Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Won by a Landslide (Derrumbe)!

First I think I should start with two disclaimers. The first is that the atmosphere in which I write this is just a tad distracting--some mid-20 year old Peruvian guy is watching cartoons on full blast at the computer to my right, while my friend Dan is fighting back with a full blast of whatever is the worst music he can find on the internet. He just started singing.

Second disclaimer is that I´ve thought about not relating this story until I get home because of a particular close call that could potentially scare people...but seeing as this blog doubles as my diary of sorts, I´m just going to say that I´m being very safe whenever I do any of this stuff and rarely do situations like that that had happened, come up. Risk usually is held in my own hands, but with buses there isn´t much I can do.

So I´ll start somewhere near my arrival in Cusco. A beautiful city Cusco is, the heart of the once strong Inca empire which is evident by the Inca foundations and walls that still serve their purpose all over the city and the ruins that can be found all around the area. An interesting and ironic contrast can be found in the grand Spanish Cathedral that has crumbled twice in earthquakes, but always rebuilt on the same, sturdy Incan foundation. Cusco is also the launching off point for Machu Picchu, which is what brought Dan and I to meet there.

I had a few days to kill before Dan showed up, so by the time he got there I was ready to brief him on our options to get to one of the most famous ruins in the world. With the help of Willy, (a Peruvian/Brooklynite who specializes in screwing "the establishment,") as well as picking the brains of a few other locals, we pieced things together and formulated a plan to attack Machu Picchu. The reason for all of this premeditation is that they have made it ridiculously expensive to get to, from, and into Machu Picchu. For those of us "long-term" travellers, it´s not that appealing to pay such an amount of money for a couple of hours when we have learned how to stretch that same amount of money into about a month of travelling.

The most popular travel guide is Lonely Planet´s budget guide "South America on a Shoestring," I decided that we are rewriting a version that should be called "South America with no Shoes," or something to that effect. I´ll throw in some names for those of you who did or are going to do it. We caught a bus from Cusco to Ollantaytambo, saw the impressive ruins and had a good lunch there before catching another bus as far as the road went, to km 82. From there we were accosted by 3 tiny little kids 4 to 7yrs old) who told us that because it was prohibited to walk on the tracks there was a checkpoint which we could avoid with their help as guides. This rang true with some things we had heard before and the others on the bus seemed to agree, so we paid the little guys to guide us up the hill through some farms to meet up with the tracks a few km down the line. In retrospect it may have been a scam, we´re still debating this one, but anyhow it took a good chunk of time and once we got back to the tracks it was 27km (about 16miles) to go and not a bunch of daylight. The walk, however, was beautiful and while we still had light we were able to find paths that were above the tracks so as to avoid a few long tunnels and tight spots on the tracks. Also, walking on the railroad rocks is pretty taxing on your feet/joints/legs/body, a fact to which my buddy Dan is willing to testify. All along the tracks were homes and tiny villages, really interesting lives these people live with no roads in or out, amongst the ancient ruins. As Dan put it (although we debated the definition of reality for a while), it is very "real," by which I think he meant that it is a basic lifestyle in which people still plow using the family cow, aren´t caught up in the superficiality of our modern world, and living on the land is the reality by which they live. And the scenery, consistent with that of Machu Picchu, is breathtaking (as can be the altitude...)

So we had walked half of it before it was completely dark. The second half was less fun, and included hiding from 4 women who from a distance we were convinced were "ladrones" (thugs), avoiding holes in the places where small streams passed under the tracks (and therefore serious injury), screaming "TRAIN!," and complaining.

We arrived in Aguas Calientes (the actual base camp for Machu Picchu, which, judging by it´s name has one attraction that is a hot spring). Our plan, thanks to Willy was to head up the hill to reach Machu Pichu starting at 3:00am in order to get there by 4:30 while we could still get in the gate before anyone was awake (keep in mind that entering Machu Picchu for a day is half as expensive as getting a year pass to all of America´s national parks...and it´s in Peru). However we were too tired, so decided on a day full of hot springs and chess with the local kids instead of more walking. The next morning was to be up at 3:00, but thanks to me we started late, around 4:00 and even though we ran basically the whole way in about an hour, it was not quick enough and our free entrance was denied. Undaunted, yet slightly perturbed I decided I was going to take Willy´s second route which I´m pretty sure he had never done himself...and started the jungle climb (no trail, a bunch of vines that form an impenetrable web, and cliffs) that finally gets up to Machu Picchu. It took me about an hour of dead-ends and frustration to climb a seemingly minuscule slope until I finally got up to the Lost City. Along the route I ran into a lot of the yet uncovered Machu Picchu (20% has yet to be uncovered), which was really interesting and felt nice to be among a group that could not be very big who has struggled through the cliffs, the steep, slippery climb and those vines to see these ruins. Getting to the top was a great feeling, and seeing as I had yet to pay a dime...I won big time (as Alex would say).

An interesting side note here is that Hiram Bingham, the Western discoverer of Machu Picchu was a relative of mine and seeing it more in the way that he first discovered it was pretty cool. A bit of history about that...Bingham was a Yale Archaeologist (and the inspiration for Indiana Jones) who was looking for another lost city (that has since been discovered, although it is thought that a few still remain to be found) but then ran into what has become the gem of South America. He and his team were staying below in Aguas Calientes when a local boy told him that he knew of such a site as Bingham had described. When they reached the site, Bingham found that people were living amongst the ruins, but had never told anyone of them because they did not want to have to pay the Peruvian government to live on the land! This all happened in 1911.

As you may imagine, Machu Picchu was stunning--even when the throngs of tourists came through the gates at midmorning. As with many of the Incan sites, all one can do is marvel at how these people moved these thousand pound boulders and created stairways in cliff sides all with such craftsmanship that can´t be found today (blood, sweat, and numbers). Watching the day begin overlooking the site and the incredible scenery that surrounds it was pretty special...although the whole time I was worried what had happened to Dan (he packed it in since he´s coming back through in a month anyway...bittersweet).

Some Japanese guys who were an acquaintance of ours and that I ran into inside took the only picture of me and Machu Picchu...but then disappeared without an email address transfer...so just act like this is me in the picture although I don´t think I´d wear those bitty shorts with the hiking boots...or stand like that checking out my map of the obvious city below...

Dan and I had planned to head out at noon that day, so as it approached 11:00 I realized I had to run. We made it just in time to catch a 10km train ride and embark on what would become a 30 hour trip back to Cusco. From the train we got in a dump truck to take us to Santa Teresa where we crossed the raging Rio Urabamba in an "arroya," which is a metal cable across the river with a little basket on it. We both sat down in the basket and with ropes attached to the cable pulled ourselves across the river. It was fun! And I´ll put up a picture when Dan gives them to me.

Then it was a bus to Santa Maria (you can see that this is the round-about route, once again avoiding the expensive train) where we caught the first thing to Cusco that happened to be a converted cattle truck that was now shipping fruit to market with the people that sold it. It was a tight squeeze, but we were all happy. Then it started raining. The tarp on top was shut and we were officially cargo, with not even a glimpse of the road ahead of us.

The truck stopped and I dazed in and out of sleep for four hours thinking that we were waiting for a river to back down as we had in Bolivia. After 4 hours and claustrophobia setting in we knocked on the walls of the truck and yelled until they let us out. It was then that I realized that a landslide ahead of us had taken out the road. It wasn´t until the next morning that I realized that while we were climbing switchbacks, a landslide had taken out the road both above and below us and couldn´t have been more than 30 seconds from taking us with it. We almost got "landslid" (verb form), and later on I saw a truck that had actually been "landslided." Back to the night, the locals settled in for a good night´s sleep while Dan and I as well as a Chilean couple were left with no room to sleep in the back. As they were unwilling to rearrange things to help us out a little bit, Dan slept in the front of the truck, the Chileans slept sitting up surely uncomfortable, and I being the most vocal and fed-up of the group slept outside in the cold mud. None of us had much to say to the others in the morning and reluctantly helped them start clearing the landslide by hand as we saw no other alternative. Moving a landslide one rock at a time is a futile activity, and not worth the time nor the effort. This much was clear from the beginning, but it wasn´t until we saw some people walking by that we realized a walk to the next town might be in our best interest. Off we went, and past two worse landslides until we got to a town where we could wait for someone to come through and give us a lift back to Cusco.

Although it set us back a day, it was quite an experience on several levels and getting back to Cusco was made all the better for what we had gone through to get there. This area, obviously is heavily prone to landslides in the rainy season...which would have been useful information before the fact.

Now, we are in Arequipa where we had planned to visit the world´s deepest canyon (3200m, 10,500ft, about 2 miles) but once we got here decided that a 7 hour bus there and back isn´t worth it and are instead going to head out on another overnight bus tonight to the sand dunes, sand boarding and dune buggies of Huacachina. Deciding this yesterday could have saved us an overnight bus ride but that´s the way things go sometimes. A bit frustrating.

Dude next to me still hasn´t figured out what headphones are for and in the process he´s given me a headache.


Blogger P.K. Fisher said...

It is so encouraging to see someone doing what I envision for next year after my graduation. I am going to stay with friends and families all over the world before launching off into the unknown of Asia, Africa, and who knows where else. Your journeys sound really amazing and I can't wait.
Let me know when you are back in the states, I'd like to hear more about your experiences.
P.K. Fisher (Vanderbilt)
also check out the blog I started for next year: http://www.pkfisher.blogspot.com/

23 February, 2006 22:08  

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