Thursday, June 24, 2010

A Comedy of Errors

Sometimes I think that it's the travel experiences that go awry that give you the best stories and memories later.  When things go smoothly, what's there to tell?  "Oh, I had a great hike to Machu Picchu, beautiful scenery, loved the ruins, had a great time"?  It's the times that things don't go like clockwork that you end up with a story or two.

I had that kind of experience getting to Machu Picchu.  It definitely didn`t all go according to plan ... but fortunately Machu Picchu is worth any amount of trial and tribulation getting there, and in hindsight, some of it was pretty funny.  It started in the travel agency office when I was booking my 4-day trip on the Inca Jungle Trail.

The Jungle Trail includes 1 day of mountain biking and 2 days of hiking.  I ask the woman at the agency how hard the hiking part is, as I`m a little worried about my level of fitness (I`m a lot fitter than I was in March, but still have a long way to go).  She tells me, don`t worry, it`s flat and very easy (famous last words).  I ask about the biking portion; she tells me it`s 5 hours, all downhill from 4315 metres to 1300 metres in altitude.  This sounds pretty fun so I decide to sign up.

I go to pay ($180 USD), and the woman at the agency tells me there a 7% surcharge if I pay by credit card.  Fine, I say, how much is it in Peruvian soles to pay cash?  She looks at me like I have two heads and tries to convince me I want to pay in US dollars; I tell her I don`t have enough so it`s impossible.  She sighs and pulls out a calculator, figures out a generous (for them) exchange rate and tells me it`ll be 514 nuevo soles.  I tell her I don`t have that kind of cash on me; I`ll just pay the 7% charge and use a credit card.  She tells me that, er, actually it`s impossible to use a credit card, it has to be cash.  I sigh, ask where the nearest bank machine is and come back with a thick wad of soles to pay the tab.

So I`m booked.  I ask if the strikes will affect the trip; she says no, it will definitely go as scheduled.

The night before I`m supposed to leave, I get a call at the hostel from someone speaking in very rapid Spanish; when I can get a word in edgewise, I tell him I can`t speak Spanish well and could he repeat in English?  He does; it`s someone from the tour operator (a different company than the one I made the booking with) and he tells me that the strikes are expected to continue tomorrow and they`re not sure it will be safe to go.  They`re still deciding what to do, so someone will come tomorrow morning either to pick me up or to tell me what the new plan is.  Either way, I still have to be up and ready by 6:30 a.m.

Next day, I`m up well before 6:30.  By about 7:15, someone finally shows up; it`s my guide-to-be Carlos to tell me that the trip is delayed by a day and we`ll leave tomorrow morning instead.  I flop back in bed, wishing that they had decided this the day before instead of making me get up early for no reason.

Finally, on Saturday, the trip leaves.  I`m up and ready at 6:30 a.m., but Carlos shows up an hour late to pick me up; from there we walk first to the Plaza de Armas where the bus is supposed to be waiting.  It`s not there, so Carlos makes a call and we walk about 10 minutes more to another plaza.  There are two buses waiting; Carlos tells me and an American guy named Evan to get in one, while the rest of the group gets in the other.  We sit and wait for half an hour; Carlos comes back and tells me to get in the other bus.  Then we finally leave; by this time it`s nearly 9 a.m.

We get to Abra Malaga pass (4315m in altitude) about 12 pm, where we`re starting the mountain biking part of the trip.  It`s cold and decidedly unpleasant out; the view would probably be spectacular except that a thick blanket of fog obscures it.  We can't see much more than 30 metres ahead of us on the road -- this should make for an interesting ride down a mountain highway with traffic!

Carlos tells us that the bike trip will be about two and a half hours; immediate vociferous protests from the group, as we were all told it would be 4-5 hours.  He shrugs, tells us there's construction that would make going the whole way dangerous so we have to cut it short.  None of us are pleased; you'd think our various travel agencies could've told us about this.

We set off and it's pretty enjoyable, despite the cold and fog.  I have one near-miss with a car coming around a corner at high speed and veering over into my lane; I swerve abruptly and nearly plow insto the sheer rock wall to my right.

After an hour and a half -- an hour less than promised -- we pull over and Carlos tells us we have to get a van the rest of the way to Santa Maria.  There's one van waiting, which seats 10 people (plus the driver); there are 12 in our group including Carlos the guide.  The second van that carried Evan and Carlos in the morning has carried on without us (and with Evan's backpack inside); Carlos tells us that it was another agency's van, not his, and they lent him a couple of seats since his van wasn't big enough.  He shrugs and says his cell phone doesn't work here so he can't call the driver and tell him to come back.  Evan doesn't look reassured about his backpack, even though Carlos says it will be waiting at our destination.

So 12 of us squish into 10 seats, with Carlos half sitting on me in the front seat and half hanging out the window.  We ride like this for a couple of hours to Santa Maria; no one is comfortable and everyone is cranky.  We finally get there about 4 pm and have a very late lunch; dinner is at 7:30 but no one is really hungry again by then.

Hiking starts the next day.  The morning is about 3 hours steeply uphill and up stairs; so much for the ''flat and easy'' I was promised by the travel agency!  I discover that my fitness level -- at least for uphill climbs -- is nowhere near I'd like it to be.  I lag behind the rest of the group with an Israeli girl; at least I'm not the only one!  Carlos the guide plows on ahead at a fast pace, heedless of the stragglers.

Crossing paths with the 'real' Inca Trail
We both get very annoyed by a know-it-all Swiss guy who tells us that we have to pick up the pace or we're not going to get to our destination before dark; he gives us lots of unwanted advice about how to breathe properly and pace ourselves (I tell him, thanks, I already know how to do this, I'm just not as fit as I'd like to be!)  He seems to think that we're slower because we're not trying that hard; I feel like smacking him upside the head.  Would I be red-faced, sweating and gasping for air if I wasn't working hard??

At the lunch stop (where, incidentally, we arrived 20 minutes early, despite how ''slow'' two of us were), the Israeli girl and I decide we're going to get a cab from there to Santa Teresa, that night's stop, as the afternoon is all uphill as well.  Carlos tries to convince us otherwise but we're adamant, and eventually he sorts out a taxi for us.  We climb in the taxi (really just some guy's car) with 4 people from another group:  a hilarious English girl, a couple of American guys who speak fluent Spanish, and an Irish guy.  None of them wanted to hike uphill anymore either; they'd also all been misled about the difficulty.

We make a deal with the driver for 8 soles (about $3) per person (48 soles altogether); we set off and drive for about 10 minutes in a circuitous route that gets us all quite lost.  The driver pulls over and stops the car; he begins haranguing us in loud, rapid Spanish.  The American guys translate:  he's demanding more money.  He wants 70 soles or we have to get out of his car right now, in the middle of the jungle with no idea of where we are or even how to get back to the lunch place.  We confer amonst ourselves and finally decide we don't really have a choice; we'll agree -- for now -- and argue the point when we get to our destination.

We tell the driver, fine, we'll pay; he then demands the money on the spot.  We refuse; he gets very agitated and says he'll call the cops if we don't pay him.  We finally convince him we're going to pay him when we get to our destination and he starts up the car again.

We get to Santa Teresa without further incident, and get out of the car.  After an unsuccessful argument, we give up and pay the higher amount; the difference is only about $5 total.  But it rankles; we know he'll try it again with other tourists.  We all agree that we hate walking around feeling like walking dollar signs; everyone thinks foreigners have lots of money and act as if we are obliged to share it with them.

We find out there's some natural hot springs near the town and hire a different taxi driver to take us there for 2 soles each.  The road there barely qualifies as such; it's really just a rough path cleared through a field of rocks, bumpy and rutted and winding.  But we get there and the hot springs are great, just what our sore muscles needed; we reluctantly get ready to leave at 6 pm when the taxi driver is supposed to return.

We wait, and wait, and wait, in the growing darkness -- there are no lights and the sun sets early here -- and the taxi driver still hasn't returned.  Another van shows up and the American guys ask him if he can take us back to town instead; he agrees, for a tourist-gouging price of 5 soles each.  We decide to start walking instead; it's dark but it's just one road back to town so we think we can't get lost.

We're about halfway back to town when the original taxi driver finally shows up.  We argue for a reduced rate -- 1 sole each intsead of the original 2 we agreed to -- since he was nearly 45 minutes late and we had to walk a long way in the dark.  He shrugs, rattles off a lot of excuses about why it's not his fault, and insists on the original deal.  We weigh the options of continuing to walk in the dark (it hasn't been particularly fun) or paying the higher amount; in the end we pile in the taxi and carry on to town.

Partway there, the taxi gets stuck in the sand and dirt.  After a few minutes of fruitlessly rocking back and forth, we all get out of the car and help push.  Eventually, after much grunting and heaving, the car is unstuck and we climb back in to carry on to town, where we go out for a big dinner and then to the local discoteca, playing old 1970's disco and pop.  One of the American guys in our group wakes up the next morning to discover that his dream about a rat on his chest was real; there's a big hole gnawed in his blanket.

The third day's hiking is much easier than the first.  It gets dull, actually, just following a river and then some railroad tracks the whole way to Aguas Calientes.  The Israeli girl is still struggling a bit; I think that I would be able to keep up with the group but I opt instead to stay with her.  No one -- least of all a small, slight foreign woman -- should have to hike alone down a deserted Peruvian road, and the guide Carlos once again doesn't seem to notice or care.

We get to the very unattractive town of Aguas Calientes by about 4 pm and check in to our hotel.  Carlos comes to find me about an hour later, tells me we have to go to the train station immediately.  My travel agency had booked my train ticket back for tonight, instead of tomorrow; when the trip was delayed by a day they hadn't changed the ticket.  We get to the station and join the line; after a hour's wait (which the ticket clerks appeared to spend on Facebook, judging by what was on their computer screens), I learn that there's a $3 US charge to change my ticket. 

Carlos shrugs -- I'm getting tired of his shrugs -- and says there's no other option.  I notice that he doesn't offer to pay it, even though he's the one in charge of this trip and should be sorting it out.  I dig out a 100-soles note (the only bill I have, I've spent everything smaller) and the ticket guy shakes his head; he can't make change.  I try to tell him that if he wants me to pay, he has to because I have nothing else, but he affects not to understand my Spanish.  I dig through all my pockets and finally come up with the equivalent 9 soles in small change.  The ticket clerk looks disgusted by the mountainous pile of coins and makes an elaborate show of counting them slowly.  Finally, I have a new ticket in hand for the correct day.

Dinner is good, and by about 8:30 we're all finished and ready to go back to our rooms, as we have a 4 a.m. start for Machu Picchu the next day.  But we don't have our entrance tickets yet and Carlos has disappeared; finally, about 10 pm, he returns and hands them out.  We're all nearly asleep by this point and stumble off to bed in a stupor.  The news that Carlos wouldn't actually be leading the hike up to Machu Picchu in the morning -- he says his job is finished now -- was news to all of us, but everyone's too tired to protest.  He gives us vague directions about how to find the trail and disappears again.

But the next day, we see Machu Picchu, and despite all the aggravation it is worth it.  It is a mystical, magical, marvelous place and we spent the entire day roaming around -- I'll tell you all about it in the next post.  But right now, I have to continue the saga of our misadventures.

We hang around Aguas Calientes till 9 pm (it's not that exciting a town, and prices are very inflated), and head to the train station.  We got on the so-called ''backpacker'' train (slightly less expensive and less comfortable than the ''regular'' train) without difficulty, but after about half an hour the train stops dead; it's broken down.  We wait for about 3 hours and eventually get underway again, but instead of getting all the way to Ollantaytambo (the intended final stop), we have to get off one stop earlier.  A bridge has washed out further down the line and we can't carry on.  So we pile on the waiting minibuses and head off again down rough mountain roads; by this time it's about 2 a.m. (we were originally supposed to be back in Cusco by 12:30).

In Ollantaytambo, there's a bus waiting for all of us, so the tour operator at least got that part of it right.  It's another two hours to Cusco, and we finally roll back into the city at 4:45 a.m.  I stumble to the hostal on the Plaza de Armas where I've booked my room (I didn't want to climb all those stairs up to my original hostel in the middle of the night), and they can't seem to find any record of my reservation.  I finally take the reservation book from the guy at the desk and flip through it till I find my name; I point it out and he seems very surprised.  He waffles another 20 minutes or so, going off to consult with someone else at one point, before he figures out what room I'm supposed to be in.  (I could have told him in one glance -- there was only one key still hanging on their pegboard.)

I ask him what time breakfast is served and he says 6:30.  Obviously I don't want to get up again in less than two hours, so I ask how late it is served till -- I can say this much in Spanish so I'm pretty sure I get it right!  But he doesn't seem to understand me and starts flipping through his reservation book again.  I attempt to explain a couple more times what I want to know, but he still doesn't get it; I eventually give up and go off to bed, figuring I'll take my chances in the morning.

The next morning, I'm up about 9:30 and surprisingly wide awake, considering I was awake for 25 hours straight the previous day.  I go to the breakfast room and help myself to coffee; hotel staff keep going past me so I know they've seen me sitting there.  After waiting about 20 minutes, I finally stop one of them and ask if there is food for breakfast too; she looks very surprised and hustles off to find someone else, who eventually brings me a couple of rolls and some jam.  I'm starving so I wolf it down.

I get back to my original hostel later that morning, and sit down to sort through my pictures of Machu Picchu.  They just make me smile; I realize that it was all worth it, after all.


  1. This is hilarious. Sorry you had such a crackpot day, but I love the way you spin it into a positive thing. I decided to follow you officially, now that I have a Twitter account.

  2. Love it! I mean, I hate that it was so stressful, but it is very funny.
    (The line about the rat and the dream, by the way, has officially creeped me out. Blech …)

  3. oh! You mean you didn't do the proper Inca trail??? Wimp! :) AND you were well ripped of if that "experience" cost you $180!