By Paul McGuire
The wake-up call was set for 4:30 -- that's AM, in the fucking morning -- a time when I'm usually winding down the night and going to sleep. I passed out around around Midnight after chewing on a Vicodin to help ease the throbbing headache that accompanied altitude sickness after my abrupt ascent into the 11,000+ zone.
Our caravan had to ship out of Cusco no later than 6am if we wanted to catch the 8am train out of Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, which was at least a 100-minute drive away. The breakfast buffet started at 5am and I was still in bed at that time, although I heard the shower running in the adjacent room where Sos and Shirley were staying. I assumed the former military man in Sos was up and at 'em before the wake call echoed in the room. I skipped a shower in favor of checking the previous night's scores from the NBA playoffs via wifi that was a step quicker than dial-up, before I made my way downstairs to the dim dining area.
The majority of the lights were shut off in the lobby with the exception of a few stray lights illuminating the dining room. I peeked into the metal buffet tins and didn't see much edible fare to my liking. No bacon, instead, they offered up what looked like mini-hot dogs as their breakfast meat du jour, the Peruvian version of nitrate-riddled breakfast sausages. I skipped the dogs and scooped up two spoonfuls of runny puke-yellow tinged scrambled eggs, then tossed a couple of hard rolls on my plate next to a couple of slices of fruit. Along with a glass of orange juice and a cup of coca tea -- that might have been my only fuel to carry me atop of Machu Picchu. The runny eggs tasted as expected -- like runny eggs. I just prayed that the eggs wouldn't run right through me with a two hour ride in the Peruvian countryside ahead of me. I'd really hate to have to shit on the side of the road and I made sure I took some extra TP with me -- just in case.
By 5:55am, I checked out of my room and waited in the lobby with Sos and Shirley for the little old lady with the limp who spearheaded our entire tour. Two large groups of other travelers surrounded us, one American and the other Brits, where the median age was anywhere from 15-20 years old than us and everyone looked like wealthy retirees of the adventurous sort, spending a portion of their savings on a trip of a lifetime. I felt a tinge of luck because I got to embark on the same trip at a much earlier juncture in my life and sorta got paid to do it because my client got me halfway there -- I was already in Peru, all I had to do was figure out how to get from Lima to Machu Picchu in order to cross off an exotic destination that appeared in the Top 5 on my bucket list. That's where the little old lady with the limp came in.
Two huge buses idled in front of our hotel, but we were not on neither bus. The little old lady with the limp waved over to us and we followed her to a white station wagon parked behind the buses. She arranged a private car to take us from Cusco to Ollantaytambo. Our driver, Joseph, spoke passable English and cranked up a mix of reggae songs on his car stereo. I stuffed my bag in the back and slid into the front seat. I was gonna be riding shotgun all the way to Ollantaytambo and hoped that I didn't have to shit my pants.
Our route took us up to the outskirts of Cusco up into the hills and we quickly passed any of the big buses on the way. We reached a valley surrounded by rolling hills and farmland that was flanked by the ominous Andes Mountains in the background. At one point, Joseph stopped the car and parked on top of a vista for us to snap a few photos. After an hour or so of driving, we reached the town of Ollantaytambo, located in a valley, and we made our way down from the mountain. We drove through the main part of town, the only route to the train station on the outskirts. We got caught up in traffic at the end of one square. A clusterfuck of small vans and buses filled with tourists were trying to force themselves into a one-way cobblestone road. An exhausted solider with a rifle slung over his shoulder acted as a traffic cop, but there was nowhere to go. We had about ten minutes before our train left the station. At some point I wondered if we should start walking...but then the traffic miraculously subsided and Joseph dropped us off in a parking lot adjacent to the train station.
Vendors as young as six years old swarmed us as we walked down a hill to the depot. It reminded me of Shakedown Street in the parking lot of a Phish or Grateful Dead show -- minus the spun-out wooks slinging drugs -- instead locals were hawking hats, sunscreen, bottles of water, and batteries.
We found the toilet, but it cost 1 soles (35 cents) to get in, and an old lady on a stool front handed you two squares of toilet paper -- hardly enough to clean yourself if you seriously busted ass. The runny eggs were rumbling inside of me and I rushed for one of the two stalls. I was greeted by no toilet seat and the toilet itself was rather small, only a few inches off the dirt floor. I had a false alarm, which was good, because I wasn't prepared to shit in a hole in the ground.
We approached the platform and got caught in a crossfire of mass confusion. People were streaming in all directions from all areas. A group of Peruvian guides, all short men around 5 feet in height with reddish brown skin in alpaca hats, had disembarked from what looked like a cattle car and two Peruvian rail workers at the train's doors hurled backpacks into a pile on the platform, where the guides hovered to retrieve their gear. Meanwhile, hundreds of tourists were getting off the train, while hundreds more were scrambling to catch the train before the doors closed. The train from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu ran on the same singular track. A couple of times a day it transported tourists and supplies back and forth, back and forth.
Sos found a Peru Rail worker who pointed out our exact train. We had less than a few minutes to spare when we boarded what appeared to be a "first class" car. The little old lady with the limp arranged us passage in the "vistadome" car which had windows partially built into the ceilings to view the Andes on our two hour trip to Aguas Calientes.
I had a window seat and noticed that a Japanese guy sat in the aisle seat in my row and his girlfriend sat across from him in the aisle. With the few Japanese phrases I knew, I excused myself and asked him if they wanted to sit together. They were extremely grateful for the gesture and continuously thanked me as the train pulled out of the station, even offering to take a photo of me. Sos gave me a little guff for becoming their new best friend and a celebrity in Japan.
I kept my camera out of sight. I shot a few minutes of video en route to Ollantaytambo, but didn't want to shoot my load taking photos/videos of the mountains along the Urubamba River, an uniquely dangerous waterway where no boats could traverse the narrow river because of all the jagged rocks underneath the water that created rapids that were unnavigable, even for the most astute class five rapids adventurers. I understood why the Spanish never conquered or reached Machu Picchu, because it was in such a remote place, then boats could not get in and the only way to reach the spiritual center of the Incan empire as by foot on the Incan trail.
The railroad had been built at the turn of the 20th century and it followed alongside the Urubamba River, which I nicknamed as the Chocolate Milk River because of it's milky brown color. On the other side of the river, you could see the infamous Incan trail, and a few brave souls were in the middle of their arduous hike.
Our first class car was filled with tourists from all over the globe, which I quickly learned from the variety of languages spoken. A teenager next to me was from Argentina. In front of Shirley and Sos were Germans. A few Brits were in front and a horde of Brazilians were behind us. They went a little loco when the train pulled out of the station and made its first turn through the mountains. Everyone with a video camera or professional camera went berserk in the narrow aisle of the train, elbowing each other for a shot of the mountains. At first I was perplexed -- it was just mountains and not Machu Picchu -- why the fuck was everyone going apeshit trying to get a few seconds of videos in the mountains?
That frenzy died down after twenty minutes and it felt good not to have someone's sweaty ass in my face trying to steady themselves to snap photos of cloudy mountains. I ignored the vapid jackals and settled in with my iPod and mentally prepared myself for the eventual summit at Machu Picchu.
An hour into our voyage, the crew served us a snack in baskets comprised of cookies, fruit, and a roll with a slice of ham and cheese. I skipped the cheese and ate everything. I ordered a coca matte to drink because I needed another injection of Incan Red Bull before we reached the end of the line.
As we inched closer to Aguas Calinetes, the rolling hills and farmland gave way to thick, jungle canopy cover. The mugginess set in and the train grew eerily quiet as we inched into the station. Aguas Calinetes had hot springs at the edge of town, but the mood seemed somber and intense. The lush, green mountains shot up all around us like New York City skyscrapers, but it was surrounded by puffy white and grey clouds, which blocked out the sun and gave the air a smoky, dreamlike quality to it.Paul McGuire is the author of Lost Vegas and Jack Tripper Stole My Dog.