avatarLily Boyer



A Hair-Raising Ride in the Andes Mountains

The thrills and unexpected terrors of Machu Picchu and Sacred Valley

Terrace fields in the Andes Mountains. Photo by Lily Boyer

In 2013, before our smartphones were as smart as today and cell phone towers were easily accessible, my husband and I went to Peru to visit one of the Seven Wonders of the World: Machu Picchu.

The last twilight is disappearing as our train slowly screeches to a halt at Ollantaytambo station. It has been a long but dream-come-true day. We still have several hours’ journey until we get back to Cusco, but it will be our last leg so we should be able to relax. My legs are sore, and so is my butt. More on that later.

It’s hard to believe we just departed from this train station yesterday. It sure looked different in daylight.

Ollantaytambo Temple Hill; Author in a food storage ruin — Photos by husband

We left the bulk of our luggage at our hotel here yesterday, and only took what we could carry in our backpacks to take the scenic train to Aguas Calientes. After overnighting there, we caught the first bus up to Machu Picchu bright and early this morning.

View from our train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes. Photo by husband.

I regretted not planning this trip earlier, so we could hike an Inca trail to reach Machu Picchu. But after suffering from altitude sickness and a severe headache back in Cusco a couple of days ago, I now reckon that I wouldn’t be able to do the multi-day trek given how quickly we need to adjust to the altitude.

Climbing Huaynapicchu is the next best thing and should only take a couple of hours. They limit how many people can be on the trail at a given time, so we were happy to have secured a timeslot for this morning.

Machu Picchu, and the tall peak right behind it is Huaynapicchu. Photo by husband

“Wow” was the only word I could mutter when I set foot on Machu Picchu. I had seen pictures of this place before but I couldn’t appreciate it fully until I was in the midst of this magnificent city. It’s mind-boggling how the Incas hauled the giant stones up to this mountaintop. I slowly took in the expansiveness of this ancient ruin, its lush surroundings, and layers of high peaks in the distance.

Temple of the Sun from two angles. Photos by husband

Llamas roam around leisurely, not a bit intimidated by the presence of tourists. A llama at the spot where we were snapping pictures walked towards us. I gingerly extended my hand, and the llama bent its head to greet my palm. The feeling of the llama’s warm lips and nose was equally exhilarating as being in this ancient city.

Llama grazing. Photo by Lily Boyer

We promptly arrived at the entrance gate when it was our time to climb Huaynapicchu. I now understood why only limited tickets were available for each time slot. The trail is narrow and one-directional, with one path up and another path down. If anyone stops for more than five minutes, it would create congestion along the path. As much as my lungs were screaming for more air, I kept a steady pace and reached the summit.

View from Huaynapicchu. Photos by Lily Boyer

The view was breathtaking. In fact, I had no more breath to be taken!

For me, the more challenging part wasn’t climbing up, but going down. Seeing the Urubamba River from the steep and worn stone steps straight down made me dizzy. I grabbed onto anything steady nearby so I wouldn’t tumble. Turning around to back down the steps was awkward. After trying different ways to walk down, I ended up using a three-legged approach: two legs plus sitting on the steps with my butt to get down the steps. After I took my final step, I breathed out a sigh of relief and a sense of accomplishment.

Posing for photos gives legs a break; Steep steps down Huaynapicchu. Photos by husband

Now walking off the train at Ollantaytambo station, my knees are still shaking. I can’t wait to meet our driver so we can pick up our luggage from the hotel and be on our way to Cusco.

The crowd coming out of the train tapers off outside the station. We still haven’t seen anyone with a sign having our names on it. Where is our driver??

If there were an option to get a local cell phone SIM card, I’m not sure if I would have looked into it. The whole reason why I have opted to use a travel agency to arrange our transportation and pickups is that neither of us speaks Spanish, and safety has been a big concern in Lima and Cusco as people shared online.

I learned some Spanish words from local village kids when I was on a building project in Honduras years ago, but I became suspicious of what I learned when other kids giggled after I repeated a few words a boy taught me. I was pretty sure that he taught me some bad words. Good or bad, my Spanish is of no help for us getting around Peru now.

The reliability of our pickups on this trip has not been high. We waited for over half an hour at Cusco airport for our driver to pick us up. He said traffic was heavy. After we disembarked our train at Aguas Calientes, no one was picking us up. We ended up following a few other travelers who were being met by their guide heading to the same hotel.

No one picked us up at Aguas Calientes train station which fortunately wasn’t far from our hotel. Photo by Lily Boyer

My heart starts to sink now that the street outside the train station is becoming emptier. We aren’t aware of any public transportation option to go back to Cusco, especially at this hour.

A woman hastily walks in our direction as if she’s looking for someone. I run towards her calling out the name of our travel agency, “Pachamama?” She shakes her head. She can speak a little English and asks me if I need help. Yes! I point at our travel agency’s name and phone number on my itinerary printout. She calls the number and gets through. Our travel agency tells her that our driver is on his way. We should wait. We thank her profusely and sit down on a bench.

Five minutes turns to ten, then fifteen. With no cell phone access and only a handful of people hanging around, I have become more alarmed. I tell my husband to wait at the bench for our driver, and I run back to our hotel where our luggage still is, to ask the hotel concierge to make another call to our travel agency. Luckily, the hotel is not too far.

It’s completely dark now and I worry that no one from the travel agency will answer the phone. Fortunately, a man answers. He assures me that our driver is on his way.

We stayed at this lovely hotel in Ollantaytambo the previous day, with llamas as a surprise bonus. Photo by husband

I take our remaining luggage and drag them back to where my husband is waiting near the train station. A man and the woman who helped us earlier are standing with my husband. My husband exclaims, “She found our driver!” I asked the man dubiously, “Pachamama? Whom are you picking up?” He gives me an uncomprehending stare. He doesn’t understand English. The woman tells us, “Go with him!

We don’t have any choice, do we? We get in the car, and my husband sits in the front. Later he tells me he wants to sit in front just in case the driver kidnaps us because we can’t confirm his identity.

Our driver has barely started driving, and a policeman stops our car. The driver hands over his documents to the police, and the police says something as he goes over the documents. Suddenly our driver grabs one hand of the police and starts kissing it. Our driver’s phone rings and he tosses it to me after he answers it.

Are you with your driver now?” On the other end of the line, it’s the same man from our travel agency I talked to from our hotel.

I don’t know! IS HE OUR DRIVER?

Yes he is. Good, you are good now.

NO! A police just stopped us. Maybe he wants to extort from us!” I become hysterical, my husband later tells me.

Let me speak to the police.

I signal the driver to pass the phone to the police. He refuses to take the phone and pushes it back to the driver. The driver hangs up without saying anything to the travel agent.

The conversation between our driver and the police has become more animated, perhaps agitated by now. The police officer takes the documents and walks away.

Our driver drives forward towards the train station and takes a left turn into a parking lot.

Oh no! Are we going to the police station now? What if they put us in jail? Do they need a reason to put us in jail? How much money do we need to bribe? My mind is flooded with fear.

Sharply he turns around in the parking lot, heads back to the street, and drives away from the train station.

Wait! Are we running away from the police? Is he driving without his license?

We turn into a narrow alley toward the town square. But another car is already in the same alley coming our way. Our driver guns the engine toward the other car and then breaks when we are ten feet away. After eight seconds of a staring contest, the other driver backs out into the town square. Our driver speeds up and gets us out of town.

Not long after, we stop at a roadside vendor, and our driver gets a drink that looks like a cola. Whatever makes him happy.

It’s pitch dark. But I can feel the winding mountain road by the way the car twists and turns. Our driver is driving fast on the two-lane road. Sometimes he passes the cars in our lane and only switches back at the last second when a vehicle from the opposite side is approaching. At one point he is driving in the opposite lane, and a truck emerges around the curve, he swerves back into our lane. My heart jumps, ready to fall off the mountain with the car.

Whew! We’re still here…

The driver is a jolly good fellow, I comfort myself. He seems to be in a happy mood and is talkative. We don’t know what he’s saying but it seems to relate to Cusco, so we try to acknowledge it with some um-hums. He doesn’t seem to be concerned that his document is still with the police.

About an hour later, we see the lights of Cusco scattering like stars down the mountain. Almost there!

Once we enter civilization, we stop at another vendor. The driver gets some kind of drink in a tiny bottle. Driving in the dark can be tiring, especially down the hairpin turns of the Andes. After a cola, and a few snorts of something, now he may need a boost of an energy drink.

At last we are on a street that looks familiar. We stop at a traffic light. It turns green but we are not moving. Our driver has fallen asleep!

My husband shakes the driver. He wakes up and continues driving. We are beyond thrilled that we finally arrived at our hotel.

The first thing in the morning, I call our travel agency and complain. Why was our driver an hour late? Why didn’t he know whom he was picking up? Why did the police stop him? His driving wasn’t safe. Our travel agent whom I was corresponding with before the trip apologizes and says she will find out what happened, as they subcontract the driving to another company.

Later she calls me back. The driver who was scheduled to pick us up had a personal emergency, so the ground transportation company called our driver to pick us up. She doesn’t explain why the police stopped us. Maybe she doesn’t know either.

Looking back at this adventure, we can only laugh. It was a terrifying experience and still would be frightening to go through it today. But life would be boring if we stayed in our safety nest. The splendor of Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley was well worth the scare.

Urubamba River runs through the mountains. Photo by Lily Boyer

Thank you for reading.

I am very grateful for Travel Memoir’s conscientious and helpful editors, Darren Weir and Ellen Eastwood.

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