Saturday, March 11, 2017

Lima: Where Everything Went Wrong and Then Right: Part II

On August 11th, we headed to Cusco. Our plan was to head to the Ministry of Culture as soon as possible to see if they had any tickets left. Fortunately I had (or thought that I had) arranged for an airport transfer with our hotel. Unfortunately, no one came to pick us up and we made our way to the hotel on our own.

Cusco is a wonderful city filled with stunning cobblestone streets and surrounded by mountains on all sides. It is also located at around 11,000 feet above sea level. Because of the altitude, we struggled to walk without needing to stop to gasp for air. We were also a little bit achey and nauseous. However, we were determined to find tickets to Machu Picchu, so we walked determinedly around the streets of Cusco popping our heads into each of the myriad travel agencies as we walked by and asking about tickets (and then stopping to gasp for air). At first, we had no luck. "You need to buy them in Aguas Calientes," they all told us. Finally, we came across a small luggage store that had a few signs saying that they also organized tours. It was a tiny little place with two women inside chatting in Spanish, one holding a baby. "What about this place?", I asked J. He said "I don't know. It doesn't look very professional." We stood outside the door debating for about five minutes in the 30 degree Cusco evening. Finally, one of the two women inside peeked her head outside and said "Yes?" and we said, "umm tickets to Machu Picchu?" and she said "Yes! Come in, sit down" and she ushered away the other woman, taking the baby from her and setting it in a baby seat (I think that's what they're called).

The woman told us she could get us tickets to Machu Picchu and hire a tour guide for us. Also, she organized bus tickets to and from the train station which was located about 2 hours outside of Cusco. She offered a number of other tours that we probably would have done if we'd had more time. It all seemed a little too good to be true. Then she asked us to pay in cash in US dollars. We thought there was probably a 50% chance it was a scam but also that it was our best chance of getting to see Machu Picchu.  The total price for everything was fairly low so we figured it was worth the risk. We paid her and she told us that she would bring us all of the tickets the next day at 1pm and then take us to the bus station where we could catch the bus to the train station.

The next day, we waited outside our hotel at 1pm as requested. A small car stopped in the middle of a busy street and the woman appeared, holding a baby in one hand and an envelope in another. She came running across the street to meet us. "I have everything for you. Please review and then we will go to the bus station." I opened the envelope and two tickets to Machu Picchu for August 25th were inside along with our bus tickets. I pointed out the wrong date to her and she said not to worry and that they would definitely let us in on August 13th. Then she called her husband who had driven around the block a few times while we reviewed the documents. He picked us up and the four of us squeezed into the back of his car while their older son sat in the front passenger seat.

While we were driving along, ostensibly to the bus station, the woman continued to yell at her husband a few times in Spanish, probably something about how he needed to hurry because our train left in 3 hours. Instead of taking us to a bus station, however, they drove us to a parking lot. At this point I thought it was about a 90% chance we were getting scammed and a 50% chance we were also getting mugged and/or kidnapped. The woman got out of the car and talked to a man standing in the parking lot. She gave him some cash and then told us to get out of her husband's car and into this other man's car. We did as we were told.

About an hour and a later, after driving through the slums of Cusco, numerous rural villages and winding mountain streets, we arrived at Ollantaytambo train station. "Your train is there," he pointed out. We got out of the car and he drove away. "How are we getting back?" J asked. It was a question for another day.