Remembering past experiences: hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and the horrible train ride home

Machu Picchu. The name itself conjures up mystery, intrigue. That fabled Lost City that the Incas carefully crafted with perfectly fitted stones in a picturesque valley surrounded by towering Andean peaks. I remember seeing a picture of Machu Picchu taken from the Sun Gate, a vantage point allowing for an overview of the city awakening at dawn, and immediately feeling a passionate desire to go there. To be there. I wanted to wander the ruins, and explore those nooks and crannies.

Llama at Machu Picchu, Peru

Llama at Machu Picchu, Peru


So I chose Peru (and Ecuador) for my first trip outside North America. Top on my list was hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, followed by the Galapagos.

Dead Woman

With my brother, Chris, at Dead Woman’s Pass, 4200 meters, on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

That was 17 years ago.

I wasn’t really into photography then. Took these with a cheap film camera (thus the poor quality). But what better way to relive past memories than to look back at old photos? And read old journals?

Today I fulfilled my daughter’s 7th grade Spanish teacher’s request–to do a presentation for her class about “all the Spanish speaking countries you’ve been to.” Preparing to do so allowed me to linger over fading photos stuck to cellophane and read old journal entries about past experiences…some details I’d completely forgotten, some were still vivid.

I still remember the thin air and the effort it took to climb the stone steps along the Inca Trail that seemed to tall for the Inca men who historically were no taller than me at 5’3.” I still remember the surprise and joy I felt seeing other Inca ruins along the trail, not just the magical gem at the finish line. I remember walking around those ruins on my own, wondering what life was like back then.


Chris looking out at the intriguing Runkeracay ruins along the Inca Trail

Chris looking out at the intriguing Runkeracay ruins along the Inca Trail on day 3

But I also remember the awful train ride at the end.

Our 2:30 train finally approached at 6:15pm. As the already jam-packed train slowed (never stopped), our guide yelled, “RUN, jump on any car and get off at Ollyantambo!!” I remember being trampled, hanging on to an open doorway in a contorted position in what turned out to be three hours, forced into unnatural positions by aggressive backpackers, feeling pain, fright, and especially fear when someone pulled a lever beside me causing a foul steam to emit along with a shrieking blast that deafened my ears. Tear gas?! I covered by face until it dissipated. People were screaming, wailing, crying, vomiting. Pure chaos. The only English speaking girl on my car kept repeating, “I’m scared! I’m scared!” Her eyes were wild and she decided to jump off the moving train. The conductor couldn’t get through the passengers squished like sardines so he proceeded to collect tickets by walking across people—mostly their shoulders, but he stepped on my calves–as my legs were trapped behind me between weighted rice bags. I had no idea how long the train ride was supposed to be, and no way to communicate. All attempts were in vain. I remember my surprise seeing an local woman huddled on the floor underneath us with a sleeping baby at her breast and a toddler nuzzled under her arm. Her eyes were gentle and caring. Through gestures and fragmented Spanish, she understood my dilemma and indicated 3 hours time till arrival, and that she would alert me when to jump off the train as it slowed at Ollyantambo’s station. She was a godsend.

I later found out that the shiny, practically vacant, tourist train that left when we did was only 15 soles more than the 5 soles we paid. Our guide had waved it off as impossible, telling us it cost hundreds of dollars and there was no difference in travel time. We would have all paid the paltry extra fee of 15 soles gladly. We were never given the option. Had we taken it, we would’ve traveled to Cuzco directly, instead of taking a train to Ollyantambo and then a bus from there to Cuzco, arriving six hours later, after midnight. I don’t really like that kind of adventure.

That experience taught me the importance of doing your own research when planning a trip. (Maybe especially if taking an organized budget tour where everything is “arranged” for you.) Of knowing what possible hassles or dangers to expect, and what alternate options exist.

And it also reminded me… You do get what you pay for.





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