protest lends drama to aguas calientes/machu picchu adventure

When I started these Peruvian trip highlights, I had planned to do it in order, but today I jump ahead in the events of our recent tour of Peru as I read in this morning’s paper that yesterday Peru’s Congress had indefinitely suspended two key legislative decrees that spurred the Amazon Indian protests that erupted in bloodshed during a government crackdown on protests last week bringing light to a drama that enfolded practically before our very eyes.

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On May 25, we rolled into the tiny village of Aguas Calientes on this train. After an afternoon visit to the Maras salt mine, we transferred to the Ollantaytambo train station that would take us to an overnight stay there at the Presidente Hotel.

IMG_0079The hotel was located in a beautiful setting, but–alas–was not the most pleasant of hotels to stay.  A couple members of our group requested moves to different rooms after one encountered a wall with mold growing on it, and another was greeted by a Bates Hotel-like bathroom with its floor covered with water.  Our room (above) was okay, but the shower drain had a distinct urine smell. I think the hotel has major plumbling problems, but we managed just fine for an overnight so we could visit Machu Picchu.

IMG_0078See what I mean by the beautiful setting? We were lucky to have this streamside balcony where I enjoyed watching life on the street below. There was a park with benches alongside the street where three of the plumpest, prettily feathered hens came to scratch for food in later afternoon and again the next morning. As I watched them, I fell in love all over again with chickens!

IMG_0087As we walked about the town on our own, we noticed the children playing. The girls above were so overcome with joy they were dancing about the aisles of the craft market where their mother was working in one of the booths. I asked and got permission to photograph the girls. All the time, we couldn’t help noticing how happy the children in the town looked.

IMG_0145These boys were enjoying their play after school on the main plaza where everything from construction to touristy gawking was going on. We stopped at this coffee shop/internet cafe to drink coffee in the afternoon, eat ice cream and check our email.

IMG_0124We had to fare for ourselves for dinner the night before and lunch the last day, and I needn’t have worried about accidentally eating guinea pig as most menus were written in Spanish and English. You can see that cuy was easily available, however, by this poster-sized menu outside many restaurants. (Note the 3rd item from the top–yup!–guinea pig prepared a variety of ways!)

People were standing outside the restaurant fronts waving menus and trying to talk everyone into stopping to eat there. Didn’t matter, it seemed, the time of day as they were always there like carnival barkers. Hubby, always the clown, amused the proprietess of the place we had lunch in by grabbing a menu and beckoning tourists (other members of our tour group that happened by) to come have lunch there. I keep telling him someday he’s going to get into trouble doing stuff like that.

In fact, it wasn’t long afterwards that this group trekked by, presumably on their way to the main plaza. Close your eyes and imagine that you’re all alone at night in a jungle and these guys are gathered nearby. Hummmmmmmmmm.

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We asked several shopkeepers what was going on, and the best we could understand was that this was some sort of protest over water, either the tax-free use of it as it was rumored that President Garcia was imposing a tax on water that had been provided free by the glacier-topped Andes for thousands of years. Another story had it that stores were going to be required by law to switch to glass bottles instead of plastic, which local shop owners didn’t feel they could afford. Whatever, we supposed that the fury wasn’t about us so we went on about our touristy business.

We’d read quite a lot about the hot springs for which the village was named, Aguas (water) and Calientes (hot), and decided we had to check it out for ourselves. With swimsuits in hand, we trekked off uphill (everything in town was either uphill or downhill) and discovered the entry booth was quite a few yards away from the spring entrance. We were told we couldn’t see the spring (to check it out) unless or until we paid the entry fee. We soon saw why.

IMG_0125As you can see, the water looks cloudy and polluted. There were enough separate pools so that everyone could have their own private one, and after we mustered up the courage to climb into our own pool we found that indeed there was an opening from the spring source and it was being fed by fresh water. What we couldn’t quite figure out, because the water level seemed stable, was where it was draining out. The top wasn’t covered so there were lots of floating bugs and debris to worry about as well.

On the way into the main entry, we passed through this room (you can see the entrance which we passed through at the left rear). The decor here and the previous room–which was the empty bar–was wild as you can see here. In fact, for all my worry about boa constrictors and pythons in the jungle, this is as close as I actually came to one myself.

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(Relax. It’s just a wall mural! Fooled you, didn’t I?) I’d guesstimate that we spent about three minutes and 45 seconds in the springs. As soon as Hubby discovered the cold showers we had come through were actually continually-running hot water from the springs, we both spent a couple of minutes rinsing off and enjoying the clean water.

IMG_0129Back in town, life continued to go on–business as usual. These two were delivering vegetables and paper goods to someone up the street. By the way, the colorfully painted building they’re walking by is an elementary school where we watched mothers pick up and deliver their children.

IMG_0136Later, back at the hotel, the front of which faced the railroad tracks, the group we’d seen before had assembled and essentially clogged up the intersection here.

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We were still somewhat in the dark about what was going on, but soon heard a rumor that some protesters had arrived from all over Peru, representing each region, and were planning to shut down the city tomorrow. Tomorrow. Oh well, we were happy we were scheduled to leave by train around 4 p.m. for Cusco. We’d be long gone.

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Or would we? We were suddenly reminded of our delayed train journey of the day before. We’d been out of the Ollantaytambo station for perhaps half an hour when the train had stopped suddenly in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere. We had sat there for quite awhile watching a flurry of activity by train engineers outside the train windows. They were running back and forth and talking on mobile phones as if something was up.

Soon rumor filtered through the cabin cars that there had been a rock on the track and we stopped because of it. Then we heard we had stopped to let other trains go by. We weren’t sure what was going on, but the story about the rock on the track seemed to stick. Funny we forgot all about it–despite our long delay–until today.

IMG_0146We watched a little nervously as police across the street seemed to be gathering in anticipation of some sort of altercation. The word coming down the gossip mill still was that the protestors were going to let everyone leave, and then TOMORROW they were closing the town down by whatever means. All business would come to a stop, tourists or not! At 3:30 p.m. our group had assembled in the hotel lobby and were grateful to be leaving by foot for the short walk to the railway station. It was definitely time to get out of Dodge, Mister Dillon!

At the train station we sat crowded into too few benches due to the heavy backup of tourists trying to get out of town back to anywhere except Aguas Calientes since that’s where the trouble seemed to lie.

Long story short, we were delayed about two hours, but finally left to get back to Cuzco and the Ruinas Hotel where most of our baggage was waiting for us. The train journey was long and arduous. Whether it was of the train staff’s normal routine, or they were  doing it as a public relations gesture to take our minds off the potential dangers of the impending strike, we were about half an hour into our journey when the train stopped and this fellow jumped out.

IMG_0148It was quickly apparent that he was a jokester, not a protestor, as he sauntered up and down and aisles inviting people to pet his “pet llama.”

IMG_0149Here he makes eyes at Marilyn, a member of our travel group. The music and rhythm were rather catchy, and soon others in the train, us included, joined in keeping time with the music. Supposedly, this guy had something to do with some sort of Peruvian festival. Perhaps. I’m sticking to my original story, however.

IMG_0152When his act ended, the other two crew members entertained us during part of the journey with a fashion show of some of the latest from Peru’s fashion mill.

IMG_0159They posed for a Kodak moment when they were all finished, and the train journey continued without further incident. What amused me most was how commerce continues despite everything! Those clothes were beautiful but damned expensive! I have no idea how many items they sold, but some I’m sure.

The next day in Cuzco, we saw similar protests going on in the streets, but to the tourist’s eye it was business as usual even though our tour directors were forced to change the day’s itinerary slightly to accommodate the “no business” strike order of the city.

We were sitting in a vegetarian cafe enjoying lunch, however, when I noticed the small shop across the street closing their medal slide door at the same time that our restaurant hostess rushed to the front and latched the double doors from the inside. The protesters were rumored to be on their way through the streets to check that businesses were cooperating with their strike order.

For the most part, the protests seemed organized and peaceful, though a couple of young Americans in the cafe we had lunch in told us they had been attacked by some of the more unruly members the day before. Nobody was hurt, but their rental car had been pelted by heavy rocks causing damages they were forced to pay for to the rental agency.

Now I learn today finally what all the hoopla was about. According to the ww4report website, Members of the Machiguenga indigenous group in Cusco blocked the train to the Machu Picchu archeological site starting on May 26; about 300 Machiguenga protested peacefully in Aguas Calientes, a major tourist attraction near the site. The laws they had been protesting were part of a package of more than 100 decrees that President Alan García signed in 2008 to bring Peru into compliance with a Free Trade Agreement with the US which went into effect earlier this year. You can read the whole story here.

Yes, we were there and thus are a part of Peru’s history now.  Hubby also signed a petition against the road from Acre in Brazil coming across Cuzco to Lima while we went to the Plaza in Cusco the next day even though the petition was written in Portuguese with the Brazilian guy translating it for us in his very poor English. The message was clear enough, however, and he signed it. What did I tell you about my Hubby?!

As for the protests, we were surprised about how we had trouble getting our Peruvian guides to tell us what it was really about.  Either they really did not know or they were trying to keep us from worrying.  They probably did not know that if we had known the details, we would have marched with the natives carrying the bows and arrows. In a way, I guess you could say the hullabaloo was about us, after all.

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7 thoughts on “protest lends drama to aguas calientes/machu picchu adventure

  1. I would think that the onboard train show was normal, but your guides knew what was happening. Maybe they were operating on the “an uninformed tourist is a happy tourist” theory.

    Glad you are home.

  2. I was thinking of you both when I read about these protests. Glad you were safe but good for them for not letting this pass. I can’t imagine opening up the Amazon to development – good grief; it’s the same battle we are enduring down here where letting the oil companies take over the gulf and development has eroded our wetlands and made us more vulnerable to storms. Short sighted ignorant &%^$%%&&*. You know what I mean.

    Your trip looks like it was wonderful. The guy who cuts my hair went to Peru with his wife and has some blown up photos of it all over his salon – they are breathtaking. Our good friend is Peruvian as well and always makes us some delicious dishes.

  3. I’m so sorry, Mage. I just can’t seem to find my groove since I got back. There are so many things to do here, cherries ripening, weeds needing pulling, etc., tour pictures to file…the list is never ending. I promise to get back soon. Thanks for your care and concern!

  4. I travel with you again! What an exciting trip!! Glad you made it home. I have only left United States once to go to Toronto, Canada. That mural on the wall was beautiful.

  5. Pingback: quechua artists leave lasting impressions in cuzco cathedral « My Wintersong

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