Planet   Backpacker
  "From flying monkey gods and amorous donkeys to tales of a bus caravan speeding through a terrorist-infested desert, Downes puts you right there with him."-- Ben Gohs, Charlevoix Courier
  "From flying monkey gods and amorous donkeys to tales of a bus caravan speeding through a terrorist-infested desert, Downes puts you right there with him."-- Ben Gohs, Charlevoix Courier

Machu Picchu: taking the easy way out

Peru, Planet Backpacker,  Jeannette Wildman
Kicking back in the lost city in the clouds.

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  "All along the watchtower, princes kept a view,

   And all the women came and went,

   Their foot servants too."


   -- Bob Dylan, 'Along the Watchtower'


  Machu Picchu is one of those "must do's" that looms large on every traveler's list along with the likes of:

  • The Taj Mahal

  • The Pyramids

  • Angkor Wat

  • Venice

  • The Great Wall


   And to that list one might add the Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty, The Acropolis, Big Ben, Notre Dame, the Coliseum, Hong Kong and the Forbidden City to name a few.

   But unlike those other destinations, you're held up as something of a wuss if you don't make the trip out to Machu Picchu on foot via the four-day trek on the Inca Trail.

   One might argue that many who hike the fabled trail are wusses themselves, by dint of the fact that some choose to have their gear hauled in by the mandatory porters and guides who have a franchise on the route, courtesy of the Peruvian government and its desire to keep the track from being overrun by hikers.  Are you really backpacking the trail if some hireling is breaking his back under the weight of your crap and setting up your camp each night?

   Fighting words, to be sure, and possibly issued out of my own guilt over taking the easy way out and visiting the lost city by train from Cusco, rather than walking from Km 82.

   The trip out takes the better part of the day as the train edges back and forth up over a mountain pass out of Cusco on a series of switchbacks. Then there's a long run down the Urubamba River Valley with spectacular views of its Class IV and V rapids -- churning foam with an occasional kayaker whipping past farmers plowing with oxen on the shore.

  The ruins? Great -- much as you'd expect of a place that lingered hidden atop a 12,000-foot mountain for 400 years, lost from human eyes. Lots of mossy old bricks and rock walls piled up in a labyrinth beneath an even taller peak with plenty of tourists wandering about and a few llamas thrown in -- absolutely pointless to try describing it -- just go there and see for yourself.

   If you go, be sure to look for the little watchtower at the top of the city. It reminds me of the Dylan song, and surely this was a place where the beleaguered Incas would scan the valley with fearful eyes, waiting to be discovered by the implacable Spanish -- raped, plundered and overthrown.

   We wandered down the Inca Trail for an hour in the 90-degree heat, finding that the warnings on the biting sandflies are indeed true (wear long pants and socks).  At the Temple of the Sun, we reflected on the long ago people who lived here. Did they have concerts and parties as we do? Problems with kids? Mortgages and money worries?  No doubt.

   We decided to walk down the mountain to town, traversing a network of paths and the roadway.  Darkness fell with a crash and we found our way groping our way along the road, uncertain as to where the town of Aguas Calientes lay. Dinner  was at a table out on the sidewalk with the evening's entertainment being a film projected on a wall in the town square.

  We spent the night in a pensione nestled down an uphill alley in the town with a view of the mountain from our loft room.

   We fell asleep with the night air creeping like a blanket through the window, with the stars of South America outlining the mountain and its lost city.


   Dangers, warnings, crime, cautions, etc.  None to report in Machu Picchu or in Cuzco.  There had been some tales of bandits robbing bike riders on the trail across the altiplano from Cuzco back in the '90s, but i had the impression that this was swiftly dealt with to protect the city's tourist trade.

   Lima is another story, since this is where most travelers enter and exit Peru.  The grinding poverty of this city of 11 million is readily apparent, although recent advances in the Peruvian economy have surely helped improve things since we visited in the early '00s.  We felt safe enough walking around central Lima, albeit under the guns of an armored car outside the palace, along with another military vehicle topped by a water cannon.  As you may know, most travelers stay in the suburb of Miraflores which is chock full of restaurants and shops and is held to be the safest place in town.  That said, a couple of Italian tourists were mugged on the beach below the cliffs here while we were visiting, so avoid the lonely stretches...  And of course, whenever in Latin America, assume that pickpockets are everywhere.

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