To the dismay of the Peruvian Government, naked people have been on the increase at Machu Picchu. It has been described as ‘a rash of naked tourism’ but I am rather disappointed to note that they must be referring to the mosquito bitten bums of some rather solitary streakers rather than crowds of nude backpackers. We see the stern warnings on the information boards as we arrive, darkly advising us to remain fully clothed or risk destroying the sanctity of the site. Exactly how a bare bottom or two desanctifies what was essentially a summer house for Pachacuti, the Inca king, is a mystery.
I suspect it is more to do with the awe inspiring heaps of cash the government have rolling in to their coffers from sales of exorbitantly priced entrance and bus tickets. If people start bouncing about in the buff too much, it makes the place look a bit silly. And who wants to visit a ‘Wonder Of The World’ if it’s silly? Although I rather like the idea of a bouncy castle at Stone Henge, a naked conga on The Great Wall Of China. You only have to look to 17th century Japan at Edo period prints of epic farting battles or mediaeval gargoyle monkeys quietly posting carrots up pig’s backside in famous Gothic cathedrals, to know that silliness has been embraced throughout the ages by people otherwise engaged in quite serious activities.
Machu Picchu is certainly a beautiful place, nudey or not. The four of us stand on a high terrace gazing down at the ruined estate before us admiring the famous and oft captured view. We are surrounded in all directions by lush, cone shaped mountains, worn nubby at the top but spectacularly steep and green. Why you would build such an extensive site in such an inaccessibly perchy position is beyond me, but then so is human sacrifice and slavery and the Incas went in for that too. I guess me and the Incas wouldn’t have much in common. I’ll never know because small pox and the brutality of the Spanish conquistadors wiped them out and by the mid 1500’s the once all conquering Inca Empire was in ruins. By 1550 Machu Picchu too, lay empty and abandoned, having only seen one hundred years of use.
The story sold by the tour guides is that, having been informed of the encroaching Spanish, King Pachacuti ordered the paths to the city to be destroyed and covered in foliage to keep the grubby Castilian mitts firmly off it. They say that, for this reason, the puzzled Spanish never found it. It then apparently settled in to a deeply forested decrepitude, lost and forgotten until 1911 when an American hero archaeologist, Hiram Bingham battled his way through virtually impassable jungle and rediscovered the Lost City Of The Incas.
It’s a golden story but quite untrue. In fact, the site had been officially ‘discovered’ a few years earlier by a Peruvian named Gustín Lizárraga during an expedition. He even left an inscription on the wall that Hiram copied down in his notebook. It wasn’t a terrible trial to reach the place, despite Bingham’s later claims, as the site had actually remained fairly clear of jungle as can be noted in his first photos of the place. Farmers had been quite happily using the beautiful terracing and living on the site for many years. The existence of the site and the ways in, were common knowledge and the boastful archaeologist actually found it by asking locals and walking, quite unimpeded, right in to the place. To top it all off, Machu Picchu isn’t actually The Lost City Of The Incas at all, that would be Vilcabamba which is somewhere else completely. I suppose it sounds good on paper though.
Vilification of American archaeologists aside (after all he is said to be the basis for the character of Indiana Jones, so he did indeed achieve something great), those Incas really knew a thing or two about masonry work. Bearing in mind we are perched atop a steep mountain at 2430 metres, they hadn’t invented the wheel and had no iron tools, the place is extremely impressive. Gorgeous banks of terraces roll down the mountainsides where, once, passionfruit, maize, tomatoes and potatoes would have been cultivated. There are temples all over the place built with great, grinding chunks of superbly cut stones which house precision sun dials and shallow dishes of water in which one can gaze at the reflection of the stars and make astrological calculations. There are ruler straight channels cut in to boulder after boulder which act as aqueducts to keep the inhabitants and their crops in clean, fresh spring water. Long, tumbling staircases range up and down the torturously steep streets and little windows in the houses look out on tiny snatches of the fabulous scenery beyond.
Suzie and David are in awe of this regal, collapsed place. The mountains spreading out around us, the sunlit swaying vegetation, the lichen covered walls gambolling down to a gut flipping precipice, the ragged royal order of the place. From up high the site is like an intricately carved ancient brooch and we stand there admiring it. We have spent the last few hours wiggling about in the narrow streets poking our heads through windows and nosing about in niches. Little translucent snail shells and tiny, neat spider’s nests are tucked in every nook, sometimes accompanied by a bleached piece of bone or a little collection of tiny mica jewelled stones. I pick up a piece of rib left on an empty windowsill and try to imagine Pachacuti gnawing away on it but the great king remains at a blurry distance in my mind. A people who use knotted string as a written language and sacrifice small children to the sun god have always been difficult to conjure an image of.
However, I really try as we march about on the terraces. I squint my eyes at the walls and try to imagine the hands that built them. I drag everyone down to the Inca Bridge, a gap in a perilous looking stone path built as a secret entrance for the Inca army. The gap is bridged by wobbly wooden planks which could be lifted away ensuring that access across the 1900ft drop was rendered impossible. I peer through the locked gate at the wooden planks. I know they are modern replacements but they are the one thing here that reminds me of real people and I am fascinated by them. Suddenly I can imagine tired troops shambling back down the terrifyingly narrow path and trundling noisily across these planks, the last men across lifting them up and setting them at a lean against the cliff wall. Suzie, David and Jamie appear behind me having taken some pictures from higher up and we stand there peering though the gate for a while before turning back and noisily returning to the main site. The fall to our left yawns frighteningly wide and we admire the tenacity of the stunted, lichen draped trees clinging to the edge with their exposed roots. Long, trumpety, elegant fuschia flowers hang from the bushes and the big, arcing sky stretches tent like above us. Far below we can see a tiny, snaking brown river wriggling through the toy jungle.
By five o’clock we are exhausted by such intense bouts of observation. Jamie and Suzie have gone to have a last thirty minute loop around the place while David and I have set ourselves comfortably on a series of wide, flat stones jutting from a wall that act as a staircase for those with long legs and lots of energy. We can see the others far below us, pale pink and blue specks on legs waving in miniature from amongst the flowing, leaking crowds. We wave back with massive, swinging arm movements and see them snapping photos of us before they vanish behind the Sun Temple. We stand creakily with matching sore knees and begin a long, spine thumping, hoppity journey down an uneven staircase. The Incas loved massive steps and for this, I will never forgive them.
We reach the entrance and wait on a bench until Jamie appears, followed several minutes later by a wide eyed, smiling Suzie who agrees with David that it has been an amazing day.
We never thought we’d come here!
Says Suzie volubly,
It’s so far away! And it’s just wonderful!
And David nods gravely, the memories of marching terraces, chewing llamas and beautiful temples scudding visible and cloud-like across his face.
I would argue, however, that there is a greater wonder to come. I have highly trained skills in spotting really good dives. If an eating or drinking establishment buzzes with a certain, almost unidentifiable rakishness, a certain crappy splendour, I will just know it will be a good place to visit. Jamie often defers to my ‘divey senses’ when we are looking for somewhere to eat and we have had many an excellent dinner at rock bottom prices upon sticky tables thanks to them. As we roll back in to town on the very ordinary bus which sports neither thrones nor sceptres, my whiskers start twitching. There’s a dive here and it’s where we are going for dinner.
An abandoned, half built shop with no glass in the windows and a pile of rubble outside attracts my attention. There are two wooden tables outside it on the rough, untiled concrete clearing out front. The tables are both full of people with big bottles of beer, eating with their hands. A man in grubby chefs whites tends to an oil drum which has been cut in half lengthwise, hinged and set on its side on a stand. The bottom half of it has been filled with coals and smoke and steam are pouring off the sizzling meat cooking atop the coals. On a flimsy looking blackboard is scrawled ‘pork’ and ‘chicken’ and some other unintelligible scratchings.
By five thirty we are piling on to a miraculously free table and sending the cook’s quiet daughter running to the shop to bring us chilly bottles of Cusqueña beer. We order four plates of pork and a smokey, spitting ten minutes later are elbow deep in chunks of meat as big as a fist. The huge plates are also laden with boiled potatoes and salad, all of which is to be scooped up with our hands. It is a rather wonderful sight, Jamie and Suzie, vegetarians until their arrivals in Latin America, David, a well mannered and measured eater, gobbling down hunks of barbecued pig with fat running down their hands, swigging beer and laughing. It is a perfect way to end a day of serious pilgrimage. So good, in fact, that we end the next day in the same way to the exhaustion of the wonderful chef who had clearly hoped to finish up and drink his friends.
Several kilos heavier we board the train the next day, bound for Ollyantaytambo. Mysteriously none of the trains actually go back to Cusco station so we use the anomaly as an excuse to take Suzie and David to the textiles collective at Chinchero. The last time we visited we walked away light in wallet and heavy in shopping bag. This visit is no different except that this time, the sales are directed at Suzie and David who leave an hour with a beautiful rainbow coloured blanket and an alpaca scarf which they clutch to them as they hop in the collectivo. This cargo is too precious to be lobbed on the roof and loosely tied down with string.
The collectivo speeds us back into Cusco. The word ‘Cusco’ means ‘belly button’ and refers to a time when it was the centre or belly button of the Inca empire. I reflect on this as the city appears, piled in to a great bowl-like valley below us. Today, the historic centre remains although the Inca contribution is reduced to a series of ruins and the first metre or two of the buildings where they rise from the ground. The great, sculpted stones in that dark, almost metallic stone form the bottom third of Cusco but above that, everything was built by the Spaniards. Beyond the historical centre, the city is built from the cheap, boxy red bricks and construction rods that everything else in Peru is made from. I wonder what the Incas would have made of this jumbled mass sprawling out beyond their belly button, at the Spanish adobe tops to their intricately built town. I wonder what they would have thought of this nation of Spanish speakers who worship a bearded man from a country completely unknown to most of them. I wonder if they would have shaken their heads in dismay or would they have thought the progression just a little fascinating. I turn away from the view and within a few minutes we are at the collectivo station unlosing our bags from the roof and walking back in to the city.
The remaining time in Cusco passes quickly in a series of rashly purchased gifts and a return to the little restaurant we enjoyed so much before. The pisco sours help the evening down very nicely and it is with a little regret that we take a taxi the next day to the bus station. Our slightly sketchy looking taxi driver fumbles in his wallet for change and hands me a folded note for change then spins off, burning rubber as he goes. I am so busy suspiciously counting the coins that I fail to notice he has given me a fake twenty printed conspicuously on copier paper with ‘dinero de fiesta!’ stamped at one end. I have been given a Christmas decoration as change. I splutter with indignation when Jamie takes it from me and notices the second he touches, craning to see where the taxi sped off to but needless to say he is long gone.
It says ‘party money’!
I say, perking up at the nice phrase and decide that from now on, I will call all my wages ‘party money’. It might make paying the electricity bill more fun.
Still holding the fake note, I sit down to wait for the bus and find my gaze diverted towards the television which is switched to a news channel and muted. A scrolling banner running with words distracts me and I frown, translating the words surrounding the familiar name.
David Bowie is dead!? What?!
I shout. Jamie sits up.
Oh no! What about Dan?!
He says mournfully, thinking of our friend who is David Bowie’s number one fan.
I don’t believe it!
I cry. And a couple in front turn and nod.
The girl says simply, raising her eyebrows in similar disbelief. They turn back and we stare at the television in silence. He died the previous day of cancer, something he had informed nobody but his closest friends and family of. It always seems bubblelike and bizarre when someone so famous turns out to be as fallible as the rest of us. I stare in disbelief as the words ‘David Bowie, muere de cáncer a los 69 años de cáncer’ scroll and scroll in circles on the screen. The boarding announcement interrupts a vivid memory of an evening spent with friends several years back, singing ‘Due Due the bus is due!’ to the tune of Blue Blue Electric Blue on our way to a Bowie themed party and I stand up smiling.
Once we are ushered in to the bus I suddenly understand why the taxi driver scammed us. This terminal is solely for the company we have reserved with and the buses are ludicrously posh. He must have thought we were just astronomically rich compared to himself because these buses must be so out of reach for the average Peruvian. I feel a mixture of cringing embarrassment and hilarious excitement when I see our seats. When we reserved our tickets, we upgraded ourselves to VIP status for an extra £4 and it seems that very important people require enormous, reclining leather armchairs and a personal, interactive television. Our big, plushy seats recline to nearly horizontal with a pull down flap to stretch your legs on to. We have a removable table, a little pillow, a fluffy blanky, cup holders and are to be served snacks and coffee mid journey. For Suzie and David, who have just flown in and have not yet seen a more realistic side of Peru, it’s nothing too out of the ordinary. For me and Jamie, however, who have sweated and cursed, coughed up fumes, dragged the bike out of ditches and smeared the black from our eyes, this is an unimaginable comfort and we recline like kings all the way to Puno.
It’s not until six in the evening that we finally cross the border back in to Bolivia and arrive in Copacabana, the small town on the banks of Lake Titicaca we left behind as we headed to Chile. The place is thronging with people and the hotel we stayed in before is a third more expensive and is also completely full. We end up in a fairly cruddy backstreet hotel and are woken in the morning by a car running its engine while the driver waits for other car owners to vacate in front of him. After fifteen minutes of sitting there running his engine, the small courtyard fills with exhaust fumes at six thirty in the morning and soon we are all coughing and choking as our rooms fill up too. Jamie eventually marches downstairs and taps on the window. I hear his angry voice echoing about in broken Spanish,
The rooms! Full of…of…smoke! The rooms!
We waves his hands in the air to signify the clearance of fumes.
And then comes back up stares looking puzzled. The engine is turned off and gradually we can breath again. I ask him what the matter is. He tells me that he has never shouted at someone angrily before and have them not respond angrily in turn.
The driver just kind of looked at me and nodded mildly….
And I was like…oh…..why aren’t you annoyed?
And I suddenly think of Paola, the Colombian wife of Jamie’s fellow bike crater in Buenos Aires. She told us that she regularly shouts at people to shut up if they are too noisy and feels no self consciousness about it because self consciousness doesn’t exist on this continent like in the UK. In turn, those who are shouted at take it in their stride. If it’s no big deal to shout at someone, it’s no big deal to be shouted at. The driver of the car just hears an ordinary complaint and responds to it for what it is, no big deal. I like it, it’s efficient and carries none of the shrieking indignation that we have in the UK.
We decided, since we have already been treated to a mild dose of carbon monoxide poisoning, that we might as well just get up and celebrate surviving. We do this with the purchase of four boat tickets and a small knitted chicken. The boat tickets are mandatory to get to the Isla Del Sol, the chicken optional but Suzie likes the look of him so he comes too. The boat leaves at 8.30 just as the rain starts and by ten we are clambering out the small boat and find ourselves back on the shores of the the island of the sun in drizzling rain. Jamie and I haul the bags up the steep path which has turned in to a muddy stream in the inclement weather. We are gasping in the altitude and bickering quietly when we find a huddled group of newly built cabins which boldly assert their status as ‘The Palace of the Incas’. This, I doubt strongly. The Incas would take one look at the ill fitting concrete lintels and wibbly beds and sacrificed several children in disgust. However, it’s cosy and cheap and a massive improvement on the previous place we stayed where friendliness and toilet paper were expressly not included.
The island is lambent with soft, rain drenched colours, twice as green as it was the last time we came here. The little knots of leaves pushing from the tiny fields are now fully fledged broad bean plants alight with delicate white flowers smudged black at their centres. We stand on a path high above the lake gazing out over the rust coloured fields and exclaiming in delight at the wildflowers. We greet the quiet islanders who pass us by and coo at some tiny kittens having a wash by their mother. We are like characters from an Enid Blyton novel. Golly, Jamie! isn’t it pretty! Lummy! But eventually I ruin it by finding a spine in a waterfall and holding it up for everyone. Five gristle linked, grubby vertebrae dripping with water.
Put it down.
Says Jamie but takes a photo anyway.
Later we are heading to the eucalyptus copse at the crest of the island when we spot a melancholy alpaca by the path. Jamie, who has strolled ahead of us and closer to the alpaca, suddenly stops and turns to stare at the indignant looking creature.
Careful! She spits!
Jamie shouts, wiping his jacket down and we break off our conversation to hurry up and take a look at this fabled event. The alpaca, small and fat looking with an outraged face and mudcaked wool looks back at me with an expression of almost hysterical disgust. One fucking step and I’ll have you killed, that look says. So I take a step just to test her. I can almost hear the alpaca gasp in outrage. She takes a dainty step forward and then prepares herself for the event. She makes a chewing, jaw working movement, as though rearranging a marble in her mouth then purses her lips. An audible splooph! sound and ball of alpaca spit is fired in my direction. I duck and open my mouth in joyful amazement and everyone laughs.
Oh my goodness! I didn’t know they really spat! I thought it was a myth! I’ve been spat at! By an alpaca!
I shout excitedly.
Says Suzie affectionately at the alpaca who is staring at me, visibly suffused with rage. Suzie is like The Horse Whisperer except with all animals. Cats, dogs, chickens, it doesn’t matter, animals adore her. Their cat Manu howls and bites, slinks away muttering darkly to himself when you go near him and bats you on the leg if you deign to walk too close to him, but for Suzie, he will do anything. Anywhere she is in the house, Manu will be there somewhere gazing at her in adoration and when she picks him up, he won’t make a peep. Evidently she can alpaca whisper too for this little madame makes absolutely no attempt to spit at her. All it’s venom is centred on me and Jamie.
Says Jamie and I look at the alpaca who is gearing up again. Seconds later I am dodging another grass filled spit bullet.
Says the alpaca. And much to her dismay, we all burst out laughing again. She moves forward towards us with intent but she is tied by her leg to a rope and we have moved back. We are out of reach. She chews once, twice, looks at us all in turn with bright, surprised eyes and we turn and flee up the hill out of spitting range. We follow the path towards the woods, eucalyptus leaves dried to a low cerise red crunching beneath our feet. I turn round, puffing with the uphill exertion, to look back at the alpaca. She is still staring at me with her little, round, angry face and it makes me laugh again.
I can’t believe it!
I say to Jamie.
I can’t believe I got spat at by an alpaca. It’s the best thing that ever happened to me!
I say. And I really mean it. Here, amongst the gently swaying trees, the silvery surface of Lake Titicaca stretching out behind them and the cool, watery air, a cross alpaca has just made me absurdly, wonderfully happy. Her sniffy, cross little face watches me as we round the corner and I smile all the way to the top of the hill.