Cusco To Aquas Calientes
Some time in the morning I’m having breakfast with Vane in our hostel waiting for the guide to turn up and enjoying the view from the top of the hostel across Cusco.
They turn up slightly late which is pretty normal in Peru and I’m quickly out the door, and down the winding streets of Cusco towards the main square where the bus is waiting.
Being picked up from Cusco my tour guide hits me with a crazy amount of information about my Machu Picchu trip I don’t take in at all. Only a few moments later a minibus that looks like it’s being held together with gaffa tape wobbles down the cobbled street which is apparently the ‘car’ mentioned in the tour. I should have remembered Vane mentioned a lot of people in Peru refer to a bus as a ‘car’ or ‘carro’.
Climb into the rickety bus we begin on a ten-ish hour trip through high mountain passes and valleys towards Machu Picchu and I wonder if I’m out of my depth. Nobody seems to speak English on here. Over the course of the trip I’ve realised my grasp of Latin Spanish is good enough for the normal holidaymaker but definitely not an adventurous one. Luckily I can manage a basic conversation about where I’ve been and also ask people to move so I can get off the minibus. I can also order food and ask where things are so enough though I’m constantly out of my comfort zone I can get the basics.
Luck is apparently on my side however as after some time I realise that there are two other people who are speaking English on the bus. After a quick chat at a rest stop it turns out there’s one American girl called Alex and a German girl. I talk to them for a while and it turns out they were given virtually no information by the tour company either. It even turns out the German lass is with another tour, and it sounds like Alex is on mine.
Jumping back in the tour bus it’s not long until we are deep into the mountains. The roads we are taking are pretty scary. Usually mountain roads back home have fairly steep drops but also crash barriers in place. Here the roads are barely developed, the driving tends to be dangerous and its more than a steep drop off the side its sheer, right down to the churning brown river hundreds of meters below.
You can see by the amount of memorials in the form of crosses along the roads that many people have died here. More than once I expect to go over the edge, it’s kind of exciting and also terrifying at the same time, especially as I’m sat on the left hand side back of the coach with the drop on my side. The scenery is amazing and while I’m taking it in I realise our driver is chewing his way though a huge bag of coca leaves. At least this should help his reaction time so we don’t die, I think peering out of my window straight down the ravine. And at that moment have to take a very deep breath as another coach roars past us kicking up the dry dust and pushes us dangerously close to the edge.
We eventually arrive near the Hidroeléctrica and moments after stepping off the coach I’m finally being told the plan for the tour by a guy who I think is our guide. He seems like he has no time for this and the most I get out of him as he stamps my hand is to go to a hut for some food and then walk over the big bridge , make sure I have my passport and just keep going to Aguas Calienties. I grab some food as instructed which is pretty nice even though I have no idea what it actually is. And I’m zapped by at least three mosquito’s to remind me I should have put on repellent on the bus, which I was planning on doing, but I think I spent more time thinking about my own mortality.
I head out and over the bridge and then do a double take because the trail ends at a train track. It takes me a moment to realise that the hikers and lots of trains are actually sharing this track. More than one the train narrowly misses me and the other hikers pushing us way to close to the boiling river as it ships people up to Aguas Calientes. These are pretty old looking trains, and they move quite slowly but you wouldn’t want to be hit by one.
While trekking these train tracks through the jungle and dodging the occasional train I meet Amil who is a British Iranian. He seems pretty cool and keeps the same pace so we quickly become friends. Turns out we are both pretty relieved there are other English speakers around as the majority of the other travellers seem to be from other parts of Europe.
Turns out Amil has been backpacking through South America and doing it on a shoestring, at one point apparently sleeping in a car garage at one point. I wonder now why I was worried about knowing Latin Spanish so much as Amil knows virtually none which doesn’t involve chatting up women, and he’s managed to survive for months out here!
Alex and her friend catch up and as we all get to talking it turns out me and Alex are on the same tour as we thought. And they haven’t really told us anything, just dropped us here and sent us packing into the jungle. What is even more amusing is out of all the people we meet on this same tour only I have managed to get the phone number for the tour worker we are meeting later. And I had to ask for it a few times from the tour company! What’s more the trek is around 8 miles which doesn’t bother me but is clearly finishing off some of the other travellers. I send a couple of text messages and we all breathe a sigh of relief as we now know we have to meet our guide in the main square at Aguas Calientes and we have a time!
On the plus side of all this the walk is pretty impressive and as we hop over places where there’s nothing but racks to stand on over the roaring river tributaries that are feeding the river on our right. The conversations good and hearing the backpackers stories I wonder why I didn’t just take six months off and do the same. Then again I don’t think I’d be up for sleeping in some Columbian garage like Amil…Colourful butterflies flock around us and from high up in the canopy bird calls I’ve never heard before echo across the valley. A blanket of background noise spreads around us from legions of insects hidden from the eye in the foliage.
It begins to rain warm water which in the heat is quite refreshing as we walk beside the raging river nearing the town of Aguas Calientes. From a distance the town is just what you expect in a film as a representation of a jungle town in the mountains. At least until you get closer and you get closer and you see the combination of neon signs, ancient Incan walls, gaudy tourist restaurants which look like they belong by the sea and many shops selling souvenirs. Despite this the town is immaculately clean and clearly very old in origin.
We all agree to meet later for a beer and myself Alex and Amil stand to wait for our next guide. After a few phone calls he turns up and explains we get a meal included this evening at a local restaurant where we will discuss the plan for hiking up to Machu Picchu tomorrow. For now we he shows us to our hostels. Me and Alex are in the same hostel and actually the same room which she really isn’t cool with, I’m not bothered but she manages to get another hostel room from our guide…and even though it’s basic I end up with a four bed hostel room with an amazing view of the whole of Aguas Calientes, all to myself. It’s awesome and kind of a relief as I imagine I’m going to actually get some proper sleep for the first time in about a week.
The view from the top of the hostel is epic and I can’t help but look around in wonder because it’s like being on the set of an Indiana Jones film. The mist starts setting in over the town in the approaching dusk and all around there are the sounds of the jungle and roaring water.
After a quick shower and then another shower in DEET insect repellent I’m off out of the hostel to meet my new friends. Over dinner of Lomo Saltado which Vane introduced me to back in Lima we discuss the plan for tomorrow and put a few Pisco Sours away.
After everyone starts chatting I meet the reason why Alex was so desperate to get her own hotel room. A very tall young dutch fella, who for some inexplicable reason is here in the jungle wearing jeans and a polo neck like he’s out to dinner somewhere totally different. I’m even more happy she got that other room now….Though fate hasn’t worked quite in her favor as it turns out shes now got to share with the Leah, the French girl we met earlier! Gutted…worked out pretty well for me though!
Talking about where we have been we get onto the topic of Cuzco and where we are / were all staying. Turns out a few of them have been staying in a hostel which is basically just euro backpackers drinking 24 hours and day and essentially taking part in orgies. Funnily enough it was a hostel I considered booking into but I had no idea of it’s reputation! Plus I like my own space….lots of naked drunk people isn’t my idea of space…
Finally we all say goodnight, and we are told we need to be up and meet in the main square by 4am. I decide to take a quick look around Aquas calintes and discover everything from statues of Incans to old Incan walls. I stop for a beer at a bar and the owner sits down to talk to me. Apparently we he can me anything I want and doesn’t hesitate to elaborate he means drugs and hookers. I kind of guessed that’s what he meant, but I’m pretty happy with a beer and getting some sleep.
When I finally lie down to sleep I fall asleep in my humid hostel room, I’m sang to sleep by the sound of roaring water and the jungle.
I’m waiting in the square for the guys near the neon lighted statues of the Incan’s , it’s 5am and I’m only awake because I have a face full of coca.
We set out and the way to the top is quite brutal for anyone who is unfit, the views are amazing yet the altitude and 11,000 steps claim their first victims within ten minutes. I’m very fit and I feel like my heart will explode. The guys all fall behind apart from Leah who is like some tiny French mountain goat. I stop for two minutes to get my heart rate in check and she’s gone!
It’s hard work with the altitude but with the jungle heat it’s more so. There’s a Peruvian lady half way up the steps smiling at us ‘gringos’ offering bottles of water and bags of coca leaves with a knowing look in her eyes. She definitely knows her market well. She looks slightly confused when I drop her a ‘no gracias’. Probably beacuse a lot of travellers are not quite prepared for this slog up the mountain. I’m usually prepared and I’ve got plenty of water and Coca and I’m handling it pretty well.
It’s slightly disappointing after climbing all that way to see a big ass cafe, coach stop and entry gates as we come round a corner.Though you cannot blame the Peruvians for using the site to make money. However as we step through the gate and see the ancient city all of the disappointment fades. I don’t think anybody would see this place and not be full of wonder and of course lots of questions.
Why build a city so high in the mountains? Also how did they do it? The construction is so solid you wouldn’t think it was so old. You can’t even get a credit card between the stones, probably not even a piece of paper.
The scene is awe inspiring, with the city rising out of the forest, sat among the other mountains. Beyond the mountain range in front is the Amazon Rainforest. Up here it is hot but not wet and we are told we are lucky because we are close to the rainy season and this is the first time in weeks it has been a clear day and you can see for miles around. It’s amazing to see all the structures which apart from missing roofs /wooden doors look as solid as they must have when they were first built.
We also check out the Inka bridge, which is closed to the public as it’s essentially an ancient plank of wood perched over a massive drop down the mountain into the ravine. Which would have been a great defensive feature I’m sure. They must have been some brave people to cross it, as some of us are freaked out by just the approach. In more than one place on the approach to the Inka bridge there’s no barrier and a sheer drop right off the side of the mountain. When it’s not that it’s a wall that’s only about a foot high. I have to admit I’m holding my breath walking so close to this drop off but it’s a good buzz.
When we finally return to the visitor center we are all tired so decide to cheat and get a coach back down the mountain. We have some of the day left but we also need to trek back through the jungle to get to our coaches back to Cusco later.
The trek back is tiring as it’s much warmer today but along the way we see butterflies and even a few millipedes having a crawl round. It’s not long before we are at the coaches after a load of us nearly get hit by the train AGAIN. And then it’s what ends up being an 11 hour journey back to Cusco, a very short sleep for me because by the time I’ve got to bed it’s only four hours until my flight to Arequipa to hike Misti Volcano……