Published in Journal of Hispanic Philology, 13 (1989), 97-101.

The Editor's Column:

Machu Picchu and Cuzco

by Daniel Eisenberg


     The train out of the Cuzco station climbs the side of a mountain, going forward a tenth of a mile, pausing, backing up a tenth of a mile, the brakemen running back and forth to throw switches. After six repetitions we are over the top. Around a three-quarters turn so narrow it must have been taken from a spec sheet, and off we go to Machu Picchu.
     Train is the only motorized way to reach Machu Picchu. There is no room for a landing strip, nor are there helicopters. There is not even a track for a four-wheel-drive vehicle, nothing at all other than the train line and trails. The energetic can arrive at the town as its inhabitants did by hiking the so-called "Inca Trail." Although Machu Picchu is a quechua name, the ruins and trail are pre-Incan. Pre-Inca history is downplayed in highland Perú, and seems to be a disturbing concept. Everything is Incan because Incas ruled it when the Spaniards arrived.
     There were three classes of train, I could tell when they lined up waiting for a landslide to be cleared. A single self-propelled car, spanking new and clean, was for VIP's. There followed the tren de turismo, of which more later. Last came what tourists call the "Indian train," the regular service.
     At Puente Ruinas, the end of the line for the tren de turismo, we changed to a fleet of minibuses, of course brought in on the train. These took us up a series of switchbacks to the top. One paid admission and went in through what, as with the Alhambra, was originally a side entrance. The site is spectacular, worth the trip. Machu Picchu is a ghost town, built of stone and relatively well preserved. Llamas kept the grass clipped and entertained children.
     Pictures do not convey the nature of Machu Picchu. It is indeed on the top of a small mountain, above the clouds. (The altitude saved it from being quarried, like so many other sites, for reusable stone.) Missing from the pictures are the sounds and echoes of the steep valley which surrounds the site on three sides. The noisy Urubamba River, far below, was always audible. The result was a haunting charm, a sense of magic, like Granada's streets and staircases lined with fast-running water. I realized the trip from Cuzco had been downhill, as the temperature would also suggest, because the site on top of the mountain was at the same altitude as Cuzco, 70 miles away. It was assumed that this could not possibly be a coincidence. If this was not impressive enough, it was easy to find someone to tell you about lines of force linking Machu Picchu with Stonehenge.
     Machu Picchu was discovered by Hiram Bingham. He was an American who, like Don Quixote, sought to be written in el libro de la fama (I, 18). Bingham was convinced he had found Vilcabamba, the lost final capital of the Incas, and he generated the publicity which eventually made Machu Picchu the one international tourist attraction in South America.1 All movable artifacts are in a museum at Yale, sponsor of the expedition. Quite in conformity with his contract with the Peruvian government, but the episode still rankles in Perú, much like the loss to Spain of the library of the Marqués de Jerez de los Caballeros (bought and moved to New York by Archer Huntington, founder of the Hispanic Society). Pamphlets say that Bingham hadn't discovered anything that local Indians didn't already know. Like Schliemann excavating Troy, Bingham caused damage while burning away the undergrowth. There is much talk of unexplored archeological sites on the eastern slope of the Andes.
     One could spend the night at the tourist-class (luxury) hotel on top of the mountain, walk down, or—as one enterprising fellow did—hitch a ride on a garbage truck. Otherwise one went down with the last bus at the early hour of 3 PM, timed so the tren de turismo could get back to Cuzco by dark. Anyone who wanted to see Machu Picchu by evening or moonlight could stay in the luxury hotel. If I had it to do again I would have stayed and walked down, but I expected to be back the next morning, and didn't yet have a place to spend the night. As predicted, a loud small boy ran down the hill ahead of the minibus, cutting between the switchbacks, to ask for tips at the bottom. (Since guidebooks are often outdated, independent tourists in Latin America constantly exchange information.)
     Near the bottom, there was a village of cheap hotels and restaurants. The train line was the street. Visitors were Swedes, Swiss, Israelis; Americans were rare. It was a dull, damp evening. There were hot springs in which one could bathe. "Prohibido bañarse desnudo," a sign said. Some foreigners bathed in their underwear; I had swimming trunks, later stolen. At dark some local women showed up to bathe in comparative privacy. At 10 PM the generator for the village and tourist hotel was turned off.
     In the morning there was no transportation up the mountain until the tren de turismo arrived. By then the first train back to Cuzco should have long passed, yet, disturbingly, it didn't arrive. A trip back up the mountain might be risky, and I had seen everything there was to see. That my visit was only an hour made the memories more vivid. A train in the other direction went by and didn't return either. The stationmaster, if he knew anything, wouldn't divulge it: "Por el horario..." was his information. A youngster, less inhibited, was more helpful: "han bajado dos trenes, forzosamente tiene que subir uno." Almost surely it was another landslide, and the delayed train would be jammed. Also I had a ticket to leave Cuzco the next day, and afraid that the bus would leave on time if I weren't there, I sprung $7 for the ride back on the tren de turismo. Terrorists had attacked the train several times, and an armed soldier rode in every car. It was surprising how many stops the non-stop train made, mostly dropping off railway employees who were also stranded. It started to rain. We went by the soggy tents of a group of student campers. The police empty the Cuzco station of all its vendors and thieves just before the tourist train arrives.
     Cuzco is an unusual city, which regards Lima much like Barcelona does Madrid. Cuzco produces, Lima governs. Cuzqueños are well aware that the province sustains Perú's tourist industry, and vocal about its mistreatment by Lima. Agriculture has flourished in the central Andes since long before the Incas, and it is here that the potato was first cultivated. It is also home of the very useful coca plant, without which there would be no Novacaine. Nowhere else have I seen local chocolate for sale, and the form is colonial: mixed with sugar, molded into short rods, to dissolve in hot water. Animal husbandry thrives, and there is a strong wool industry. There seems to be some native type of population control. As a result, while Indian health is poor and conditions primitive, there is still less visible misery than in Potosí or Lima.
     Cuzco is one of the safest places in Perú, today safer than Lima. Tourism requires a veneer of stability, and the railroad makes troop transportation easy. The sendero luminoso movement is centered further north, in less accessible territory.2 Even then, though (1981), tourism was in trouble, and hotels cutting prices or closing. For most of my stay I was the only guest of my hotel. Representatives of all but the smallest hotels met the one daily long-distance train, a chaotic and unpleasant scene as they competed for customers while thieves stole from the unwary.
     Cuzco had no television, which added to its air of counterculture, of a non-Hispanic student culture. It is the base for various adventure travel outfitters ("Inca Floats"). They keep a low profile. There was a street of cafés with cassette decks, and an Asian restaurant with incense and copies of Back to Godhead magazine. Circulating musicians played folk instruments for tips. Impoverished foreigners hung around for extended periods, such as an unmarried Brazilian couple condemned to wait "until the Bank of Brazil sends our money." One memorable evening someone brought a guitar to a restaurant whose proprietors liked music and we sang Brazilian songs, or whatever anybody knew, until long after closing. An Argentinian provided my only contact with the impressive blues of his country.
     Many of the pre-Hispanic buildings and fortifications remain; part of Cuzco is recognizably the Inca capital. They are solid stone structures, missing the metal plates which once covered the more important of them. Of course there are many churches and convents, with quantities of Catholic art. Most is by native artists taught by Europeans; not a single postcard or reproduction showing it was available, eloquent testimony of tourist sympathies. The Inca Garcilaso's house is a museum. A small, garrulous, elderly woman, dressed in widow's black, earned tips showing tourists around and explaining things. She seemed uncannily Castilian—not in her consonants, which were Peruvian, but in intonation, stress, sentence structures, and body language. A jarring dash of reality was that she also spoke fluent quechua, which has strikingly different inflection and consonants, including a glottal stop. She asked us to repeat a quechua word and poked good-humored fun when the others in the party didn't even come close. Much later I realized she could only have been a retired teacher.
     One could visit various Indian markets in the city or environs, but the center of quechua culture was no longer in the region. Fifty years of tourists had forced it north, to the dangerous city of Ayacucho. In Cuzco, though, the divisions of Peruvian society were perhaps easier to see than elsewhere. The line between Hispanic and Indian was clear and rigid. Discrimination, though much less than found in the U.S. thirty years ago, was obvious. Some Hispanics made fun of Indians if no outsiders were thought to be looking. It seemed in keeping with the place for Apocalypse Now to be showing at one of the local cinemas. The university, located in a cavernous stone mansion, was putting on Bodas de sangre.


     1 See "The Search for Vilcabamba," in John Hemming's The Conquest of the Incas (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970), pp. 474-500. Bingham went on to become a U.S. senator, and there is considerable bibliography on him, including Alfred M. Bingham's Portrait of an Explorer (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1989). A biographical sketch is found in the Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 5 (New York: Scribner's, 1980), pp. 58-60.
     2 For an introduction to the topic, see Raymond Bonner, "Peru's War," New Yorker, January 4, 1988, pp. 31-58, and Alan Riding, "Peru's Fight to Overcome its Past," New York Times Magazine, May 14, 1989, pp. 40-44 and 100. Sheona Rose-Fuggle very kindly sent a copy of The New Internationalist from July 1989, which contains a number of articles on Perú's crisis.
     The senderista leader, ex-professor Abimael Guzmán, seeks to enter the castillo de la fama as successor of Marx, Lenin, and Mao Zedong. According to Peruvian thinker Mariátegui, a communist society is traditional among Peruvian Indians.