Writing about a study abroad trip and trying to compress it into one stand alone story is impossible. I could probably write a decent sized book about my short, four months abroad, but Paydirt doesn’t get that much funding. So instead, I’ve decided to only write about one part of my trip: visiting Machu Picchu. It’s what people always ask about when you say you went to Peru. But I’d like this story to be a bit more than just something you read to kill time in a boring common core lecture hall. I’d like it to somehow help you push through this school, like the memory of it does for me. A personal beacon of hope, if you will. Something that reminds me there’s a whole world out there, beyond these fluorescent lights and approaching deadlines...
I went to Machu Picchu twice: once on a train and a few friends, and once hiking with strangers. I went twice because, the first time, I felt like I had done the monument a disservice by arriving with modern transportation. After I came back from the train trip to Machu Picchu, I picked up a few books about the place (I know, I should have done that first) and learned about its history. Machu Picchu is a special place, but a massive part of what makes it a special place is the trip. By taking the train, I had watered down the experience of visiting the place. So a few months later, I signed up for a five day backpacking trip to do it right.
There are two hiking paths you can take to Machu Picchu from Cusco: One is called the Inca Trail and is part of the original Qhapaq Ñan. It is the road the Inca royalty would have taken to reach Machu Picchu. However, it is also about $800, booked months in advance, and crowded with backpacking tourists. The other route is called Salkantay, which was the route taken by commoners. It takes a few days longer, but is much cheaper and much less crowded. In addition, you can sign up only a few days in advance. So this is what I did. I walked out of the tourist agency with a yellow receipt, a list of recommended items, an itinerary, and a sense of excitement mixed with dread.
Here’s the thing about how I see travelling: I love meeting and connecting with random people you meet on the road, but there’s something inherently terrifying about being on that road. You voluntarily give up any control you have, and throw yourself into this abyss of the world. Exposed and vulnerable, you can’t decide to just head home and be home. Sometimes, home is an eight hour plane ride away.
A few days later, I woke up at three in the morning to catch the bus to the trail head. I was the first one at the bus pickup spot, but over the next ten minutes, 20 or so people began to trickle in. These were the people I’d be spending the next 5 days with. A few couples, a few singles, and a group of already-rowdy Israelis. I silently read a few books by their cover, then wandered over to talk to a girl who had shown up shortly after me. She was Belgian, and an aspiring medical doctor. I remember that because she also said she wasn’t feeling too good. “It must have been something I ate last night,” she told me, with one hand on her stomach. “Some type of food poisoning.” The bus showed up, and we all piled on. I choose a seat next to her, and soon began nodding off.
After a few hours of riding in the bus, the Belgian girl reached over and touched my shoulder. I opened my eyes and pulled out my ear buds. She was looking straight ahead, and extremely pale. “Sam?” she said, still not looking a me. “Could you go up to the front of the bus and ask if they have any bags? I think I’m going to throw up.” I returned moments later with a handful of little garbage bags and handed them over. She took one and leaned away into the corner between the seat in front and the window, hunched over. For the next two hours, I sat next to that girl as she filled up bag after bag, thinking about how I was sitting next to someone living out a nightmare. Extremely sick, trapped on a bus? Every once and a while I’d pat her on the back, but other than that I just sat back, got her more bags when she needed them, and tried not to look down at the building pile of tied off bags at her feet.
Luckily, she was feeling better when we started our hike. A little shaken, but able to walk. The bus left our group of 20 and our two guides on a dirt road that wound through Peru’s high jungle. We spent a few hours that day walking through beautiful, mountainous jungle scenery. We hiked along a trail over a valley, and everywhere you looked was either green or cloud. As we hiked, our group began to mingle and get to know one another, so the social aspect of the trek began to look good. Machu Picchu isa tourist attraction, and we were all foreigners in Peru, mostly from the Americas or Europe. I began talking to couple from New York who reminded me of some cousins, and began to feel better about the next few days. Close proximity vomiting was a thing of the past. Or so I believed.
We hiked for a few hours before reaching our stay that night, a kind of large wooden barn-type structure with tents set up inside. Next to it was a worn down shack with a dining area. We had porters who cooked for us, so all we had to do was set up our sleeping bags and arrange tent mates. I got a tent with my sickly friend from the bus and a guy from San Francisco. I had met him earlier, and we had connected over our poor decision to wearing low quality running shoes on a five day hike through the Andes. Later that night, after dinner, I walked out of the shack where we had dinner to find San Francisco leaning against a railing. He looked up at me, and I a knew immediately. “I just puked my guts out. I’m going to bed and hope I feel better.” He turned and left. I went back to the dining area, not very excited about my sleeping arrangements.
I woke up the next morning between my two sick tent mates. San Francisco was already awake, sitting up in his sleeping bad. “Hey,” he said, when he noticed me wake up. “I might have thrown up a little bit on your sleeping bag last night, but I think I managed to get most of it out of the tent.” I sat up and looked at the foot of my sleeping bag. “It’s all cool, man.” I said, checking out the beige mess that led from my leg area to the door flap and beyond. I got out of the tent and put my shoes on, making sure to avoid the pile of vomit he had not successfully managed to get out of the tent.
Breakfast that morning was instant coffee and bread. It was also instant coffee and bread for the second and third mornings. For lunch, we carb loaded. We had rice, potatoes, and pasta, sometimes all at once. Dinner was normally something like different rice, potatoes cooked differently, and a different type of pasta, but this time with a piece of chicken to go alongside. It wasn’t beach body material, but it was good for slogging through muddy mountain passes. That second day was the part of the trek where we would see the mountain for which the trip was named: Salkantay, roughly translated from Quechua to “Savage Mountain.”
I spent the final ascent to the pass hiking with an English astrophysicist from Manchester. He was telling me about the creation of elements in stars, and I was asking him how Mercury in retrograde could affect our future. At the top of the pass, we found the savagery of Salkantay. A human skull with the lower jaw bone missing sat on a rock at the the base of a sign post with the elevation and location. The skull sat there, looking straight ahead with empty sockets and half a smile. Needless to say, we picked it up. I held it in my gloved hands, wondering about the possible connection between finding a skull and Mercury in retrograde.
By the way, I ate cashews a few minutes later wearing those same gloves. That doesn’t add anything to the story, but I need to mention it. I don’t know if it means anything, but that was a year ago and I still feel weird about it.
We never got a good view of Salkantay from the pass. Clouds covered the entire mountain except the base, which was no more than half a mile away. However, I did convince a group of 20 adults to blow at clouds in hopes of dispersing them, so it was still a good day. We also heard a rock slide come down the peak. A sound like crackling thunder shook the pass, and in the distance we could see some of the rocks tumbling out of the clouds and into the valley below.
That was the first rock slide we saw. The second one blocked our trail a few days later. We were hiking down a dirt road when we came across a group of people surrounded by luggage. The road was carved into the side of a valley, with a steep slope covered in vegetation to our right and an even steeper gorge with a river at the bottom to our left. Our guides went and talked to the group, then came back and delivered the news. “There’s a rock slide up ahead. We’ll take the cable across. That’s what these people are waiting for.” The “cable” turned out to be a shody wooden box suspended on a cable that used a pulley system to cross the gorge. It kind of fit two people and their bags.
We hiked down a trail to where the cable cart sat over a platform carved into the side of the gorge, and two by two were shuttled across the river. Once on the other side, we could see where the rock slide was. A hundred yards from where we crossed, a pyramid of loose rock had built up. Rocks were still falling as we watched. At one point, two backpackers passed the group of people waiting, and wandered around the corner to the rockslide. We could see them, the rock slide in front of them, and the rocks above them. One large clump detached itself from the main pile high up the valley, and came tumbling down toward the backpackers, missing them by a few feet. Both of them turned and sprinted back away from the debris.
Now, there’s a prominent figure in this story I haven’t mentioned yet. Over the course of the first day, it quickly became apparent that one of the American guys who was travelling alone was a bit of a … well, psychopath. Now that may seem a bit harsh, but he rarely gave the same answer to questions like “Where are you from?” or “What is your name?” He told us he was a manager for famous athletes like Kelly Slater and Conor McGregor. After the first day, nobody felt comfortable walking or talking with. Later in the trip, he threatened two teenage porters with a knife and they ran away. The last night, we stayed in a hotel in the town of Aguas Calientes before our final ascent to Machu Picchu, and I had the honor of sharing a room with him (the two guides pulled me aside and apologized profusely). He stayed in the room for a little bit, then jumped up left, saying he had to do work for Kelly Slater, and he couldn’t share a hotel room. The last anybody saw of him, he was being escorted out of Machu Picchu by guards.
This guy (we’ll call him John. That was one of the names he gave us.) pretty much made everyone uncomfortable, but he did make some points of the trip more interesting. For one thing, the only people who couldn’t avoid him were the two tour guides. One night, we stayed in a small village with a bar near our tents, and the guide who was harassed the most by John got wasted. The group sat around the fire that night, theorizing that getting as drunk as possible might actually be the best way to deal with someone in his situation. We should all be grateful that the guide was taking a hit for the team by absorbing all of this guys erratic attention.
John was especially hostile towards the Israelis, whom he believed were trash talking him in Hebrew during the first bus ride. I don’t know what his logic behind this was, but it’s what he told me. You can’t tell someone like that they’re crazy, either. He was a lot bigger than me for one thing, and as mentioned earlier he was fond of knives. The Israelis, on the other hand, were fresh out of their military service, and had no problem starring the guy down.
This was my second time visiting Machu Picchu, but I couldn’t help but get excited along with everyone else in my group. Over the past few days, the group had woven a tightly knit community, built on shared exhaustion from hiking, close sleeping quarters, and an aversion to John. As we descended from the snowy, rocky landscape of the Salkantay pass back into the jungle, we were already making plans of meeting up at a bar in Cusco for a few drinks of closure. But first, we had Machu Picchu to explore.
As I mentioned, I had the honor of sharing a hotel room with John. After the guides apologized to me (I still remember the look one of them had as he muttered “sorry, sorry, sorry, I’m so sorry…”) John and I climbed the staircase up to our room. I wasn’t too happy with the guy. While we had been waiting for the rest of the group to take the cable across, he had wanted me to ask one of the locals if there was place in the next town where he could buy cocaine. “He wants to buy cocaine.” I told the local in Spanish, nodding at John. “Sorry to bother you.” The local looked at John, then back at me. “He doesn’t speak Spanish?” he asked. I shook my head. “I think there’s a bus driver in the next town who knows, but I’m not sure.” I nodded and thanked him. “Nope, not in this town,” I told John, then walked away.
So needless to say, I wasn't looking forward to the night. Fortunately, I was spared by Kelly Slater. John left the room, then hurried back in a few minutes later. “Kelly Slater just called me,” he said, eyes wild. “He said I have to call him back in the next hour, or he’ll kill me.” I nodded sympathetically. “I’ve got to leave. Get another hotel room. Sorry, I can’t work here.” He was haphazardly throwing all his belongings back into his back, running around the room collecting the things he had been laying out earlier. “Oh?” I asked, my hopes rising. “Yea, I gotta go.” He zipped the final zipper and dashed out the door. I laid back and slept soundly.
The next morning, it was pouring rain. I was wearing athletic shorts, a tank top, and a rain jacket. I had my socks stuffed into my fanny pack so I could have something dry to put on once the rain stopped. It was 4:30 in the morning, and I had just left the last big group of hikers on the trail behind me. I could still hear them and see their headlights bobbing up and down.
The trail from the town of Aguas Calientes up the mountain to Machu Picchu opens early in the morning, and tourists from all around the world flock the gates to begin the climb. I had walked from my hotel room to the trailhead alone that morning, and didn't run into anyone from my group until later in the trail. But for some reason, it felt fitting to do the climb alone. I had no headlamp, very little water, and was soaking wet. It was a great way to end the trip.
The rest of the day was a long one. After the guides gave us a tour and left, we spent the rest of the day walking around Machu Picchu in the rain and hoping it would clear up. The tightly knit group we had built over the last few days began to disperse, as couples wandered off together and people went and did their own things. The goodbyes at something like this are, I think, unique to travelling. You can become very close to a group of people over the course of a few days, then separate and go about your life. Maybe you’ll see each other again, but most likely not. All you’re left with are some photos and good memories.
So if you ever want to visit Machu Picchu, take the Salkantay trek. Perhaps someday you too can wake up covered in a strangers vomit, or half heartedly play translator for a drug deal. And if you get a portly guide named Carlos, ask him if he remembers John.