In Cusco/ Stories

Faces of Peru | Daniel the Tour Guide

“How’s your heart?” Daniel whispers to me as we pick our way through cobblestone streets in Ollantaytambo, Peru, in the drizzling rain.

We’ve just finished a harrowing 1.5-hour car ride through winding mountain roads that drastically change altitudes, so at first I wonder if he’s inquiring about my cardiovascular health. But I know what he means.

Mejor,” I tell him. Better.

Daniel has a keen intuition I have never seen in anyone else, a sixth sense that feels what other people are feeling. The first time I met him, which was just two days before this trip to Ollantaytambo, I had been thinking about how much I missed my guitar. When he saw me, he said, “I have a guitar upstairs. Do you play?” as if he had read my mind.

Daniel was born in Quillabamba, a small town deep in the jungles of Peru. He has lived in Cusco nearly his whole life, and he chose to raise his family in this city. Even so, he often says how much he hates Cusco. Each year the city grows bigger, pushing houses higher up into the hills, flooding the streets with more tourists passing through on their way to Machu Picchu.

I hear Daniel wakes up before sunrise every morning and then goes to play futbol, but I cannot verify this because I am never up early enough to witness it. He tells me I should rise early too, drink a glass of water–“Never eat breakfast!”–and then meditate about what good things I will contribute to the world that day.

I can tell he’s a rebel. He revealed to me that many, many years ago, before the vamped-up security, he snuck into Machu Picchu at night. As a tour guide, he is constantly on the move, traveling by train or car to different cities to lead fascinated tourists through lands he knows like the back of his hand. One time, when the train tracks were down, instead of waiting for their repair, he hiked all the way from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu with nothing but a backpack and some coca leaves.

In the middle of giving my mom and me a tour of Machu Picchu, Daniel ducked behind some ruins, pulled out a quena, and played a few fleeting notes before informing us that playing music is prohibited at Machu Picchu.

“Daniel!” I yelled. “You’ll get in trouble!”

“I do it all the time,” he whispered with a smile.

Peruvian flute, quena

Daniel’s voice is like sandpaper against wood; the sound is earthy and rough, but you just know something polished and beautiful is going to come from it.

He likes to launch into lengthy lectures about life and give me unsolicited advice. I know he means well, but this irks me. (Those who are trying so hard to be right do so hate to be told that they’re actually doing something wrong.) He often stops me in the middle of some mundane task and urges me, “Amy, don’t waste time.” This causes me to panic.

Daniel is all at once caustic and charming. As I got into my taxi to return to Cusco, where I would fly out of Peru the next day, he told me, “Remember, I’ll be waiting here for you!”

. . .

While rummaging through the drafts of this blog, I discovered this old draft from 2014. I never quite finished it. Writing about people I care about has always been my most difficult challenge as a writer. It’s been three years since I saw Daniel, but his words of wisdom still resonate in my mind. I’d like to leave you with some “Daniel-isms.” :)

“Music—like language, mathematics, and love—must be practiced daily. Or else you forget it.”

“The weather of the Andes is like the women of the Andes: changeable and unpredictable.”

“We are all like pigs–just looking for shi*”

“Remember all the ancient civilizations had four keys to a long life: meditation, purification, fasting, and pilgrimage.”

“I don’t believe in love. I think we just get attached to people.”

“No one can destroy you; you destroy yourself.”

“We ruin our own happiness by having expectations.”

. . .

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