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Photo of the Month - exploring the Story behind the Image...

Looking out over Machu Picchu

Looking out over Machu Picchu

Year: 2010, Month: May

Peru > Cusco > Machu Picchu

Nearly twenty years ago, I came to South America and travelled around the continent in an Overland truck, much the same as I am doing now, in 2010. In 1991, though, I was travelling on a truck belonging to the Exodus company, in the good old days when they actually did have Overland trucks. sadly, those days have passed. Most trucks in those days were based on the rugged British Army workhorse, the Bedford MJ, TM, or TK. Nowadays these have all disappeared, to be replaced by the Mercedes, Ford or Volvo. They are more reliable, and just as importantly, parts are easier to come by. Nobody is prepared to wait a week to get something shipped out from the UK, as we had to do in the past.

One of the highlights of a journey in South America can be found in the mountains of Peru: the famous 'Inca Trail', which leads to the lost city of Machu Picchu. In 1991 it was much easier to arrange; no permits to arrange, no fees to pay, and plenty of space for all the travellers who wanted to make the journey. There weren't very many travellers in Peru, back in 1991, as in those days, a large part of the country, maybe as much as a half, was controlled by the guerrilla organisation 'Sendero Luminosa', or the 'Shining Path'.

The area all around Cuzco was controlled by them, so unless you chose to fly in, at great expense, the only other option was to brave the roads and hope that you would get through. Travelling on an Overland Truck, the roads were the only option for us, and with everyone wanting to visit Machu Picchu, we took the chance, and drove over the narrow mountains roads to get there. The chance nearly didn't come off! We were driving along the twisty tracks towards Cuzco, when turning a corner, we saw a road-block ahead, made of oil drums and timber. Two men were standing by the side of the road, and motioned for our truck to stop. The Exodus driver, a courageous Australian from Dubbo called Steve Treloar, had other ideas. Knowing exactly what might happen if these men were who he thought they were, he drove nearer to the road block, then put his foot hard down on the accelerator and crashed straight through the timber and the big oil drums. The men by the side of the road leapt back in surprise: this was the last thing they expected to happen from a tourist vehicle. Their colleagues, who we now noticed were dotted about the mountain side, high up to our right, were more prepared for such an event, and quickly leapt for their guns, and started firing at the truck. Steve had his accelerator foot hard to the floor, and the truck quickly speeded up and turned the corner, sheltering us from our attackers by a large wall of rock.

In retrospect, we were very lucky that none of the bullets hit the truck, or any one in it. I think that we may have been saved by the time of day: it was around lunch time when this happened, and most of the guerrillas were taking their midday meal, and thus not on alert as they might have been at other times. Their rifles had to be picked up from where they'd been left on the ground, and I feel that this was why the bullets only started to fly once we were past the road block and heading for the next bend in the road. Any other time of day and things could have been horribly different! At the next town, we stopped and reported the incident to the local police, but they weren't interested. After all, what could they do? Send a truck-load of soldiers to the same place, only to find that the guerrillas had melted back into the hills? It was pointless, of course. We carried on the next day to Cuzco, and arrived safely, without any more incident.

In Cuzco at least, being a major centre for visitors and thus a major generator of foreign currency, the situation was a lot more stable, and apart from the usual violent crime that infects many South American cities after dark, then and now, it was a good place for the traveller from abroad to be. We soon organised some porters and guides, and caught the train to Qorihuayrachina, more commonly known as 'Kilometre 88', and the start of the centuries-old Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. The trail takes 4 days, with three nights of camping along the way. The trail is rugged and steep in places, and passes through beautiful scenery ranging from high mountain passes to ethereal cloud forest. Much of the route is on paved roads, or at least, the Inca version of paved roads, a few feet wide, and paved with stone blocks. Surprisingly to us, in comfortable retrospect of centuries past, the Incas invented the road but it didn't occur to them to invent the wheel as well! Who knows what their civilisation might have achieved if they had. They achieved enough, though, as we were to find out once we had passed the famous 'Sun Gate' and glimpsed our first view of the amazing city that we had walked so far to see.

Twenty or so years later, I was back to see Machu Picchu once more. This time, though, it was perfectly safe to drive through the mountains to Cuzco - no armed guerrillas to avoid. I doubt whether today's insurance companies would even have let a truck enter such an area, but in those days of monthly poste restante, no emails and no mobile phones, a truck could rarely be contacted and was left, pretty much, to do its own thing. Having done the classic Inca Trail already, I opted for another change: the chance to walk the more recent 'Community Inca Trail', which avoids the busy route now choked with backpackers and explores other Inca trails and paths that twist and wind through the mountains and past remote villages and settlements to Ollantaytambo, just down the valley from Aguas Calliente, which is itself situated beneath the Inca city of Machu Picchu. After a visit to Pisac, our journey started at the small village of Fundo Huaran, and continued into the mountains past Cancha Cancha to Quishuarani, where we spent the first night.

The next morning, my birthday as it happened to be, we left our tents to be packed on to the pack-Llamas and climbed the steep mountain pass of Huillquicas (4400m) and then descended to the sleepy village of Cuncani. A birthday cake was provided, much to my surprise and delight, in the form of a stack of freshly cooked pancakes and tasty local honey. Next day was much tougher: a long and arduous ascent up the Pumahuanca Pass (4650m), with its statue of Jesus on the top. We descended in pleasant sunshine to the small village of Paccha, and a lovely camp beside a fresh mountain stream. No need to carry water on this trek! On the fourth morning, with the worst of the climbing behind us, we descended along the river valley until the road began near Urubamba, and a lift into the fascinating market town of Ollantaytambo, and a chance to explore the two sets of hillside ruins. We spent the night there, then caught the train the next morning along the valley of the Urubamba River, much battered by local storms, to arrive at Aguas Calliente, and then to Machu Picchu itself. It was everything I remembered, and more, so this Photo of the Month, showing an English traveller looking out over the city of Machu Picchu, is a fitting reminder of trails and trekking, then and now.

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