You promised me there was going to be an escalator! I say with my arms around my dank Old Navy sweaters and my fogged up eye glasses. He ignores the complaint with the accuracy and intention of a weathered customer experience specialist and asks me to smile at the end of his selfie stick, where his GoPro sits comfortably. I wonder if the 4K resolution could make out through the mist the slippery, almost vertical climb up the slope, the handful of penniless backpackers and their impossible Scandinavian walking sticks, and the very, very angry Rio Urubamba, expressing its violation in tumbles of brown mud and rage. He asks me to smile again, and I hesitantly flex my right arm in arduous strength and wipe my glasses.
Only two days ago did I make the irresponsible decision to trek to the fabled Inca ruins instead of making it there in bespoke comfort and panoramic windows. The way to Machu Picchu is a heady logistical nightmare on foot. Or a seventy-five dollar (3,300.00 Philippine Peso) sun-roofed train and bus ride if you have terrible Body Mass Index or insistent cellulite and enough cash. My Peruvian guide is a cheerful Limeno whose main pieces of trekking equipment are a pack of cigarettes and an umbrella named Hortencio. Well, he is not a guide, per se, and I met him on a public message board online, but he is Peruvian and he promised me he’s done it before. And yes, he works for the customer experience department of a brick and mortar bank in far-away Lima. Armed with pride and positivity borne out of millennia-old cultures of warring tribes and domesticated alpaca, I embraced Giancarlo the way I would a warm, knitted sweater of the aforementioned animal.
He tells me he has good and bad news. The good news is that I am acclimatizing to the altitude, around 8,000 feet above sea level, pretty well (not true) without the help of chewing coca leaves, and the bad: according to his calculations, we’ve only made it to a fourth of the vertical distance up to the mouth of Machu Picchu (again, not true). He told me a couple of days ago that although he works for a bank, his math is really bad. He also told me the population of Peru is about thirty thousand. I should have known.
Then I tell him my bad and good story. That my spirit is almost broken and when it is, I tend to recover by refusing to move and insisting on stuffing my face with the next edible substance I can put my hands on. The good being due to a suppressed and colonized culture, I am wont to withhold my desire to hit his head with Hortencio, or the bag of bananas I will shortly devour. I notice that when it gets to sensitive situations like this, Giancarlo suddenly forgets he speaks English and then points to random bugs on the ground in childlike wonder.
A couple of days back which now seems like a warm, distant, prosperous lifetime ago, I have made provisions to get to Aguas Calientes, the pueblo closest to the ruins, through Peru Rail, like any normal, breathing human being. But the call of the relative wild is quite hard to resist. And in the same vein as why I’d walk across the border from India to Bhutan or why I’d gone to Jamaica as a teen-ager in search of Bob Marley’s Rastafarian influences, I decided to trust a random guy to show me this part of his culture. From experience, straying off the beaten path can only result in either the mind-blowing random situations the universe allows for you, or the disaster that usually ends in multiple mosquito bites and confiscated passports.
I tell my mom stories to thank her for the gift of wanderlust, and she is the most patient listener. Because of this reason, I try to jump off of cliffs in hang gliders and weather 30-hour butt-numbing plane rides in cattle class. So that when I get home, I have a good conversation piece with my mom over a lightly flavored tea she just discovered at a new age store in a ski town in New Mexico. So, yeah. Walking, it is.
From Cuzco, we take a combi for Santa Maria for thirty soles (about 10 US Dollars or 440 Philippine Pesos), stopping at Phiry for a pee break and some really juicy roadside pears. The promised six hour trip is, of course, a really, really bad estimation. But it is made a little more interesting by the folks we share the combi with. An entire folk music band comes on board and talks about their trip to another town to play in the Carnaval. Another passenger, an online hotel reviewer, confirms the band is famous in the music genre of Huayca. Like a bunch of fish in a crowded sardine can, we slip and hold on to dear life as our combi skirts off of cliffs and burro-crowded roads. There is no handrail for the middle seat, so I sort of use the two people on my side as book ends. I notice the guy who sits on my right has a freakishly long fingernail on his pinky. I entertain myself by theorizing how he uses this nail to play whichever unknown instrument he has in the box on his lap.
When finally we reach Santa Maria, a shared taxi takes us another hour to Santa Teresa through even more questionable road, or absence thereof. Landslides are looked at in trivial curiosity and children play with sheep very dangerously close to suicide bluffs. In Santa Teresa, we transfer to another shared taxi where Giancarlo volunteers to give his seat up to a Mom and her curious child who insists I play with his greasy blue Power Ranger. Giancarlo jumps in the hatchback and takes photos of his precarious position. I enjoin all deities to make this trip shorter. After thirty minutes, we are walking by the train tracks just past the hydroelectric dam. The train, meant to connect workers at the Hidroelectrica from Santa Teresa to Ollantaytambo makes a stop at Aguas Calientes. This train, however, does not admit non-workers so we do a fifteen kilometer walk through dense foliage, ridiculously charming waterfalls, fog and cliff side vista, all while the mighty Rio Urumbamba thrashes in pain and anguish as it gives birth to a mightier Amazon. Every couple of minutes, the rain comes to give us a scare, but I look at Hortencio and his strong and able ribs, and the fear goes away. Giancarlo taps me on the back and says it’s time.
Earlier, he bought a bag of coca leaves, cigarettes and a bottle of beer, explaining it is customary to offer the Pacha Mama, mother earth, these articles during a journey. There is no particular place to rest these on but that we will soon feel it right and timely as we make our way. Sure enough, a twig brushes Giancarlo’s arm and refuses to let go, thus the decision to stop here. Odd and mystical at the same time, he performs the ritual far from the railroad tracks and deep into some bushes. We dig a hole, he kisses three leaves and does a chant, buries three sticks of cigarettes along with the leaves and takes the first swig of alcohol in dedication to the deity. He pours the some of the beer onto the mound and then the rest into my mouth. Walking back out of the bramble/cave we now created, a group of backpackers walks by and asks us if we got high in there. I tell them maybe.
We join a couple more people braving the cold and the rain up the trail. Several have guitars and would intermittently bust a groove. At one point, we make a decision to walk the railroad bridge with every other tie or two rotted down and ready to offer you into the rapids down below. I ask myself what I would do if a train suddenly comes chugging along, and realize that really, I don’t have the answer. The pitch black darkness of the next two railroad tunnels becomes less of a nightmare after the bridge, but still, I have no answer if, in the middle of the tunnel a train light suddenly comes on. I ask Giancarlo what we would do, he says like everybody else, run like Indiana Jones. Maybe sticking really close to the walls would do, to which he says yes, if I want to shave off my stomach and knees.
For the sake of equity, I should mention that I am not half as well-equipped as Giancarlo. I am wearing my Puma running shoes, which are the worst to walk in on, on railroad tracks, brambles, vertical climbs, toothy gravel and moss. They are essentially designed to withstand the daily assault of astro-turf and treadmills. Absolutely not Inca trails. Aguas Calientes is only accessible by railroad so on our third hour walking towards it, with the occasional engineer profusely screaming at us to clear the rails, I have now developed a bad case of gout.
After a couple of pointless conversations about bosses, former lovers, childhood memories and the incidence of puma attacks in these parts, an unmistakable flume of fireplace refuse vertically cuts through the fog. Then a lodge comes into view. Then another. I am elated at the sign of civilization, but sad at the same time that I am leaving behind an even more precious peace. Another lodge comes up, then some people. Then the train station. Wait, was that a neon sign? And how did they get all this concrete up here?
We purchase our tickets to Machu Picchu at the municipal kiosk in the marketplace (Giancarlo gets to pay considerably less, being Peruvian and all) and decide to bed down at a cozy hostel where we take our first shower in what seemed like forever. Of course, we didn’t bring towels so we dry ourselves with yesterday’s clothes. Outside the window, the mist dances around a stray dog and in the distance, Huayna plays out of someone’s bad, bad speakers. We walk around a little to find something to eat other than bananas, crackers and M&Ms. We find a nice little restaurant with a set menu for fifteen soles (about 5 US or 200 Philippine Pesos), and for the price I get a bowl of tomato soup, a plate of alpaca lomo saltado, which tastes a little like venison and Bistek Tagalog, some vegetables, white rice and french fries, a banana pudding and an Inca Kola. My food is fit for an army and is decidedly heavenly. But then again, I trekked like a cro-magnon, so even bitter melon would taste heavenly.
There is a minibus (again, how did they get that here?) that will take you from Aguas Calientes onto the doorstep of Machu Picchu which takes about twenty minutes and costs twenty four dollars (again, cheaper for Giancarlo). But Giancarlo being Giancarlo, convinces me the walk is even better and shouldn’t cost a cent. I trust him again, because he always came through with his promises before. So we walk past a checkpoint—this friendly uniformed guy who checks our passports at one side of the bridge—and start climbing up. There is a rocky trail and once in awhile, it would get a little washed out so you would have to grab on to a root or a rock and haul yourself up. The higher you get, the slope begins to get less and less diagonal until you realize your little trail is literally in your face. An elderly lady in a petticoat skirt and distinguished Pippi Longstocking braids walks past me. She huffs and puffs but she walks past me. I have been running, swimming and eating healthy these past few months but all those dissolve the higher the altitude and the thinner the air gets. Giancarlo would wait for me every couple of rest huts and instead of getting impatient (which is what I do best), he would talk into his GoPro, then aim it at me, and then talk again. Is he documenting the slow death of an ill-equipped Filipino trekker? Is he trying to gauge the relative strength of the calves of Incas vs. Pacific Islanders? At one rest area, a heavy-set guy from Ohio (who walked past me earlier) rolls a joint and asks if I want to get high. I say thanks and tell him I already am, and could no longer feel anything from my neck down.
When Giancarlo finally leads me through the agricultural terraces for my first glimpse of this 15th century cultural and architectural miracle, I sit down for a moment. I do not know if I am out of breath because of what lay before me or if the climb has totally confiscated every single breath I could make. I feel my eyes well up but there are no tears to wipe. I am so badly dehydrated my eyelids wink away tiny grains of salt. I try to listen but I could only hear the fog. I want to smile but the cold locks my teeth together. The best I could do is muster a look like I have just swallowed a glassful of lemon juice. Giancarlo asks me if I’m ok. I nod. I am very, very ok, buddy. Thank you for making me walk. I cannot feel my legs but I am very, very ok.
Machu Picchu was rediscovered by the American historian Hiram Bingham in 1911 and shot to fame when he came back with a team from Yale and National Geographic. The last city of the Inca civilization, Machu Picchu is predated by arguably greater and more beautiful cities and ruins from earlier Andean civilizations like the Chavin and the Paracas but remains the most famous because it was never discovered by Spanish colonizers, and was thus never plundered, demolished nor razed to the ground. Theorists believe the city fell as its last inhabitants succumbed to small pox from Inca travelers who have previously had contact with Spaniards from other parts. The forest-covered complex was then painfully cleared and restored and gained UNESCO World Heritage Site status in the early 80’s. To this day, new parts of the complex are being dug up by toiling archeologists while tourists and deadbeats mill about, touching walls, siphoning off energy, petting llamas, communing with lost souls, and just chilling. The top-of-the-mountain setting of Machu Picchu screams for every angle of photo op, which I immediately explore with my humble iPhone. Huayna Picchu, an even higher part of the complex, takes another two hours to walk and needs a special entry ticket. Giancarlo suggests we take it and I am tempted to oblige but there is no availability for the next two weeks, so I am saved.
We talk to a lady from Michigan who congratulates Giancarlo for having such a rich and powerful culture. She says she is touched by the grandeur and the energy of Machu Picchu. I ask her if she’s been to the top and seen the whole view from there, to which she replies she hasn’t and that she can’t climb stairs because she has asthma.
I lose Giancarlo in the midst of a tour group from Japan. I decide to just sit down, splay my legs, watch the fog lift up and expose the resplendent nooks and precise masonry of this vast and overwhelming magnificence. I see more and more people touch stones, dance into a stupor, do yoga, and juggle circus balls. I bet this place was a magnet of interesting characters even in its heyday. Giancarlo sneaks up from behind obviously stressed from looking for me for over an hour. He joins me, sweaty and out of breath. When he finally calms down, he asks me what I think. I look him in the eye, smile and say, You promised me there was going to be an escalator.
All photos ©Giancarlo Boas