There is one thing left to do in Peru, Machu Picchu.
So in Lima I pick up my van, and spend a few last days with Toño and Claudia, and from Lima I fight my way up the Andean mountains, and it goes straight up to 4,800m, then down a little to Jauja and in Jauja it has no electricity, all is pitch dark and I am out of breath and sleep a black and spooky first night in the van. Then headed south in Huancayo and Sundays' the bands march and the boys and girls, and officials and police parade, stand still in lines and columns, and I have a runny egg for breakfast. Ayacucho is further than one thinks, the road starts deteriorating, and also on a Monday morning in Ayacucho, police have nothing better to do than parading to the banda shrill, while the fireworks crack and the church bells ring. Always the uniforms and suits in front, further behind the rednecks, the jeans, the bad haircuts. Adahuaylas is even further than one thinks, road construction in the high Andes make for many 5 hours plus stops; to work the heavy machinery, when thunderstorms break loose over the Andes and night falls I stop in Chicheros, not getting to Adahuaylas. This is my first video, on a gopro Hero2, I had to have it.
I mean, I have to see Machu Picchu, just how can I avoid disaster?
Ollantaytambo is where I left Peru two months ago, in my mind at least, and when I close my eyes my boys still run around in circles on the main plaza. So how do I go to Machu Picchu? How can I go and enjoy it, how can I avoid the masses of day trippers? I take my time and let it come, call my father for his birthday, have four espressos, spend time on the internet. From Santa Teresa you can walk in, but this is 144kms away via the back mountains, and I don't want to be driving anymore. I park the van, pack the most necessary, am convinced to go by train, just when I step back on plaza de armas the bus is there, 'Santa Maria' they shout, and I don't think, accept my destiny; while we climb hundreds of narrow bends I feel happy like a child.
We go high to 4,200m and I can smell the snow of the Nevado Salcantay glacier, before we take endless curves down, drop down to the fringes of the Amazon jungle, to Santa Maria at 1,200m. I share a taxi with Persian/German Bahareh to Santa Teresa and on to the hydroelectric project, along winding dirt roads following Rio Vilcanota that further up-stream is called Urubamba, the very Sacred Valley River and I wonder the lush, jungle green vegetation, so different from the other, dry, side.
We walk in for 3 hours, following the Vilcanota/Urubamba, the rail tracks, it is quiet, rainforest birds whirr around, not many others have taken that route to Aguas Caliente. And Machu Picchu is actually very near, just high up, our river and rail tracks take a bend around what is called the Huayna Picchu mountain, the canyon walls rise more then 1,000 meters high from the valley, and imagination paints a picture of what awaits me the next morning.
So I made it cheap and peaceful to Aguas Caliente, at 2,000m, and for another day I succeeded in staying clear of the masses.
It is 7 in the morning, clouds hang deep, it pours, 'Accept!', I leave my camera back in the hostel; after all the camera drama 2 months ago, I wonder now.... One of hundreds of packed buses gets me up to Machu Picchu at 2,550m, and it is still wet when we all spill out like sewage, and 'my Machu Picchu' is all in clouds, visibility below 50 meters, and the guides utter their stupidity, clown to the laughter of their groups.
I knew it all, and stay away, a bit to the outskirts, and it is creepy with no view on either of the two mountains, Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu, no view of the stream in the valley below left and right. By ten I decide to escape and head up Machu Picchu mountain, a hike of 600m in altitudes, all steps, the Inca stairway, and the lush rainforest is still present at higher altitude, and is called la selva en la sierra, the jungle of the mountains.
En cima del monte then all is still white and it wont clear but maybe twice for 3 seconds, but it is nice to be above the nasty circus and the show masters that entertain by touching and tapping the sacred stones.
Down in Macchu Picchu past one it has cleared a bit, the hike has consumed my energy, given me the calm, I sit and watch and the tourists are calmer too at the later hour; Machu Picchu is quit a vast site indeed, exposed on the ridge and I am happy to have come. The musica folklorica drifts over from the entrance and the restaurants, tourists want entertainment and dance, the fast way. In Machu Picchu Peru is in your teeth as Austria is in a Tirol skiing hut, or Bavaria on Oktoberfest. You take it or you leave it, or you take it for a while and then leave.
For me it's a long and arduous descent, all steps, the Inca staircase down, 1,100m in all, but that way I avoid the bus, and I sweat and need beer, muchos and Aguas Caliente proves less a tourist trap than feared, all is negotiable in low season. Next morning my knees hurt still and I take the train ride out of the Urubamba valley, board my van in Ollantaytambo and arrive in Cusco and chill out this Peru that has given me and Daniel and David and me so much, and Machu Picchu is checked off, finally, and no tears.
Sometimes the circumstances play nicely, and I manage to see my great friend Toño again in Cusco; it is amazing to see how our friendship has grown over these months here in Peru.
La Paz, here I come.
A week later I drive to Puno along Rio Vilcanota, a day later after 121 days in Peru around Lake Titicaca into Bolivia and Copacabana, a day later to La Paz. Since we have video now there is no need to explain it all, I hope u like 30 year old Soda Stereo.
La Paz then is a different chapter, the old rules apply, learn the rules, move silently slow. I take many strolls and slowly indeed, as La Paz is magically embedded in a valley, the city center around 3,600m, the outskirts grow up the canyon walls, to El Alto at 4,100m, the alleys are steep up and down wherever I wonder about; it's good habit to get out of breath. If I want to survive then taking it easy, this is to be applied literally, a high altitude heart attack is always just around the corner.
One morning I see an ophthalmologist, 5 hours later I have 2 new pairs of glasses, I dare not say it, one is for reading; I am getting old, but Bolivia is the place to buy and service is great.
Wednesday then all is closed, it is census day in Bolivia, the country comes to a standstill and I am not able to leave the hotel for 24 hours, no one is allowed away from the house more than 1 meter, this is the drastic law. I stocked up on food, bread, sausage, cheese, olives, avocado, a chocolate, coke, whiskey, beer and it gets me through the day. This Bolivian census allows citizens to register as indigenous, as belonging to one of 40 ethnic groups, mestizos as category does not exist, but - Boliviano. Volunteers and university students have been recruited to carry out the census of the Andean country's 10 million inhabitants, and the citizens better be grounded at home, or risk a huge fine. It takes 40 minutes and the great thing apparently does not include a question of religious beliefs.
Thursday, after 5 days in La Paz, I take my camera out, on a beautiful blue afternoon, then get drunk in Oliver's, meet Jon, English, writer, and later we descend on some luna, hardly lit, bar, with Syrian bar tender, in the end I have hardly money to pay my last drink, which damning has to be a large straight Jack Daniel's whiskey. To pay my taxi I empty all the coins left in my pocket, and it must have been Jon taking care that I did not leave my camera behind.
It takes me 3 days to recover; I should not drink with the young anymore, should not binge drink at high altitude, 'cause I am old and grey, realize man!
Such are my insights here in La Paz.