When Thompson came to Cusco in 1962, there was only one train running to Machu Picchu, a small diesel set-up that carried both tourists and locals on a three-hour ride to the ruins. Whether Thompson rode it or not, I don't know. He did take some photographs, one of which appears in Gonzo, AMMO Books' 2007 collection of Thompson's photography
. It's a grainy, black-and-white image of a chaotic train station, with a Quechua woman looking lost in the foreground. The line of boxy cars seems to stretch infinitely into the hazy mountains beyond.
These days the transportation system is more stratified. There's a dirt-cheap locals' train, on which turistas
are forbidden, and there are several varieties of tourist train, on which the locals are priced out. The first-class options have cocktails and perfumed towels. The cheaper, business- and steerage-class trains cater to family travelers and backpackers.
The only other legal way to reach Machu Picchu is by hiking the Inca Trail — itself a somewhat expensive proposition, since all hikers are required to book a group tour with a licensed guide company. While the trek is no doubt stellar, the forced group-dynamic doesn't hold much appeal for me, and the only Peruvians you're likely to meet are the guides and the porters hired cheaply to carry your gear and supplies.
A third, technically illegal option involves walking on and alongside a seventeen-mile stretch of the railroad, picking up where the paved road leaves off near Ollantaytambo. In a sense, this is its own sort of Inca Trail, as it's how the Incas' modern-day descendents access the farms and pueblitos
along the muddy Rio Urubamba. I headed out before dawn last Wednesday, following a spur trail up scrubby hillside to avoid the checkpoint where the tour groups start their mountain trek.
I descended to the tracks after a kilometer or so and took up along the surging Urubamba, a messy torrent the color of chocolate milk. The mountainsides were dotted with sporadic farms and ruins, stone terraces carved into the slopes like bleachers in a giant arena. Often as not, I followed a footpath a few meters off the tracks, greeting stooped Quechua women who smiled their gap-toothed buenos dias
. Sometimes I walked just along the ties, jogging through tunnels and giving wide berth to the occasional passing train. Their bright, primary colors clashed starkly with the valley's palette of deep green and beige. When I passed a loitering rail crew in their bright blue jumpsuits, they just waved at me brightly and chirped, "Hola, amigo!"
At a set of stone ruins called Qanabamba, I met two girls walking the opposite direction. They carried backpacks and reminded me of the young students at the Sacred Valley Project
, some of whom walk this route to get home on the weekends. The older of the girls, maybe twelve, was curious and a little brash. She quizzed me with her hands on her hips, taking stabs at answering her own questions.
"Where are you going? Machu Picchu?"
"Where are you from? Argentina?"
"Who are you with? Alone?"
I answered her in my bad Spanish and asked where they were from, whether the scenery was pretty farther down the trail. The younger girl, all of eight, smiled bashfully for a few minutes before piping up in a small, shy voice. "Do you have any cookies?" she asked.
Her companion tried to shush her, but I laughed and said that I did. In fact, I told her, I was hungry too. So I took out a few granola bars and split them up among the three of us. They thanked me, and for a few minutes we just stood there, chewing silently, staring at the mad river and the stone remnants of their culture that they walk past every day.
To keep up with new stories from the Hunter S. Thompson Trail in South America, follow me on Twitter