Wednesday, June 16, 2010

To Quillabamba

There are a couple of ways to see Machu Picchu.  Most people either do a four day hike along the Incan trail, which requires making reservations months in advance, or they just take the train to the town of Aguas Calientes, which lies far below in the valley.  There is only one train company though, so without any competition the prices are sky-high.  Just a few years ago however, a "backdoor" route opened up, which entails a few long bus rides and a fair amount of hiking, but is less than a quarter of the cheapest train ticket.  Of course David and I chose this option.

So from Cusco, we boarded a bus to Quillabamba, an out of the way city that hardly any tourists go to.  It was actually a little farther than we had to go, the road heading up and over a high peak in the Andes, and then plunging almost 11000 feet into the first signs of the jungle of the Amazon.  We hadn´t expected to see the Amazon on this trip, so couldn´t pass up the opportunity.  The bus, which was late and slow going, was at least comfortable enough, especially considering this wasn´t a tourist bus and David and I were the only gringos on board.  When we hit Ollanta we came to a road block.  We waited for 45 minutes without explanation, even driving the normally laid-back locals to shouting and banging the windows and floors to let their exasperation be known.  Finally we were led onto a detour, which took us right onto the train tracks.  I don´t know why the road was closed, but I guess we had to wait for the train to pass so we could drive a few miles literally down the tracks to get to the other side of town.

The climb up the mountains was breathtaking, with huge peaks filled with glaciers and snow gleaming in the sunshine over us.  We passed green Incan terracing, and saw llamas and other livestock in the fields.  At the peak a woman got on selling "papas relleñas", which was a hard boiled egg in the center of a glob of mashed potato that had been baked or more probably fried until it was crispy on the outside.  It sounds like an odd combination, but it cost about 30 cents and was absolutely delicious.  After crossing the pass we started our decent into the jungle, which was a little more nerve wracking as the bus now had gravity on its side and was careening down the narrow mountain road with as much speed as he could get.  Suddenly, the bus stopped and without a word everyone got off the bus.  We weren´t sure what was happening, but suddenly we noticed that everyone - men, women, old, young - were on the side of the road, peeing.  I guess it was time.  Since it was a nine hour bus ride, we took advantage of the opportunity as well.  When in Rome!

The bus was overfull, so there was a young kid, maybe 13 or so, standing in aisle next to us.  (Yes, standing for nine hours.  People do that here.)  We´ve noticed that the children here are generally very well behaved, even small children, on these long bus rides.  They just take it all in stride, always giving up their seats if an adult should board without complaint.  Anyway, I was admiring this kids calm disposition, when suddenly he walked over to a row with an open window, squeezed through the people sitting there to lean his head out the window just in time to barf.  The lady was kind enough to let him stand there for a while getting the fresh air, even though she had another kid in her lap.  I was just glad it wasn´t me.

We were pretty tired when we arrived in Quillabamba, but were able to ask directions to get oriented, and then made our way to a hostel.  The town was nice and comfortable, along a huge roaring river, but at 3200 feet it wasn´t quite the Amazon experience we had been led to expect.  (The guidebook starts with "Welcome to the jungle!")  At least it was warm.  We bought some ice cream and walked around, got some fruit in the market and found some dinner, but were ready to go the next morning.  While technically I do believe this was the Amazon, next time we come to South America we will do the Amazon right.

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