I awoke to a knock as promised and stumbled out to the combi in the cold. A crowd was already gathered and the Americans, who had set up there tent next to it, began to stir. The combi was crowded. I had thought I had seen full combis before but I think we set a good record with 22 people into the minivan. I was impressed. We probably could have fit more but the three Americans monopolized the back seat which was actually meant for four people. Space was cramped and everyone carried their luggage, no matter how much, on their laps.
The road to Santa Teresa was to be about 2 hours. On the way people got on and off. At one point the minibus waited by the side of a cliff for a few minutes, the driver muttering under his breath “he’ll come… he’ll come.” Then up the side of the near vertical cliff appeared a man with a flashlight, he’d climbed the whole way from his house below. He was soaked in sweat and couldn’t speak for several minutes.
I began talking to a Brazillian tourist, Marcos. Neither of us spoke Spanish all that well but it was our common language. He really spoke Portuguese and faked his way through. He had heard about the route from an English traveller. It was at this point I realized that my information was by far the most accurate of the group. This route was not in guidebooks and the only way to know it was through word of mouth. Word of mouth had been working though. I was told that the year before there were about 2 tourists a day, this year there were about 20 per day. It was like watching a town in the path of a flood. I wonder if they knew what they were in for once they made it into the Lonely Planet.
The locals got dropped off where they needed to be while the tourists got escorted to a breakfast place. And had fried egg sandwiches and coffee. Then we hulked down to the local thermal baths.
Peruvian thermal baths are usually built up a little bit and cost a nominal fee to enter. I had heard these were free and expected a river with some hot water bubbling into it. The pools for these thermal baths had been under construction for some time and were the nicest I’ve ever seen. They were beautiful, made of slated stone, the water filling and draining at the same rate to maintain the level. Around the area construction workers hewed and hauled rock for the pools, presumably hurrying to finish them in time for the town’s entry into the Lonely Planet.
I whipped out my swimming trunks and took the plunge. The water was tepid but perfect for the day and I soaked for almost an hour while the others dangled their feet. On the way back Marcos complained that his foot was hurting him. He told me he had hurt it while running to catch a boat on the floating islands in Lake Titicaca. They are covered in terraces and he had fallen over one, spraining his foot. He and I lagged behind the Americans and I espoused the high altitude breathing I had learned from my painter friend in Maray.
We returned to Santa Teresa and bought juice and snacks to prepare us for the road ahead. We left the Americans and set out on our way to the tourist town of Aguas Callientes.
We began our path down to the river, which we would have to cross. On the way we encountered two old women each carrying four heavy backpacks. They lurched and stumbled forward, clearly overweighted. “The weight, the weight! It is too much.” they cried. Marcos and I wanted to help but it was awkard, like helping the bellhop at a hotel. We each took a sleeping bag, allowing the women to use both hands on the heavy load, and carried them with our packs down to the “bridge”.
There was no place on the river to anchor a bridge so the locals built a kind of.
There was a bit of a line for the bridge and I got a chance to ask the old ladies about their work. Each tourist pays 10 sols ($3) for that service. Eight bags equals 80 sols per day. They each make 10 sols a day to carry the bags. This leaves 60 sols ($20) in profit for the tour guide or agency. An amazing business!
Soon it was our turn to cross the bridge and Marcos and I bundled in and crossed.
There were trucks we could wait for to catch a ride but we decided to walk along the road and hitch a ride on one when it came by. On the way we passed a graveyard all set with flowers. Interestingly one of the graves had been defaced with political propoganda.
We walked for about two hours until the truck came but it was full and the driver called that he would not stop for us. Up ahead there was a local Indian woman hailing the truck and I saw the driver slow to explain why he could not pick her up.
“Run!” I yelled. And Marcos and I sprinted to the truck and climbed on the back. The driver got out to tell us that we could not come on but we were already over the top and trying to find space. We immediately noticed the Americans. They had been further behind and had been picked up before us. They took our packs from us, pushed them further into the truck, and helped us aboard. The driver was right, there was simply no room. But room was found and Marcos and I perched on top of the backpacks the women had brought for the tourists.
We were dropped off at Idro, the power station behind Aguas Callientes, at about noon. This station was the final stop of the Cusco tourist train and one stop past Aguas Callientes. We were on the other side of Machu Pichu.
Now it was clear that there were about 15 or so tourists. Among them was a pack of 7 Israelis. They were sitting by the side of the road arguing with their guide. “You told us it was only one hour, it was two!” I asked them about the train. They told me that they were not interested in the train, they would walk to Aguas Callientes. I asked them how long it would take: “2 hours of walking, 3 hours in the train!” they laughed. Everyone I asked gave me a different answer on when the train was to come, everything from 1:30 to 4:00. Marcos and I decided not to worry about it and, after exchanging some Jewish jokes with the Israelis, we set off walking up the track. Marcos and I talked about US and Brazilian politics, the idea of united South America, music, and absolutely everything else. And, as we hiked among the breathtaking views, it inspired Marcos to sing: Big Rock Candy Mountain to which I responded with This Land Is Your Land.
On the way we would pass various houses, restaurants and forest restoration projects. People would appear at the door and invite us in or give us advise on the trail. We also passed a train called the Hiram Bingham train, named after the discoverer of Machu Pichu. The train from Cusco to Aguas Callientes and back is $75: expensive. The Hiram Bingham train costs $500. We asked and were told under no uncertain terms that we could not get a ride on this train.
A half an hour later we were in Aguas Callientes.