It was 12.30pm as the sun beat down on the colonial steps of Cusco. The air thin, the skies blue, the heat comfortable. Old vintage buses trundled past grunting as they did so, people weaved in and out of traffic without perceived haste and dogs congregated on street corners. Walking in the direction of the local collectivo, laden with heavy backpacks and a sense of anticipation, we would take a taxi to Cachora and from here our four day hike to Choquequirao would commence the next again morning. Or at least that is what I had told them. Flirting with limited information, I had hap hazardously grouped a score of individuals together for what I assumed was an acceptable, unguided hike, to the well-preserved and under attended Inca ruins that rarely feature outside of Machu Picchus’ shadow.
The collectivo coiled down the Andean mountains as the three bottles of celebratory red wine sloshed emphatically against the walls of my skull. I closed my eyes hoping for much-needed rest as a sharp hairpin would awaken me from a haze just in time to see infallible mountains claw towards the sun. Swimming against the tide of aggressive Latino driving and tighter bends I abandoned the notion of sleep allowing my eyes to readjust to the light and space. It was then I realised that our driver had apparently changed both his shirt and haircut. Feeling that only the former could be feasible in the margin of sleep I had had I preened around to see if the others had noticed the change. In a moments daze I had failed to notice the other driver pull over, vacate the vehicle, and the younger man who now sat in his place.
The young taxi driver continued for a little longer before slowing the car down and bringing it to a halt in a small rural town. He turned in the drivers’ seat to face us and started to renegotiate the price of the journey. As we tried to explain the arranged 30 Soles per person he reacted as if we held a rusty knife over his kidney. He recoiled in horror, his integrity seemingly questioned.
Spitting out the number like an overcooked piece of Coy a flurry of words tumble around the confined space. Amy takes charge of the situation, her ability to speak Spanish having come from watching Spanish soap operas as a child. With this she holds a delicate poise of the language lavished with all the passion, delivery and drama you could ever hope to muster. The conversation is punctuated by a phone call to his colleague who he snarls to over the phone, ‘did you not go to school, can you not count!’, he appears genuinely appalled and pissed off.
We sit in silence and wait. With the price having already increased once as we left due to some strange clause over the number of passengers required before the taxi can dispatch, we are not prepared to raise it again. Especially when both the destination and car have not changed since we departed. If he wants additional money for his driving ability he is about to quickly disband that thought in the minutes that follow.
After an excruciatingly awkward and long wait the ignition barrel turns but the car does not. Continuing in the correct direction there is an unpleasant feeling that hangs like a fine dust in the cabin. Careful not to unsettle it we sit in a silence, each intently looking out at the road in front as it starts to kink and climb. On the next again corner we are presented with two dogs holding centre position on the tarmac. Jaw clenched and body tight I have a feeling I know how this is about to pan out. The taxi charges carelessly forward and uphill as the two dogs, instinctively, separate. One hits with a sickly thud and is dragged under the vehicle before being tossed motionlessly to the side of the road. Its lifeless body stirs curiosity in the other dog.
We sit stunned. The awkward particles of tension bond together creating a weight that presses the inside space of the taxi. Swiss Sarah barks something in Spanish at the driver and although I don’t understand the words I know what she has said. I sit speechless staring out the front, a helpless warden to all living things in my periphery.
Arriving in Cachora the taxi doors swing open and allows the built-up pressure to realise and dissipate. Able to breathe fully once more we attempt to reassure one another with weak smiles, though it is evident we are glad to leave the taxi ride behind us.
Over dinner we play cards and discuss trekking plans for the morning. The restaurant is empty until young couple enter. They unfurl a map and begin to formulate itineraries for the days that follow. Unable to procure our own map in Cusco we are drawn to this one like a guiding light. Many of us having never seen the topography of the trek ahead we gather round for a first glance. They are quick to inform us that the hike can be continued past the Inca ruins and towards Yanama, which would mitigate a return along the same path. From Yanama you can potentially even walk to one of the satellite towns that orbit Machu Picchu. Within just 15 minutes the new information causes visible creases to our own plan and before we know it everything has changed once more.
They ask where we are staying for the evening and a series of small strange glances are exchanged when we mention the hostels’ name. ‘So it is you lot that have your tents up.. inside the hallway?’. Attempts to explain that we had put them up to test the equipment seem lost in the shear otiose practise of erecting tents indoors. Sheltered from the elements we are only able to gauge just how tight and cramped the conditions will be in the days that follow.
By Liam McGuckin