There are two ways to get to Machu Picchu. You can hike in via the Inca Trail – a four day journey over rugged Andean terrain, adored by trekkers worldwide as a mystical “must do” journey. Or, if you’re a bit doughy in the middle, you can take the train from Ollantaytambo to Agua Caliente, and then hop a bus up the narrow switchbacks that bring you to the entry to the lost city.
i took the train*.
Since the 1990’s, when controversial President Alberto Fujimori used effective, yet strong-armed, tactics to stabilize the economy, build infrastructure and eradicate gang violence and terrorism within Peru, tourism has become a significant part of the Peruvian economy. About a decade later, there are still growing pains** evident as the country adapts to a new paradigm – and welcomes the world into their happy place in the Andes.
Our guide, Luis, is a recent graduate of a university tourism program in Cuzco — and he’s delightful! Slamming the Catholic church, Spanish imperialists and his own failed government, we are definitely getting a ‘citizens-eye view’ of modern Peruvian culture. After six hours hiking through Machu Picchu yesterday, we boarded the train back to Ollantaytampo. And Luis, prone to bad jokes***, told us that we were in for quite a treat! An on board fashion show. My seatmate and i shrugged this off, and settled in to decompress from the hike…
After the on-board services crew passed through our coach with drinks**** and snacks, we were surprised when a man in an elaborate Incan costume skittered down the aisle, holding a puppet, and twirling a leather strap over his head. This continued, and tribal music played over the coach speakers. The character – doing some sort of ritualistic dance – would alternately choke and stroke the llama puppet. Never really got what the theme of the dance was, but it was impressive that he could do it in the aisle of a relatively narrow train coach.
Following polite, but confused, applause from the captive audience, he then slunk along the aisle, holding out a purse for tips. A few coins, a few photo ops, and he disappeared.
From the speakers began the unmistakable strains of “Dancing Queen” – and we were told that our on-board services crew would be modeling native Peruvian clothing items, which would be for sale after the fashion show. i shit you not…. the two gorgeous coach stewards (Jorge and Maria) proceeded to mince down the aisle, wearing scarves, sweaters, shawls and other alpaca products. A sweater worn by Jorge even had a neon green “30%” off tag on the back!
Invariably the items on the cart were a overpriced, but sales occurred. The “character” – who kept his mask on for most of the fashion show – had stayed in the front of the coach and assisted Maria and Jorge with their “costume changes”. He was also responsible for folding the clothing items, and preparing the sales cart during the show. Given the youth and exuberance of our “cast”, it seemed a bit like a group of high school kids putting on a show to raise money***** for their youth group!
i just can’t wait until the airlines get ahold of this concept… yet another means to stave off bankruptcy!
* This time. Although the climbing around within Machu Picchu was pretty challenging, and my ass was kicked after 6 hours of moderately strenuous hiking, i’d like to put the Inca Trail on my “would like to do” list. If i had such a list. i’d have to train for it, however, as my doughy ass – carrying a pack – would be collapsed in a quivering puddle after one day on the trail….
** A key infrastructure upgrade that seems to be on the back burner relates to plumbing and sewer management. In Peru, if you can find a toilet with paper (not a problem in cities, and tourist areas), you are expected to put the used paper in a nearby trash can as the pipes have a pesky tendency to clog with just the slightest perturbation. i’m pretty rugged, but am finding this practice a bit unnerving…
*** He likes to tell us that he’s lost, or our hotel burned down, or they’ve lost our luggage or reservations. As i said, he’s an absolute delight! Unfortunately a bit too big to put into my luggage….
**** Me likes me some Inca Cola! Atomic yellow in color, the locals swill this stuff like water. Tastes like Lemon Cream Soda to me…
***** Except this was all being done by the National Rail Service, Perurail. Which – according to our cynical guide, Luis – has a monopoly on rail service, is non-responsive to the people, and could care less about improving services to enhance tourism.