“You want some help amigo.” These are the words that u hear consistently in Peru. It’s bloody annoying and just makes you walk away. But once I didn’t and I became very lucky. Friendliness is something you have to be careful about when travelling. It’s sad but true. but what do Hulk Hogan and Bobby Robson have in common? well yes they are both old but also risk takers and therefore winners. This time I was lucky and I feel a little smug.
Leaving La Paz is a great experience. For the right reasons. It’s just a 30min uphill ride through the favellas of half-built houses where only cowboy construction is allowed. As you reach the summit of the ride, the city’s shape comes into focus. La Paz lies in a cauldron, surrounded by huge snow-capped mountains and white crested volcanoes. On a perfect day, as mine was, it looks stunning. The bus trip was excellent. First the driver jokingly asked a Swedish couple the reciprocal question “can I have your baby?” Unfortunately the husband answered.
As we drove along, we were treated to the great sights of Bolivia; the wide-open plains and a man pissing next to the road. The bus picked up speed, the open plain bordered by immense mountains and ridges, the great time watchers who overlook the cattle and people. They only interrupt their duties to panoramically watch the bus go by. I feel like the Queen. Kids play football in knee-deep grass as parents eat picnics, abandoned houses, roofless worn by time and the endless harshness of life there litter the scene. These are places that National Geographic or the Discovery Channel visit, showcase and leave. And the best thing about countries like these is there is only one road. There is no skirting population densities like you get in Europe, arriving at ring roads to be ferried to the next place, safely away from the cities and its residents. Because there is only one road, you see the people tilling the caramel soil, playing near the road, holding dances outside the churches, living seemingly idyllic but really far from ideal lives.
The drivers here don’t use their brakes. They prefer the horn which generally works though if it doesn’t, as I remember once in Myanmar, they just plough on through. In Myanmar it was a large dog that was the casualty. The isolated, near desolate towns are all brown, with red dusty roads and on one occasion had a French flag flying. Surely a mistake for the British flag. Soon lake Titicaca opens up, the world’s highest navigable lake, a simmering blue, overlooked by those ever-present mountains, like tender grandparents. Small sail boats rest against the reeds and single men row out to catch the livestock. The countryside changes as we reach Peru. The road gets worse and the mountains become more immediate, rawer. The villages appear poorer, more subsistence. Fathers and sons work in the fields while mothers try to get the clothes clean. How people survive here I don’t know.
The first film on the bus was one of the worst I’ve seen. Full of guys with Olympian bodies, ludicrous stunts and slow-mos, comically bad guys who wear Armani and Marky Mark. But then came the second film. This is a bold statement but I think it could be the worst Dolph Lungren film I’ve seen and I’ve seen alot of them as I’m a fan. It was so shocking, I ignored the scenery and watched from beginning to end.
Finally I arrived in Cuzco, a large city near the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu. I met an Italian guy who was going into town and headed off with him. He couldn’t speak English but Spanish and the only Italian I know is Nessum Dorma (badly) and Sabrina videos (exceptional talent). He set me up in a hostel he knew with hot showers and two beds to myself for 3 pounds. Nice. I never saw him again. I needed to change a large note so that I could buy dinner. In Peru, they look at you disapprovingly if you give them a 100sol note for a 10sol meal. So I went to a posh bar, an English pub where I thought it`d be fine to change. There was a space at the bar and Real Madrid on the TV so I decided to have a beer. I met a Canadian guy who bought me a drink, an honour say I must reciprocate. We end up in a nightclub till 4am. I woke up and roll to my right and there is a girl sleeping in the next bed. She wakes, I look perplexed, we’re both fully clothed, she laughs and says “you drink. you dormir”, I feel relieved and reply “you, door”. She was happy to leave. It was three o’clock in the afternoon. Go to the bar to change money. Who am I kidding?
I mopped around the next day, feeling very sorry for myself. I meet Rie, my Japanese friend which was cool but I’m in no mood for talking so I head home. I pass a man who has clearly had enough and slams his hat on the ground and shouts “why”. Further on, a young girl asks me if I want some sweets. I say no but she asks me where I am from. I reply England and she proceeds to tell me everything about England, things didn’t know. so I took here back and… no, sorry I mean, I told her she was a good saleswoman and bought some sweets. Another girl offers me a drink voucher for last nights bar. I declined and she recognises me and say “oh you`re that English guy.” The look of disgust as she hands me another voucher is somewhat ironic.
The next day I get up and feel better and anyway, the unbelievably amounts of methane and the altitude means I have to get out of my room. The town is full of tour parties wearing the traditional Inca clothing that the locals gave up years ago and now sell for a fortune to tourists as the genuine thing. As we know that ain`t a good sign. I never understand it. Are these foreigners really going to wear a poncho in London? I wander town sightseeing. A few Inca ruins but nothing very exciting so I try to find the train station to book my ticket to Machu Picchu. It’s an early morning train and I find out it costs $54 plus $20 entry fee plus $10bus to the top. Tours start at $110. Stunned at the price, I sit on the steps of the station and ponder. Then my luck changes dramatically. A smartly-dressed, intelligent guy with coiffered hair walks by and asks me “if am I okay.” He sees my guide book and sad Labrador eyes and says “You want to go to Machu Pichu?” I’ve heard this line before but he was insistent he could help. As he leads me back into the station, he tells me he works here and can help. We walk through the security door, pass the back office of the sales who had quoted me the original $54 price and into a large office, paved with commendations and walled with certificates. He introduces himself as JC, sits down in a comfy chair and points to the other chair for me. He picks up a photo and says “my wife, very beautiful.” It was a statement, not a question and it was true. He was the head of Peru rail in this area and proceeds to tell me of an alternative method to Machu Picchu that he says is far more beautiful, easier, involves travelling through the Sacred Valley, gives u time at Machu Pichu when the tours aren’t there and importantly is very much cheaper. He tells me “many people want to go to Machu Picchu, they pay for treks and the agents make alot of money. Most foreigners want no problems but they don’t know that it’s easy to get to Machu Picchu without the agents. He says Machu Picchu is for everyone. It’s true,” he says. He shows me. “Take a bus for 3sols (50p) through the Sacred Valley and catch a train from Ollamba to Machu Pichu for $23 return. When u get to Ollamba, call me.” He gives me his number and pats me on the back, in a ´you can leave now` fashion. And all this time, his hair hasn’t moved once.
I get up and leave. I head back to the hostel, have a long shower that may have reduced the water level of Lake Titicaca by a foot. It all sounds too good to me. But I’ve got time, can do the walk later (which I didn´t bother with) and I like buses so I head off. The journey was beautiful and stops at ruins which most don’t go to. I arrive at Ollamba and call JC. He says that I should go to the station at 6pm, talk to Jose and the ticket will be there. At 6, I head down to the ticket office in the pouring rain and there is a man. “Are you Jose?” he nods. I tell him my name and he lights up. He scrambles through his draw and places a ticket in front of me. I am stunned but eventually find my wallet. But Jose shakes his head and repeats no. He sits back, crosses his arms and smiles. I look at him for a second, then my ticket and run. The bloody ticket was free. I thanked God despite the rain.
I went to a restaurant giddy and sat opposite a skinny guy with messy blonde hair. He was Ron, a Dutch railway engineer who looked about 12 but told me he had lived for 33 years. He liked trains, especially the brakes. I liked cards and taught him a few games and he thrashed me. All the time he would tell me that he was interested in the Machu Picchu train. I became interested in winning a game so taught him ´shithead` which he again hammered me at. (I finally pulled out a 3-2 victory). I noticed Ron had a very up-to-date guide and thought it would provide a useful place to stay in the rain. We found a comfy hotel for 2.50 each. after a shower, Ron sat himself on his bed in his pants and said “to be honest..”. he left too long a gap and this scared the shit out of me. “I don’t like my job.” Thanks Ron. I went to bed and hoped I woke up okay. in the morning, I couldn’t move. Then I realised it was just the 20 duvets I’d placed onto of me for protection. Ron was busy tightening his belt, trying to get a waist like Marie Antoinette. I wished him luck.
Agua Caliente is a town under construction. Its concrete everywhere. I wasn’t surprised to find a hairdresser that also sold cement. It’s the currency here. You can haggle over prices everywhere so it can be cheap. The area is very beautiful so I imagine the Inca Trail would be nice but it’s getting expensive and is plugging for the tourist dollar everywhere. We left the hotel and climbed the trail to Machu Picchu. It was bloody knackering.
Machu Picchu was as I expected. A stunning location and nice foundations. But not that interesting. After all no one really knows what it is and so it’s all mere speculation. It could just look like a bunch of foundations. I’ve always been more of an anthropologist than an archaeologist but I found it too much guesswork, putting your on views onto a place and short-changing history. It certainly doesn’t touch the Maya temples of Mexico or Angkor Wat in Cambodia. What the Incas left behind is nothing compared with the Romans, the Egyptians or even the Mongols who are often credited with destruction rather than creation. The Incas had gold, astronomy and stonework and no doubt the hueing of the stone and transportation was a great achievement engineering-wise but they had no writing system, ruled for under 100years and disappeared as fast as they dominated. They were not advanced militarily, lost to the Spanish (who loses to Spain?) They should have delayed the battles to the afternoon. Then they would have routed the Spaniards). Little is known about Incas but that shouldn’t make them more important than they were. For me they were a minor civilisation. But hey, it`d been almost free.
Would I visit Machu Pichu again? No. But if you are in Peru then do visit but don’t travel halfway round the world for it. There are much better temples, ruins, civilisations to observe. Did I like Peru? Its a pretty colonial town, with too many hawkers, kids begging etc. Lima is never worth visiting (ask anyone), its more expensive than Bolivia but Bolivia is more interesting. However, make no mistake, Peru is very beautiful with sprawling valleys, suffocating gorges, pristine rainforest, pleasant towns and ruins. This is probably the most beautiful continent in the world.
As I was about to leave Peru, I sat on the steps of the cathedral, gazing at people. I’d had a good time no doubts. I’d travelled from Bolivia to there and was about to head back. The town square which the cathedral dominates, was full of tourists, hawkers, kids selling postcards who should be at school, school children running near the fountain and policemen blowing their whistles. A man had just asked me if I wanted some crack which I declined. I was keen to get back to Bolivia and out of a city. I’d been lucky, very lucky in Peru. Two dogs to my left, after checking each other, decided to have sex within metres of me. I say dog, one was almost a horse but the female seemed happy. I guess the luck gets shared around.