Mar 7-12, 2014
Nazca is a small town, built like a maze. There is a tiny town square with shops and ‘Pollo a la brasa!’ restaurants. There is a lot of construction going on, mainly the re-paving of roads. The drive into town is beautiful with greenery on either side. I need to find the Kunan Wasi hostel but after doing circles for 20 minutes, I stop the car and start asking people. Nobody seems to know where it is, and when I ask an old man sitting outside a cafe, his hands raised on a wooden cane, I’m sure he’s going to know. He eyes me up and down slowly, pauses for what seems like an eternity, before saying ‘No’ and looking away. Since there’s only about three hostels in Nazca, I highly doubt the old man is being honest. I get back in the car and continue searching, and sure enough, I find the hostel a few blocks away. The owner, who could pass for a young Peruvian Santa, with his blue eyes and greyish hair, is amiable and friendly, dropping his rate after a little negotiating. He gives me a pretty good room – the ‘marital suite’ – complete with swan towels, pink shower curtains and pink soaps. More importantly, the room is all the way In the back, away from road noise.
And there you have it. One of the most frustrating things about Peru. People will either be very friendly or simply not give a fuck and ignore you. There is no middle ground. Compare it with Colombia, where whomever you’re asking will drop what they’re doing and go out of their way to help you, in Peru, you will get a long stare followed by ‘No’ or ‘I don’t know’, and that’s it, end of story. It seems like gringos are not one of Peru’s favorite things.
The South of Peru is nothing like the North. What is hundreds of miles of flat desert in the North, changes to a cornucopia of mountains and green valleys in the South. Before I reach those green valleys, I get pulled over by the police on my way out of Nazca. If there is one country where I get pulled over the most, almost every hour on the dot, it’s Peru. If there’s one country where I’m never asked for my papers and instead given a warm ‘Hello, how are you?’ and ‘Good-luck with your journey!’ by the police, it’s also Peru. Like I said: contradictions.
March 7th turns out to be the hardest day of driving so far (and on the whole trip). The plan is to leave Nazca in the morning, make it to at least Cuzco, or Ollantaytambo if possible. Needless to say, I don’t even make it close to Cuzco. The landscape turns from desert and 80°F, to greenery and humidity at 60°F, and then to snow, sleet and ice at a nice, frosty, 30°F, all within a few hours. Before I know it, I’ve climbed over 7500 feet in altitude, and my watch shows an altitude of almost 14000 feet. I decide against taking my altitude sickness pills, because a) I forgot, and they won’t be much good now and 2) How bad could it get?
Well, the headaches start, and the weird sensation of breathing in air but not getting any oxygen, is something I never really get used to. I feel like a fish out of water, opening my mouth every 10 seconds like an idiot. I stop at an eatery on the side of the road to hopefully get rid of the headache and nausea. I order a tripe soup and drink three cups of coca tea, with actual leaves floating around (as opposed to a small tea-bag). I instantly feel better and a little more relaxed. I still don’t feel like I’m breathing in any oxygen, and my stomach is doing weird things, but at least the headache is gone.
I drive through what seems like an endless small intestine of a road, for about 300 miles. It’s now past dark, and I can’t seem to pass any towns or villages with a place for me to stay. Finally, around 10PM, I end up in what looks like a shanty town (maybe Apurimac?). I follow a big ‘HOTEL’ sign up a steep hill on a narrow pathway that hasn’t been mowed in years. I’m literally driving over bushes that go up and over my headlights. I reach the hotel, a beautiful wooden building with big windows and a tiled roof. I’m pretty high up on this hill and can see most of the town below. Lights mounted on the outside of the hotel turn on all of the sudden, triggered by motion sensors. I’m waiting any minute now for someone to step out of the darkness and either shoot me or invite me inside. Neither happens and after knocking on a few windows with no answer, I get the heeby-jeebiez, and get back into the car.
I drive back to town and start checking out three motels that are right next to each other. I pick the one that seems the cleanest and has indoor parking. Turns out it’s a love motel. Yaaaay. Except it’s really poor and run-down, and any hope of a TV with a porn channel gets crushed right away. In true ‘love motel’ fashion, there’s a filthy tile floor and thin plastic mattress, so I choose to stay dressed, and cover the pillow with my own towel. I open up a ‘pork sausage’ MRE, and spit it back out into the trash bin. These MREs have really lost their appeal, and taste more or less like sand. Not to mention ‘pork sausage’ is really code word for ‘pork-flavored meat’, as described by the ingredient list on the back. I munch instead on the brownie desert. This at least tastes like what it’s supposed to be. I lay on the bed, and start seeing animal shapes in the cum stains on the wall. Like a whole zoo-full of animals. There’s giraffes, monkeys and elephants. Not sure if it’s because of the exhaustion, or the lack of oxygen, but I turn the lights off and pass out. This day should’ve been 7 hours of driving. Instead, it took me almost 13, with little food, minimal oxygen and no breaks.
In the morning, I get some breakfast in a cantina, where the whole time I’m there, the owner tries to chase out 4 or 5 stray dogs that keep coming in through the open door. I get to Ollantaytambo, find a hostel, which turns out to be one of the best hostels on this whole trip. New, clean, and most importantly, my first in Peru with a hot shower. If you’re ever here, I highly recommend La Casa del Abuelo.
Ollantaytambo is a small village, dating from the 15th century, with some of the oldest “continuously inhabited dwellings” in South America. It’s named after the fortress looming above it. It is indeed impressive, but at $25 for to get in, I’m happy looking at it from the outside and then going to the local market to buy some Alpaca blankets.
The next day, I book a train ticket for Machu Picchu. This is not the easiest thing to do, since you need to be sure the day you buy your train ticket for, is also a day you’ll be let into Machu Picchu, which only lets in 2500 visitors daily. There is a website for buying the entry tickets, but it wasn’t working, so I took a chance and just picked the next day. Also, there are two train companies (Inca Rail and Peru Rail), with wildly ranging prices and schedules. I end up buying a return ticket on Peru Rail for ~$120, which is not bad, considering tickets can go over $700 for the more luxurious compartments. And for my measly $120, I also get a free muffin and a bottle of water. You can of course choose to do the Inca Trail, and hike your ass up, but that takes around 4 days, and I don’t have the time or money. And despite what WikiTravel says (which is an amazing site, btw), you can go on your own, as long as you don’t get caught, and you at least take a friend with you for safety reasons.
Sunday morning at 5AM, I’m up and ready in the train station, eating some eggs, waiting for my train. It’s still dark out, and in the myriad of shops and vendor stalls, the locals gather round the one or two cauldrons of hot soup and bread, that serve food throughout the day. Everyone is getting ready. The tourists, in pristine looking, water/mosquito/stain/sweat-proof/repellant/resistant clothing, check their cameras and fire some test shots in unabashed giddiness. The Peruvians, eye them from afar, eating with haste, and getting ready for the onslaught of questions and purchases of souvenirs. Some tourists have even hired guides to carry their backpacks, which begs the question, why have you hired a guide to carry your shit, if you’re taking the train up?
The train ride is slow, windy and supremely beautiful. God knows how hard it must have been to lay down this rail, most of it carved right on the side of the mountain. There’s fog (or clouds at this point), immense peaks, dense forests and valleys with rivers. Branches scrape the train windows, turning every time you put your camera out to take a picture, into a game of Russian roulette. If you gave me a pair of horse-blinders, took my complimentary muffin and water away, I could swear I’m in Avatar. We reach Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu. We’re not in Avatar anymore, but more like a South-American Chinatown. There are hundreds of little stores, tiny restaurants, souvenir shops and massage parlors. Unlike Chinatown, the prices are exorbitant. $25 for a t-shirt? Check. $15 for a soup? Check. I plunk down another $40-$50 at the tourism office for the entry ticket to Machu Pichu. I choose not to pay extra to visit Huayna Picchu, (one of the peaks you always see in postcards), despite the fact I’m one of the first 400 visitors that day, and therefore allowed to climb it. From Aguas Calientes I hike up, instead of paying another $20 for the bus, which is quickly getting filled with tourists and their expensive extreme weather outdoor clothing.
I’m the only one from my train climbing up, although a Peruvian couple from Cuzco quickly catches up with me. They’re somewhere in their 50s, wearing peasant clothing and carrying multiple bags. For the first 10 minutes, they stop to catch their breath alongside. But very quickly, they overtake me, and disappear from sight. I’m not sure how this is possible, besides the fact that my heart is beating out of my chest, and I can’t breathe in any oxygen. They’re not even from the area, they’re from Cuzco! Sidenote: If you don’t have a heart attack here, climbing this mountain, I don’t know where you will.
I carry my gringo ass up, and slowly but surely, an hour and a half later, I reach the site, drenched in sweat and mud. Nobody notices me, which is good, since I probably look like a madman, but at least I feel like I’ve earned it. Now, I’m worthy of stepping onto the site. Before buying the tickets for Machu Picchu, I was on the fence, deciding whether or not it’s worth the time and money to visit a bunch of rocks. I can say without a doubt, that coming here, was one of the best decisions I made on this trip. Seeing it in front of me, is right up there with seeing the pyramids. I’m not going to say much more about what I saw, because it would be like explaining a magic trick: it would ruin it, and nothing beats seeing it with your own eyes, for the first time. Trust me when I say that visiting Machu Picchu should be in your top 5 things to do in this lifetime. Even if you fly into Lima, and take the $20 tourist bus up from Aguas Calientes – I don’t care. Come here, now:
“Here we found the pure expression of the most powerful indigenous race in the Americas – untouched by a conquering civilization and full of immensely evocative treasures between its walls. The spectacular landscape circling the fortress supplies and essential backdrop, inspiring dreamers to wander its ruins for the sake of it…” (excerpt from Ernesto Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries)
I hike back down, and meet a lot more climbers. Now I don’t feel like a weirdo anymore. They all ask how much longer, and I say a lot – but it’s worth it. At the hostel, I ask the receptionist, Linda, a wonderful hippie of a girl, beautiful and Italian, if there is any way I can visit the Ollantaytambo fortress without paying. “Sure there is, but we have to go at night when nobody is there.” And so at night, we walk the narrow cobblestone streets until the edge of town. We cross a river and climb the fence into someone’s corn field. To the side, about 50 yards away, is a hut with lights and music on, so we walk in the opposite direction. We reach the base of the fortress, composed of layered terraces, on which vegetables and plants used to grow as late as the 1990s, when the government turned it into a tourist site. We climb and climb, over the terraces, and over many steps. Linda, the loud Italian she is, keeps yelling without a care in the world about this Moon temple and that Sun temple, and how it’s built to be aligned with the stars, and how it’s built for easy communication between people in different mountains, and how the stones used are so hard that we can’t figure out how to cut them, yet the Incas managed to do it somehow, and I’m just praying that we don’t get caught and I don’t go to jail and end up on one of those ‘Locked up abroad’ shows, because I wanted to visit the Moon temple in Ollantaytambo.
We finally reach one of the large open areas, next to this large sacred rock, marked with ancient symbols. There is complete and absolute silence, and we sit like that for a good half an hour, bathed in moonlight, looking at the town below, laid out in a perfect grid, with shimmering yellow lights. I wish I had brought some wine.
The next day, I leave for Cuzco. I’m sad, because Ollantaytambo became one of my favorite places. I don’t want to get too mystical here, but like Linda said, the location was chosen by the Incas because of the convergence of positive energy coming from the surrounding mountains. And I felt it, this feeling of well-being, of peace, of being rested. Remember Boquete, in Panama? Same deal. And to the end of the trip, these two were the only places I felt that. So if you do go to Machu Picchu, stay in Ollantaytambo, and not Cuzco (or on second thought, don’t).
I remember from Coen (LandCruising Adventure) that there is an overlander campground right outside Cuzco. After much finagling with my Google maps, I find it. I pay a nominal fee, plus a little extra for some fresh eggs, and park the Volvo. There’s not a lot of overlanders, but enough of them to make you feel good, like you belong. I meet une famille autour du monde, which in typical French fashion, are travelling with their two young kids. We talk about the trip, future destinations, our gear, the price of gas, etc. Because France is France, parents are allowed to take their kids out of school, and send their homework back every week. The other travellers I meet are German and Swiss. Again, I don’t know why it only seems to be French and German folk that commit to these adventures.
I walk down into Cuzco from the campground, and find a beautiful city, full of museums and churches. Red tile roofs and hustlers everywhere. I can’t walk for half a block without being bombarded with upsells of Machu Picchu tours and Inca t-shirts. Cuzco is also very expensive. It’s also the only place in Peru I see dozens of brand-new black Mercedeseses lined up outside 5-star hotels. There’s organic-this and artisanal-that restaurants. I Travelocity the hell out of the restaurants around me, and finally settle on an American pizzeria. I sit outside on the first floor terrace, a beaten up Old-Glory waving in front of me.
For a second, I don’t feel like I’m away from home, and I cherish the moment. I leave for Bolivia the next day, glad to be out of another city succumbed to excessive tourism. Somewhere in the mountains of Peru, a couple of hours from the border with Bolivia, I reach a milestone: 10,000 miles from Astoria, New York. I stop on the side of the road to make a sign, eat some Oreos and pee.
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These are the personal views and thoughts of the author, and in no way shape or form reflect the views of Shipwreck Rally LLC.