As you may know if you follow this blog or know me on Facebook, weather woes have dominated the last week or so of my trip. When Peru does the wet season, it doesn't mess about. However, ever the optimist, I arranged a 2-day tour this weekend: the Sacred Valley of the Incas on the first day, and another attempt on Machu Picchu for the second day. I hoped that the weather would be at least less crap than the first time round. I was half right.
Amazingly, to start the day, and for the first time in days, it was not raining in Cusco. I took this as a good sign, and boarded the tourist bus as 9AM hopeful of a break. We took off in the direction of Q'orao, one of these obligatory handicraft market stops on these tours. Just once I'd like to go on a tour that didn't involve being flogged cheaper tat than I see every day in whatever town I am staying in at the time. But I came away with some photographic goodies, in the case of one of the local market puppies and an old Quechua weaver woman.
We got back in the bus and headed for Pisac, our first set of Inca ruins for the day. Along the way we encountered many rockslides across the road that required careful negotiation, evidence of the bad weather of the previous days. Once at Pisac, while we hopped out and got our tickets checked at the gate, I spotted this kitten playing in the shadows:
An easyish climb along a short Inca path and we were among the ruins of Pisac. They were somewhat like a mini-Machu Picchu, situated on the saddle between two mountain rises, with terraces stretching away down the slopes to either side. I was a little more energetic / photo-driven than most so I managed to go up both rises in our allotted 15-minute "free time".
Soon enough our time was over, and we re-mounted the bus for an hour's drive to Urubamba, for a buffet lunch. Along the way, not only was it not raining, but unless our eyes deceived us, there was an appearance of actual, honest-to-god, blue sky. I finished my lunch quickly, bought a bottle of beer, and went outside to sit in the sun. I began to think that maybe my gamble would pay off, that the weather might have finally broken, and that I might at least get the chance to see Machu Picchu in something other than fog and torrential downpours.
We sallied forth down the road to Ollantaytambo, a town I was already familiar with from the previous week, where it had been the first stop on our Jungle Trek. This time, we sailed through the main square and on towards the ruins, which were much less remote than either Pisac or Machu Picchu. These literally rise out of the side of the town, terraces running up the side of a hill, with temples and guard houses sprinkled around the crest of the hill. I had a hard time deciding if the ruins themselves, or the setting (in a beautiful valley with staggering mountains surrounding the town of Ollantaytambo itself) were more impressive. The utterly brilliant sunshine was the overall winner, though.
At the end of the tour of the ruins, I parted company with the rest of the tour group as I was going to stay in Ollantaytambo until 7PM to catch the train out. That meant I had another 2-3 hours to play with and I intended to get as much shooting done as I could while the weather held. There are few things I enjoy more than plopping in the iPod headphones, getting in the zone, and clambering around ruins shooting away to my heart's content, getting into parts of sites I probably shouldn't be, and working to my own schedule. Total indulgence.
Eventually the light started to go, so I decided to go have a poke around the town itself. Ollantaytambo is an original Inca town so most of the streets and buildings have Inca stone foundations. It makes for a very charming base, despite the over-touristy facade. On that note, they seem to have a pretty entrepreneurial spirit:
On many of the houses were fertility totems, depicted as two bulls.
I wandered the streets a bit until I saw a wooden pole with a red plastic bag tied to it. This is the Andean sign indicating that chicha (an alcoholic drink of fermented corn) is brewed inside. I stepped through the plain entrance into a modest but welcoming courtyard, full of sunflowers and a snoozing German shepherd.
A woman stepped out to welcome me, and I asked for a vasito of chicha, something I was curious to try for the first time. She must have known I was no veteran, for instead of the plastic pint glass so often associated with the drink, she brought me a dainty juice glass and a pitcher full of maybe a pint's worth of the stuff. Bitter, yes, but drinkable. While we chatted I ended up draining almost all of it, but eventually the sourness got the better of me. I don't know if I could do a night on the stuff. I made my excuses, grabbed a coffee on the way, and shuffled down towards the train station. On the way, ominously, it began to rain.
My train was at 7pm, but they required that everyone be there a half hour early, to counter the Peruvian sense of punctuality. So it was that we waited around until nearly 7 in the pissing rain, with no word or hint of entry onto the platforms. That's when a serious-looking woman made her way out into the crowd, mounted a box, and summarily announced that the 7pm train – the last one of the night – was cancelled. This was due to no less than 6 different rockslides across the train tracks between Ollantaytambo and Aguas Calientes. I had an instant feeling of dread, that I was about to be thwarted at the last minute from my ambition to return to Machu Picchu.
We all made our way back up to the Peru Rail ticket office to see about getting refunds. Unfortunately, the ticket office was an utter shambles, with 4 different queues for 4 windows which seemed to arbitrarily open and close, literally seeming to process one person every 10-15 minutes each. There were 150 people at least trying to get refunds. The queues did not move. It continued to rain, with greater intensity. Some of the people in the queues were poor souls who had taken off at 7AM from Ollantaytambo and been trapped in the train between rockslides over the course of the day, and who had failed to get to Aguas Calientes. Those with multiple group members assigned some to go and see about accommodation in Ollantaytambo. I talked with some taxi drivers on options of how to get to Aguas. They wanted 100 soles, or about £25, per person. I thought that sounded reasonable, until we got into the details. That was for a best-case 4 hours, worst case 6 hours or not at all if the road was washed out, to get us not to Aguas but to Hidroelectrico, where we would have to walk the last 7 miles to Aguas. Now this is the same walk we did on the afternoon of Day 3 of the Jungle Trek, and it took 3 hours in the pissing rain then, along the dodgy sleepers and loose gravel of the railway tracks. This would be at night, still in the pissing rain, with active rockslides happening and rail crews working to clear them. Not my idea of fun. The rail staff refused to say if the trains would be running tomorrow, either.
What I couldn't work out was any way in which I could responsibly visit Machu Picchu without jeopardising my flight from Cusco to Lima on Tuesday (non-changeable, non-refundable). In the best case of getting a taxi Saturday night and walking the 7 miles, starting at 8pm, I wouldn't get to Aguas Calientes until at least 4AM, and I would be already exhausted from the walk, wet, miserable, and I would then have to hike an hour up the hill, now 5AM, by which point I would have missed the tickets for the mountain Waynu Picchu, which I had tickets for last time but didn't use due to the weather. Without Waynu Picchu access, and with it raining, I would have exactly the same Machu Picchu experience as last time. The alternative was to stay the night in Ollantaytambo, and try to get to Aguas over the course of Sunday, making the Machu Picchu attempt on Monday. However, given the state of the weather and the undependability of the trains, I thought the risk of getting stranded in Aguas on Monday night after visiting Machu Picchu, and missing my flight to Lima, too great to accept. Reluctantly I accepted the offer of one of the collectivo drivers of 10 soles (£2.50) for a drive back to Cusco. Defeated, I sat next to a French couple who had enjoyed a beautiful sunny day on Machu Picchu, but who had then themselves been shunted onto a 50-seat diesel train car from Aguas, hours after they were meant to have returned. We drove back to Cusco through the rain and fog.
So now I am back in Cusco. I have to go back to the travel agency to see what kind of refunds I can get, though without much hope of cooperation. I have a feeling I will be sorting out refunds with Peru Rail and the Machu Picchu ticket folks myself tomorrow, when the offices open. Not exactly the end to my Cusco time I had in mind.
But I am feeling better than I did last night. After a night and morning of constant rain, there are hints of sun in Cusco, and knowing how fleeting this is likely to be, I am going to get out amongst it. And I know that when I look back, I will be thankful for the chance to have visited the Sacred Valley in sunshine, and to have taken one or two photos that go in the Keepers file.
A last word of advice: When the guidebook says a place is best avoided in the wet season, listen.
I think I shall have to return to Cusco and to Machu Picchu when things are a bit drier.