Aguas Calientes is a mountain town in Peru. It’s also Spanish for hot water – which was appropriate as that was where I found myself at the moment.
It was late and our film crew was tired and hungry. I was tired, hungry and worried. The local fixer who had promised me dozens of rooms had desaparecido. Vanished.
It had been a long winding haul up the mountain from the Sacred Valley to this high altitude village, the stopping off point just before the world famous ruins of Machu Picchu.
When the crew spilled from the bus, talking of dinner and sleep, I had checked at the hotel for the fixer and our rooms. There I got the bad news: there was no fixer, no rooms, no vacancy.
I turned back to see the crew pulling their gear off the bus – chatting, laughing, looking forward to some down time. I told them.
They looked at me in stunned silence… for far too long. Maybe they were expecting a punchline or an easy fix. But there were no easy fixes at 8,000 feet on a dark Peruvian mountain in Aguas Calientes.
So I hit the streets of Aguas Calientes in search of beds for the crew.
As the evening took on a slight chill, my luck began to change. I found a few rooms at one hotel and then another. But people would have to double and even triple up. Something they were not used to.
Tomorrow our documentary would take us further up the mountain to explore Machu Picchu, the 15th century Inca city, and a World Heritage Site. Now that was something to dream about tonight.
But the rooms really were awful. And cramped – three or more to a room.
I had barely fallen asleep when I was stirred to half consciousness by the rattle of the loudest air conditioner I had ever heard. Even stranger, I mused in my dreamy state, the room was still hot and muggy.
At dawn I awoke to the sounds of a single dog whimpering and barking, as if it was expecting a reply.
I quickly got dressed as the others awakened. One commented, “Did you hear all that rain last night?” I hadn’t. Not over the constant roar of the air conditioning… Oh… That wasn’t air conditioning, was it. Just the rain beating down on the hotel’s tin roof.
Down at the street a muddy landscape overwhelmed us. Debris was everywhere: TV’s, furniture, clothing – piles of possessions stolen by a thick batter of sludge. What had happened?
The far reaches of the street quickly supplied an answer. Blocks of buildings, businesses and hotels were gone – swept right off their foundations and into the river below by an ungodly wave of mud.
All that was left was an empty, silent space…
We turned to each other with the same thought, “Where are the others?”.
With panicked breath, I took off running, but nothing looked as it should. Train tracks were ripped from their foundation, pointing to the sky, twisted about like pipe cleaners. The force of the mountain collapsing down had been primal and massive.
An alleyway ahead looked familiar. I turned and there was one of our hotels… whole, untouched.
Going inside I blessedly found everyone. They had seen the wreckage and were pale and sobbing. But everyone who was supposed to be there… was there.
Our Luck Held
We did what little we could to help in the muddy remains. We had a satellite phone and used it for communications to the world below.
We also recorded the devastation around us as a record of the tragedy – a sobering reminder of our own good fortune. But some townsfolk were missing. Later we would learn they were gone.
The next day, down the mountain in the Sacred Valley, we joined some locals for a Pachamanca – an ancient Inca cooking ritual. Pachamanca means “earth oven”, in Quechua, the indigenous language of Peru.
Potatoes, chicken, yucca, corn and more were lowered into the stone-lined oven set in the ground and baked for several hours. What comes out is a beautiful, smoky, feast.
But a Pachamanca is more than just an ingenious oven. It is a ritual and celebration of life. As we loaded our plates with the rich meal, our hosts explained that placing food into the ground is a sign of respect for the earth.
The earth had provided us with a sumptuous banquet… and had been kind enough to spare us.
So you see how lucky I felt – even in the midst of disaster there is still much to put in the plus column – our lives, our futures, more opportunities to feast, to explore, and more opportunities to wash away the mud.
I would like to think we were a bit more humbled about our place on this mountain. We were certainly more thankful.
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