The view was breathtaking from the two large windows of our room in a modestly priced guest house. Red-tiled roofs lay below us with a fringe of green mountains encircling this sea of brilliant red. Cusco, Peru was our last stop where we stayed for four days to allow our bodies to acclimatize to this elevation before embarking on a train that would take us far into the Andes mountains of Peru to a place called Machu Picchu.
Our ‘Lonely Planet’ informed us Machu Picchu is a 15th Century site of an abandoned Inca village that sits on top of a mountain at 2,430 metres above sea level.
We seemed to have stepped back in time as we roamed the streets of Cusco. Women in colourful long skirts walked along cobble-stoned paths with huge burdens on their heads. They smiled graciously as we would stop and admire their ability to balance and seemingly dance their way from one street to the next. Small children in equally colourful dress trailed behind most of these women. Goats and llamas were everywhere.
After four days of walking and allowing our capillaries to expand, we boarded a train. It was a slow moving vehicle that thumped noisily over each rail joint. Most of the time we were moving through thick jungle but once in a while there would be the surprising view of lakes and rivers.
We had been following the contours of the Cusichaca River for over an hour when the train came to a halt in the middle of nowhere. An English speaking Peruvian came through the cars and informed us there had been a huge mudslide just ahead with tons of debris having fallen all over the rail bed. He was sorry but the train will have to turn back.
He then offered an alternative, if we felt up to it, of climbing over the mud and then walking another 20 km before we would reach Machu Picchu.
We came to the conclusion they had been well aware of this disaster having happened but did not want to lose all their business. He offered each of us a well-prepared bag lunch if we wanted to embark on this extra adventure.
Ten of us decided to attempt to walk that distance.
While slipping and sliding through ankle-deep mud, we climbed over this displaced mountain. Twenty minutes later we saw the end of the slide. As we approached the dry ground we saw twisted pieces of rail sticking out of the centre of the raging river beside us. The water was brown with churned up dirt and rocks, trees everywhere, looking as if a giant hand had tossed them into this boiling cauldron.
We shouldered our backpacks and briskly began to walk the 20 km. There was no path but only unevenly placed rail ties with what was left of the rail itself. Every few feet small rivers found their way underneath these structures, plunging into the Cusichaca River, alongside which we walked. To the right rose mountains covered with trees and thick underbrush. We tried to remember what kind of animals lived in this jungle, but could not recall. The noise of the water was deafening, so even if some critter were to stalk us, we would not hear it.
Evening was fast approaching and we started to wonder just how much further before it would be too dark to see. We did not relish the thought of spending the night in this hostile environment.
After almost five hours of walking and avoiding the holes created by rushing creeks under the rail ties, we saw lights of a settlement in the distance and picked up our pace.
There were several hotels and guest houses but every one of them turned us away, telling us they were full because people were stranded here when the train was unable to take them back out. Someone told us of a motel where there may still be a few rooms available. We quickly went there and were offered a room with a hot shower. Overjoyed, we paid and took the key. The room was spacious with a stone floor and green-grey mould growing up one wall and covering most of the ceiling. We couldn’t believe our eyes, but thought at least we are out of the jungle with some kind of roof over our head.
Our first task was to take a shower, change into fresh clothes and look for a restaurant where we could buy supper. My screams were heard for several blocks when ice cold water hit my weary body out of the rusty spigot in the promised hot shower.
So began our adventure in Machu Picchu.
The following morning we boarded a bus to the top of the mountain. Rain was pelting down on us. At the entrance of the non-inhabited town, we were offered to rent rain gear. We gladly paid for the colourful hooded ponchos. Soon the whole of Muchu Picchu was dotted with these brightly coloured moving plastic figures.
We found the ancient structures fascinating. There were people along the way who took the time to lead us from site to site explaining what we were seeing – for a price, of course.
We were told this area is regularly plagued with earthquakes but the reason these structures have survived is because of the unique way of hewing each corner stone in a 90 degree angle, so it would form a part of two walls. All the roofs had disintegrated over the years.
The scenery was breathtaking. Each mountain of the Cordillera Urubamba mountain range, surrounding the town looked like a pointed cone, reaching far into the sky. As the rain subsided, the fog lifted, the verdant green of the trees became visible. Three sides of the mountain on which Machu Picchu stood dropped down into unbelievably steep ravines. These ravines were so deep, it was difficult to see details at the bottom. There were no rails and we had to be careful not to step too close to the edges. After two more days of walking and admiring this magical place, we heard the army had provided helicopters to take us out of this hidden place in the Peruvian jungle.
My husband decided to walk out with a group of people. I opted to fly out. I had seriously injured my hip when walking into this place. We arranged to meet at a small village called Urubamba where the helicopters were taking us. Jochen paid for my ticket and handed me his backpack because I would be flying and did not need to carry it very far.
Slinging a backpack over each shoulder, I started to walk toward the heli-pad. Meeting some people who were heading in the same direction, I was told the pad was approximately eight km into the jungle. So there I was now carrying two backpacks. Fortunately the path was well-traveled and even, so it was easy to navigate.
I arrived at a large open space surrounded by impenetrable jungle. Hundreds of people were milling around while one green army helicopter after another landed. Important looking men with clipboards walked around yelling out names. People then queued up and boarded the next flight.
I decided to look at the papers on the clipboards of each man but could not find my name anywhere. While talking with some of the people there, they told me they had been there since the previous day and thought they would have to wait another day before their turn to fly out came.
My husband would be so worried if I did not show up that night at our designated meeting place in Urubamba. I walked around and watched carefully as names were being called out and people boarded helicopters. No one looked at tickets nor papers to prove they were the ones whose names had been called. I made my decision. The next queue being formed, I stood in line and then boldly climbed into the waiting helicopter. No one stopped me, so I flew out with the others.
When we landed there were taxis waiting to transport some of the people into the town. I ended up walking another four km. This time I walked on a paved road.
Civilization, such as it was, looked good to me now and I went into a little café where they served food and coffee. A young woman who served me spoke English. I discovered she is Canadian who, with her husband, had decided to live here and open this café. They had been there for four years and loved living there.
Towards evening I walked to the train station and met my husband there. He was tired after his long walk. We took the train back to Cusco and from there continued our adventure in Peru.
(Christa Stegemann is a Saltair resident and frequent traveller).