Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Escape from Machu Picchu

PeruRail is barely above the mafia when it comes to extortionist organizations. The 50 kilometer train ride from Ollantaytambo is a whopping 100 Sols, each way. In Peru, that's the equivalent of 30 lunches in the market or a 36-hour bus ride. However, 100 Sols is also US$30, so most people pay up without blinking. Besides, $30 is cheap in comparison to a plane ticket to Peru or hiking the Inca Trail.

Back when I went with Chris, we had contemplated hiking the tracks from the nearest road, 30 km from Machu Picchu in the Sacred Valley. But I hadn't the slightest clue that there was a backdoor from below. A rough road goes within 8 kilometers of Machu Picchu on the jungle side. And from there it's perfectly legit to hike the barely-used train tracks back up to the ruins. The only catch is its convolution: first you drive up to 14,000 feet, then drop to 4,000, before driving back up to 7,000. Oh well. It's still only a third of the price of the train.

We started down from Machu Picchu around 1, opting for a hour of downhill hiking to avoid paying 22 Sols to a different extortionist monopoly, the bus concession in Aguas Calientes. Don't let all this bitching fool you, Machu Picchu is in a spectacular canyon. (If it weren't rainforest, there'd be amazing climbing on compact, grey granite that makes up the Andes here. Instead it's so verdant that anything not overhanging is carpeted in moss and a bizarre array of aerophytes.) The peaks have tremendous vertical relief from the valley. We followed the tracks, and they followed Urubamba as it roared down the canyon, the river like emerald bathwater.

Walking along the breakdown lane
From Valle Sagrada and Machu Picchu

Feral impatiens

Walking on the tracks quickly proved more difficult than I had thought. The tracks are set in irregularly-shaped crushed rock that's awkward to walk on. Walking on the ties is more efficient, albeit a bit of a dance. If you are a jedi master, it's even more efficient to walk on a rail. I could only manage bouts of 15 to 30 seconds at a time. On top of all this, it's hot and muggy enough to remind you that you are near the equator, and rapidly descending towards the Amazon.

Just as we were beginning to wonder how much farther it was, the hydroelectric plant that signifies the roadhead appeared. To our surprise found three cars waiting to pick up hikers like us. Evidently the backdoor to Machu Picchu was more popular than I thought. We were tired and hungry enough that we might have paid any price, but the driver only asked for 10 Soles. Score.

The valley suddenly opened up and the granite walls receded. Banana trees laden with fruit had sprung up, as well as some tree full of giant green fruits nestled around its crown. Guava? It seemed like if I climbed on top of the next ridge, I would be able to see that vast, green, impenetrable plain that is the Amazon. At the same time, I also saw more evidence of the popularity of the “backdoor” to Machu Picchu. Hostels and restaurants catering to tourists had sprung up like mushrooms (watered by the steady stream of tourist Soles). No matter. We paid 16 soles ($5) for a private room in a hostel that night.

Bananas and tracks

After finding the hostel, dinner was in order. We sat down at an empty restaurant and ordered. Our soup had barely arrived when a tour group of 10 filed in and sat at a long table across from us. A moment later, two other groups of six shuffled in as well. All were en route to Machu Picchu through the newest "alternate" Inca trail: the "Inca Jungle Trek." There is evidently a lot of pent up demand to hike to Machu Picchu, even if it's just along some railroad tracks.

The next morning we caught a bus back to Cusco. It rumbled through green jungle for a couple hours before we paused for a pit stop. Back on the bus, a smartly-dressed attendant handed out crackers and filled little cups with Coca-Cola. I smiled ironically, thinking about how I was getting better service on a 15 sol Peruvian jungle-bus than I got on a 100 sol foreign train ride. My smile turned to confusion when she handed us little plastic bags. Erin and I exchanged quizzical glances until we overheard her say that it was for vomitando. Maybe this 15 sol bus ride wasn't such a bargain after all.

The tortuous road up to the pass at Abra de Málaga took nearly an hour to climb, but it was paved and fortunately the vomit bags were not called for. As we crested, we were treated to an amazing view of the highlands above the Valle Sagrada. From there it was only 3 more hours back to Cusco. I guess that's the price for being contrarian.

Looking down towards the Valle Sagrada from below Abra del Málaga

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