I’ve never been a walker. It’s my parents’ fault. They met over a soggy map at the Ramblers’ club, admired each others jazzy hiking socks and that was that. Later they chose to torture their children by taking them on walking holidays, dragging us up wintry peaks in the driving rain as fast as our little legs would carry us. There was a holiday in France too. I saw a lake, a beach and happy children eating ice-cream, but no, we had to have a walk first. Of course we got lost and we trekked for miles through dense woodland and brambles. By the time we got back it was dark and the ice-cream shop had shut. In my small world it was nothing short of child abuse.
A bus took us in the pouring rain to the station at Poroy, passing though the real Cuzco as we left town, a place where people got up early to trade goods at the local market and ramshackle houses perched on the hillsides. The train, a classic well-appointed model with comfy seats chuffed out of the station right on time. This was Perú for tourists with expensive sandwiches and excellent coffee served up for breakfast.
We were an international carriage. My companions were Colombian, Uruguayan and American and when we weren’t gazing out the window at spotted piglets, cows on chains and ruddy faced children who stared back, we chatted about our lives and adventures. It was a beautiful journey. After the never ending desert between Chile and Arequipa, the green mountains between Cuzco and Agua Calientes were a joy. As the train snaked up into the hills and low cloud, we passed families washing their clothes in the stream, working the fields and chopping firewood. There were oddly shaped cacti, grazing donkeys and then, suddenly, a row of nodding, cheerful sunflowers.
When we pulled into Aguas Calientes, there was a scrum of guides waiting to meet the train. We dutifully trooped after Victor and his brown flag. Before my inner traveller could get depressed and start screaming ‘tourist! tourist! tourist!’, I noticed where we were.
Although I’d been prepared to be wowed by the ruins of Machu Picchu, I hadn’t anticipated quite how spectacular the surrounding area would be. We crossed a footbridge over a raging brown river, guarded on both sides by masses of dripping green foliage and majestic mountains, and hopped onto a waiting bus.
After a never-ending series of hairpin bends, we pulled up at the entrance to Machu Picchu. For those walking the Inca Trail, to arrive at this point takes 4 days. It had taken me a few hours and although I didn’t have the smug satisfaction of having done something stupendous, I was warm and dry and had even managed a short nap on the train. Weather-wise, it was bucketing it down. This was rain poncho weather and despite the presence of a few unsuitably dressed American exchange students, the look of the day can best be described as ‘wet condom’.
Machu Picchu is every bit as beautiful as you expect it to be, although having seen so many photos of it over the years, I felt as if I’d somehow seen it before. I could hear complaints about the weather, but to honest the low clouds just added to the mystique of the place and as a Brit, you learn not to let the rain spoil your day.
In the Inca language of Quechua, Machu Picchu means ‘old peak’ but the site itself is surprisingly young. Built in 1430 AD it was abandoned by the Inca rulers a hundred years later. To be fair, it can’t have been easy nipping out for a loaf and a paper living all the way up there and they must have got well fed up with the commute.
On the way down the mountain I got chatting to Gerrard, a commerical artist from New Zealand who was on his way home from a salsa competition in the States. We had lunch in Agua Calientes in a hotel that had a fine view of the ferocious rapids. Gerrard’s tour had included lunch there but mine hadn’t. It was a typically Peruvian place where no price is ever really fixed.
The train ride back to Cuzco was just as splendid as the trip out. I was sitting next to a lovely Colombian couple (is anyone unfriendly in Colombia? I bet even Pablo Escobar asked about your family, gave you a broad smile and bought you dinner before he put a gun to your head) who were enjoying their summer holidays. They insisted I share their wine with them and told me proudly that their country was every bit as beautiful as Chile. I told them how much I wanted to see Colombia and they immediately pressed business cards into my hands, making me promise I’d come and visit.
From the window, I spotted a snow- covered mountain I’d missed on the way out. In the valley, a group of kids were playing football under the setting sun. Intent on their game, they didn’t turn to look at the passing train or the tourists who had their cameras pressed to the windows. I felt a brief pang of envy for this poor but simple way of life, played out against those dramatic and sacred mountains.