Back to World Tour Page or Peru 1: Cusco and the Sacred Valley.
Mon 20th. Machu Picchu, Peru.
The tourist steam-train runs from the alpine pastures of Cusco deep down into the rainforest via an amazing series of switchbacks and loops, tunnels and track perched above swollen, roaring rivers. At the end of the line, the tiny town of Aguas Calientes is at the bottom of a steep canyon, completely dominated by the cliffs of dripping green and black towering into the clouds above.
From there to Machu Picchu it is a hard walk down a potholed mud road, across the angry brown river on a mouldy footbridge laden with moss and ferns, and up 3,000 feet of stone steps cut into the steep mountainside. The greenery steams and glowers on all sides (probably not producing much more steam than me, though), remanants of terracing are visible through the undergrowth, huge multicoloured butterflies flop lazily across the path, unseen birds scream and whoop. For a brief moment, I have become Tintin in 'Prisoners of the Sun', hacking through the jungle in search of treasure...
Get, panting and pulse pounding, to the top by midafternoon. The braying tour groups have already started leaving and for the last hour there are just me and a few other wandering contemplative figures lost in the site.
...Warning, brief purple interlude coming up...
I was half prepared to be a little disappointed by Machu Picchu, thinking it could never live up to the hype, just another tick on so many people's 'must do in South America' lists.
I was prepared for the drama of the site - and it is majestic, on the ridge of a massive splinter of mountain deep in the jungle, wraiths of cloud drifting across, alternately hiding and revealing the ruins and the surrounding mountains.
What I wasn't prepared for, what I was totally overwhelmed by, was the sheer intimate magic of the place. The silence as soon as you step inside the city, away from the roar of the river that fills the valley, overgrown stairways leading nowhere, dark dripping caves, trickling stone fountains choked with algae, high altitude Andean meadows, small birds flitting about, the bedrock of the mountain flowing smoothly into the foundations, mazes of tiny alleys, all different, the endless colours of mosses and lichens. I tore myself reluctantly away (or, more accurately, a guard tore me reluctantly away) at closing time.
Tues 21st. Aguas Calientes, Peru.
Up at 5am for a swim in the thermal pools that give Aguas Calientes its name. Just me and a couple of locals up at that time, floating in the steaming water at the bottom of a towering gully as the visible strip of sky gets lighter. Then back off up the hill to drink in Machu Picchu again before the tour buses arrive.
In the afternoon, try to climb Hyanu Picchu, the steep mountain overlooking the city. It pours with rain, and the smooth stone steps winding up the near-vertical cliff get steadily more and more slippery. Some bits have a cable drilled into the rock as a handhold, others have nothing. About half way up, an American woman slips and narrowly avoids going over the edge taking the following couple of people with her. After this, discretion becomes the better part of valour for me and for several others, and we turn back.
Wed 22nd. Cusco to Tacna, Peru.
An antique Aero Continente plane to Arequipa. The engine struggles and wheezes, and there is the worst turbulence I've ever come across. Thank goodness for those 1970's brown leatherette seats - it's darn nearly Aero Incontinente in here. I've no idea how far down the world airline safety rankings they come, and at this moment I'd rather not know.
Waiting for the bus from Arequipa to Tacna through the lunar desert of southern Peru to leave, a girl with a powerful pair of lungs stands up at the front and sings a song. At the end, she bends down and whispers something incomprehensible in my ear. It could have been anything from 'Hello there big boy' to 'Flee, your life is in danger', but I guess it was more likely to have been 'how about some money, pal'.
By now, the chorus of 'Hola, gringo!' from grinning children greeting the only white face to step off the bus (...me) when it stops in dusty roadside villages for pastries and choclo (maize) is quite familiar, and I grin back 'Que pasa?' to a chorus of giggles.
Thurs 23rd. Tacna, Peru to Santiago, Chile.
Taking photos of the Eiffel-designed Cathederal, I am surrounded by a group of boys, grinning and pointing to the ground. Don't look, don't reply, take a firm grip on camera and wallet, turn around and walk. Sorry if it was rude, I'm in no mood to take chances.
In Tacna airport, all passengers go through an amazing belt-and-braces ballet involving a body frisking (in neat single-sex groups), thorough manual searches of all luggage, and then x-ray luggage and body scans into the bargain! Climb with trepidation aboard another Aero Continente plane, but they must be putting on a special effort for their new international routes, and this one is fine.
Back in Santiago for the third time, it feels like science fiction, and just a little bit like coming home.
Fri 24th. Santiago, Chile.
A day's shopping. Shopping! Remember that! Go to a shopping centre and a supermarket and a bookshop and everything.
Put two less important slide films in to be developed to test the lab. They come out beautifully, so I put the rest in. Every other film comes back marked in some way - fingerprints, drying marks, scratches. Many of these things are fixable with the magic of digital, but it is still pretty heartbreaking.
Sat 25th. Santiago, Chile.
Montezuma finally has his revenge. How ironic that I should travel round Bolivia and Peru and be fine eating half raw eggs, in dodgy restaurants, buying pastries and delicious whole cobs of maize in the street, just to get the runs when I get back to civilised Santiago.
My last day in South America. It's gone so fast - I've done a lot, but there is so much I havn't touched on (Iguazu falls, the jungle, Colca Canyon, Buenos Aires, The Galapogos, Venezuela...) I want to come back, but, next time I will learn Spanish properly. Not because it is impossibly hard to get by without (it's not), rather because without Spanish you miss out on so much of the amazing friendliness and hospitality around you, and it is hard to do anything more than scratch the surface of the culture.
There have been a couple of bad times (Puerto Montt, La Paz) but that is inevitable when travelling solo, and there have been far more good ones (Patagonia, Watching the sunrise in the desert, the Salar De Uyuni, Machu Picchu). I really don't want to leave.
Still, not to mope around on my last night, a quick phone call gets me a date with Vanessa and Makarena (...see Feb), as delectable as ever, in the hip Bellavista district. Am amazed that my Spanish is now almost as good as their English.
On to Polynesia 1: Tahiti.
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