I felt my cheeks flame and my blood pressure jump up a notch.
“I will NOT walk with my CHILDREN along a TRAIN TRACK just to save a few bucks!”
My husband looked back at me and shrugged the way he does when he has decided to not engage. We are not generally the arguing type so he simply became silent, waiting me out. A few tense moments passed and then he spoke softly.
“Maybe you could go downtown and do a little price shopping. Pop into a few of these travel agencies and find out what the deal is with these specials. My Spanish just isn’t that great. Find out if we can do this with kids”.
The he added under his breath, “We just can’t afford that train”.
I knew he was right of course and he had just deftly passed the Machu Picchu planning ball into my court. I needed to figure this shit out quick.
We were feeling the strain of over six months of travel with two kids on an extremely tight budget. That month’s budget had been especially strained as we hadn’t anticipated just how expensive a week at the beach in far Northern Peru would cost. Mancora had turned out to be a food desert where common produce was outlandishly priced, restaurants were aimed at the wealthy, and simple things like a loaf of bread had cost several dollars. Even striving to subsist for 8 days on ramen noodles and mandarins had exceeded our food money by 3 times what we had set aside FOR THE MONTH.
(I’m still pretty pissed about Mancora – if you can’t tell – https://2kidsnoitinerary.com/2014/10/19/mancora-beautiful-beaches-miserable-people/). So we had rolled into Cusco on the barf bus with little left in the bank for the month and had spent the next two weeks hunting deals in the back alleys, haggling with vendors and negotiating desperate deals to wash our dirty laundry. We had hunted down the most basic of restaurants for midday specials on rice and lentils and had boiled water in the shared kitchen to avoid buying bottled. We had spent hours at the flea market dodging pickpockets trying to buy replacement shoes for the kids.
We were broke.
Unfortunately, Machu Picchu – the top of my bucket list, the pinnacle of our entire trip – remained yet to be planned and executed. If this had been any other point in our trip we could have just hung out in Cusco living frugally and pinching pennies for a few weeks to make it to the next month (and payday on the first) except that in less than two weeks we were due to head back to Lima to meet my mom at a pre-paid apartment. I REALLY missed my mom and I was NOT going to be late for that, so we needed to plan this adventure NOW – broke or not.
I composed myself, grabbed my purse and set out to find a deal. We had priced the train that the vast majority of visitors use and it was going to cost the 4 of us around $1000. That didn’t include the hotel, food, and entrance fees to Machu Picchu. It just wasn’t a viable option for us.
Luckily, we were staying at a travelers’ clubhouse aimed at backpackers and other budget types so we were surrounded by people like us who had a wanderlust and a limited fund. Our housemates had told us that despite what most gringos were told, there WAS an alternative to the ridiculously overpriced train to Aguas Calientes. But…there was some effort involved.
(Side note – Aguas Calientes is the entrance town to Machu Picchu. It sits in a little cramped valley surrounded by monumentally high peaks in the Andes. There are hot springs there but otherwise it exists solely to arrange and organize visitors to Machu Picchu. There are no roads to this town, only a train track which services two rail lines – both of which employ some serious price gouging in my opinion. But it IS really beautiful).
Our fellow cheapskate travelers told us of the elusive Sole/299 deal ($99 USD) to Aguas Calientes which involved taking a collectivo style bus from Cusco on a road that was a bit out of the way, getting to some sort of hydroelectric dam, and then walking the remainder of the way along a train track into Aguas Calientes. Does this sound absolutely ridiculous to you?? It did to me and I completely freaked out when my husband first suggested it as a viable alternative.
I visited three travel agents who unfortunately described the exact same deal. A mini bus to hydroelectric, lunch included, then walk along the tracks to Aguas Calientes, hostel room and dinner that night included, then the next day entrance to Machu Picchu with a guide. The final afternoon – walk back along the tracks and a mini bus ride home back to Cusco. 300 soles ($100). Easy peasy, except I was seriously worried about trying to keep up with a group on a long hike with two small kids. Have you walked anywhere in a hurry with a two year old lately?
I headed home worrying the whole way and ran into an acquaintance who worked as a guide in the area. He was reassuringly fluent in Quichua, Spanish and English. He knew our children and understood my concern about this trek along the train track.
“I have a friend who runs an agency nearby. They will work with you to make it possible with the kids”.
So off we went.
“No problemo!” this agent explained. She showed us pictures on her computer of happy, smiling people strolling along a train track. The sun was out and the grass was green. The terrain was flat and easy.
“Take an extra night so that you don’t have to worry about hurrying with the kids. The walk will maybe take about 2 hours. Muy facil! – It’s very easy!”
That didn’t sound too bad. We didn’t think to ask how long of a distance that actually was. We didn’t even think about the bus ride for the first half – I mean LOTS of people did this same trip everyday! I smiled at my husband. We can do this!
And that was how we ended up on the most terrifying bus ride of our lives.
The start to the trip was a little rocky, and maybe in retrospect that should have been a clue as to how fun this trip was going to be. We were supposed to be met at our clubhouse at 8 am (ridiculously early by Peruvian standards) by our collectivo driver. At 8:45 we began to get a little worried. Finally, at 9:15, a woman came hurrying up the path to our clubhouse.
“Ether?” she asked (Heather in Spanish). Can you please follow me? The bus is parked in the plaza”..
Off we scurried following her about a half mile to the plaza mayor. Then we continued another half mile to the actual parking spot. The kids were moaning the whole way.
Finally sweaty and breathless, we made it aboard. As we set off on the trip we got to know our fellow travelers. They were mostly Peruvians trying to save a buck. There was several young girls who lived in Lima and were part of a school group. One had a boyfriend with who gallantly sat the entire trip on the armrest of her seat. They giggled a lot and took tons of pictures of our son who is blond haired and blue eyed. They passed our kids candy when they were whiney and we enjoyed their company.
We sat in the very back of the 15 passenger bus and I was wedged next to an extremely nice older man named Jesus. He was a grandpa of five from a little town in Mexico. I absolutely LOVED this man and found a kindred spirit immediately. He explained that he was retired and didn’t have much money but DID have a lot of time, and he LOVED to travel. (Sound familiar?). His wife wasn’t a big fan of traveling so she just patiently sent him on his way with his backpack. Last year he visited Europe and Africa, and this year he and his backpack were off to South America.
He sat with us on the bus and at lunch and dinner. He put up with my sad Spanish skills. He warned my son about the dangers of chewing his nails. He talked to my daughter about remaining positive. He gave my husband a thumbs up when the train track trek became quite difficult. He waited for us when we were absolutely the slowest people on the trail. He was very kind and patient.
Our bus took the slow road to Hydroelectric. For most of the trip it was a two-lane, curvy mountain road that climbed the Andes slowly. The clouds loomed overhead throughout the morning and at the narrow point of every hard curve there was either a landslide or a small waterfall. I realize that sounds exaggerated – but it is absolutely the truth. This was an extremely dangerous road.
We had to slow to drive over rocky landslides and sometimes rather deep water on the road many, many times throughout the morning. My husband and I were nervous and tense looking out the window, especially when it seemed that our driver was trying to break some kind of land speed record despite all of the obstacles. As has often been the case on our travels throughout South America, the other passengers seemed to mostly take it all in stride. The giggling girls on the bus continued to happily snap pictures of our son and Jesus merely shrugged and muttered something about that being part of life in the mountains.
At one point, we had to stop along with all of the other cars and mini-buses on the road. There had been a much bigger landslide and the road was completely closed to traffic.
We waited for about an hour until some diggers came along (that’s what my two-year old calls them). We thought that maybe they were going to actually clear the road – but no! They merely flattened the landslide out so that we could drive over the dirt! Its totally not scary at all driving over one very narrow lane of loose dirt that is mounded up next to a sheer drop-off in the Andes!
After about four hours of that fun we stopped for lunch at a simple open-air restaurant high up in the mountains. The kids ran around and played in the field and we enjoyed a pleasant rest out of the bus. If I had realized how filled with terror I was going to be in the next hour I don’t think I would have been quite so relaxed.
We had driven down through some deep valleys in the morning, so despite spending a fair amount of time climbing mountains we still had a ways to go to get up to Aguas Calientes. As we drove higher, the cloud cover was thicker and the mountains were wetter and wetter. The aforementioned waterfalls were now pretty significant and a good deal more threatening. To make matters even worse, we had turned off of that smooth, two-land highway and were now driving on a dirt, one lane road that seemed to hang just BARELY on the edge of the Andes.
The other passengers had stopped giggling and were now looking as nervous as we had felt all morning long.
The most terrifying moment on our trip came when we approached a deep curve and realized that a HUGE waterfall had completely overtaken the road. The water had literally completely washed the road out and the bend was impassable. Right before we made it to that point, my husband snapped a picture of some old, wimpy wooden planks that someone had placed across a narrow point in the canyon. It looked funny because – who on earth would ever be stupid enough to drive or even walk across this rather precarious looking bridge hanging over a deep canyon high up in the Andes?!
Well, you guessed it! Our driver seemed to pause thinking for just a second, then unbelievably backed up, made a sharp left turn and proceeded to drive this 15 passenger BUS filled beyond capacity over these planks! Everyone on the bus seemed to have the same reaction and we all gave the same terror filled scream at the same time. Then there was a moment of complete silence while we all held our breaths waiting to plunge to our end, and then another simultaneous scream as we all realized that somehow, miraculously, we had managed to escape certain death.
I cannot emphasize enough how completely stupid we felt in the next moments as we held hands in the back of the bus and thought about that nice train ride we could be on right now if we just could have skipped that 8 days of hell in that godforsaken beach town in Northern Peru where peanut butter cost $10 a jar.
But believe it or not, there was still more fun awaiting us further up the mountain!