No Reservations–An old story about my first visit to Machu Picchu

I was on the train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes when I started to get nervous. It was the second train of the day, the thirty dollar ticket known as the backpacker. I’d jumped on board at 6:15 in the morning, cocksure as always that my two year experience of living in Peru would have me ready for anything. But as the train continued on its four hour journey deeper and deeper into the steaming jungles of central Peru, I couldn’t help but regret the fact that I hadn’t bothered to secure hotel reservations for the night. As civilization continued to peel away outside our gently swaying window, I started forming tentative contingency plans. The best thing I could come up with was simply crawling off into the jungle and curling up into a ball. My other, poorer ideas need not be recollected.

I bought my ticket the day before at the Estacion Huancho in Cusco. I was distressed to find that the tickets were 30 dollars one way bringing the expense of two round trip tickets up to $120. The other ticket was for my friend Matt. He’d come down from the states at my invitation only a few days before and we had been on the move ever since his arrival. During the course of his ten day stay, we would end up sleeping in the same place on consecutive nights only once. Generally he respected my decisions without question. Mostly this was because I made my decisions in Spanish and told him what the outcome was only after we were irrevocably en-route. So far, things had gone without a hitch, so there was no reason for him to be aware of my habit of doing everything by the seat of my pants. But as the roads and buildings continued to be systematically erased from the external landscape, he began to grow obviously agitated.

“I don’t think we’re going to find a hotel,” he muttered glumly.

“Matt, think positive,” I laughed back hoping that there was no hint in my voice that I’d been thinking the same thing for the last hour.

We fell into an uncomfortable silence and listened to the sound of the happy hikers all around us muttering to each other in a dozen different languages. The topic of their conversation most likely being the marvelous peace of mind they had from their hotel reservation and how stupid you’d have to be not to have such a thing.

“Screw it!” I said finally deciding to lift our spirits with false bravado, “We’ll just go up there, see Machu Picchu and die. I don’t even want to think about what will happen after Machu Picchu. Hotels and reservations are just for punk tourists. We’re here for the adventure! After Machu Picchu, we’ll just jump off the mountain!”

Matt wasn’t as enthusiastic about these last remarks as he could have been and we fell quiet once again.

The train came around the bend and halted. There was a big green sign welcoming us to Machu Picchu. There was no sign of civilization. The happy multitudes surrounding us began to stir and cluck like chickens in their security. I was growing to hate them.

“Ben, there aren’t any hotels here.”

“Sure there are.”
“Ben, look out the window, there’s only jungle.”
“Do you think there are any poisonous spiders in there? I mean, spiders that people sleeping in the jungle would have to worry about?”

Matt’s whitening face turned slowly away from the window towards me as the realization of what I was implying crept into this mind. It was a delicate moment, I had to take desperate action.
“That’s the type of information that we could have probably found in the tour book if you hadn’t left it in Lima. That and the fact that there aren’t any hotels in Aguas Calientes.”
Rule #1 of traveling with friends: When said friend begins to look like he/she is about to kill you as a result of some stupid decision you have made, quickly remind them of something stupid they did earlier. On a side note, constantly nagging about the mistake prior to the moment of greatest necessity greatly weakens the effectiveness of this tactic.

I wasn’t sure if my clever word work had done the trick, for before Matt could react, the train resumed its motion around the bend. Suddenly, magically before us, there was a small little town of happy Peruvians waiting with open arms. The first sign on the first building that we could see indicated that it was a hotel. Matt was pacified enough to give me the benefit of the doubt for at least a few more minutes. Once again I had been spared.

The train stopped and we jumped off, I hurried Matt along, keenly aware that this was the second train of the day and if there was going to be a time when hotel rooms were limited, this was it. At the end of the platform was a man with a green sign reading “La Pequena Casita.” He was in a group of about five other guys all with similar signs.

“Do you have vacant rooms?”
“Yeah, sure.” A great surge of relief.

“How much are they a night?”

“25 dollars.” A second great surge of relief.

“Let’s go.”

We followed the little man down the narrow streets of Aguas Calientes as he guided us to our newly acquired room. As I walked, I couldn’t help but laugh at all the punk tourists who stood around in confusion looking at their maps and scratching their heads trying to figure out where the hotel was that they had made reservations for.

Free from the worry of where I would sleep that night, I took my first look around at the place and gasped. Aguas Calientes is magical. The green mountains rise straight up on all sides into an incredible misty sky. A viscous river thunders along the boarder of the town, dropping easily a hundred feet within the course of a quarter mile. Along the roads there are nothing but street vendors in well-ordered huts selling garments and blankets of the most vibrant colors you can imagine.

The place reminded me of Adventureland in Disneyworld–that segment of the park where you can go on the jungle safari, and where Swiss family Robinson’s tree-house is–but it reminded me of how I looked at Adventureland when I was 10 years old, before I knew that Disneyworld was fake and plastic.

Aguas Calientes is real, and suddenly I knew that taking the gamble and spending a night there had been the best possible decision I could have made.

“This is the low tourist season right?” I asked our guide.

“Yes,” he responded, smiling at me and showing off several teeth that were surrounded by a kind of gold framework.

“Do you ever need hotel reservations?”

He just smiled and shook his head in the negative.

“Isn’t there a time when all the rooms are taken?” I pursued because I know my Spanish isn’t perfect and this fellow had answered too rapidly for how well he seemed to be understanding me. Sometimes it was easier to just smile and shake your head than actually try and listen, I did it quite frequently.

“Maybe in the high tourist season, in June or July, but not now,” he responded, I was satisfied.We came to our hotel. Our room was a lovely little place with a view of the river. Matt laughed at how nice it was, noting that we couldn’t get an equal room in the states for less than $50 probably.

“Fortune favors the ill-prepared,” I laughed, “Now let’s go and see that stupid Machu Picchu thing that everybody keeps nagging me about.”

I had lived in Peru for two years, but this was my first visit to Cusco. Everybody I knew, both Peruvian and from the United States, had kept scolding me about this fact. It had gotten to be so that it was almost a point of pride that I hadn’t visited Machu Picchu. I’d come to Peru to learn Spanish and another culture. Doing touristy stuff was normally not very appealing. I especially hate those guidebooks that tell you how many days you need in a specific city or village to see everything of importance. The arrogance of the assumption that the only “good” stuff can be taken care of in a couple of days is something I find detestable. What about the ambiance of a place? Sometimes you need a full year just to be aware of it, then another year or so to let it soak in.

We took a couple of small packs and headed down the street to the buses. Machu Picchu is a twenty-minute uphill ride from Aguas Calientes. A seat on the bus costs $9 round trip, a distressingly high price compared to what you can get in Peru for $9. For a second I was tempted to refuse to pay and just forego seeing the ruins, until I realized how utterly idiotic that action would have been.

We waited on the bus and I started to get excited. There was simply a cool energy in the air, strongly supported by the roaring torrents of the river just outside. The driver stepped on-board and, regrettably, threw in an ABBA tape to listen to as he took us up to the ancient ruins. Just like the Incas, we climbed the mountain in a plush, cushioned bus listening to ABBA.”Maybe we should walk back down,” I suggested to Matt.

But after a few climbing turns, even horrible ABBA blasting in my ears couldn’t distract me from the beauty of the surrounding landscape. The mountains down there are indescribably amazing. They rise straight up to form softly tapered peaks. It was the rainy season, so we were granted the privilege of seeing marvelous clouds and dark skies come floating in to kiss the mountain tops, hide them briefly, and then go drifting off along their way. It was like having a perch on an ornament within a snow-globe.

We arrived at the top, safe and sound despite our driver’s complete lack of interest in slowing down around the steeply banked corners, or looking out warily for oncoming buses. It was just another near-death experience that we shook off in our excitement to reach our goal. The only thing that stood in our way was another irritating $20 dollar entry-fee. But unlike some national parks that I have been to, this one was actually worth the price of admission.
We paid, walked in, rounded the first bend, and there it was. Just like in all the pictures you’ve seen. Instantly I kicked myself as a fool for not having made the trip sooner. The grand “Lost City” was so clear and perfect that it didn’t seem real.

It isn’t even so much the ruins that make Machu Picchu so amazing, it’s a combination of the mountains, the layout, the wind coming up from below. Everything conspires to create a magical place that is unlike anywhere I have ever been. It reminded me of the various elf villages from “The Lord of the Rings.”

Here was a place of enormous aesthetic. Beauty for beauty’s sake. There was nothing convenient about building your city there on the top of that mountain. It was not good for the bottom line, it would not increase profit or production. But it was absolutely beautiful, and the human spirit soars to be there. It feels like home as you come upon it, there is something essentially human contained in those rocks and that place.
Matt and I became like kids, scurrying over the boulders and ancient stonework. We climbed up and down the terraces, and took pictures of each other getting dangerously close to edges that dropped off into sheer cliff faces. It is not like a park in the United States, where every turn of your sightseeing walk is dictated, and every potential danger marked off with ropes and angry guards. This place is open and free and the air rushes through it with joy. As you walk around, and climb up the terraces, you can smell the spirit of liberty that the US was formed upon and, to some extent, has been lost to illusory fears and worries over legal liability.

Intermittently, the rains would come, as they are prone to in the mountains, but they wouldn’t last, and the changing light only gave us the opportunity to take new photos of each other. We climbed up the alter, sat under the tree in the courtyard, upset a mama llama and her baby, examined the sacred stone, and tried to climb up the mountain in the back but got there too late and found the guarded gate closed and locked. We had something like four or five hours, but it wasn’t enough time. Whenever I go to a place like that, I feel a need to stay and absorb it. It seems somehow disrespectful to assume that you could get it all in a single day. I found myself wanting to stay at Machu Picchu for a month or a year or whatever it took. I wanted to put up a little tent there and start up the terrace farming again. I wanted to know what it must be like to run down the mountain and fish in the raging river, or to bathe in the series of elegant stone baths that still have water running through them at the center of the complex. Water from springs trickling through stonework that was so expertly constructed, that it remained quietly functional though the city was abandoned for hundreds of years. Trickling water running through baths in overgrown ruins.

We finished our tour of the city and made our way back to the buses. I wanted to walk down the mountain back to Aguas Calientes, but Matt talked me out of it. Fortunately, on the return trip, our driver felt no need to play his ABBA tape.

The tour book had said you only needed a day for Machu Picchu. That you could take the train in the morning, tour the ruins, and then return to Cusco on the 3:30 train in the evening. That plan had seemed like too much running around to me, which is why I went for the overnight stay at Aguas Calientes. I had been nervous about the decision when I made it, not sure that we would find anything else to do with the extra time. But going back to the village in the bus, I found myself wishing that I had planned to stay for another day.
Two days isn’t enough to see Machu Picchu. Two weeks probably isn’t. As we pulled back into the city, and made our way back to the hotel, I kind of half-wished that we hadn’t found a room, and that we had decided to curl up in secret within the ruins. I wonder what kind of dreams you might have sleeping up there in that ancient place where people lived so long ago. I wonder how the wind, rising up along the green mountains, stimulates your spirit when you release yourself to it in slumber. Maybe it was the call of that spirit that prompted me to head out on my voyage without any clear plan. Maybe things turn out better if you just leave things to chance.

I didn’t know. I only knew that the bed was warm at La Pequena Casita, and that the Lost City was vigilant over me in the mountains above. Matt and I had taken our pictures, and seen the superficial things, but there was still plenty more to Machu Picchu that I intended to explore. I think there are few places in the world that you can be so affected by that you feel the change the very same night that it happens. Machu Picchu is definitely one of those places. I’ll go there again, and see what else it can show me.

I went to sleep knowing that the next day was going to be as filled with challenges as the one I had just gotten through. Among those challenges would be the return trip to Cusco and the quest to find a hotel.

I didn’t have any reservations.
There is no more story.
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