It’s been weeks since my last letter, weeks since I was supposed to have got back to you. I’ll provide some of the reason behind that – in short a week long trip to the Andes coupled with a sort of omni-illness – in any case I hope you won’t hold it against me. It has been one of those traveling sub-trips which instantly deserves a spot among the top five. Since you requested elaborations on such experiences I shall expand fully.
I was joined by The Dutchman (left of the pic, the guy on the right is some random American… or German, he seemed unclear on the point). We had met a year or so ago in Split on the coast of Croatia with other friends and become acquainted over many drinks and – surrounded by Americans – swapping tales of each other’s colonies. On my short stop over in Amsterdam en route out here we had dined one evening and, in parting, I told him that if he had a gap in his hospital shifts and fancied a holiday he should hit me up. A couple of weeks later the text came though “Hit! Hit!”
A couple of weeks after that he landed and after an agreeably alcoholic night in Huanchaco we headed back south by bus. Keen not to spend too much time in Lima we flew out a few hours after we arrived. I regret that I did not catch the landing into Cuzco on video, it’s worth the price of the ticket on its own. The plane winds up and through the Andes, the peaks gaining height, some in the distance eventually level with the plane. Over a brow Cuzco appears in a wide valley with suburbs and shanty towns shooting off up each conjoining valley. The pilot crosses Cuzco perpendicular to the foot of the runway, which appears to lay slap down the middle of the city, and then begins a steep turn. At first the turn brings the plane up over a couple of small valleys running down into Cuzco with the plane flying parallel to the runway before the pilot descends into the final valley keeping his turn and losing altitude until we flew out the bottom of the valley and over Cuzco. The aircraft then levels leaving us low and in line with the runway for landing. If you feel sorry that you haven’t seen it you might spare a thought for my Dutch counterpart who slept throughout.
Cuzco itself is one of those cities with immediate charm. It’s at 3,400m so it makes its presence felt, inhaling the air there is like drinking a cup of tea which has had its teabag taken out too soon; there’s something in it, just not enough of it. But it is gorgeous as a settlement. And the thin air makes sense in the context of the travelers wondering the street in hiking gear having just got back from a trail, or maybe about to leave for one, or maybe betwixt plans. We were leaving the following day on a four day hike – the Dutchman having arrived from below sea-level just a few days earlier.
We had chosen the ‘Jungle Trail’, not a pure hike – it being rainy season simply hiking would potentially mean being wet, with many miles to cover, and clouds too low to see much. The first day we drove to 4,600m and biked down a 60k stretch of mountain pass. The second day we hiked to hot springs. The third was zip-lining and more hiking with the final day being Machu Picchu itself. It was all captivating and exhausting and brilliant. The biking was treacherous and fast. The hiking took us over dodgy bridges, weird cable cars, creepy tunnels and in-use train tracks. The zip lining was more exhilarating than you’d expect. And Machu Picchu made all the more sense having earned it.
Our group was made up of the two of us, our guide and the unfortunate addition of a British couple. I take a fairly laid back view towards those whose idea of traveling is not similar to my own. I generally try to avoid the hippies because they tend to be pretty judgmental and narrow-minded, not to mention complete bores. But I’m happy enough to have them around, over there somewhere. The same goes for the American Bros though they usually make their presence more forcefully felt. The type this British couple adhered to I could cheerfully run out of town with a pitch fork. They had been to a wedding in Lima and were to ‘do Machu Picchu’ while they were around. It became apparent quite quickly how provincial they were: ‘a bit ITV’ – if I can put it like that. Both boasted of having done plenty of hiking and She was even some senior member of a Girl Guides outfit somewhere north of the M4. Fine, I thought, as long as they can keep up.
There were some minor gripes and grumbles after the mountain biking (something about the streams being too wet) but nothing to raise a major flag just yet. The problems came on the second day. The Dutchman and I had both grown up engaged in plenty of hiking and while we didn’t do much anymore we discussed how one never quite loses one’s touch for it. Whether it’s because you have a default fitness it’s relatively easy to return to, or because you know the feeling of being a bit knackered and to simply push through, or for some other reason. (Even any journey in London, if under an hour on foot, I’d much rather walk than hop on some humid and socially-awkward bus or tube). In any case, within twenty minutes of the second day it was clear these swine were going to be a problem. We had set a steady pace, there wasn’t much by the way of uphill, but we turned around to find my fucking country folk a good few hundred meters behind and in need of a rest.
This stopping for a rest business turned out to be a habit of theirs and a pattern of our morning, holding us up and offending our ears until lunch – which is not an inconsiderable stretch of time when your day begins at 6:30am. We were late, which meant we were hungrier than we needed to be, and on the way we had learned about the truly vast array of food She wouldn’t eat coupled with her distaste for not having a wardrobe in her room at the lodge. At one point she blurted out that she didn’t like soup, I jokingly replied that that was ridiculous and akin to not liking sandwiches, “I don’t like sandwiches either”, she could at least deliver a line deadpan. At the lunch stop my respect for them completely collapsed when they announced that they were ‘not feeling well’ and would get a taxi to the hot springs which marked the end of the day’s hiking (an end which one feels one should earn).
The stint after lunch was supposed to be a two and a half hour walk but without The Complainers we marched through it in one hour dead, meeting them at the hot springs only five minutes after they’d arrived by taxi. It was a brisk and enjoyable pace, we overtook pretty much all the other groups (The Scandis, The Spanish, The Americans, etc). Once in the spa a conversation began which really summed them up. They mentioned they’d also been to Reykjavik for a wedding, I enviously plied them with questions given how high up Iceland is on my ‘Must Visit’ list. She chipped in “the bride was wearing hiking boots in her wedding photo” accompanied by her best must-let-the-Jeremy-Kyle-audience-know-I’m-not-impressed face. And – in the words of Forrest Gump – that was all she had to say about that. He then begrudgingly volunteered that they’d also been to Miami for a wedding at which point her face lit up. There was nothing either of them could say about the holiday, nothing of note whatever, because it’s fucking Miami. No matter, “that was my kind of holiday!” she chirped. If she wasn’t already there, and requiring no further evidence at all, she’d have immediately been thrust into the bucket in my head marked “Uninteresting and Uninterested” – as does anyone who mentions Miami, Abu Dhabi or Dubai not in the pejorative.
Contrasting with their complaints about food was the array of food in the jungle, there was always something edible (or occasionally something poisonous) hanging in front of you. Passion fruit, mangoes, avocados, papayas, potatoes, corn, limes. And they are all far bigger and far riper than anything you’d get on the home front – some of the avocados were the size of small melons and still not ready to be picked. At one stop we were treated to an array of local stuff to try, including cacao which might be very good for you but really is an incredibly shit substitute for chocolate, don’t get dragged in. The Inca Tequila on the other hand was marvelous and came with a snake in it. We spent plenty of time chewing coca leaves in the hope it’d make us good and high, but aside from a certain numbness of the tongue – with which I’m sure you are familiar – I’m not convinced they do much. Trekking through the jungle I shall never forget, the shape of the Andes is unlike any mountain range I’ve seen and there’s always the ability to stop and remind yourself “I’m in the fucking jungle.” Everything was new and interesting and different and sometimes slightly scary.
One of the other fruits our guide introduced us to was a weird little pod containing seeds which burst into a bright orange paste which could be used as a dye. This is the little pod from which the fantastic Peruvian textiles get their colour. Amidst the face painting I took the time to ask the guide – of Incan blood, and fluent in Quechuan, Spanish and English – for the proper pronunciation of ‘quinoa’. I have always sided with the anglicised “kwin-oh-ah” pronunciation since I don’t think there’s any problem with anglicising pronunciations and because those who insist on “keenwah” are clear morons. I’m willing to bet most of the Keenwahs (who are probably busy wearing one of those gimp outfits which sports brands market as gym wear) aren’t aware that quinoa is a Qeuchuan word and they assert their belief with a sort of ‘it just is’ mentality which assaults one as portentous rather than knowing. I once knew a chap who insisted on pronouncing paella “payeya”. In Spanish, with it’s Latin flow and abundance of vowels, this pronunciation is beautiful and fitting. But in an English sentence it sounds like a Harry Enfield spoof of a South London accent. These fuckers are always floored when you request from them their pronunciation of the capital of France.
At any rate my guide informed me that the correct pronunciation is “kin-oh-ah”, which makes perfect sense. The “-wah” pronunciation is used in the final syllable of “Quechua” but this is spelled, you’ll notice, ‘-ua’ as opposed to the ‘-oa’ of quinoa. I still think the anglicised version is valid but the phonemes of the Quechuan pronunciation also seem perfectly fitting in all three languages. So you must now firmly inform the Keenwahs that neither they nor the anglicised version are strictly correct – though their pronunciation is a comprehensive fabrication – and “kin-oh-ah” it is. Seeing unctuous and superficial attempts to come across as worldly and wise falling flat on their face will never cease to entertain me.
The Steps to Machu Picchu
The town at the foot of Machu Picchu has something of an alpine feel to it, in as much as it’s a mountain town and people are busy preparing or relaxing. The start of the next day was early, our earliest yet: 4:10am. We had to wake up to get down to the gates at the foot of the mountain in good time. The gate opened at 5am but we had to be there earlier because, as we found out, a queue of around 200 would ultimately form. We made it for about 4:35am, and there was a quiet tension to the atmosphere. Still dark, floodlights around and people tucking in to their hastily packed and probably not-too-nutritious breakfast bags. Once the gates opened the race was on.
There must have been 30-40 people ahead of us so as soon as we had our passports and tickets checked we marched straight past as many as we could, we only had a three or four minute walk before the steps began. 1720 misshapen, jungle, tomb-raider style steps. The guides said it was an hour of steps, and there wasn’t always room to pass slow people. We managed to pass a good 20-25 by the foot of the steps, for the first section where everyone was finding their feet and exhausting their lungs. People had head torches and iPhones out to see the way, I gave up on the torch someone lent me because it was being difficult and I had decided to stick close to other people ahead.
The worst part of any of it was that none of us had any idea what 1720 looked like or felt like. We had no idea whether we were halfway up or just halfway to the next stop point. Not that we were going to stop, of course, this had to be done in one: a fact which only became more apparent as the march continued. About a quarter of the way up I came up behind a couple walking side-by-side and holding everyone up, I took the opportunity at some steeper steps to barge past them wordlessly. By the time we were about a third of the way up we must have been among the leaders, there were only the two of us and a few others around. The steps disappeared in favour of a ten meter flat stretch to cross the road where we and two Frenchmen caught our breath. The Dutchman had done a marathon last year and, in his good shape, dismissed the stop to carry on up. We didn’t hang around long, 90 seconds maybe. “Nous allons” I panted to the two Frenchman next to me, and we continued.
I went first and we must have been about three quarters of the way up by the time one of them was way ahead of me and the other way behind. It was starting to get light and every so often I’d walk under a gap in the trees which would open out to a motivating view of the Andes. By this point my legs felt empty and my lungs couldn’t be full enough. But I had got into my stride, the point where you don’t really know or care what fuel your body is running on, but running it is and running it shall be for the foreseeable.
In the final stretch two people passed me, which I thought no great shame considering I must’ve overtaken about 30. And they were British which seemed reassuring. “Come on Frenchman!” I shouted down. He was nowhere. I was OK towing him along but I didn’t want to be beaten by two of the French. Worryingly from below a German accent wafted up with the deeply ironic “Come on England!” They were closing, but slowly. No way were the Germans coming past. They closed and closed on me but it took them ten minutes to close by ten meters and there was still another five to go.
It was at this point that the trees opened, the path flattened, and in front of me were the crafted concrete steps leading up to the ticket office. I regret that I felt as though I still had something left in the tank. At the top I found four Englishmen, The Dutchman and the Frenchman who had passed me. I was 7th and had completed the steps in 45 minutes: not bad for someone with an alcohol and nicotine intake which has floored navy men, and an exercise regime which would charitably be described sporadic. The Dutchman had made it in 5th at 41 minutes. The seven of us congratulated ourselves once for having made it to the top in good time, and again for not letting any Americans past. Then the first bus arrived, which received a volley of “well done everyone, you really earned it!” and “remember to stretch when you get off the bus, don’t let that lactic acid build up!”
Machu Picchu itself is – if you’ll allow me such a remark – a big, open-air, unorganised and scantly signed museum. Our guide made us wait just inside the gates for the British couple we were with who had taken the bus, obviously. This ruined our early arrival. If you go to Machu Picchu tell your guide you’ll meet them at 6:30/7am, half an hour after the gates at the top open so you can dive in and get The Picture with no tourists in view and come back to meet your group. We trudged around an incredibly clouded site for two hours while our guide told us all he knew about the Incas. I have never been that good at standing around listening to tour guides, I’m interested and intend to listen but end up bored and itching to explore.
I have also always found it slightly fascinating the way tour guides wherever you are in the world pick up a strange form of English. As though they once had a script which was badly translated and they keep referring to “private” rather than “illegal”, for example, which is quite amusing when they’re talking about cocaine (“very private”). It’s also interesting the way they always claim their society was the first and best at something which seems to have developed independently in a number of different locations. The way the Incas sculpted their stones, for example, seemed to me remarkably similar to the explanation I once read of how the Egyptians built the pyramids.
After the tour our guide left us and it started raining really rather emphatically. This caused all of us to seek shelter in the open-air bar just outside the gates of Machu Picchu. Before long it became apparent that most of the tables were taken up with backpackers: a bluetooth speaker was produced, a deck of cards for Shit Head, and beers began even if it was only 8am. This continued for three hours as we all relaxed into the usual opening sentences of traveler conversation (how long have you been away for? Where are you going? Where have you been? How long have you got left? Are you on a gap year/holiday/sabbatical?) and then on into swapping stories and tips of where to go and how to go about it.
Eventually the rain subsided, the cloud parted and we took the opportunity to get back up to the ruins. We walked round to The Sun Gate which gave us a fantastic view of our ascent, and returned to get the various obligatory pictures of Machu Picchu itself. There were hordes of selfie-takers. I have never had too much of a problem with selfies. For the people who take them all the time there must be a fairly sizable ego at work, but I have absolutely no problem with the group selfies which always look like everyone is having a good time, or the odd personal one (I think I may have taken maybe five in my entire life). The ones I really can’t stand are the people by themselves, with a selfie stick posing and pouting endlessly to get their perfect shot. For these people there seems to be a confusing vicarious solipsism at work. Though I did once take the piss out of a girl for taking too many selfies and she retorted that self-portrait has been a means of self expression and examination through many an artistic movement. I guess this argument is probably weak but is at least a good way to make a dull conversation interesting.
We wondered the ruins for a good few hours pratting about, trying out various shots of us and the scenery and being shouted at by the guards every now and then. For the people who take the train and bus all the way to Machu Picchu and do the whole trip in one day having expended almost no effort, I felt sorry. The site is unbelievable and nestled in a setting which one couldn’t design. But having truly worked for it with all day exertion and early starts, fantastic scenery and weird experiences for four days the final day seemed to make all the sense in the world. We finished sitting on the wall outside the park with a beer and a cigar each, pondering the traveling types we’d met and the various ways others seemed to do it better or worse than us. The final stretch was back down the steps which wasn’t much of a hardship, to a quick shower and onto the glass-ceiling train back through the Andes and to Cuzco.
Back to Cuzco
The next three days I cannot claim were the most enlightened of my life. We stayed in one of the most party of party hostels I’ve ever been to. We walked around town, visited the market which was absolutely fantastic, and tried guinea pig which was wholly underwhelming. But mostly we drank and danced. I can’t count how many games of beer pong we played. And we tried to hold our own with the South Americans for dancing which is not easy. Though we did get told by a Chilean girl that we were the best European dancers she’d seen, and some guy dancing on the bar next to me stopped to say “woah! You move better than a Latin!” which will remain with me as a phrase for some time. Though it turns out both were trying to sleep with me so I know not from whence their praise came.
The flight and bus back to Huanchaco provided good time to move as little as possible. By the end it felt like a full month had passed since I was on top of an Ande, on a bike, gliding round corners fully convinced I was Valentino Rossi. There is a sense on these trips that the travelers trail is too worn, too obvious, too guided. You are engineered from one place to the next by a system which suddenly drops its Latin lateness and gains all the efficiency it needs to deal with thousands of people a day. This may all be true, and certainly makes itself apparent when the American Bros turn up (“I jus’ wanna pardy, bro”). But I like to think we took our chances to do it right, hiking properly, choosing the steps rather than the bus, taking all the complaints as characterful foibles and not letting an early start get in the way of a good drink. The one thing that can always be said of these well-worn trails is that they never fail to provide the best possible mix of scenery, culture, new experiences, friendly fellow travelers and a bloody good piss-up in an unexpected setting.