Escape from Machu Picchu
I know this blog is about living and working in Mexico but I just came back from spending three and a half wonderful weeks in Peru, which is a fascinating country. If I did not feel committed to being in Mexico for all sorts of reasons, I’d go and live in Peru.
Towards the end of my stay in Peru, I got marooned by flooding in the small tourist town of Aguascalientes, at the foot of Machu Picchu which serves as the base from which people go to visit the famous Inca site. I went there on Sunday 24th January courtesy of PeruRail – I thought at first this was the state railway but actually it is a private monopoly run by the same people who own the Orient Express. Minimum price of a return ticket on the most basic Backpackers train from Cusco to Aguascalinetes is 98 USD. I paid 148 USD for a place on the VistaDome train. I bought my ticket in Lima with a Peruvian friend and he was shocked at the price saying it was outside the range of most Peruvians, especially if they wanted to go as a family.
On arrival at the station of Poroy just outside Cuzco, we were told that we we had to depart from Ollantaytambo because of flooding, so we were bussed to this small town, from where we picked up the train to Aguascalientes. Actually, although I had already paid for my ticket from Cuzco, this is a much cheaper way to get to Machu Picchu.
We only just got to Aguascalientes by train as the river Urubumba was rising all the time because of floods and the railway runs along the steeply inclined valley by the river.
I did manage to go to Machu Picchu by special bus from Aguascalientes (another 14 USD return) even though the train arrived two hours late. I came back down quickly to catch the last train back and then found that no trains were running as the river had by now swept away part of the tracks.
So I ended up stranded in Aquascalientes along with more than 2500 other people. The only way out is by rail. It is normally possible to walk too, but all the paths were flooded and dangerous due to landslides. By then the whole area was in a state of emergency due to flooding. A young Argentinian tourist and her guide were killed by a landslide on the Inca trail.
I ended up spending three nights in Aguascalientes. It was like a huge experiment in communal, international living. There was very little action taken by the authorities at first so the tourists started to create a plan for evacuation and to organize the provision of free food for those who needed it. Interestingly, the tourists instinctively started organizing around national groups.
Every nationality behaved in somewhat characteristic ways. The Brazilians and Uruguayans organized football matches with the local kids. The Argentinians almost rioted but also led the organizing process. The Chileans were super-super-organized with different people assigned to be responsible for food, accommodation and health. The English deigned to get themselves organized. The Mexicans left a big Mexican flag in the Plaza with a note for people to write their names. The names appeared but I never saw anyone there. The American government was said to be providing four small helicopters for just American folk. It was rumoured that when the committee of delegates from each nation were meeting and rejected the idea that these helicopters should only be for Americans, then the Americans never participated again in the meetings and did their own thing. The Australians celebrated Australia day on Monday 25th January and it was said there was no more beer left in the town the following day.
Many who were doing the Inca trail were there with little money and no credit cards as that was how they had been advised. The only way out was by helicopter. The first two days were very chaotic and a free-for-all as everyone wanted to get out first on the few helicopters that arrived. It was rumoured people offered bribes to get out first. The very rich contracted private helicopter services. Over time though, a sequence of evacuation was established – old and ill people first, then over 60’s, then children with only one parent accompanying them, then pregnant women, then 50-59, 40-49 etc. It was an unwelcome reminder that I am getting old, but it was also an advantage as I had a reasonable place in the queue.
Because the two days before were so chaotic, I decided on Wednesday 27th that I would change my flight from Lima to Mexico for a week ahead and accept I could be marooned for a while.
But things changed. The army arrived and took control. There were more helicopters and the weather was better so they could do more flights. I still did not think I would get out on the Wednesday, and was preparing to go to the thermal baths in the afternoon, but then I was told via people walking in the streets with megaphones that the 50-59 year olds should assemble near the town hall at 2.45pm. After a wait, a group of about 20 of us were taken to the railway station, where we were put in and progressively moved to different carriages as staging posts to get to the helicopter evacuation site.
Although I got close to the last stage, which involved being divided further into two groups, the 50-54 and 55-59 (lucky, I suppose, that I fitted into this latter group and we were given priority), we were told we would not go that night as there were still children to take and very few flights left. I decided however to hang around as it was interesting because people were getting increasingly heated as they had waited all day and not got out. Everyone was hoping they might get on the last few flights out.
Suddenly this window appeared where the captain of the soldiers unexpectedly asked for 10 more people over 55 to go out on the last flight of the day. By now my earlier curiosity had drawn me near the front of the crowd and I managed to get myself selected as one of the ten. I went back for my rucksack and other bag and someone helped drag me through the crowd. We were taken through the control point to another control point where they checked our ages in our passports.
Then it was about a 1km walk to get to the heliport. As we got nearer, soldiers appeared and told us to run. So we (the ten 55-59 year olds) broke into a run – thank God I am just about reasonably fit – carrying our bags and rucksacks. The helicopter looked like it was just about to take off. Somehow we were all bundled into the helicopter – one poor women collapsed on the floor exhausted and looking like she might have a heart attack whilst people unloosened her clothing – and it took off. I could not help thinking of those famous scenes of the evacuation of the American embassy in Saigon at the end of the Vietnam war.
We then had the most wonderful helicopter ride from Aguascalientes to Cuzco, all along the sacred valley of the Incas. It was very clear and very beautiful. All the flooding could be seen, as well as snow capped mountains. It was so thrilling!
Then I was in Cuzco for one night more. I celebrated by going to Chicha, the restaurant the most famous Peruvian chef Gaston Acurio, has there. Trip Adviser’s reviews have this as number 9 of the ten best restaurants in Cusco. In which case, the first 8 must be stupendous.
One final point about Cuzco. If you are there, do go and stay in the Hostal los Niños. They have two hotels in Cuzco and a Hacienda outside Cuzco. I stayed in Hostal Niños 2. The room was comfortable, the building was very attractive, the staff were completely delightful, and the food was good. A single room without private bathroom costs 22 USD. A single or double bedded room with bathroom costs 48 USD. This is already good value but the most remarkable thing about this hotel and its vision is that all the profits go to working on different projects with street children. What a great idea!