Machu Picchu Before It Was a Thing


It was 1977. I was finishing up ten weeks of student teaching in an American oil school in Caracas, Venezuela. My roommate, Christy, wanted to travel for two weeks before we went home to the states. She wanted to visit Machu Picchu in Peru.
I’d never heard of it.
“It’s the lost city of the Incas,” she said. “My dad read about it in National Geographic.”

We went to see a travel agent about planning our trip. I realized I didn’t have enough money to pay for the side trip. My parents called.
“Grandpa is dying,” Mom said.
I was stunned and silent.
“Say something!” Mom demanded. “This call is very expensive!”
“I can’t leave and come home,” I said. “I still have three weeks of student teaching.”
“Don’t worry about that,” Mom said. “Grandma will understand.”
“I want to go to Peru,” I said. “But I need $300.00.”
“That’s a lot of money,” Dad said.
“I know.”
“Let me talk to Grandma,” Mom said.
The next week I got a letter saying that my grandparents wanted me to go to Peru and that they would pay the $300.00. Mom told me where they would wire the money. In those days, everything was done with cash. No one took credit cards in Venezuela. It didn’t matter, because I didn’t have one, anyway.
Christy and I went back to the travel agency where the woman set up all of our hotel reservations, our flights, everything. I paid her with the wired cash that I had converted into bolivares — Venezuelan currency.
Christy and I packed a small bag for our two week adventure. We had our big suitcases sent home ahead of us. There was just one problem. My mother had taken my tennis shoes out of my bag before I’d left Iowa, saying, “You aren’t going to need those. You will be teaching the whole time.”
Since my bag had been over the 50 pound limit, I had agreed to leave them behind. Now I was heading on an adventure across South America and had no appropriate footwear. I didn’t have any money to buy some, plus they would have been crazy expensive in Caracas. Tennis shoes were an American thing.
Christy suggested that I look in the lost and found at our school. There was a boy’s pair of shoes, but they were too small for my size 9 feet. I took them anyway and spent the evening cutting out the rubber toes so that my feet could fit.
The teachers threw us a going away party, and the next day we headed to the Caracas airport in a cab to begin our trip. First we flew to Quito, Ecuador, and spent the night. The next day we flew to Lima, Peru, and had a feast at our hotel while watching native dancers perform. They needed a volunteer, and of course Christy was chosen to go up on stage and wiggle her newly acquired tail feather. The girl never ran out of energy.
The next day we flew to Cuzco, a town built by the Incas and then rebuilt by the Spaniards that came to conquer them. We needed a couple days of altitude adjustment (11,152 feet) before heading to Machu Picchu (7972 feet). Of course I got an altitude headache. Of course Christy did not.
Since I was about to earn my degree in Spanish, I loved the history of Cuzco. How lucky I was to have a roommate whose father had suggested the trip. How lucky to have grandparents footing the bill.
The train to Machu Picchu was slow and filled with local people. We two stuck out like a sore thumb with Christy’s blue and my hazel eyes, her blond hair, and my towering height over the short Peruvians. I got stared at just walking to the bathroom. I got caught when the train pulled into a platform, literally with my pants down and an open bathroom window. I had to wait till we pulled out of the station before I could stand up.
It’s a good thing Peruvians are short!
When we got to our destination, all the white people got off the train. We were greeted by a pair of native women in derby hats selling trinkets with their small children clinging to their skirts. It was a wide spot on the tracks with no buildings anywhere.
A large bus pulled up, and we loaded on. Then we began the slow ride up the mountain, one hairpin turn after another, the bus barely clinging to the steep road. I couldn’t look out the window. My stomach was in knots, and my head hurt. Why again were we doing this?
When we got to the top and I caught my first glimpse of the Inca ruins, I felt as though I had stepped into a painting. There were rows and rows of terraced green stripes on the mountain slopes, and a flat area with crude stone buildings, a huge shadow over it all. Clouds were touching the place. It did feel like a sacred spot.
Christy said we should check in and get our room key, but when it was our turn at the counter, we were told there was no reservation for us. The hotel had only 36 rooms, and they did not have one reserved in our names.
Christy asked a bell boy in her broken Spanish if we could leave our bags at the counter. Before we knew it, the bell boy was taking off his hat and coat and leading us on a private behind-the-scenes tour of Machu Picchu. He took us into the jungle to show us a stone bridge clinging to the side of an enormous rock cliff. It was only 30 inches wide. Christy and the bell boy ran across it, but I made the mistake of looking down to the ravine below. They egged me on until I finally got down on my hands and knees and crawled across the face of that cliff.
We hiked around and then had to go back across the same stone ledge. By now Christy and the bell boy had had a few kisses. I was the ugly step sister, but that was okay with me. I was too busy trying to breathe in the thin air to worry about flirting.
When we got back to the tiny hotel, the bell boy pulled a few strings and got two rollaway beds set up in the hallway for us. When the last tour bus of the day left, we had all of Machu Picchu to ourselves, except for about 100 other people. We dined on the patio while staring at the mountain and watching the sun set on the Inca ruins.
The next morning, Kristy bounded out of the rollaway and said, “Let’s go on a hike.”
We were stumbling around, looking for clothing to put on, when a woman opened up her hotel room door and offered me a shower.
“Usted es castellana?” she asked.
Wow, she thought I was from Spain. I took her up on her shower offer, thanked her, and headed down to breakfast where Christy sat drinking coffee and flirting with the wait staff. The mountain air was cold, the whole place shrouded in fog, and I was glad to have my jacket. My toes were hanging out of the too small tennis shoes, but there wasn’t anything I could do about that.

More later . . .

2 thoughts on “Machu Picchu Before It Was a Thing

  1. Ah, the adventures of youth. I love your stories. I have Spain on my destination list; I just need to find a guy friend willing to go.


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