Posted by Rob & Lauren Lim on
This post was supposed to be about our time at Machu Picchu. It’s not. Instead it’s about one of the most tiring, trying, and just downright ridiculous days we’ve ever had while traveling. Buckle up, this will be a long one.
Getting to Machu Picchu is not an easy, or cheap, task. The fact that is is now one of the New Seven Wonders of the World means that it is in very popular among tourists. For many people it is the reason they travel to Peru. The sole provider of transport to Machu Picchu is PeruRail, and they are all too aware of this fact.
Typically we have been spending about $10 for a 7 hour bus ride in relative comfort (large, reclining leather seats in a semi-private cabin). To get to Machu Picchu you are forced to pay $50 for a 4 hour train ride, each way. Then you need to take a bus to Machu Picchu itself (about $12 for a 20 min journey), and then pay about $25 admission to the site. If you want to see the ruins early in the morning, without the masses of tour buses swarming around, you will need to stay overnight in one of the most overpriced cities in Peru. Overall, the cost of visiting Machu Picchu would roughly be $150 per person. For Peru, that is insane. But the trains are constantly fully booked, even in the off-season (which is right now). It’s just that popular. And everyone proclaims that it was completely worth it, so we coughed up the dough and bought our train tickets.
We arrived at the train station outside of Cusco (oh yeah, a $10 cab ride to get to the station!) around 7:00AM. Our train was scheduled to leave at 7:45 so we settled in for a short wait.
That short wait turned into quite a long one. And one without any sort of explanation. The minutes would just tick by, and we all sat packed in this station with no clue why we hadn’t left. Eventually they boarded our train around 9:30AM. The waiting sucked, but at least we were on our way to Machu Picchu!
A little ways into the train trip, we stopped. Again, no explanation. We waited, and then the train started up again and everyone cheered. Too soon, however, because we shuddered to a halt soon afterwards. And again, we waited. And waited. And waited. Eventually one of the PeruRail employees announced something in Spanish, and then left. All the English speaker travelers then had to look around for someone to translate for them! We luckily were sitting near some very nice Argentinean girls, and one of them was able to translate for us.
The train would not be moving any further. We heard rumors that a rock slide had taken out the tracks (it’s the rainy season right now, and we’ve seen many rock slides). Of course, we weren’t told this directly by anyone, we really just had to try and figure out what was going on for ourselves. Buses would be coming to pick us all up, and take us to Ollyantaytambo, another train station, and from there we would take another train to Machu Picchu.
At this point, it was probably around noon. Many travelers had planned to do a day trip to Machu Picchu, and time was really running out for them. The site closes at 5:00PM, and by the time they arrived they would have very little time to see it before having to return. The PeruRail employees came around asking everyone is they were going to continue on to Machu Picchu, or return to Cusco. For those who were planning on continuing to Machu Picchu, and then heading back that evening, they wrote down new, slightly later departure times. It seemed like we were going to get there, even if we were a bit late.
So again, we waited. And waited. And waited. There were three trains that left Cusco that morning. One class was “Vistadome” and they were the first to be picked up by the buses. Our class was the cheapest, “Backpacker”. The final train to leave that morning was a crazy expensive class called Hiram Bingham that is the full luxury experience. Of course, they were snuck onto buses right away while dozens and dozens of Backpacker class travelers waited out in the sun for hours, without any food or water. Every half hour or so a bus would come by, and take about 12 passengers. At this point I started taking photos to document this crazy experience.
The chef aboard the Hiram Bingham, trying to figure out what’s going on.
Waiting around for the buses. Clearly people thought I was strange holding up my camera to take a shot.
I wandered off on a quick photo walk to try to make the best of a frustrating situation.
We were with the very last group to get on a bus. What followed was both a gorgeous and quite terrifying bus ride. On the one hand, we were busing through the Sacred Valley, off the beaten path, and witnessing some of the most amazing scenery we’ve ever seen. On the other hand, we were quickly informed by one of the Argentinian girls that our bus driver was either drunk, or very near exhaustion. And we were careening around on cliff-side roads in a huge tour bus. Awesome!
Even though we were quite worried, we did manage to get take a ton of photos. Everyone on the bus thought we were insane, dashing back and forth from either side of the bus to shoot the most interesting scenes.
We of course made it safely to Ollyantaytambo, not without a lot of angry words to the PeruRail employees from our Spanish speaking friends. We then were shown to a Vistadome class train, and settled in. It was around 4:30PM, over 9 hours since we first arrived at the train station. At least we were finally on our way to Machu Picchu!
Then we waited, and waited. The train was running, but not moving. Rob and some other travelers got up to go and ask when we would be leaving. And that’s when the final hammer fell.
The river had taken out the tracks further ahead, and there was no way to reach Machu Picchu.
Then came the difficult task of trying to figure out what was going to happen. Would we get a refund? Would they pay for our hotel room as we were now stuck in Ollyantaytambo? Was there any way of reaching Machu Picchu at all? What happened to everyone else who caught buses before us?
It took a lot of work, demands to speak with supervisors, and a ton of vague promises, but we finally found out. The others who had been on our train in the morning had started off towards Machu Picchu, only to have to turn around once they found out the river had overrun the tracks. We could either stay in Ollyantaytambo that evening, and try to get to Machu Picchu the next morning, or bus back to Cusco. For us, we didn’t have much of an option. We have a flight booked to Lima, and couldn’t risk getting stuck at Machu Picchu. Because as impossible as it was for us to get to Machu Picchu, it was just as impossible for anyone to get back. It was quite the pickle!
We quickly decided to catch one of the buses PeruRail was providing back to Cusco. However, once we reached it, we were told it was full, and that it would take quite some time until the next one would be leaving. Imagine how we felt in that moment: tired, dehydrated, starving, just wanting to get back, and being told it would take quite a while. It was rough. I took some shots of the river that ruined our plans. Rob and Drew say it looks like chocolate milk.
The trains just sittin’, with nowhere to go.
The river. That silly river.
Rob and Drew begged the girl to at least get us some water or something while we waited. To their credit, they took us to a waiting room, gave us tea, water, and some food. We were ready to wait a while, but they quickly came and got us. We were expecting to be shown to a bus, but instead were put into a cab. Things were looking up. We started the hour and a half long drive back to Cusco. And again, managed to see some incredible scenes.
By now, my intrepid reader, I’m sure you’ve realized that nothing went as planned on this day. The drive started off normally enough. Off in the distance, however, rain clouds were on the horizon. Literally. I heard today that this is an El Nino season, and water and rain levels are extremely high.
Perhaps half an hour into the drive the rain began. It would come on and off, at times being quite light. But once the darkness set in, the rain seemed to follow suit and it was intense. At times we literally couldn’t see a meter ahead of us.
Now, you didn’t think that was all that went wrong did you? I’m sure you knew there had to be at least something else. Well, you’re right. Drew had probably the worst couple of hours of his life as he was doubled over with stomach cramps all the way home. Our cab driver seemed quite worried that he was going to die in the car! Those last hours went by really slowly as we worried about Drew, and getting back alive through the storm.
Needless to say, we did indeed arrive back at the hotel we left that morning, thoroughly exhausted, and just ready to crash.
But, wait! There’s more!
Naturally, they didn’t have a room for us, and we had to walk for 15 minutes in the pouring down rain to get to another place. When we stumbled in, I can’t even imagine what the staff thought. We were soaking wet, exhausted, and Drew looked like he was about to die. They quickly ushered us into our room, where we spent the night huddled under tons of wool blankets, because, if you didn’t know, Cusco is actually insanely cold when it’s raining!!
So that’s our story of how we did not see Machu Picchu. We are disappointed, of course, but that’s traveling for you. I kind of feel like it’s life, but condensed. You see more, experience more, and end up in situations that will test you more than you’d likely be tested at home. You learn so much about yourself, and what you are really made of. Every trip we’ve ever taken has changed us, and I already know that this time in Peru will change us again.
PeruRail…what to say about them. We just got back from the station after receiving our refund with no problems. At times it was a really rough, and I don’t think they always did the best job possible (I mean, you have to provide people with water when they’re standing out in the sun for hours, that’s essential!). That being said, it was a really difficult situation that they didn’t cause, and we managed to get home in one piece thanks to them. Take home message? Traveling isn’t always what you expect, and some days it really really sucks. But at the end of it all, we are still so happy to be here, and can’t wait for all the adventures ahead.
And we will definitely see Machu Picchu on our next trip to Peru.
Disclaimer: I do realize this is two posts in a row with a bit of a negative feel to it. I don’t want anyone to think that we’re not enjoying ourselves, or think poorly of Peru. Quite the opposite. We are having an incredible time, and count Peru as one of our favorite places we’ve ever been. Traveling is just an adventure, and we want to show people what it’s like. It’s sometimes frustrating, sometimes upsetting, but always, always, always worth it.
UPDATED: Now that we’re safely here in Pucallpa, we’ve been able to find information about the floods in Machu Picchu. It seems as though we were incredibly lucky. One day earlier and we would be stranded there among up to 2,000 other tourists fighting to get out by helicopter. To read more check out this article: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/us_and_americas/article7004836.ece
Needless to say, we feel very very lucky.