Not gonna lie, tears were shed. And they were not happy tears. They were more like, “Are you fucking kidding me, I’m about to lose my shit” kind of tears. Ahhh, the joys of a long-awaited and eagerly anticipated vacation. The more you look forward to it, the more the fates will be tempted to fuck with you. Something will go wrong. It always does.
I’d always wanted to visit Machu Picchu ever since my sister told me it was the prettiest destination she’d ever seen. A few months ago we were planning a trip to Las Vegas for a wedding and decided to tack on a week-long vacation to Peru. My mom was flying to Denver to take care of the kids, we had never been to South America before, why not? I began feverishly researching and planning a detailed itinerary. I read countless hotel reviews. I figured out how to purchase Machu Picchu tickets directly from Cusco’s Minister of Culture – through its Spanish language website – to avoid paying middleman fees to booking agents. I pored over train schedules to determine the best routes from Cusco to Aguas Calientes (the town bordering Machu Picchu that is accessible via only train or trekking). By the time we embarked on our vacation, I had crafted the perfect itinerary.
Upon arrival to Cusco on a Tuesday afternoon, I asked our hotel for assistance with hiring a driver for a tour of the Sacred Valley on our way to Machu Picchu. We needed to arrive to the Ollantaytambo station by no later than Thursday evening to catch a train to Aguas Calientes because we had tickets to see Machu Picchu on Friday and Saturday. The hotel porter casually asked if we had heard about the city-wide strike scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday, pursuant to which there would be NO transportation available for the next two days. Um, what? No trains, no buses, no taxis, no drivers, absolutely nothing for TWO DAYS. The two days during which we somehow had to get to Ollantaytambo and then to Aguas Calientes, a journey that takes several hours by rail and several days on foot. I had a minor heart attack but tried to keep my cool as I asked, “Is there any chance the trains will still run despite the strike?”
“There’s a chance,” the porter replied, giving me false hope that would be shattered over the course of the next 48 hours. All I could do was cross my fingers and pray that the travel gods would be merciful. They were not.
We set off to explore the city on foot. The sight of hundreds (maybe thousands?) of protestors swarming the streets and public squares of Cusco, and law enforcement officers uniformed in riot gear, was electrifying. It was like something out of a history book. At first we didn’t understand the cause of the strike, which made us nervous. Were they protesting foreign tourists? Did they resent us? We later learned that native locals organized the strike to protest government corruption in connection with selling and leasing national property rights. A completely worthy and sympathetic cause, but my initial selfish reaction was, “Why can’t some other rich people’s vacation be ruined?”
When we were later told that no train reservations were available until Sunday (not what I wanted to hear, considering the fact that our Machu Picchu tickets were valid for only Friday and Saturday), my minor anxiety attack threatened to erupt into full blown panic. After multiple trips to the local PeruRail office, many hours of waiting to speak to an agent, various frustrating attempts to book and re-book train tickets, we were finally able to snag seats that would get us to Aguas Calientes before noon on Friday. From the Aguas Calientes station it was a half hour bus ride up the mountain to reach the Machu Picchu entrance. The site closed at 4:00 P.M., so if all went smoothly, we would be able to explore Machu Picchu for at least a couple of hours on Friday, and still had all day on Saturday.
Did you really think all would go smoothly? Did you?? Hint: FUCK NO.
When we boarded the PeruRail train on Friday morning and breathed a sigh of relief as it pulled out of the station, I was lulled into a temporary state of cautious optimism. We were finally on our way to Aguas Calientes! We enjoyed the pleasant ride — taking pictures of the lush scenery gliding past our window panes, the snacks served by the crew — until, about 45 minutes away from Aguas Calientes, the train mysteriously slowed to a complete stop. We thought nothing of it at first; maybe it was a routine stop. But as the minutes continued to tick away, and crew members spoke Spanish in hushed tones to the tour guides on board, the pounding of my heart grew progressively faster and fiercer. It turned out that another train had broken down directly ahead of us, so we were effectively trapped until that train could be repaired. It wasn’t possible to estimate how long the repair would take; it could be minutes, it could be hours. In my mind I immediately started counting down how much time was left until Machu Picchu closed for the day. Every minute stuck on the train was a minute deducted from our precious time experiencing Machu Picchu, the sole reason we had traveled so far and for so long. I stifled my mounting hysteria as I cursed the fates. Why did we have to end up on this train? WHY DID I CHOOSE THIS TRAIN? Previously, I had decided against taking a train that departed slightly earlier because it meant waking up at an ungodly hour, and we wouldn’t have gotten to our destination that much sooner, or so I thought. But now I realized with devastating self-reproach that if only we had taken the earlier train, we wouldn’t be stuck behind the stupid broken down train. What are the chances that another train would break down right in front of us, less than an hour away from our destination? WHAT. THE. FUCK.
I’m not sure exactly how long we were delayed but I know it felt a lot longer than it was. Eventually, all the passengers were instructed to disembark, walk through a tunnel past the broken down train, and board a rescue train brought from the Aguas Calientes station. The situation would have been comical if I hadn’t felt so tragically aggrieved. One of the tour guides kept looking at her watch, worried that her tour group wouldn’t make it to Machu Picchu in time. When she found out we had tickets for Saturday as well, she insisted we were extremely lucky because her group had only one shot to see Machu Picchu that Friday afternoon. At the time I wasn’t in a very appreciative mood and didn’t feel at all lucky for having to pay twice the fare for the privilege of receiving half the benefit.
By the time we reached Aguas Calientes a little after two o’clock in the afternoon, we were faced with a tough call: should we pay close to an additional $50 for a half hour bus ride up to Machu Picchu (on top of the entrance tickets, which were sunk costs), leaving us with barely an hour to explore, or should we cut our losses and just resign ourselves to seeing Machu Picchu on Saturday only? We decided to decide on the way to the bus station, which was supposed to be a five minute walk from the train station. But it’s a five minute walk only if you know where you’re going. Which we did not. In a panic, Tom dashed off through the outdoor market and down a flight of stairs as I followed in hot pursuit. At that precise moment, the heavens unleashed a torrential downpour, flooding the stone stairway and pavement in a matter of seconds and pummeling us with rain. I felt like I was being flushed down a toilet. My clothes, my socks, my shoes, every inch of my skin was sopping wet. We huddled underneath a nearby restaurant awning and wearily accepted defeat.
We trudged through town asking for directions and finally made our way to the hotel. A cold, clammy, unwelcoming hotel, a last minute substitute for the nicer hotel that I had booked months earlier but which had cancelled our reservation when we weren’t able to arrive on the scheduled date. Such was our luck. As soon as we entered our crappy hotel room, right around the time the bus would have been arriving to Machu Picchu, the rain stopped and the sun broke through the clouds. The travel gods were straight up mocking me at this point and it was the final straw. I broke down, blubbering and slobbering in the most pitiful and undignified way. I cried the way I cried when I was a little kid, tears streaming down my cheeks, snot pouring from my nostrils, a long list of grievances tumbling out of my mouth interrupted only by the occasional hiccup: “I’m so sick and tired of everything going wrong I don’t want anything else to go wrong why is this happening to us why did it have to be fucking pouring raining when we were trying to buy bus tickets and now it’s sunny and we could have been exploring Machu Picchu right now if only we had found the bus station and you didn’t even know where it was and you took off running like you knew where it was but you didn’t and you got us lost and we missed our chance to see Machu Picchu today we’re going to have to throw away these tickets there’s no way they’re going to give us a refund those jackasses I hate them all it’s your fault because I planned everything perfectly and it all got messed up what are the fucking chances that a train would break down right in front of us why did we have to get on that stupid goddamn train what are the chances that a strike would happen right when we got to Peru why did the strike have to completely stop all transportation everywhere what if tomorrow gets messed up too and we never get to see Machu Picchu because WE HAVE THE WORST LUCK EVER!!!!!!!!”
I’m not proud of my behavior, especially the pity party and lashing out at Tom, and I freely admit to reacting very poorly. Up to that point Tom had reassured me that everything would turn out fine and I was pissed that everything had not turned out fine. I was terrified that bad luck would continue to plague us. Tom was the constant voice of reason, pointing out how lucky we were to have the means to take this trip. We decided we wanted to go to Peru so we went. How many people are able to do that? The strike started the day after we arrived. How lucky were we to be able to take a taxi from the airport and not have to drag our luggage for hours through town like the poor travelers we saw arriving to Cusco after the strike had already started? So we’ll get to see Machu Picchu for one day instead of two. Plenty of people allot only one day for Machu Picchu, and many were able to glimpse it for only an hour before they had get on a train right back to Cusco to catch their flights. Some people traveled thousands of miles and had to miss it altogether because of the strike. Plus we got to stay in two of the nicest luxury hotels in Cusco, one of which had a butler. A fucking butler who made us Pisco Sours on demand. We were not pitiable victims of fate. Yes, I understood all that but sometimes I just want to whine and vent like a spoiled brat. Not because I am a spoiled brat, necessarily, but because I hate wasting money. And because I’m an OCD control freak, I hate when things don’t go according to plan. A meticulously researched, well-laid plan. What’s the point of being prepared when shit inevitably blows up in your face?
Fortunately the rest of the trip went relatively smoothly, even though we never were able to negotiate any refunds or compensation from Cusco government officials or PeruRail for our inconvenience. There was a brief period when we were waiting in what appeared to be an interminable line for the bus up to Machu Picchu that I worried we wouldn’t make it to the entrance in time for our Huayna Picchu hike, but we got to hike Huayna Picchu, the neighboring mountain, and Machu Picchu, to our heart’s content. There was one point late in the afternoon when Tom collapsed from exhaustion and told me to go on without him. Maybe one day was enough after all. We boarded a train back to Cusco that evening, happy and exhausted, and utterly contented that we had seen what we had come to see.
The next day, Sunday, I toured the Sacred Valley on my own because work demands required Tom to be chained to a computer all day. I’m not one who enjoys traveling solo but our Sacred Valley tour had to be postponed because of the strike and it would have been a waste to spend the day in a hotel room watching Tom work. So I abandoned my husband Sunday morning and boarded a bus. Thinking it would be awkward to spend the whole day in silence, I struck up a conversation with the gal sitting next to me, who turned out to be a lovely young woman. She was fun and interesting to talk to, so I invited her to join me and Tom for tapas at a local bar later that night. I don’t know if I’ll ever see her again, but incidents like that make me believe that everything happens for a reason, and people come in and out of your life for purposes that you seldom fathom but definitely appreciate.
We spent Monday on another tour of the surrounding region, and then it was time to start our journey back home. We had a fairly lengthy layover in Lima so I urged Tom to take a taxi to see a little bit of the capital city before our flight. He was not happy about it, but the airport waiting area was so depressingly dreary that he reluctantly agreed to go. Lima has a reputation for being seedy and sometimes even downright hostile to tourists. Driving through the sketchy outskirts of town was a pretty intimidating experience, and I started having doubts about the prudence of exploring a crime-ridden city in the dark of night. I hid my anxiety from Tom because I was the one who forced him to go, shaming him for being chicken, for not being adventurous. When we got dropped off in the central plaza, my fears evaporated. It was charming and reminiscent of European squares. We stuck to well-lit, crowded areas, enjoyed some drinks at a café as well as a snack of grilled chicken from a popular local chain, and then headed back to the airport for an uneventful trip to the U.S.
Overall, our trip to Peru was a success despite some rocky patches. Machu Picchu was truly as stunning, breathtaking, and worthwhile as its hype. The sight of it inspired such indescribable joy, delight, and gratitude in my soul. But what I ended up being most grateful for was my ever patient, ever rational and reasonable, ever loving, calm and calming, forgiving, accommodating, best friend and travel companion.