In hot water....

Trip Start Nov 05, 2009
Trip End Apr 26, 2010

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A restaurant balcony....
Train station platform

Flag of Peru  , Sacred Valley,
Sunday, January 24, 2010

After arriving into Cusco from Puerto Maldonado we had a day or so to catch our breath...quite Cusco is at a staggering 11,000ft above sea level and the lack of oxygen does some strange things to your body.

We had decided to try to make our way to Machu Picchu by public transport and to do a  3 - 4 day trek independently through the Andes rather then pay a small fortune to go on the horrifically expensive train from Cusco or be herded along the Inca trail in an organised tour...anything to avoid a god awful tour!

We spent our first day in Cusco walking very slowly, drinking lots of Coca tea and trying to organise our trek. Easier said than done when you are both useless at spanish. Anyway we succeeded in hiring a stove and buying some gas but we were having major issues finding a Muleteer and some mules to carry our bags. It was looking as though we would either have to carry our own packs or hire some from a village that we passed. Ho hum.

After much investiagtion and deliberation into the best and cheapest way to get to Machu Picchu it was going to be a lot cheaper and easier to go with a travel agency by minibus to Aguas Calientes. As part of the deal we got lunch, dinner and a hotel for the night so it seemed like the easy option...they would also be able to drop us off after our day at MP at the start of our trek...perfect! Or so we thought.....

It all started to go badly wrong when we were setting off from Cusco in the minibus to Aguas Calientas and Nic said the fated words "Well itīs all going like clockwork".... (10 long painful bloody years working in project managment has taught me to never to say those words).

We should have known things were not right when we saw the first landslide covering half the road leading out of Cusco. I spent the next couple of hours wondering exactly what would happen if a) I saw some land sliding towards us and b) if said land hit the side of our minibus when travelling on a narrow road alongside a few hundred foot vertical drop.

There were quite a few bolders littering the road as we wound our way along the valley but it was difficult to ascertain whether these were recent arrivals or whether they just couldnīt be arsed to move them. For piece of mind I went with the latter theory.

The drive was very beautiful passng through the Sacred Valley of the Incas, over a high pass of 4,800 meters and then down into a lush, tropical valley. The road had been a rough dirt track for a few hours, much to Nicīs horror and was very bumpy and windy. This was childs play compared to what was to come.

We turned off the īmainī road onto an incredibly narrow, rutted track that ended up winding high into the mountains. At times we were literally on a precipace with at least a 1000 ft sheer drop. Nic was clutching the window sill like he does when I drive, so you can imagine how scared he was. It was one of those times when you debate whether it is better to have your seatbelt on or off......if itīs off you might have a chance of throwing yourself out of the window before the minibus plunges down the cliff to the river below.Decisions, decisions....

Our lunch stop seemed to be a long time coming around particularly for the poor chap in front who was feeling incredibly sick and had vomited all over his bag. Our driver was stopping for nothing or no-one. It later became clear that this was not the normal route and we had actually been diverted off the īmainī road because a bridge had collapsed.

We finally made it to St Teresa where we had lunch...our first Alpaca steaks. Thankfully the driver had the decency to wait until after lunch to break the news that the road ahead had collapsed into the river and that the train that we needed to catch for the last part of our journey was also broken. This meant a 4 hour walk to the town of Aguas Calientes along the collapsed road and then along the train tracks. There is no road access to Aguas Calientes and this is the only jumping off point for getting to Machu Picchu. We had no choice but to walk if we wanted to see MP. By now it was nearing 4.00 and so we would be walking the last hour at least in the dark...thankfully myself and Nic had torches but people on other buses were not so well prepared. One girl was telling me about a couple of  quite elderly, overweight ladies on her bus that were wearing flipflops and had no torch. God knows what happened to them.

The river was incredible. Ive never seen anything like it before. The only way to describe it is like furiously boiling chocolate milk running at an incredible speed down the valley. I can quite see why the bridge and road had succumbed to its!...(see video attached....the raging torrent...just double click on the image and it should load as a movie).

And so about 50 people from various minibuses set off for Aguas Calientes. I knew that this was just the beginning of another classic tale when I put my bag down into a pile of dog shit outside the minibus and then was wondering why this horrible smell was following me about. Not happy.

With hindsight the tour companies should not have allowed us to go....the railway track was being flooded by the river and there were sections where the rails acted as bridges across gulleys, so balancing along them in the dark was pretty tretchorous, particularly if you didnīt have a torch.

We finally made it into Aguas Calientes just before 8.00 and we were dying for a hot shower to soothe our weary limbs and to have some food. Alas it was not to be. On arrival we realised that none of us actually knew the name of the hotel where we were supposed to be staying and as no one from the tour company had come along for the walk we were totally clueless. After a few false leads we finally found a man who seemed to know who we were and where we should go. After we had rounded up our minibus gang we headed up to our hotel with hope in our hearts. After hearing some shouting we realised that there was a problem. The main train line from Cusco was also broken due to the river flooding, resulting in hundreds of people that should have left that day having to stay on. The hotel room for us....we were very cold, tired and hungry by this point and pretty hacked off.

After loitering around the main square for a couple of hours our man had found us a restaurant to eat in whilst he found us accommodation. It turned out that our accommodation was actually to be the balcony of the restaurant. We had met some great people on the bus so we made the best of a bad job and got horrifically drunk on Pisco and rum & coke. I canīt actually remember going to bed or more accurately my lilo (thank god for my trusty lilo....the most well travelled lilo in history...I bought it in Gran Canaria and it has been with me ever since).

We woke next morning to scenes of panic in the street outside as women rushed past in tears, clutching children. We just wanted to have some breakfast to cure our hangovers and were not really ready for a national emergency. There were rumours flying that a dam had burst further upstream and that a tidal wave of water was coming down the valley. We decided that it would probably be a good idea to move to some higher ground away from the riverside restaurant that we were currently residing in. Thankfully just at the moment our man arrived and he had found us a hotel for that night...hurrah!! plus it was right at the top of the village in the safe zone. We celebrated by having a slap up lunch at the most amazing veggie restaurant called Govindas.

Suffice to say that the rumours were untrue about the dam collapsing and it was actually just part of a bridge that had been spotted floating down stream. We hadnt quite realised how serious or unique this situation was...the river hadnīt been this high in at least 25 years and there had been huge devestation to peoples homes and farms throughout the valley. One of the main streets in the town had collapsed and a couple of houses washed away. A rock that is normally 5 meters above the water level was totally submerged.

We really had nothing to grumble about as we had a bed to sleep in and food to eat. Our only real concern was whether we would actually get to see Machu Picchu after all this. We were told that evening that Machu Picchu was closed because the bridge over the river to reach the path was collapsing and being watched over by armed guards. Slightly gutted to say the least but nothing compared to what other people were going through...there had been reports of a few deaths due to bridges or houses collapsing.

After much discussion over dinner and some Pisco Sours we decided to risk it and check out the bridge the following morning. Our gang consisted of myself and Nic, a couple called Gerka (Dutch) and Nadina (Argentinian) and 2 german guys called Boas and Micheal who were from a brotherhood of Journeying Craftsmen (absolutely fascinating...more info on this
link.... Micheal had unfortunately hurt his foot kicking Boas the night before so wasnt able to join us for the walk.

We were up at 5.00am and headed off for the walk along the railway lines to the bridge. It was an exhilharating walk because at every turn we thought that there was going to be some sort of official wanting to know where we were going and trying to stop us. We made it the bridge and thankfully there was nobody there guarding it and although the river was splashing onto the bridge it didnīt appear to be damaged. We took it one at a time and gingerly walked across the raging torrent beneath us. 

I was feeling more positive now that we might actually get to see Machu Picchu but we still had a 2 hour climb up the mountain to get to the entry of the ruins. After much huffing and puffing...the altitude is a real killer...we reached the entry of the site only to be told that it was closed because the bridge in the valley was down. We were so disappointed after all that had happened and the tough climb up this morning. As we had just come across that very same bridge we got rather frustrated at this non-sensical argument as we couldnīt see why this have any impact on us accessing the site. After speaking to the lady in charge it became apparant that the real story was that there had been 2 deaths on the Inka Trail and that they were closing the site to all visitors except those still coming off the 4 day trail. This was shocking news and we couldnīt quite believe it at the time but also still couldnīt quite understand why Machu Picchu was closed when the accidents had occured miles away from the site.
Not to be deterred we resolved to find another way in....after a couple of false starts where the vegetation was just too thick, we found a stream coming down the mountainside through the jungle that looked possible to climb. We planned to climb up through the forest to the ridge where we would meet the Inca trail as it came into Machu Picchu. We were joined at this point  by a scruffy little tyke of a dog who became known simply as Inka. He was with us all the way to the top and if reincarnation exists then Im convinced that he was our Inkan guide.

I somehow ended up leading the way as we battled our way up the streambed, through the vegetation until we reached a pipeline that must have supplied the visitor center with water. This was where we had our first sighting of Machu Picchu away in the was an amazing feeling, particularly as it felt as though it was against all the odds. We continued to follow the pipeline until we were just in sight of the back of the visitor center. It was pretty exciting and nerve wracking as we were having to creep on our hands and knees so that we werent spotted by the guards. After a bit of a dicey climb up a rock face we had to make a last quick dash through open ground up to the Inka Trail. The adrenaline rush was pretty incredible and it was quite a relief to finally step foot on the trail. As I climbed up on to the trail leading into Machu Picchu, stratched to pieces and covered in mud, I realised that there was absolutely no-one ahead of me except for our little friend Inka....a very special and probably quite rare moment upon the usually bustling trail.

We were all high as kites as we rounded the top of the trail to look down onto Machu Picchu. What made it all the more special was that there was absolutely no-one there except for a few people sat at the top who had just finished walking the full trail. We managed to get photos of the site with no people on which is nigh on impossible usually. Even all the postcards have people on! It was slightly hairy at first and we had to hide for a bit as the lady from the entry point was wandering around and we didnt want to get spotted and thrown out but as a few more people came off the trail we became less obvious. After a few hours exploring the site and marvelling at how few people there were, we were also lucky enough for the sun to come extra bonus in the wet season.

We had a rather sad end to our day when we saw them bringing down the bodies from the trail on stretchers. An Argentinian girl and her guide had died when there was a landslip onto their tents during the night. All very upsetting.

On our return back to the village it was becoming clear that we were well and truly stranded. Both train lines were broken and the route we had walked in by was now totally flooded by the river. We debated walking along the other train tracks back along towards Cusco but it would be a 30km walk to the hearest town and we were had no way of knowing what state the track was in or how dangerous it would be. We decided to sit it out and wait for the helicopter evacuation to begin (very slowly). There were lots of rumours abound, the favourite being of some Americans buying their way onto the first flights out which had been reserved for the sick...people on stretchers actually being taken out of the helicopter so that a perfectly healthy American could have their place etc

Its incredible how order always prevails in these the main square people had elected themselves as representatives of their individual countries, setting up meeting points for other fellow residents and calling the consulate (of course no-one from the UK had bothered). It hadnt even crossed my mind to call the consulate as i just assumed that everything would work itself out in the end. The main square became the hub of the rumour mill as well as a place for people to loiter, play volleyball and to get the free meals that eventually were handed out when food started to get in short supply. Lots of people didnt have hotels and so were sleeping rough in the cultural center or town hall. Money was also proving to be an issue as the cash machines continually ran out and only accepted certain cards. As the credit card lines were down and the electricity kept cutting out it was fun all round. We amused ourselves by visiting the hot springs that the town is named after, playing monopoly (Nic the capatilist pig won both very long games) and cards as well as eating lots of course. Thankfully the people that we met were great fun and so we had quite a pleaseurable (if slightly frustrating) few days waiting to be evacuated.

After 5 days we finally could see that it was imminent...the Peruvian governement had eventually pulled their fingers out and there was a contstant sound of helicopters all day shipping people out by age group. We ended up having to sleep at the train station on the platform the night before our evacuation. It was a fantastic flight out over the andes and down the sacred valley...Nics flight even got a flyby of Machu Picchu because seemingly the pilot wanted to see it and take a few snaps!

An amazing adventure all in all for us but a terrible catastrophe for some......

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