senior 2015