The sun walked up from behind the mountain range splashing light and warmth over Maizal. The group moves in and out like unaligned pistons on an old Ford Cortina, there is more noise than action. Without a coherent plan the day flops before us, the morning ritual extends with no visible edges. It is well after 10am before the tents are packed-up and a further 30 minutes before we settle the bill for the food and camping. On the last day of the trek energy levels have crashed as tired bodies move slow.
Leaving Maizal we must climb and climb to the highest section of the trail, up and over clumsy rock steps to reach 4200metres. The backpacks are fully laden, their original start weight once more French pressed against our shoulders and backs. A plastic bag, bulging from its contents of tuna pasta, hangs from Alex’s rucksack; a source of starchy energy it is a mountain snack of silvery fish thousands of metres above sea level.
A large column of rock juts out from the mountainside like a callous on a guitar player’s finger. It stands proud and alone with sharp steep edges on three sides. Sarah and I it on the cuticle and watch the clouds whirl and wash by opening and closing the landscape that sits bellow our dangling feet. The jungle smothers the mountains as far as I can see and tumultuous rivers echo from the valley below their sound catapulted up the valley walls.To boast morals and celebrate our progress an impromptu tea is proposed at peak altitude. The noise of the burner growls away patiently but bubbles fail to form. We wait for longer than we should before we realise the futility of attempting to boil a litre of water at such heights. The liquid is lukewarm before declared drinkable, and is passed around like a joint to tired bodies in need of heat. The three teabags hang against the pots side, plunged into the water, the temperature too cool to facilitate their brewing providing a light, palatable tea.
At this stage we have just the downward leg to contend with, a frantic hurtle towards the finish line as we race the setting sun. The landscape opens once more as another valley splits the land with the hope of Yanama somewhere nearby. Spurred on by the home straight I let my body carry me like a hardboiled egg rolled from an improbable height. Carried by gravity, battered by boulders, I cascade towards the town, a freed bouncing ball.The clink of beer bottles ring out as tired eyes and soft faces with gentle smiles sit opposite one another. We rest and let our bodies stain into the sheepskin wool that adorns the wooden benches as the lodge owners prepare the food. We have covered over 60km trail with altitude changes reaching up to 2500metres and all with no guide, no clue and no map. It has been truly spectacular adventure that we have shared together.
The gentleman who owns the accommodation, accustomed to such celebratory sights with such tired souls, informs us the bus will leave between 5.30am and 12pm tomorrow – if at all. What initially sounds like ridiculously wide parameters appears nothing out of the ordinary for the owner of the lodge. We smile back, looking for the obvious joke, but his face remains unchanged. He gestures outside, the rain bounces off the corrugated iron roof as the external light catches the thin spittle’s of water, his dark eyes, unblinking, look beyond the window. The driver is out there, somewhere, we just need to find him and negotiate a price for tickets. Amy, Alex and Julius set off as water droplets dance across the roof. They have found him, albeit asleep at the helm, catching rest before tomorrow’s departure. He confirms, rather solemnly, the bus will leave between 5.30-1pm tomorrow. As cautious Europeans, with our Australian counterbalance, we set alarms for 4.30am, certain that we would rather not spend a full day in Yanama. The tents comedown, soaked and muddy and under the stars as we pack away our things for what we hope is the last time. As the routine is repeated we begin to work out the shared kitty and expenditure of the group over the previous five days. Somewhat predictably when discussing money tensions flicker and headway is tediously slow. Amy highlights a tenacious capacity to be frugal, and suddenly we descend into a farcical back and forth over finances. The tensions that have built up over the five days reopen formed fault lines, leaving Julius and Amy in their tent, opting to miss the bus, as the rest of us leave Yanama.
The bus doesn’t appear until 10am due to an unforseen flat tyre. When it does get moving we bounce ceaselessly up the hill chewing the road as it coughs along the mountains edge. We are completely exhausted and the bus’s slow methodical pace is proving a source of brutal massage. Tired muscles shake on bone as we continue to cover an alarmingly small distance.
Roads interlinked, snag and catch with little towns and hamlets along the way. After five hours we have really not moved that far geographically from where we started this morning. The group is forced to fracture once more, this time Sarah, Sara and Alex leave for a mission to Aguis Calientes, the base camp for many heading onward to Machu Picchu. They have brought laughter, lightness and positivity to the trek and we wish them fair well before we continue onwards and back to Cusco.
By poetic alignment, Sarah and I’s route back catches by Santa Teresa where a defect bridge prevents traffic crossing in either direction. We are forced to walk across the bridge into a pool of congested travellers who are being swarmed by travel operators trying to fill buses back to Cusco. The whole thing is overwhelming, slow and unnecessary. It is a frenzied feeding as the travel companies try coaxing weary travellers into all types of agreements, picking on the most confused and disoriented.
I cannot for the life of me deduce why so many people are here. In what feels like the middle of nowhere there are literally hundreds of tourists and travellers. I get speaking to a German boy who has momentarily escaped the madness only to be ushered, unwittingly onto the umpteenth bus headed back towards the city. I ask where he has come from and how he has ended up here of all places. He responds by saying that this is where the Machu Picchu trek ends. It all makes sense. We witness the swollen lump of pulsating tourism, fit to bursts, as it rives brainless on the floor. I wonder how long it is before the traffic passing through Choquequirao is comparable to that of Machu Picchu, and when will tourism be sensibly.
By Liam McGuckin