Three Time’s A Charm – Cuzco, Peru

Three Time’s A Charm
Cuzco, Peru

The Incan Gods must have been smiling broadly at me my first time in Peru. I had perfect views – undeniably perfect – made clear by days of brilliant sunshine. It never rained, not even as I trudged along the Inca Trail in the cloud forest, a solo traveler who had joined up last minute with the perfect tour company to whisk me away to Machu Picchu. I never got sick. In fact, I enjoyed the food in Cuzco – every last bit of it, often eating with delightful new friends I met on the cobblestone streets. My trains were never late. I had even left my daypack on the seat of a tour bus and it was returned to me at my hotel, which had a perfect working fireplace in the corner of my room.

The pictures from that trip show a healthy and robust young woman, posing with the natives on mountaintops, trotting horseback on a gallant white horse. I am full of bravado and confidence as I smile back at the lens. My first trip into the world alone was flawless.

I would travel back to Cuzco the next year with my partner. My stories of adventure and exploration had lulled him into the dream and he signed on the dotted line as soon as I returned. I would be his devoted guide, pointing out peaks and curious pieces of fruit to sink his teeth into.

A day after arriving in Cuzco the train went on strike, which meant our plans to hike the Inca Trail were thwarted. There is no other way to get to the trailhead if not by train, and worse yet, there is no other way to get to Machu Picchu. Thousands of tourists all over Peru were stranded, the train being an integral slice of the transportation pie.

Deciding this was a bigger pinch than they wanted to be in, the Peruvian government circumvented the disgruntled train workers and contracted for a dozen or so Russian helicopters to arrive in Cuzco to transport tourists to the ruins and return the travel-weary tourists home from Machu Picchu. Still, there was no way to get to the trailhead. We’d have to settle for seeing the ruins the easy way – the unadventurous and boring way – we decided, and set out to find a golden ticket, knowing it was better than nothing.

It was on this second trip I learned how things really work in Peru, which is to say that nothing really works there at all, but by band-aids and duct tape, secret codes and magic. We walked to the Plaza De Armas to check in with a few tourist agencies there. “Helicopter tickets are hard to find!” we were told, but we put our names in anyway and hoped we would be duct taped somehow to the experience, despite the poor odds. I told Bill, my partner, that things had a way of working out and we went to explore the ruins above Cuzco, waiting to see what the day brought.

Author and friend Veronica
Author and friend Veronica
Walking back down a long, steep hill hours later, a woman rushed up to us on the street near our hotel, flush with excitement. “We have two tickets for you!” she yelled in broken English, “but you must hurry!”

We were given instructions to board a bus to Ollantaytambo, one of the last villages before Machu Picchu in the Sacred Valley, where the helicopters were staged to take off from a schoolyard. Still not sure how we had scored two lucky tickets in the first place, now we were a little apprehensive that we’d board the craft at all. The schoolyard was awash in tourists, trying to push their way onto the next boarding helicopter. Peruvian women sold handmade crafts and food, yelling, “Meester, you wanna buy a sweater? Pure Alpalca, Meester!” The kids from the school were running about the wide lawn, wild eyed at the commotion, most seeing a helicopter for the first time.

An English traveler, seeing that we were Americans, asked us if the scene didn’t remind us of the Hotel Hanoi from Vietnam.

We walked into the crowded makeshift office, used for staging tourists, but looking more like a scene from the floor of the stock market. People were waving their tickets over their heads and shouting. Confused tourist agents were holding onto their desks and sweating and the sound of rotating blades filled the air with doom. Tickets were a hot commodity but they’d been oversold. An actual seat was worth pure gold.

Mystical Peru. No rhyme or reason. While standing wearily in a line that seemed to serve no purpose, we were chosen for two of the last seats on the last helicopter to leave that day. Bill would have to be strapped to the floor while I scored a small leather seat in the middle. Happy to be on my way, it hadn’t even occurred to me to be frightened, but as the helicopter flew away, it dawned on me that I’d never been in a helicopter, much less an old Russian one with two pilots who didn’t speak English or even Spanish for that matter. There were no safety instructions, no speeches on floating seatbacks or when the snacks would be served. No. The Peruvian government had used a couple of band-aids and a few feet of duct tape to get us to Machu Picchu. It was the most exhilarating and beautiful ride I’ve ever taken but I was just as happy to land on the lush and jungle-like floor of Aguas Calientes, the little frontier town beneath the ruins.

It wasn’t until we checked into Gringo Bills — the infamous hostel in Aguas, that we realized Bill was sick, but nothing a little Imodium couldn’t cure. And it didn’t take long to realize that we were virtually the only tourists at Machu Picchu, save for the lucky ones who’d gotten a seat on the helicopters. We could explore the ruins in virtual silence and so we hiked the Inca Trail backwards for a few hours, a venture strictly prohibited, but not that day.

And it also didn’t take long to realize that we had no ticket home. We plotted with other travelers to walk back to Ollantaytambo along the railroad tracks, but there were rumors of snakes and bandits. We accepted the fact that we would probably not make our plane back to Lima in two more days, but would have to stay in Aguas until the trains ran again. We drank cold beers on our balcony, ate by ourselves in deserted restaurants, took pictures of impossible mountaintops where no one else stood and sat in the warm springs with our bathing suits, toasting the bad fortune which had turned into good luck. On the second day, sitting at the deserted ruins of Winay Wayna, we looked down the mountain to find a little red train making its tired but deliberate way to Aguas on the old railroad tracks. Ha! Rescued at the last minute!

Back in Cuzco, Bill retreated to bed with his stomach ailment, no longer able to negotiate the altitude, the fatigue, the excitement and the journey. He dreamed of deluxe hotel accommodations, hot running water coming down in streams, a burger from the closest chain and a perfect martini. Peru can be the hardest trip, far removed from the elements that make life steady and comfortable. It’s not for the feint of heart. One wrong move – like a train strike – and you suddenly find yourself on a bumpy helicopter with stomach pains and no return ticket home.

I fared better than he and I was proud. I was the impenetrable traveler in which no wrong could infuse me! I could get us anywhere! I could eat anything! I held his hand, brought him medicine and tea. I had helped him communicate with the natives, showed him the way down the dusty paths.

But then I went to Peru again, which must seem a little silly. If you haven’t been absolutely everywhere, why go somewhere three times? But my best friend talked me into it, drawn by Machu Picchu’s spiritual history and a life-long dream to travel there. I was now the sought after tour guide, seemingly graced with good luck.

When we landed, my luggage wasn’t with the plane, and although I was assured it would arrive with the next flight, I remembered the old helicopter ride and Peru’s reputation for disorganization. I had my doubts. And I also had a cough. I’d caught my daughter’s cold before leaving and I knew that landing virtually 12,000 feet above sea level wouldn’t help to ease it.

Author and new Peruvian friend!
Author and new Peruvian friend!
I had arranged for us to stay in Cuzco for the requisite three days before taking any journeys to adjust to the altitude, and the day before we were to set out for Machu Picchu, my luggage still hadn’t arrived. I found a clothes store in town and tried to cut and paste a few items into my meek wardrobe collection, which consisted of, let’s see…the clothes I had worn on the plane. I kept the laundry lady busy at the hotel, but apparently not busy enough, as I subsequently caught scabies from our bed linens, a tiny mite that burrows into the skin. Itching, coughing, and luggage-less, I set out for Machu Picchu with my best friend. We had decided not to do the Inca Trail as we were limited on time, but on the long train ride there, I realized I was having trouble breathing. Stuck next to an Irishman who complained bitterly about the Peruvians and his bad luck at not scoring a permit for the Inca Trail, I realized I was feeling worse. And my friend Veronica seemed to be visiting the bathroom more than usual. Like two lost souls, we arrived in Aguas in an unusual downpour. We bought a rain poncho at the market next to the train station and made our way to Gringo Bills. The only comfort we would find was in the great room of the hostel. I made a huge fire in the fireplace and travelers from around the world gathered in front of it with us, lamenting the rain, sharing travel stories and remedies for diarrhea. We also drank a lot of beer. Later, I found a doctor in the windowless back room of a little pharmacy. “You have pneumonia,” he said, in broken English and for twenty American dollars he fixed me up.

The next day, the clouds hung over Machu Picchu, disappointing Veronica, who was depending on Imodium to get her through the day. She figured if she was making the effort, then the weather should too. There was no hot water at our hostel when we returned, until we complained bitterly, and then suddenly, voila! There was hot water. I kept Veronica up all night coughing and she claimed the bathroom was her eminent domain. She was quiet and sullen by the end of our trip and our farewell dinner was full of wishes for a hot shower, a comfortable bed and good health. My luggage arrived the day before I flew home.

I suppose I’ve seen Peru in all its moods, perfectly cloudless, brilliant and then tantrum-like and miserable. It has moods — just like the people we know and travel with. I realized, while sitting in front of the fire in Aguas with other travelers, that most of the stories we tell are of foiled plans, missed trains and confronting the unknown. No travel book ever starts out, “It was the perfect trip.” If it did, the ending would be on the next page. Traveling takes us out of our element and asks us to decide who we are. Will we cry if our clothes don’t arrive, or will we venture to the ruins, dirty and soiled but passionate for adventure? Will lost passports, stomach pains and cold water in the showers skew our memories? Or will we remember the impossible peaks and the toothless smiles of the natives? I suppose the answer to that question defines whether we are tourists or travelers.

After I wash my clothes in boiling water and finally stop itching, I decide that I am a traveler. I bring home what’s good, no matter what else may have jumped into my bag.

Margot Russell is a published author, a freelance writer and a certified tour manager. Now bug free, she hopes to return to South America in the near future. She lives on Cape Cod with her family.

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