Our train was scheduled to leave at 16:43, so we busied ourselves for a couple of hours having lunch, collecting our bags from the hostel and wandering through the artisans market (strategically located such that you cannot get to the train station without passing through it). The trains usually start boarding half an hour prior to departure, and as 16:30 came and went we began to suspect the worst. Before long a notice was posted announcing that our train (and another one) would be delayed; our new departure time was 22:30, meaning that we would probably not get to our hostel until 2am
. Derek scurried off to investigate our options (train is the only way in/out) but without success as rumours were starting to proliferate that there was a rock slide somewhere on the tracks. Resigned to our fate, and with five hours to kill, we wandered back to town to have dinner and returned to the train station at about 19:00, hoping that the backlog had started to clear and that perhaps we might be able to get out earlier. As soon as we entered the train station, we knew that something was wrong….the station was packed, every spare seat was taken and people were sprawled all over the concrete floor. Not a single train had arrived or departed since we left two hours earlier. Eight full train loads of passengers were waiting in a very small station that normally only accommodates the passengers of one or two trains at a time. We found ourselves a small patch of concrete and played cards while contorted into several yoga poses in an effort to avoid bodily contact with other travelers.
Finally at around 20:30, PeruRail announced that there had indeed been rock slides and that they were working to clear the lines and would announce a revised schedule as soon as possible. Now, being British, we are used to train delays and with a twist of irony it turns out that PeruRail (our train) is owned by British Rail, although rock slides were somewhat more palatable as a cause of delay than "leaves on the line". At 21:00 quite the commotion ensued as a train pulled into the station and everybody jumped up, gathered belongings and rushed the doors. However, we noticed that the arriving train was a “Vistadome” train (these are the higher priced trains with windows in the roof to provide a more panoramic view) and we knew that there were passengers from at least two vistadomes waiting, but our tickets were for a backpacker train (i.e.
cheapest train tickets). It wasn't long before they announced boarding of passengers with tickets for the first vistadome train that had been delayed, shortly followed by passengers with tickets for the second vistadome. There was much anticipation and suspense in the air. Was the train already full, or would they have room for more, and if so, who would be next priority? As time dragged on and Derek was considering some rather unpleasant options to try to increase our priority, a slither of hope appeared when PeruRail announced our train number. So we started rushing, but weren't’t sure where to rush to since they had created a temporary boarding point at the other end of the station. We joined the queue (British, remember) fairly far back in a line of about two hundred other people! As it turns out PeruRail had connected all available carriages (Vistadome or otherwise) into one train, and there weren’t enough seats for everyone in the line. As they slowed down boarding due to uncertainty of remaining seats, and started loading ones and twos, Derek gesticulated to the guards (as only an Irishman can) that we had kids and to their credit they directed us to pass through. We made it into some of the last seats in the last carriage of the train. We were, needless to say, relieved but little did we know at the time… the adventure wasn’t over yet.
Considering the lack of clear information from PeruRail and the time of night, we were in the dark as to what was going on, but as it turns out this was a blessing in disguise
. Once the train had departed at 10pm they told us that we would not be going to Cusco, but would terminate in Ollantaytambo as the track was not passable to Cusco. They would provide a bus to take us from Ollantaytambo back to Cusco. On two separate occasions, the train slowed to a halt before slowly creeping forward, alongside the raging river and past emergency workers in hard hats, and with much screeching and crunching (we presume due to rock remnants on the tracks). We made it safely into Ollantaytambo shortly before midnight where we boarded a bus bound for Cusco. We subsequently discovered that not only had there been rock slides on the rail tracks, but on the roads too since on several occasions our bus had to swerve violently to narrowly miss huge boulders lying in the road. We arrived in Cusco in one piece at about 2:30am and a short taxi ride later we were at our hostel where we fell exhausted into our beds, only to be woken at daylight by a torrent of loud explosions – What next?!? Now, after the events of the previous night, and in that bleary barely awake state this was completely disorientating – Bombs? Dynamite? Fireworks at 7am? According to our hostel, it was road cleaning crews. What next?
Oblivious to what was really going on in the countryside we had recently passed through, we spent the following day wandering around town, trying to set up tours of the city and of the sacred valley
. We bought our “Touristico” tickets (one ticket for all sites/museums) and planned to do a tour of the sacred valley the following day.
Bright and early the next morning we set off to go on our tour, only to find out there was nothing available in the Sacred Valley. Upon further investigation, we discovered that the fuming river we had witnessed from the train had done its worst, and burst its banks, washing away roads and bridges and cutting off the sacred valley from Cusco and surrounding areas. What we didn’t realize until we saw the news reports was that the river had also washed away parts of the very train tracks we had travelled less than 24 hours before, stranding thousands of tourists at Aguas Calientes for days. We now understand that we had boarded the last carriage of the last train to leave before the tracks were washed away…..see the links below for more details….. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/8480123.stmhttp://www.livinginperu.com/news/natural-disasters
Cusco has been declared a state of emergency
. Although this is the rainy season and the heavy summer rain is expected, it is not been this bad in twenty years or more. One tourist and her guide were killed on the Inca trail to Machu Picchu, several local people have lost their lives in the flooding, thousands of people have lost their homes and many more their livelihoods as thousands of acres of crops have been destroyed. Many tourists also got stranded en route to Cusco as the road from Lima has been washed way in one area and some people we met had to leave their bus, hike for five hours into the mountains to get back to the road and take another bus to get to Cusco. In the centre of Cusco itself, business has continued as normal and it’s easy to forget that they are in the midst of a natural disaster – When tourism is your main source of income, the show must go on. Throughout the day the drone of helicopters passing overhead frequently reminded us of the 3000 people trapped behind in Aguas Calientes; money, food and water running out and nowhere to sleep as supplies are flown in and people are transferred out in priority order (elderly & children first). Counting our blessings (or was it the luck of the Irish) we roamed the town with mixed emotions. We’d brought some toys with us to give to underprivileged kids along the way, but didn’t expect a situation like this so we left most of them with an organization in the centre of Cusco collecting for victims of the flooding who had lost everything.
As a prologue to this story, we were quite shocked to see on the front page of a local newspaper a photo of the very concrete outcrop that we had stood on in Aguas Calientes not 24 hours before in the process of being swept away by the river along with much of the road alongside.
We consider ourselves very fortunate; not only were we unharmed in the middle of a natural disaster, but we also got to see the wonder of Machu Picchu. If it wasn’t for the transportation strike that made us change our plans, we would have been stuck on the road to Cusco and wouldn’t have experienced Machu Picchu! Next stop is Puno & lake Titicaca…fingers crossed that the roads are in good shape and we make it to Puno safely!
We left Machu Picchu on one of the many buses running down to nearby Aguas Calientes, tired but happy having spent a wonderful morning exploring one of the Wonders of the World. Upon arrival in Aguas Calientes, we spent a few moments on a small concrete viewing point between the road and the river, sitting on a bench and recording with our camera the raging fury that the river had become, without fully grasping the imminent implications…