View from the Top of the World

By Suzanne Vilchez

Photo by Maria Coello

I went to Peru for the holidays with my mother, visiting friends and family in Miraflores, Lima. My goal for this trip was to visit Machu Picchu and connect to my cultural heritage. I am a first generation Peruvian-American and was weaned on my dad’s tales of life on the sierra and Andean folklore.

I had no idea how I would do it, being a C6 quad, but it has been done by others with disabilities and that was good enough. The tour operator assured me they had experience and could accommodate me, so I took a chance. Apumayo Expeditions is recognized by the Society for Accessible Tourism and Hospitality, so I wasn’t concerned about their legitimacy.

When my mother asked me about the details of “how,” flashbacks of winter vacation at Wilderness Inquiry II came to mind. There I wore a pair of rock climbing harnesses on my upper and lower body, was attached to a pulley-like apparatus and was pushed off a platform to swing across a ravine at the height of many treetops. I figured it couldn’t be any riskier and trusted the details to experts.

There is no accessible public transportation in Peru, so Apumayo provided for accessible airport pick-up. That’s where I met our lead guide, the brains of this endeavor, Leo. He was bilingual and asked if I preferred my tour in Castilian (it’s not called Spanish there) or English. I studied Spanish for five years — you better believe I was going to take the Castilian tour. I didn’t want to lose anything in translation either. Leo’s team was composed of his assistants, Yury and Reynra, and Freddy was our driver.

Cusco, once capital of the Incan empire, is an ancient city located high in the Andes Mountains, with narrow cobblestone streets and even narrower sidewalks. Leo explained some travelers experience problems at the higher altitude. He encouraged us to drink a lot of bottled water, eat light and take it easy in order to acclimatize. My mother felt a bit fatigued and admitted to a slight headache, but I felt great! We had a cocoa motte (tea from cocoa leaves) to help us acclimatize. Apumayo contracted Carmen, a personal care assistant, on my behalf. Carmen was experienced in caring for quadriplegics — her brother is a quad. She wheeled me to my room and Leo and crew settled us in. They offered me use of their sliding board and a raised toilet seat but I had my own equipment. As an experienced traveler, I’ve never come across anyone so thoughtful and accommodating.

Carmen was in awe of my equipment and supplies. Apparently none of the things I use are available in Peru. I’ve never had someone hold my catheter in such esteem and admiration. Her brother’s was more of a stiff rubber variety that would probably have to be boiled. The idea made me shudder.

Day one was an afternoon city tour, a drive up to the ruins of Sacsayhuaman, just outside the city, and on to Korikancha (Temple of the Sun), to the cathedral at the Plaza de Armas. On day two we drove to Pachar in the Urubamba Valley, where an inflatable raft awaited. Carmen shoved me into a wet suit fully clothed while our boys fitted out the raft. The center bench had three pontoons strapped to form an extended bench and back. Leo and Yury performed the fireman lift and I was sitting pretty, ready to go.

To my disappointment we were told we would just float. But not far in we were asked to hang on. I could see mild rapids ahead — action! The first few were mild, then each succeeding patch of rapids increased in intensity and duration. Good thing I have some trunk control, and Leo’s “hang-on” leash proved to be ingenious and practical. We were bouncing, water was sloshing in and it was icy cold. My sunburned toes went from red to purple.

We neared the end of our voyage and floated along the remaining calm waters. The sun warmed my feet as Leo set the raft to drift in a slow spin while whistling the Minute Waltz. At the end of our dance, we were greeted by Carmen and Freddy for a tented lunch. Pending rain put the kybosh on the Pisac Market, so we went to see the dancers at the local theater instead.

***

Day three — on our way to Machu Picchu at last! Carmen arrived at 5 a.m. with both her daughters to get me ready. We had to be at the train station by 7 a.m. Thanks to team effort, we were ready and able to eat breakfast at a relaxed pace. At Carmen’s advice we layered up. The morning air was freezing. It snowed in town while we were rafting in the sunny valley the day before. With my jacket, I was four layers deep.

Leo arrived and we were off and running, on our way to the train station. We were among the first to arrive but not to board. There was a gap between the train and the platform and there were three steps to climb to board. I don’t know why I expected to see a Peru Rail employee with a ramp in tow. Clearly I was sleep deprived. “How wide is your chair?” Leo asked curiously. Twenty-six inches? Not enough to get through a Peru Rail car. We popped off the wheels and I boarded Cleopatra style.

This was no ordinary train, but the Vistadome. Glass windows everywhere. Views from the left, right and above. Each seating area had cushy benches that faced each other and a table in between. Once on board, they removed the table so that I could occupy the train seat, so I let them transfer me. I’d have missed so much of the view staying in my chair. We set a draw sheet down for positioning and Yury balled up his jacket as a lumbar pillow. Very comfy.

It was going to take four hours from Cusco to Aguas Calientes with a brief interval in Ollantaytambo. After breakfast, Ma and Leo fell asleep. I had too much adrenaline to sleep. The views were amazing and Yury proved quite adept at pointing out the high points.

After our sleeping beauties arose, our guys went to check out my chair. My Etac Elite was not made for the Andean terrain, but it had definitely proved to be rugged, although it needed tightening here and there. Yury had a mini set of screwdrivers on a key ring. I had one serious problem — the adjustable-height push handles. They were about to fall off. They’re always about to fall off. Our guys tightened them and reinforced the attachment to my chair with nylon straps and skilled knotting. It was imperative that the handles remain secure while we navigated flights of steps though Machu Picchu. We had one more stop before taking a bus to our final destination.

Aguas Calientes was wet from a passing rain, but its hothouse climate slapped me silly with tropic air. Ma and I hit the ladies room and stripped off another layer. Then we met our “muscle men” and caught the bus. I was carried on board in a nylon sling with side handles and placed at the bulkhead behind the driver.

The road was a steep, narrow dirt zigzag. A young local boy in native garb boarded early and soon left to run ahead of the bus and make sure the narrow road was clear and to warn oncoming buses of our approach. The mountain peaks were crowned in wisps of soft white clouds. I felt I was approaching heaven’s gate.

Leo pushed me through the entrance. Machu Picchu is a National Historic Sanctuary and is believed to have been a royal estate and religious sanctuary. The path at the entrance was level terra firma. At the end was a stone road where we’d turn. We went through a cavern-like passage, but once through, we were in The Lost City.

***

At first sight, I was under a mystical enchantment. My mind was clear and yet I had no thought. The lush green foliage, the terraces, the erect stone walls and buildings that went on and on — it seemed so surreal and yet was all too real.

As we proceeded, I heard the sound of running water. Leo showed us the irrigation and plumbing system. It is still an engineering marvel. We stopped before a garden with the most amazing collection of orchids. They were some of the many exotic varieties of flora that were kept for their medicinal and aesthetic qualities. This marked the end of the level pathway. I now faced my descent.

Each flight of stairs at Machu Picchu has about 50 steps.

Each flight of stairs at Machu Picchu has about 50 steps.

Leo debriefed his men and quickly ran ahead. Yury popped me into a wheelie and our muscle guys came around front. They each held one hand on the frame, the other hand on the wheel rim. It was literally a controlled roll. I never plopped when landing on the succeeding step. We paused where the stairway would diverge before pressing on. One fight, done. There are about 50 steps in each flight, and it’s estimated that there are over 3,000 steps in Machu Picchu all together.

After a quick water break, I was rolled down the next flight. At every step Yury counted. We rolled on three. Yury occasionally re-angled his wheelie. We hit a few snags near the end of the second flight. Apparently one of our muscle men rolled a nano-second before “three.” Leo took over to demonstrate until the next break. Precision is everything. Second flight, done.

To alleviate the tension I had Ma take a few pictures. The last flight went well, but before getting to its end, the procession was called to a halt. Leo physically demonstrated every movement they would each make, as well as indicating when and how to leave the staircase, turn, and set me on the pathway. He had spent a month up there with a friend studying how and where to navigate a wheelchair through the ruins. Third flight, done.

The sun was high and strong, so we paused to remove another layer. Had Carmen not packed a discreet lunch for us, I’d be furious. You’re not supposed to carry in food, nor can you buy any on the grounds. We discovered the contraband when storing our clothing.

Cooler and freer, we pressed on with the tour, visiting so many vestibules and edifices of significance I could fill a tour booklet. Words cannot describe their awesome magnificence. Thank goodness for cameras.

After our much needed lunch break, we arrived at my personal high point — the observatory.

The observatory is a three-walled room with two stones in the ground in which circular pools were carved and filled with water. It is here the Incan astronomers would study the movement of the constellations from one of the “mirrors” to the other. They were able to chart the seasons and were the first civilization to realize and use the 12-month calendar year. Leo described the beauty of it at night so well that I knew I would have to come back and stay overnight.

Machu Picchu is such a vast city. We could only visit a section, but it was worth the effort. The last leg of the expedition took me down a section of terraced steps. Piece of cake! We had made a complete circle of our touring area. I was rolled back up the same steps by my team of three. Mission accomplished.

Day four was a free day, and our guys generously shared their beautiful city with us. We visited among the locals. I had developed a hole in one of my KIK-type polymeric tires, but to their dismay more than my own, there was no place for repair. I couldn’t imagine it.

The afternoon we left, all I could think of was the mystic beauty of the expedition and loving warmth of the people. The Incas were great believers in the unity of man and the universe, a philosophy Andinos try to honor today.

In searching for my Andean heritage, I learned more about my American heritage — the achievement possible through opportunities it offers all, and about my disability culture. The experience demonstrates that obstacles are impediments of the mind. I’ve believed it since my injury, and now I’ve proven it to myself.

As a result of this experience, I’ve begun a disability development initiative. While I may not have all I need in the United States, as a disabled Peruvian-American, I can give them some of the opportunities I may have taken for granted. The view from the top of Machu Picchu gives you a new perspective.

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