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Sunday, March 4, 2012

People all over the world, join hands, start a love train, love train...

Before the sun even thought about coming up, Mike and I were hustling our way down the stairs, sucking up bottled waters and squinting at the world through a decided lack of coffee. Coca tea didn't cut it, for all it's supposed to be a stimulant; in fact, if you have an expedition you must provide a certain amount of leaves per porter to chew or they refuse to carry their load.

Not unlike the free coffee at Western office workplaces.

Trying for "when in Rome, do as the Romans do," Mike even picked up some Coca "altitude sickness energizer" candy:

I am sorry to report that it was absolutely disgusting. We're not sure whether it worked or not; he ate it, and was fine. I tasted it, decided I'd rather eat dirt, and was also fine with the altitude.

Outside, one of the dutiful drivers was waiting patiently for us in his little car; we piled in and settled back, watching outside as the morning slowly creeped upon us. I had a happy photography moment and, through the passenger side window, caught this image of parents heavily laden with their little girl joyfully racing along.

The Machu Picchu Vistadome Train chuffed in repose at the station, lengthy and blue, the thin air redolent with the smells of diesel, coffee, and the secondhand smoke from those passengers sucking on last-minute cigarettes before boarding. I think just about every nationality was represented among the passengers queing up, checking their cameras, murmuring to each other in Spanish, English, German, Japanese...

The train goes from Poroy Station out through the Sacred Valley, past places with intriguing names like Izcuchaca, Ollantaytambo, Quoriwayrachina, and my personal favorite, Chachabamba. Not only does it sound like a Ritchie Vallens song, but it's also another lost and then found ( this time in 1940) archaeological treasure.

Closer to Machu Picchu, our ultimate destination, the train runs alongside the iconic Inca Trail. We were to eat a gourmet lunch and have a glass of wine from the comfort of the train whilst waving to the grimy backpackers and give the impression that we were having a better time than they.

Perhaps, perhaps not. But we'd have a good try at it, regardless.

OK, I admit it. The train felt like cheating. I would have loved to have hiked the trail and, well,  earned my Machu Picchu. At least, I loved the idea of hiking the trail, sounded epic, a rite of passage, a real experience.

Practically speaking, trying to fit the Incan Trail into our time in Peru fell somewhere between a silly idea and an idiotic one. We had neither gear nor time, and we do love trains, after all. What kind of ninny isn't satisfied with a cush trip? So I tried to let it go.

The train excursion then, as excursions are wont to be, was a splurge for us. The folks at PeruRail,  knowing full well that for travelers with limited time and once-in-a-lifetime mentality, (when would we be back in Southeastern Peru again?) would be willing to pay. The domed window train was touted as the one with to the best views, so we went for it.

It was in no way "local" transportation. Clean, professional, comfortable, nary a chicken to be seen among the leather seats. Not as interesting, sure, but obviously I've been reading too many rough-it-or-go-home Lonely Planet books, and was still having pangs about the trail. Beneath the dome windows, then, we watched the landscape go by, from farmlands, misted by the morning,

to terraced hills and the snowy Andes mountains, alongside rivers, cows, donkeys, villages,

all to the happy tunes of Peruvian charangos (a very small sort of guitar) and Andean panpipes being er, piped in. There were two songs and after three hours we got to know each note of the panpipes quite, quite well.

At one point the train overhead PA informed the passengers we should prepare for "sick sacks".

Sick sacks?

It turned out the train needed to go down a very steep hill and we went slowly forward on one track, then reversed down another, several times in a zig zag.

We kind of liked the sick sacks. Mike in particular; he went on and on about the simplicity and genius of the solution.

Engineers. Can't live with them, can't manage large machinery without them.

Also along the lines of Lonely Planet, I had yet another of my slightly foolish, vaguely and embarrassingly colonial travel fantasies fulfilled at one of the stations. We were not even fully stopped before locals rushed up to the windows with goods held aloft, trying to entice the passengers to buy before the train set in motion again.

I have always wanted to be on a train and to have that happen.

They fed us, and at some point the panpipes and gentle rocking of the train enticed me into a restful slumber. When I woke again we had left the highlands behind and entered the jungle.

swirling Urubamba River, vines and jungle

Lush, steamy, orchids and the Incan Trail. The Río Urubamba churned alongside, fiercely muddy, the hillsides steep, dense and green.

After the train we were sorted into groups, each with flag carrying guides who herded us onto a bus to take us up switchback after switchback of dusty road. And at the top, Machu Picchu. On so many folks' life bucket lists; we were there.

So why wasn't I more excited?


  1. More, more! I'm excited, why weren't you?

  2. I need a sick sack just reading about the altitude and switchbacks, arrrgh! But you make it sound almost not worth it??? Can't wait for the "aaaaaaah" moment, well... if there is one!!! (that's the sound my kid makes whenever we see sun rays threw clouds ;)

    1. Machu Picchu is undeniably amazing. Being one of the some half million tourists that visited it last year...not so much. I've read other people who feel the same way. We simply didn't get a chance to connect with the place the way I would have liked to. I know...some cheese with that whine? :)