My first trip to Peru, travelling solo, was in 1969. Machu Picchu had been my goal ever since seeing a black-and-white photo of the ruins, swathed in cloud. I pinned it up on my kitchen wall.
The train to Machu Picchu was quite posh, even in those days. I took the ‘Autowagon’ with a glass roof and marvelled at the scenery: ‘Without doubt the most beautiful train journey I’ve been on.’ I’d brought my sleeping bag and I, and a Peace Corps volunteer, slept in the first ruin past the entrance, which had a roof and straw on the floor. We walked around the ruins in the light of the full moon ‘when we could see almost as well as in daytime. As could the Mad Inca who wanders around all night blowing a whistle and swinging a machete to ward off evil spirits. He chased us back to our sleeping bags.’
In 1973, George and I walked ‘The Inca Way’ to Machu Picchu. The first mountain we had to deal with was the pile of produce bought by our neighbour on the train: ‘Each time the train stopped she’d stand on my feet in order to bargain with the Indians on the platform. One time she bought a live hen and then found it wouldn’t fi t through the bars on the window. When the train stopped at Km88 it was quite hard to extricate ourselves.’
It wasn’t easy following the trail. Often the path divided and often the most-worn path was the wrong one because of being walked twice: once to its dead-end, and once back again. There was a boggy stretch. We wrote in our book: ‘The bog and wet moss will be ankle deep and it’s really hopeless to try to keep your feet dry. Just resign yourself to sploshing through.’ There was no designated camping. With only four others on the trail it was hardly needed. We slept in Huiñay Huayna, which was almost buried in lush vegetation, and when we arrived in Machu Picchu we hid our packs in the bushes and climbed Huayna Picchu with only our sleeping bags and some plastic. We’d planned to sleep in a cave but it was occupied by ‘an evil Englishman’ so we slept on the summit. In the rain. But the view at dawn, when the rain cleared and the rising sun turned the puffs and swathes of cloud pink was something I’ll never forget.
So was it better in those days? Of course not. Yes, there were very few tourists, but there were copious amounts of litter and some of the Inca stonework was damaged by backpackers lighting fires in the ruins. Favoured camping sites were filthy with human waste. I’m glad for me that I saw Machu Picchu 45 years ago, but I’m glad for Machu Picchu that it is now so well looked after.