Vacation from hell

Two Canadians in Peru face earthquakes, landslides, floods, near-death—and death
AFP Photo / Getty Images

“You’re cursed now,” the Peruvian guide chided. Nakita Haining had just picked up one of dozens of skulls and bones strewn across ancient burial grounds in Peru when the guide offered this ominous message. She looked over at her travel partner Daryl Buchanan, who had done the same. “You’re cursed now, too,” the guide said, nodding. Haining and Buchanan smiled nervously, set the skulls down, and carried on with their hike. But ever since that warning, recalls Buchanan, “All this stuff happened.”

“Stuff” is Buchanan’s characteristically unadorned way of describing what ensued: earthquakes, landslides, floods. Near-death, and death. A state of emergency declared in several regions of the country. At least 30,000 people affected. He and Haining had arrived in Peru from Edmonton on Jan. 14, for a two-week vacation that would culminate in a four-day trek through the Amazon jungle and along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. There, the pair, who describe themselves as best friends, bandmates and co-workers in a vinyl siding business, would celebrate Haining’s 23rd birthday.

Months earlier, they’d booked cheap flights online—only to realize while thumbing through a travel guide that it would be wet season. “We were warned,” says Buchanan. “It said if you go in January, expect heavy rain. Expect that train tracks will be covered with rocks, you might be stranded for a few days, and flights might be cancelled.” But after years of pining for a Peruvian adventure, they were undeterred. “We decided to take our chances.”

So when the pair landed in Lima, and were informed by airline officials that their luggage had been lost, “We laughed and looked at each other and said, ‘Who cares? We’re in Peru!’ ” recalls Buchanan. The next several days were idyllic. Warm, sunny, beautiful. They took a small aircraft high above the desert to see the mysterious Nazca lines, hundreds of geoglyphs or giant etchings in the earth of animals and humans. Buchanan and Haining, both surfers, sandboarded the world’s largest dune. And then they visited the ancient burial grounds—where they mistakenly handled the sacred skulls, and apparently touched off calamity.

Soon after, they headed to Cerro Azul, a coastal village immortalized in the Beach Boys song Surfin’ Safari. They checked into their hotel and settled in for the night. At about three o’clock in the morning, Haining roused suddenly. “The whole hotel just started shaking like crazy, ” she recalls. She scanned the room: there were no pictures threatening to crash down; the TV was bolted to a table. By the time she cast a glance at Buchanan, who was still snoozing, the shaking had stopped. “It was probably about five seconds long,” says Haining. “I wasn’t sure what it was. So I rolled over and went back to sleep.” The next morning, an explanation came by way of the locals: an earthquake had hit the area, and more were imminent. Fortunately, they were leaving the next day, says Buchanan. “We were hoping we would get out of there before there was another earthquake.”

They did. But the real danger was still ahead. Buchanan and Haining flew to Cusco, high in the Andean mountains, where they met their Peruvian guide before their four-day journey to Machu Picchu. Washington Huaraya Cusihuaman, 33, was tall, thin, and in good shape but with bad knees—he’d done this 45-km leg of the Inca Trail 300 times, earning $10 a day. The pair also got acquainted with the four other tourists making the trek, who instantly became known to one another as “Chicago,” “New York,” “Lima” and “Belgium,” after their places of origin.

Their day began at the crack of dawn. Cusihuaman’s voice, which was usually soft and gentle, would ring out like an alarm clock: “Coca tea! Coca tea!” and the sleepy tourists would emerge from their tents to find a steaming cup of steeped cocaine leaves, a Peruvian staple. The hike entailed hours of trudging along rugged terrain and under rainforest canopies, and enjoying gorgeous panoramics; five diligent and agile porters had been paid by the tourists to carry their heavy backpacks, cook meals and set up the tents.

On the last night of the hike, Buchanan and Haining arrived at the campsite and were stunned to see where they’d be sleeping: “The peg that was holding up one post at the front of the tent was one inch from the cliff,” says Buchanan. Below was a raging river. Above, jagged mountainside. It was terrifying but exhilarating. They both thought two things: We’ll have the best view in the morning. And, I better not walk straight out if I get up to pee during the night.

Despite its dubious location, the tent was welcome shelter from the torrential rain that had followed the group since they’d started the trek. But first, they assembled around a table under a canvas hut for dinner. “Chicken, spaghetti, soup, pizza,” says Haining. Everyone feasted on the high-caloric buffet. There were only two hours left to hike before they’d arrive at Machu Picchu, but this would be the toughest, most precarious stretch—a near vertical climb up crumbling paths and steps. Conversation turned to whether anyone had ever succumbed to the perils that lay before them. With the rain pounding down, the sky darkening, and wide-eyed tourists huddled, this felt akin to telling ghost stories around a bonfire. Cusihuaman, who wore the same lucky blue ball cap every time he set foot on the Inca Trail, didn’t hold back: several tourists had been killed in recent memory. There was the old man who had a heart attack halfway up. Another one contracted deadly bronchitis. One morning, a man just never woke up.

Unsettled and exhausted, Buchanan and Haining called it a night. The next day was her birthday. The thought of celebrating atop Machu Picchu helped buoy their spirits. They noticed that nearby, the tent of two young Argentinian women who were with another tourist group was also perched very close to the cliff’s edge. There was nothing to be done about it now—and besides, no one had the energy to worry. “We were tired from all that walking,” says Haining, and the rain was pummelling them so hard, “you could barely hear.”

That deafening, turbulent downpour continued through the night. At one point, Haining awoke briefly to a distant clanging and cracking, but it was a muffled noise, and it passed. It wasn’t until the next morning, while sipping coca tea, that Buchanan and Haining looked over to where the Argentinians’ tent had been hours earlier, and realized it had disappeared. A landslide, or avalanche of huge grey, mossy stones, had swept the tent off of the cliff—taking the two women, both in their early 20s, with it. One died; the other had her arm crushed by boulders. That’s what had stirred Haining: “You could hear them trying to break the rock with a sledgehammer,” she recalls, referring to rescuers. “They were trying to dig [the women] out.” No one heard cries for help. “I don’t think they had time to scream,” says Buchanan. “It was just poof, gone.”

Such news would have sent many of the tourists running back in the direction they’d come from—except heavy rains had washed out the route two days earlier. “There was no turning back,” says Buchanan. After arriving at Machu Picchu, the groups would funnel into the town of Aguas Calientes, where they’d be stuck for several days. “There are no trains out, no flights out, no roads out,” Cusihuaman said. He hatched a plan to take them “the back way” down the mountain to another town, which would be less overrun, and hopefully less devastated. The key to making this work, however, was to be the first group on the trail, explained Cusihuaman.

So the group donned their rain gear and began the ascent to Machu Picchu. “Everyone was talking about what had happened,” says Buchanan, “and saying to be careful.” The rocky, muddy path on which they trod was slippery and only three or four feet wide—and right on the edge of the cliff. Haining was near the front of the pack, while Buchanan lagged behind with Cusihuaman. About 20 minutes into the hike, “Lima” stopped to tie her shoelace. The guide waited with her, and Buchanan caught up with Haining.

Within minutes, “Chicago,” who was just ahead of the pair and carrying a massive backpack (she hadn’t paid the porters for this last stretch), slipped and fell. “She almost went over the cliff,” says Haining. “I grabbed her arm, and was holding her, and her friend grabbed the other arm. We pulled her up.” After all they’d been through, Haining could hardly keep it together. “I was freaked out.”

And yet there was nothing to do but keep going. Another 10 minutes passed. Then a thunderous rumbling sound echoed around the group. Before anyone could make sense of what they were hearing, Cusihuaman had already imagined the worst: “Run!” he yelled. That’s when Buchanan and Haining turned around and saw a sight neither can forget: four or five grassy, muddy, grey boulders “the size of a kitchen chair” barrelled down the steep mountainside, recalls Haining. “One came down and took [Cusihuaman] over” the cliff. But first, “the rock crushed his head,” adds Buchanan, “and both eyeballs popped right out and were hanging under his chin,” he recalls. “It was just horrific.”

Pandemonium erupted. “Lima,” who had been hiking with Cusihuaman and had bonded with him over their taste for Peruvian guinea pig, dropped to her knees and wailed. Then she and “Belgium” bolted, and weren’t seen again by Buchanan. “They ran the rest of the trail and off the mountain,” he speculates. “They wanted off that mountain.” Haining, “Chicago” and “New York” rushed to a clearing near the spot where Cusihuaman had gone over the cliff. “I wanted to stay in case he was alive,” she says, but the waiting to find out was paralyzing. “We were quiet. We weren’t crying. No one was praying. We had so much stuff going through our mind—what if it happens again? Should we go back?”

Meanwhile, Buchanan sprinted back to the campsite where the group had spent the night for help. “I was crying as I was running back,” he says. He stopped only to whisper a warning to the other guides about what had just happened. They repeated the same feverish message: “Run!” he recalls hearing. “They all said the same thing. Run.” When he got to the campsite and told the rangers what had happened, the Argentinians’ friends were still there. The news that Cusihuaman had gone over the cliff was unbearable for them, Buchanan says: “Are you kidding?” they were shrieking. “Someone else died?”

Buchanan raced back to the spot where Cusihuaman had disappeared with emergency workers, who devised an intricate pulley system and brought up the guide’s body. There was no doubt now. Cusihuaman had been killed. The tourists stole a look down the cliff. His backpack was sitting near the edge; his raincoat was 10 m down; and his lucky blue hat dangled another 15 m below.

By now, the rain had stopped. Buchanan, Haining and the others gathered for a group hug before resuming their trek—they followed a path to Machu Picchu worn in by previous hikers. Their arrival at the site couldn’t have been more disappointing. “It was closed,” says Haining, because the area was deemed too dangerous by officials. “They said their concern was just getting everyone off the mountain.” The group took a few pictures, and then headed toward Aguas Calientes.

On the way to town, they crossed a wooden bridge over the Urubamba River, which was overflowing and ripping out trees. “That’s when I thought I wasn’t going to make it,” admits Buchanan. The river was crashing up and over the bridge. People were crossing one at a time, and locals overseeing their attempts yelled “Run!” Buchanan kept thinking, “When is my luck going to run out?” They found out later that bridge was wiped out the next day.

By then the pair had followed demolished railroad tracks to Aguas Calientes. They weren’t alone: thousands of tourists had taken refuge in the town, which was rapidly disintegrating because the river ran beside it. “We spent four days filling sandbags with locals and placing them along the river,” says Buchanan. While some slept in churches and schools, he and Haining found a hotel. They made emotional calls to their families. “It took half an hour before Nakita and her mom could talk to each other,” they were crying so much, says Buchanan. “They couldn’t get any words out.”

Military helicopters took the foreigners to Cusco, from where Buchanan and Haining eventually arranged flights back to Canada—five days later than they’d planned. When they got home, the pair was inundated with media requests for interviews about their adventure. Haining was too traumatized to share her experience. Buchanan obliged with several brief interviews, but then the devastation they’d witnessed started to sink in and he too stopped talking.
Five days after arriving in Edmonton, the pair did what any adventurers might do in such a situation: they booked another vacation, to Mexico, laughs Buchanan. “We just wanted to lay on the beach for a week.” Now that they’ve recovered, they’ve also planned a November trip—to Peru. “To Machu Picchu,” says Buchanan. “But by train this time.”