Brandon and I came back Sunday from a weekend traveling to see what the Peruanos consider the eighth wonder of the world — Machu Picchu. And, did we get to see it? Yeah. Did we like it? Yeah. A lot? Yeah. But instead of telling about Machu Picchu, I’m going to tell of our trip back – a trip so fun and freaky that the Machu Picchu wonder, even for me, is now only as bright as our flickr photos.
We found a bus at the hydroelectric dam that would take us directly back to Urubamba, en route Cusco. We considered ourselves in luck since the dam is only the fourth-to-last stop on the route home from Machu Picchu (note: the budget trip to and from Machu is a two day long affair – it’s much easier if you can spend the cash) and we had been travel weary all day. Brandon and I take a seat in the front where we can see the entire road through the wide bus windows. Other tourists slowly trickle on, filling the bus only a quarter full. We set off for the six-hour journey home, along the narrow dirt streets that wind along the mountain sides, high above a river valley, between the tiny towns Santa Teresa and Santa Maria.
We pass through Santa Teresa and come to a small village. A middle-aged man, standing in a doorway, catches sight of our bus. He grins excitedly, waving us down. Our driver slows and the man gestures behind him to the passenger, his daughter, a young woman about my age. The man and his wife rush their daughter to the bus, moving fast as though the driver will change his mind and leave if they don’t make haste. The parents, in their eagerness and pride in having hailed down such a rare ride (all the way to Cuzco!), they press toward the automatic bus door – eliciting a reprimand from our driver (Passe! Passe!). They move aside and the driver releases the slow-opening door. They tug at the unweilding door – urging it to open quickly – and push their laughing daughter into the bus, tossing a brightly colored and tightly bundled care package in after her. The daughter is wearing city-bought jeans and an urban haircut, and a cell phone charger dangles from her silvery leather purse. She must attend college in Cuzco, the urban center of the Andes. The mother scurries away to wave from the side of the road, avoiding the dust and exhaust. The father stands near the bus window, his dark wrinkled face accenting his brightly shining eyes – grinning, grinning – so proud of his daughter, and so happy she came to visit. The bus pulls away, the family waving together until the dust from the road covers the parents’ figures at the roadside.
We finally leave the dusty dirt paths and arrive on the main route, passing over the Sacred Valley mountains which guard the way between Machu Picchu and Urubamba. We stop at a small fruit stand where other buses have pulled up. I realize it is something of a rest stop as I see a line of men standing along the road, urinating. I get out, too, looking for a bathroom a bit more concealed. There is a small house next to the fruit stand, and I see a handmade cardboard sign, “BAŇO.” I walk over and am greeted by a small girl, who pushes me into line behind two other waiting passengers to use her family’s outdoor bathroom. I am informed I must pay 50 centimos, and I give 1 sol, not asking for change. The little girl has placed a trillion shiny KungFu Panda stickers, collected from Oreo cookie packages, outside along the walkway. She tells me the names of each as she hands out sheets of paper to squirming customers. She’s very charming. I wish her well, silently, as I tell her thanks and goodbye.
Another hour on the road. On almost every pass has stood a recent mini-landslide, piles of gray rocks covering half the road. I wonder what would happen to our bus if we were to pass by as rocks began to fall. We pass a turn where the road has collapsed, the thick black tar jagged, sticking out into the air as the cliff drops off sharply beneath it. We feel insecure in our bus seats. Across the valley we see evidence of a huge landslide, the earth beneath the narrow road steeply dropping and smooth. We see the remains of a broken vehicle amidst the rocks – a window, a door, a fender – it is not recent but not old. As we approach the site of the slide we see a neat row of black wooden crosses, names hand-painted in white, of those who were in the vehicle as the road collapsed. I am saddened and frightened, imagining the vehicle falling from the road. We have at least another 4 hours to go.
It is almost dark and we are high up – the world is an obscured white as we drive through low-hanging clouds hugging the mountain top. I am looking out the side window, straining to see something. A giant black figure quickly approaches the side of the bus along the road – a cow. Its flanks nearly brush the side of the bus as we pass. On the left now, a bright blue edifice emerges from the thick white. Our driver slows, making a sign of the cross across his chest. It’s a church. I wonder what our driver is thinking.
We are in the middle of nowhere – there are no settlements, no lights, nothing to see past the sheet of white in the dim light. Our bus passes a family of four with their dogs loping beside small kids. They are ragged and weary, the father raises his hand slightly, a friendly gesture in the bus lights. The driver stops quickly, reaches behind him to the big black bag of yellow bananas he has stashed there, purchased from a market near Machu. He opens his window and starts pushing the big bag out. The mother is passing and stops, tugging at the bag, helping it out the small window. I can see her smile in the lights, the driver says nothing, just nods as the bag falls into the mother’s arms, and pulls away from the family.
It is now pitch black and the lights cut through fog and haze, crackling from a loose wire. We approach another shadow, tiny and crouching in the shallow ditch, avoiding the vehicle. It’s a child, a boy, dragging a large sack. The driver stops, opens the door and gestures the boy in. The boy clambers up the steps, tripping in his haste and as he struggles with his heavy load. He hesitates as he catches sight of our foreign faces in the front seat. I smile and motion to him to take a seat, and he slowly sits across from us, leaning forward to look out onto the road.
Several more minutes down the road we encounter another boy, a bundle thrown over his thin shoulders. He waves at the bus and the driver stops, again. Where are these children going? – I wonder. The boy grins widely, laughs as he hops up the stairs. Gleefully, the new boy squeezes into the same seat as the other boy, too polite to choose his own from the many empty seats on our tourist coach. Both hunch forward in the dark behind the driver, too excited to relax. I am so touched and exhausted.
Finally we begin our descent into Urubamba. We pass through a bigger town, Ollataytambo, and I am relieved to see bright lights and bustling life. Another twenty minutes finds us in Urubamba. It feels like home as we drag ourselves off the bus, thanking, thanking, thanking our driver as we gratefully leave the dark bus behind and walk toward our street.