Ours would be an exciting, once-in-a-lifetime visit to beautiful, fascinating Peru. Now, over two weeks into the trip, as I considered what to write about, it occurred to me that I was struck by the people I’ve met more than the natural scenery, including Machu Picchu, breathtaking as it may be. I will soon share what I saw, but these extraordinary people, the guides and hosts my wife and I have met, have made our visit more personal, more intimate for the kindness, open-heartedness, perspective and passion they’ve provided as Peruvians. I found myself wanting to write about them because they say more about the heart of Peru than anything.
Part of our exciting itinerary through Peru included visits to Machu Picchu and other places in the Sacred Valley. I knew that guides would be provided, but I had no idea that it would be one person, one marvelous guide who gave my wife and me not only incomparable professional services but thoughtful personal care.
Carlos Vasquez Salas was our second exemplary guide in Peru.
Carlos met us at Cusco Airport, along with Felix, who would do all the driving, and Lourdes of One Earth Peru, the Lima-based organization that made hotel, transportation and ticket arrangements on behalf of Crooked Trails in Seattle.
Our first stop wasn’t a tourist attraction at all. It was a store. In the Amazon, the outsoles of both my wife’s hiking boots had begun to separate from the shoes. Luckily we had a roll of duct tape. Her boots looked like silvery astronaut shoes. Wearing these with weeks of walking to go in Peru wouldn’t do. Without a moment’s hesitation, Carlos took us to a sporting goods store in the Plaza de Armas where we purchased a replacement pair. I also have this habit of losing sunglasses on vacation. Off we went to an optical shop, too.
We immediately set off for Ollantaytambo and arrived after dark, but not before Carlos convinced strikers to let us pass through a blockade that crippled Urubamba for two days.
Carlos left us in Ollantay to return home to Cusco. We wouldn’t see him until the morning after next at the train station when we would go together to Machu Picchu.
My wife and I had this grand vision that we would first catch sight of Machu Picchu at the end of the Inca Trail. Not that we would take the legendary trek, a four-day journey over a marathon’s distance. Rather, we would start from Km 104, a distance of about 6 miles over fairly challenging terrain to the Intipunku Sun Gate, a good day’s hike that needs no backpacking.
The climb started out well enough, but about an hour into the hike, the high rocky steps and steep climb began to take its toll on my wife who had been battling a painful knee problem recently. Carlos suggested that we make our way to Aguas Calientes along the railroad track instead. I knew she was disappointed, but she wisely took his advice. Even if the route would be level all the way into town, the only precaution being to stay out of harm’s way from approaching trains, Carlos took my wife’s daypack, along with his own, and carried it the 6km distance to Aguas.
Several families live along the track, something I believe you don’t see along the Inca Trail. Other people for one reason or another take this route as shortcuts, maybe guides or locals making their way back and forth. Carlos is a very friendly, gregarious guy, giving greetings to families and offering pieces of orange to tired passersby, another of his fine qualities. And, as we would find out time and again, he knows a lot of people, mostly other guides, whom he would greet at tourist sites with a hand shake or hug. Mama/mami or papa/papi are terms of respect I heard him use time and again. They obviously know each other in this business, and it didn’t hurt that he used to be president of a local tour guide union. I was surprised to learn from Carlos that tour guiding is a very popular and respected career in Cusco.
I found that Carlos is an avid reader. He keeps up with the latest research on Incan and pre-Incan archaeology, history, culture, even archaeoastronomy. One can feel he is a great admirer of the Incas. So it was that he led us through Machu Picchu, Ollantaytambo, Koricancha, Pisac, Qenqo, Sacsayhuaman to show us the vast accomplishments of the Incas. He also seems fascinated by the solstitial alignments at ancient ruins.
When Carlos perceived that I had like interests, he’d suggest books which I might like, not only to gratify me but help the vendors selling them. This dual relationship, I recognized, is part of the function of tour guide, to bring together tourists and locals trying to eke out a living. Of course, there was never any urging to purchase anything. When he took us to the markets of Cusco and Pisac, the vendors no doubt appreciated that he, like other guides, bring tourists. For us, at Cusco’s San Pedro Market, when we wanted to see the fruit stands or look for a certain kind of blouse for our granddaughter, he took us right to the stalls.
Above all, Carlos is a caring man. He talks of family, of his daughter in particular. He asked if it would be alright to donate my wife’s defective boots to a Machu Picchu porter who might repair them for use on the Inca Trail. There were little things. Of his driver Felix, who would always wait in the car or drive to a different pickup point, he purchased some snacks at Las Salinéras, the amazing Incan salt fields in Moray, and offered comforting words for a personal problem Felix was having.
There likely aren’t very many like Carlos, someone to whom being a tour guide is more than a job, but a passionate commitment. He made our stay in the Sacred Valley all the more bright and meaningful.