Our bus ride to Cusco from Puno was yet another lesson in Latin American politics for our family. While at the time we viewed the hassles as a travel novelty, we later realized how lucky we were to make the journey unscathed. The strikers did not turn violent against us personally but we learned that they had killed two policemen in Puno the day before. (That would account for the heavy presence of shotguns on the brigade who led our caravan.) Likewise the mild-mannered little schoolteachers we passed in Juliaca went on a rampage after we left them, setting cars on fire and seizing an entire airport. Though unassuming in appearance, these angry, test-fearing educators can get downright nasty.
Many of our companions on our Floating Islands excursion in Puno boarded night busses to Cusco immediately following the tour. This was before the strikes erupted and none of us suspected any problems. In a wave of parental caution, however, Tom and I opted for the day bus, since crashes on Peru’s mountain roads are commonplace. We figured navigating the winding route during daylight was a safer bet than doing so under cloak of darkness, and as it turns out, we were right. We didn’t write about this at the time…we figured all the info about the strikes was frightening enough for the grandparents…but two Cusco-bound busses crashed in the early morning hours before we left Puno. We noticed one a few hours outside Cusco, a double decker with its windshield blown out and front right quadrant smashed. It didn’t look too serious, but there were no passengers around to tell their tale.
When we got to Cusco and did a little research, we learned that the bus we saw had crashed around midnight. The passengers, mostly tourists, had been forced to wait by its side guarding their baggage until another bus arrived five hours later to retrieve them. Far worse was another accident, which we fortunately did not see, in which 14 people were killed. SUTEP protestors had begun placing rocks in the road before sunrise and an unsuspecting driver lost control of his bus when he encountered them. The protestors we passed in Juliaca had chanted that the president had the blood of those who died in the streets on his hands, a curious transferance of blame for their dangerous misdeeds.
Our first task in Cusco was to reschedule our Machu Picchu trip. There are two ways in to the revered site: the first is via the Inca Trail, a hike we knew our little people couldn’t make and which books up months in advance. The second is the train, for which a limited number of high-priced seats are available. When PeruRail cancelled one day’s trains due to the strike, everyone with tickets for that day got priority for rescheduling for future days. By the time the dust settled, we had tickets for 3 days later than we had expected, no great tragedy but a stress nonetheless. Fortunately Gringo Bill’s, our hotel in Aguas Calientes, the village at the base of the mountain, could shift our reservation and our new home in Cusco, the Royal Inka I, made room to accommodate us for a few extra nights.
McKane and I wandered the city streets the first day trying to fulfill a number of important tasks. In the end, all we succeeded in doing was dodging a steady stream of chanting, tire-burning, 2×4-wielding protestors and meeting up with fellow travelers from Bolivia. Everyone had stories to tell and was praying the rails would reopen so they could get to Machu Picchu before their flights home. Though I was frustrated we were having to waste a day bypassing chanters and handling logistics, McKane was in his element. The two things he loves most about travel–shopping and meeting people–were in rich supply on the streets of Cusco.
The next day the cars returned to the city streets (they had been blockaded the day before), the trains started running (though one was derailed, two were turned back, and others had rocks thrown at them), and we got to know Cusco. We bought the pricey tourist tickets that granted us entry to 16 different sites and were disappointed to discover our $23 each didn’t include any of the town’s churches. In the past few years some “museums” that are more like grade school art exhibitions have replaced the churches on the tourist ticket, so a new “churches only” ticket can be sold at a price of $11. We visited the museums of folk art, contemporary art, and local history and the Convent of Santa Catalina (which the kids found creepy) before calling it a day. We were underwhelmed by the museum offerings but eager to venture outside the city to the ancient Inca ruins.
Of the many options available, we chose to travel to the ruins of Pisac, an Inca citadel about an hour outside Cusco. We hopped a cab in the early afternoon and had the ruins virtually to ourselves. Protestors had been blocking other routes in to the Sacred Valley and generally messing up the standard tour bus routes, so arriving independently proved a wise choice on our part. We hiked the trails that snaked through the hillside fortress, soaked up the sacred vibe at the captivating Temple of the Sun, and played hide and seek amongst the crumbling stone walls overlooking Pisac’s massive agricultural terraces.
As we wandered, we talked about the Incas, the Spanish, and the surprising versatility of ancient ruins. How could the Incas have guessed that 700 years after they constructed them, their stone masterpieces would become a playground for gringos? Probably no more than our Cambodian guide, Ponheary Ly’s, Khmer ancestors anticipated that she and her friends would play hide and seek in the tree-covered halls of Angkor in the fateful days before Pol Pot’s seizure of power. The Incas certainly did not anticipate their demise at the hands of the Spanish, but their striking craftsmanship stands as a legacy that reminds all those who visit they were an advanced and formidable civilization.
We drifted off to sleep our final night in Cusco, our minds filled with the rich yet conflicting images of Baroque art, Inca stonework, and chanting teachers. We hoped that when the morning arrived, the modern day Peruvians would clear the roads and rails long enough to grant us access to the pinnacle of all Peruvian sites–the ancient mountain itself. If not, perhaps we would have to join other anguished tourists and blaze an Inca trail of our own.