PART I: Day One, Peruvian Summer 2010
Our new ‘high tech’ raingear and gortex boots protected us from the torrential summer rain in the Lost City of the Incas, but I was soaked with the perspiration of fear as Bill and I tried to cross the roiling and flooded Urubamba River to safety. While atop the 8,000-foot high ancient site of Machu Picchu in Peru’s summer of 2010, we had received word that we should run to catch the last bus down the mountain and across the river to the small town of Aguas Calientes. The river was rising and would soon be impassible.
Our group of fourteen made it to the bus, and the driver negotiated a slippery road etched
into the cliff with rivulets gushing down from their origin into the roadside culverts. We would be the last tourists to see Machu Picchu for a some time to come.
The bus came to a halt at the wooden bridge that spanned the Urubamba River, its brown waters billowing within inches of the aging span. It wasn’t safe for the bus to cross. Alvaro our guide herded us out of the bus and yelled, “Run across the bridge. No pictures. Run. Run across.”
I stood immobile for a moment unable to process how close to real danger we were. Bill grabbed my hand, and we ran, seemingly for our lives. A few diehard photographers stopped to snap a picture of the turbulence, but Alvaro herded them across the submerging bridge, and he finally joined us on the other side.
Out of breath and dripping, we began a two-mile walk into town along a deserted train track and through two dark and moldy tunnels. I fought to tame my trembling in the tunnels, and strode along at a regular pace between the railroad ties. The rain was relentless.
No train would be leaving Aguas Calientes that night. The tracks had been washed out, as it had been pouring for forty-eight continuous hours. Hovels at the edge of the river were swept away, and we saw young people uselessly sandbagging the sides of the river. We had checked out of our hotel, but Alvaro was able to talk the owner into allowing us to stay a second night, and to serve us dinner as well.
We awoke early in the morning to participate in a helicopter evacuation with preference to women with young children, the ill, and to people over sixty years. Bleary-eyed, we ‘aged’ tourists (of whom I was absolutely the youngest!) stumbled down the hotel stairway and eyed a curled form in a sleeping bag on a hall sofa. With our preference assured, and with little more than a cup of coffee and a banana, we lugged our duffels and backpacks out into the early morning rain toward the train station where evacuation directions were to be given.
Once in the station, we were to stay together with safety in numbers. We could best be recognized as a group of ‘senior citizens’ rather than as individuals while we waited with a station full of other tourists to leave by the only possible way—helicopter.
The mayor of Aguas Calientes was in charge. We had no intimation of the conflict of power that would derail an organized evacuation to the safety of the small town of Ollantaytambo or Cusco. Our guide was certain that our ‘advanced’ age would be the calling card to safety, and we rested on that hope. He sent a paper around so that we could make a list of our names, ages, and nationality for the authorities. This was the first of many lists to come for the tourists to Machu Picchu.