It’s 6.55am. Our friend was supposed to meet us at the van at 6.15am to start the drive to Macchu Picchu. We are worried about her because she doesn’t have a SIM card and we can’t call her. She’s in a taxi. We try not to jump to the worst conclusions. Maybe we should of just braved the steep Cusco alleyways to pick her up, I think. What if…
After a while, she makes it. Our address was entered wrong in the GPS. We’re all super relieved.
We don’t have a spare seat in the front of the van. We don’t have any seats in the back either, but Calli is happy to sit in the floor on a little cushion facing the rear. I slide the door shut and can just see the top of our prisoner’s head.
Mao and I don’t feel well, we both have stomach problems. But Mao wants to power ahead. Our destination is Santa Theresa, a small village a few hours hike away from the infamous Macchu Picchu.
We have a rule in Peru. Ask at least 3 people the same question (how far is Santa Theresa), then depending on the variation of the answer, ask 3 more. We are told the drive from Cusco is tranquilo no más, and will only take a couple of hours. One taxi driver told us 7 hours. We imagine the truth is about 4, with a little bit of winding.
The first challenge is getting out of Cusco. Instead of taking us on the main road out of the city, the GPS decides to take us up streets that were probably only designed for goats. Streets so steep that we became acutely aware of the power of gravity, and weren’t convinced acelerating full throttle was enough to stop us rolling backwards.
Just before we reach the top, at the steepest bit of the goat road, we realise the train is coming and is going to pass right in front of us. Of course. We don’t trust the breaks. Or the hand break. But using both together we manage to avoid crashing into the cars waiting just centimetres behind us.
After stalling and a tricky hill start, we somehow get to the end of the goat road, and onto the highway. At least the worst is behind us, I think.
Our destination is less than 200kms away. Easy, I think. But I start zooming in on our route. It’s a total mess. Just tangled, twisting lines on the map. We’re coming from 3400m altitude, and our destination is only 1500m, so I assume it’s just a winding downhill drive through the Sacred Valley.
All of us sudden, we are at the foot of an immense mountain the one we admired from afar at the start of the drive. We realise the road just keeps winding up, up, into the clouds. “Do you get car sick?”, I ask our friend, who is seeing the back end of every trucky turn. “No, lucky I don’t”, says our prisoner/friend.
Altitude is not our van’s greatest ally. Her 1998 engine starts blowing white smoke, and we need to try and keep her warmth up. Outside, the temperature is dropping, rapidly. It’s raining. We realise we’re over 4300m. Mao needs to drive fast enough to keep the engine warm, and slow enough not to drive off the narrow road and into the abyss below. Each curve is about as tight as you can get, and can only be taken at a few kilometres per hour.
The higher we go, the more fog there is. The road is full of potholes. It’s wet and slippery. You can’t see more than a few metres ahead. Every now and then the fog parts to reveal the abyss below us, just a metre away. In the opposite directions Inka Cola trucks and minivans speed past, oblivious to the fog or cliff abyss below.
None of us are talking. The usual jokes and banter have been replaced with total silence. Mao is squinting with concentration. The way down looks like a bunch of snakes coiled on the map and I don’t have the heart to tell Mao it gets worse. The coils on the map manifest as a series of hectic steep corners that last for hours.
The scenery looks like something out of the Nordic noir murder shows we watch at home. Majestic mountains, ravines, incredibly tall waterfalls, mist. Only the Inca ruins and alpacas give our location away.
At some point, the police stop us. Calli can’t see out, but they can see in. We’re not 100% sure if having a friend sitting on the floor in the back next to our bed is ok. A woman is hanging through my window screaming “granadias 2 soles, granadias 2 soles”. I’m trying to get our papers out before the cop starts noticing our prisoner. The cop definitely sees Calli, but doesn’t blink. Clearly he’s not worried about the lack of seat or seatbelt. We get back on our way.
Eventually, after a bunch of winding, the scenery turns into jungle, and we make it to Santa Maria the last town before our final destination. At least the worst is behind us, I think.We have a terrible lunch and discuss life and death before hitting the dirt road to Santa Theresa.
A kilometre after we enter, it’s just mud. Mao has no control of the van as the road curves down. Somehow we get through.
It’s a one way dirt road, busy with minivans driven by locals who either know the road like the back of their hand, or don’t care about death at all (/a bit of both). We’re driving along the narrow road, and I see Mao look down. We’re very high up, and just next to us, the road drops away and into the river below.
Again, we’ve been told the road is totally fine and wouldn’t take us long at all. Mao is secretly fuming. It would of cost him next to nothing to take the train. We narrowly avoid other vans, and by some miracle arrive at the camp ground. We all hug, we barely have words. It has taken us 6 hours. The taxi driver was right.
The thermal baths are relatively close by so we go straight there to relax. One of us mentions the drive back. Mao jokes that he’d rather sell the van and take the train back than do the drive again. We all try to ignore the impending journey back to Cusco.
The next morning is another early start. We have to take a taxi to the train station, then start the walk along the rail tracks to Macchu Picchu. It is mind blowing how remote this place is. The mountains just rise into the clouds. None of us understand how the Incas even got there, let alone built a city on a mountain. I mean just driving was hard enough.It’s a beautiful walk, but we’re tired and it’s raining. Along the way, we stop at a local restaurant to pee. Calli and I are walking toward the toilet when a dog runs out of nowhere, jumping on us, barking, snarling and trying to bite us. Lucky it has a muzzle. We scream and the owners yell for it to stop. Calli and have fallen into their garden, are covered in dirt and pretty shaken up.
We keep on going. When we arrive in the super touristy – only exists for Macchu Picchu – town of Aguas Calientes I worry that the site is going to disappoint and won’t be worth the effort of getting there.
Thankfully, I am very wrong. When we finally arrive, Macchu Picchu dazzles. It is so much bigger than we thought. It’s set in the most incredible location, surrounded by steep mountains, with rivers below. It’s mere location is a wonder.
We’re all a bit over the top and feel like we’ve all escaped death just to see this marvel. We had all made peace with dropping off the edge of the mountain, so the sight of the incredible ruins felt all the sweeter.
So we do what all people who feel like they’ve narrowly avoided death do…