Machu Picchu on a Shoestring

My two special someones.

My two special someones.

On first visiting Peru, I decided to save Machu Picchu until I’d found that special someone to share the experience. Prankish destiny made me wait eight years, but graciously provided me with two special  someones: Jessica, an elegant Peruvian woman whom I had married two years earlier, and her adorable teenage daughter, Jhoselyn, whom I had adopted shortly thereafter. Neither had seen much of their native nation other than our few jaunts to quaint jungle and mountain pueblitos, making this voyage an epic event. Machu Picchu was the treasure of their nation, and they, the treasures of my life; a perfect mix and well worth the wait.

While collecting our baggage at the Cusco airport, the signs pleaded warnings from behind the conveyor belts explaining that taxis could be dangerous and to take only cars authorized by the agency that paid for the ads. Identify the overpriced taxis by drivers with picture badges and neckties. Price: 30 soles, about ten bucks.

“Ya no creo. Vamos,” Jessica muttered, and without further discussion, the two ducklings followed mother out to the crisp mountain air to confront a dangerous taxi.

Within a few seconds, a 30-some driver with straight black hair and sunburned cheeks, wearing a faded plaid flannel shirt under a maroon, thickly-woven wool v-neck that had adequately survived the previous generation, called to us from behind a well-worn wheel, “Taxi?”

Jessica said into the window in Spanish, “Good afternoon. We want to find a reasonable hotel, but want to look at the room before choosing. It could take a few minutes or maybe an hour. How much do you want?”
Trienta.” He held up three fingers. His language was Quechua.
“No, diez.”
“No, viente.”
“OK, quince,” with a shrug of surrender. Fifteen… half price for no badge or tie.

After mother duck’s quick nod, we entered the taxi and a few minutes later, waited for her to emerge from the first prospect, a narrow doorway with nothing visible but stairs. I checked out the car as I waited. It was at least twenty years old with a radio held into the dashboard with tape, and a crocheted picture frame above the rear view mirror with a wrinkled picture of the driver, a smiling woman and two children… a picture badge after all.

Jessica emerged from the doorway shaking her head and we rattled off to another prospect. I had learned the Spanish word for shock absorbers, amortiguadores, several years earlier in Guatemala, but declined the opportunity to ask the driver if he had ever heard of them.

Three jostled frowns and 20 minutes later, we paid the fare and entered a small family-run hotel with a more formidable entrance and a beaming teenage daughter at the desk. She was 15, still in high school and wanted to study journalism after graduating. Her older sister was cleaning rooms and the little boy playing in the foyer was her brother. The $15 room was on the second floor.


Rustic comfort: $15.


Instant hot water.

We put our backpacks on the two double beds and turned on the TV bracketed to the wall, then plugged in our hervidor to boil some water to make mate de coca tea to ward off altitude sickness. We made sure that the water heater that was attached directly to the shower head actually worked so we could have hot showers, then we unfolded the four, half-inch-thick llama wool blankets to assure our warmth for the night, regardless of the lack of a heater. We had chosen late July, the middle of winter, but also the dry season. (The summer rains make Machu Picchu a bit slippery… to the point it sometimes closes.) We donned our chullos to keep our heads warm, another remedy for altitude sickness, then set off to find supper. The hostal’s daughter told us there were a McDonald’s and a Burger King in the plaza de armas, an eleven minute walk. Jessica asked if there was a market nearby. It was two blocks away.


Caldo de gallina, rich and hearty.

The Wanchaq district houses various industrial supply stores and small warehouses. Most of the hotel guests are salesmen from Lima visiting clients on limited budgets. The Wanchaq Market caters to the residents, not the tourists. We were greeted with warm smiles below perpetually sunburned cheeks. The just-above-freezing weather in the open-air market made hot caldo de gallina, a stew of hen and vegetables, sound quite appealing. Adding chopped green onions and aji makes it a bit more exciting, but the hen meat remains tough, even after having been simmered for several hours. We drank chicha morada, an ancient recipe made from boiled purple corn, pineapple husks, lemon juice, raw sugar, clove and cinnamon. Our host wore the leggings, skirts and sweaters of the region, along with the long, black braided hair. She spoke of the eggs her hens laid, with difficult-to-break shells and thick yellow yolks, not like the limp, chemically altered ones found in the supermarkets. The entire dinner for three cost about the same as an order of fries in the plaza. Yes, we would return for breakfast.

In the early morning, the egg sandwiches turned out to be as marvelous as we had imagined and we chose cafe con leche to drink. She served the hot milk in beer mugs with a side of organic coffee bean syrup to make our individual brews as strong as we wished. Cuscueñans call the scum that forms on top of heated milk “nata” and consider it a delicacy. So she kept skimming it off the pot and spooning it into our mugs as a sign of appreciation for sharing our travel experience with her… so few visitors ever did.


Add the concentrated coffee syrup from the steel pitcher to the hot milk.

After breakfast, we set out to find Machu Picchu. At the train station, we were immediately surrounded by young men with brochures wrapped in clear plastic, offering various deals to get us to Aguas Calientes, the village directly beneath the site. The train went direct, but required two weeks advanced reservations at a price of $100 each way (or so we were told). But there was another train that left from a town called Ollantaytambo at the halfway point that often had vacant seats. To get there, we could take an expensive tour bus or go with the locals for about a buck and a half. A bus left every half hour for Urubamba, and from there we could take a smaller bus to Ollantaytambo, a total time of about two hours. So off we went.

Student Elizabeth added interesting conversation.

Student Elizabeth added interesting conversation.

The thin-steel, rattling 20-year old Chinese bus had assigned seats, so Jessica and Jhoselyn sat together, putting me next to a young woman from Urubamba named Elizabeth who was studying agricultural engineering at a university in Cusco. Her program required her to study English, but her giggles confessed she was still embarrassingly basic. I thought of the many university students required to study a foreign language in the United States, but never reached proficiency for lack of any need to. So we chatted in her second language, Spanish (her first being Quechua) about local women’s clothing and traditions. I found it interesting that she maintained two wardrobes: one of western clothing and one of the traditional fashions of her culture. She casually explained that although she could wear whatever she chose, her heart remained bi-cultural. Her education would assist her in producing nutritious, high quality food while at the same time taking good care of Pachamama, our Mother Earth. “If we treat her well, she’ll treat us well.”

Between snippets of conversation with her, the artistic adornments of the bus strengthened my understanding of Peruvian tolerance: the forgiving face of Jesus, the sassy gait of Johnnie Walker and a bored Bugs Bunny dressed in sag giving us the finger. In the background, scratchy speakers played various Latin melodies to celebrate the joys and pains of love. Outside, I admired the rich, golden pastures spotted with olive-green clumps of trees, an occasional rustic structure made of timber, rock, mud or any other material provided by Pachamama. Smoky-grey, snow-capped mountains slept on the horizon. Small herds of llamas, sheep and cattle passed,

Wyoming Without the Wicked Winter.

Wyoming Without the Wicked Winter.

accompanied by various sexes and sizes of attendants on horses or on foot. Dogs seeking company joined them. Along the highway, scattered, scampering children kept safely near women dressed in knee-length, wide skirts and rainbow colored blouses carrying babies or baggage in shawls draped expertly over their shoulders, a skill handed down through the ages. All had long, black braids and most had a colorful brim-hat clutching the top of their coiffure: a feminized fedora, a perky panama or a damsel-ized derby. Thick woven woolen leggings warmed their legs. Everyone had sunburned cheeks from the parching rays piercing the chill, thin air. Although it was mid-winter, my mind said September in another life. I thought Wyoming Without the Wicked Winter. It felt like a brisk, autumn day in one of my favorite states, but with a denser population to wear down the loneliness.

Arriving in Urubamba, Elizabeth showed us where to catch the micro to Ollantaytambo and assured us the passage was un sol y media, about fifty cents. After a goodbye kiss on the cheek from each of us, we crammed into a minivan refurbished to increase the seating capacity to as many tolerant people who would endure the close proximity of everyone who could crouch, jam or wiggle into any space not already occupied. Packages, baggage and animals dead or alive rode on the roof. Everyone wore a smirk I translated to mean, “Beats making car payments.”

¡Ya, pues! I smirked in conformance as the natural beauty passed. We had decreased in altitude and were traveling along a well-treed Wyoming-style river, frothing a symphony in harmony with the wind. Perhaps I would walk along it one day.

The size of Ollantaytambo allowed us to do a thorough walking tour in about three hours. We found the train station, the market, tourist restaurants and various hostales, hospedajes and hotels, many snuggled along the river bank. Intricately crafted stone walls with elaborate doorways bordered the narrow streets of the inner town, peppered with small groups of gaily decorated women, complete with matching children, lambs and llamas, smiling for photos for a few coins. On the hills in the background lay ruins of the housing projects of yesteryear: steep stone tiny-roomed structures with the roofs  deteriorated away. One hill had an admission charge; three others were free but farther away. After taking a 45 minute free uphill walk, I imagined the ancient attraction was the view. Why they would leave left me wondering.

By chatting with whoever would chat, I found out that Peru is chock full of ruins; some developed as tourist attractions, some underway as archeological digs, some bulldozed to make room for newer developments and some still covered with the silt of the centuries, yet to be uncovered. Machu Picchu itself was only one of the many.

On getting more serious about reaching our destination, we found the train station closed, along with the mouths of anyone who may have known exactly what was needed to get to Aguas Calientes. The only concrete information we could uncover what that we should be at the station no later than 5:30 am. Any further information remained locked away in our unfamiliarity with the culture. As we had no expectation going to Machu Picchu that day, we decided to return to our hotel and do an independent, two-day walking tour of Cusco and come back after that.

It was early evening as we passed back through Urubamba and we were quite hungry. We had noticed several touristy restaurants along the main drag, but weren’t at the time interested in biting the bait. We saw several mototaxis near the bus terminal waiting for fares, so I approached one and said, “Buenas tardes, buscamos restaurante rico pero no turistico.”

His curious yet wary eyes speed-shifted to “I know just the place,” and after a nod of “hop in,” the three of us squeezed into the seat designed for two, with Jhoselyn on her mother’s lap. The driver kick-started the 125 cc motor to life, tapped the shift leaver into first with his toe, twisted the accelerator with his right hand and the three wire-wheels zipped away into the shallow and shabby suburban hills. We stopped in front of a short, wide stairway with roughly hewn wooden banisters leading to stucco walls painted to resemble the ancient stonework of the area, the entire surrealistic experience set in a lush, semi-tropical garden. At the doorway, a huge German Sheppard stretched on his tether to give us an excited and sloppy greeting. A short, well-fed woman with sunburned cheeks ordered his silence and led us to a table with a multicolored, woven tapestry tablecloth, surrounded by chairs with frames made of the same material as the banisters, but with the seat planks curved to accommodate the shape of the average poto.

The diverse menu included a combination platter to include salad, fried potatoes and chicha morada for about ten bucks. So we took a chance. After toying with the salad and fries for a slightly uncomfortable period, the waitress/owner/wife unburdened a six-inch-high stack of a nine-inch butterflied fried trout, a double-wide pork chop, a thin well-done beefsteak, a thick medium rare beefsteak, sliced beef liver, chunks of beef kidneys and hearts, a large beef sausage, a large pork sausage, a large chicken sausage, livers and gizzards and a thigh and leg still joined, all charcoal roasted in a succulent seasoning that made it hard to stop eating, even when we were ready to explode. On paying the bill in the outer foyer, the now-freed German Sheppard, with his paws resting on my shoulders, asked in his persistent, moist way if we would care to part with any leftovers we may be carrying. I told him in dogspeak that we had left them on table. “Grumpf,” he said, then dismounted and disappeared behind the woven woolen curtains hanging in a doorway. After a lively session of small talk with the owner and his wife, they confirmed that we should be at the train station by 5:30 am, but could give us no further information.

For the following two days, we traipsed around Cusco’s two distinctly different economies: the tourist area around the plaza de armas and everywhere else. The tourist area was alive with the sound of every language on Earth and faces to match. All the well-known fast-food chains had a presence but, along with the thousands of souvenir shops, seemed awkward against the elegant Spanish architecture of the sixteenth century. Some had admission charges, but shopping areas constructed in the same century displayed similar features for free, with merchandise prices much lower than in the heavily visited areas. We found tiny restaurants and coffee and gift shops with attendants who had plenty of time to chat, but found none who knew anything more than that we should be at the Ollantaytambo train station no later than 5:30 am. So ten thousand photos later, we headed back to the enchanted valley and decided to spend the night in Urubamba, a slight mistake.

We spent the late afternoon and evening traipsing around this quaint and quite village and had fried chicken for dinner at a stand in the market. Returning to the hotel shortly after dark, the tiny bespectacled man at the tiny desk of our tiny hotel assured us again and again that, “¡Si!” he would wake us up at 4:30. He didn’t. But luckily, we had cellphones with alarm clocks, and we had to wake him up. His sincere apology lasted from the time he started looking for his keys till he unlocked the door to let us out. The mototaxi driver who had assured us again and again that, “¡Si!” he would be at the entrance of the hotel to take us to Ollantaytambo at 5:00 am, didn’t show up either. So we walked the deserted streets to the deserted plaza in hopes of finding any vehicle at all. Soon a late-model mini-van appeared with a handsome and ambitious young driver who knew he was the only ride available. He was very sorry but his price was five soles a person, more than triple the normal fare, but still less than two bucks. We assumed he would leave right away, but he combed the narrow streets looking for other uninformed sleepy tourists who were seeping out of the plethora of quaint little hotels. Shortly after the minivan was full, we arrived at the train station. It was 6:04 am and the seven-person-wide ticket line stretched to the setting moon.

Roughly half the people waiting were Peruvians, the rest from practically everywhere else. The only information we could find was that tickets cost $50 and the station would close when they sold out. No one would tell us where to buy the $3 tickets for local residents working in the area and Peruvian nationals who chose economy over luxury. Everyone seemed to be searching other faces to find facts to relieve their confusion.

Suddenly, as if Godzilla had appeared behind the ticket windows, half the crowd turned and bolted out the entrance. “They’re sold out!” was the cry. Many Peruvian nationals who had chosen luxury over economy immediately decided that going economy was better than not going today. So another line formed at the gate to the tracks to either pay $50 for standing room on the luxury train at the discretion of the conductors, or wait for the $3 local resident train that would arrive whenever. I had a resident visa because I was married to a Peruvian, and, because we had more time than money, decided to wait for “whenever,” adopting the usually ambient patience of the passing centuries.

As the time went by, so did other trains but with no explanation other than they were not the one we wanted. The first one swallowed up many of those who had escaped Godzilla; the remainder disappeared after assuring themselves they would return tomorrow at 5:15. After about two hours, a second line began to form with folks in local dress carrying various forms of informal baggage: cardboard boxes tied with twine and strong, plaid synthetic-fiber, zippered shopping bags that sold in most markets for a bit of change, and inexpensive Chinese backpacks bulging at the zippers. Farm animals were not allowed.

The guard at the gate checked their national identity cards to assure they qualified for the priority line; the train being the only access to the isolated villages along the way. Then the guard innocently approached me and said the train would probably fill up with locals, but if I gave him a tip, he would assure me a seat. I told him I would think about it. I noticed that over a short while, he randomly spoke with many of the Peruvians of various budgets in the same line. But no one’s body language suggested anything other than, “I’ll think about it.”

By the time the train lumbered in at exactly the correct, top-secret time of 9:49, the priority line had grown to only about 20, but the second line disappeared over the horizon. After the 20 locals had orderly entered the train through the open gate, the guard nodded and Godzilla appeared again. The wave of humanity splashed to the many open doors of the almost empty train, washing the guard along with it, his helpless and futile pleas of “My tip, my tip,” drowning in the froth. Shortly, everyone disappeared inside and found seats, leaving no one to consider the guard’s misgivings.

On board, we selected seats for two facing each other, with one of the four positions occupied by a local woman with her small son on her lap. Chatting with her, we at last found out that the first local train actually left at 5:07 am because the farm-day lasted from sun up to sun down. It often filled up, especially on Mondays. But hardly anyone other than those who used it regularly even knew about it.

Our seat-mate, a woman who lived in Aguas Calientes, was the first fountain of information we had encountered. We would arrive  in just under two hours, plenty of time to catch a bus up to Machu Picchu and see most of it before closing at 4:30 pm. We could save money by walking down, and again by crossing the river in Aguas Calientes to find the local market, with prices for food, necessities and souvenirs catering to the common Peruvian with a limited budget. Our friend also advised us to buy train tickets on arrival to return on the 6:20 or 9:30 pm “locals and nationals” trains with reserved seating and a limited number of passengers allowed to stand. Many trains sold out by early afternoon.

On arriving at the station, we got reserved seats on the 9:30 after a short wait in line, then went off to find the bus. $12 each got us round trip bus tickets to the site and at the same time, we bought the cheapest entry tickets to the Machu Picchu site, without paying additional fees to see the museum or to climb to the top of the peak in the background. We knew we would return again, and this trip was more for gathering information and just being together. We assumed Machu Picchu would not be going anywhere. On the bus, the stewardess explained that the breath-taking, surreal, green mountains that jutted up from everywhere could be seen in a number of motion pictures. In 20 minutes, we arrived at the entrance famished and, after checking the prices and quality of the available food, went directly to the picnic area to gobble up the sandwiches we had packed in case of such an emergency. After chatting with some backpacking visitors from France and Australia, we decided to at last take a look.

After passing through the dispiriting turnstiles and turning the corner of the person-controlling passageway, the glory of Machu Picchu unfolded before us. A symphony should have started, “Da da da dum… da da da dummm.” It didn’t, and we made the comment that many do after having seen so many pictures, “It looks small.” But that does not subtract from its glory. The actual architecture is not unique for Peru; many sites display the same marvels. What sets Machu Picchu apart from the others is its magical setting. I always imagine what it would be like to actually live in any site I visit, and what came to mind here was the magical little town of Leysin in the Swiss Alps where I’d lived for a year. Every morning we awakened with a gasp at its beauty, starting the day with an excitement that motivated everyone’s very being until at least sundown. I then wanted to communicate with the ancient spirits alone, so when Jessica and Jhoselyn scampered off to take another 10,000 pictures, I silently lagged behind.

Finding a spot isolated from the ants covering the wedding cake, I scraped away a slight bit of dirt in a crack in the rocks in hopes of exposing 500 years, and then touched my tongue to the musty nitty gritty. The sound of “Whistle While You Work” began, slightly as if the workers were just arriving, then rising to a full crescendo. Every person I had ever loved or worked with began appearing and taking a role. John Wilson and Larry Perry appeared as co-kings (in order of their appearance in my life): honest men with natural born leadership abilities who assumed leadership roles for need of order rather than greed or vainglory; men who knew what should be done and how to do it… fairly and honestly, by courageously standing in the face of any difference or difficulty that may arise, without bias or self-interest; all with the confidence and respect of the troupe.

With knowing smiles, they addressed my mind and its companions, “Hey, why don’t we get together and cut up these rocks to make a beautiful village for all of us?” They would assign the designers, workers and support system. Everyone would have food, clothing, shelter and education. Pachamama would provide healthcare, as prescribed by the elders. The fluid society would seek its own level, and natural consensus would assign John and Larry the most comfortable of the quarters, as we all committed to the task. I saw myself as a stone technician; I would measure a cavity with a string of bark, then take it to the brook where the apprentice stone-cutters toiled away with wet, sandy rocks. Jessica would fashion and fabricate clothing. Jhoselyn would study and care for children. We would work sunup to sundown, five days a week. At sundown we would eat succulent roasted meats and vegetables gathered or raised from the enraptured landscape. At night we would form groups, large and small to invent stories and songs, dance and sing. Concerns about bills and banks, mortgages and mercenaries, hatred and vengeance, greed and self would all be foreign. We had our hamlet, our monoliths and our stars; our love and our world; all else, aloof.

Perhaps I’m an idealist, but with a vision enforced by a Peru I have come to love: centuries of analyzing the avalanche of profit-taking progress, sorting through the chaff, keeping the necessary and worthy, discarding the frivolous and toxic, struggling endlessly to maintain a precious sovereignty despised by external ambition. My question: do those who refuse to enjoy their planet without destroying it truly have a right to call themselves “developed?”

I forever carry Machu Picchu.

Occasionally, tourists ask what may have happened to the people who lived in Machu Picchu. I refer them to click here for a hint:    Calle 13, Latinoamerica

2015 © copyright
The Other Third World


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