We arrived at the capital of the Inca empire bleary eyed, rubbing the sleep from our eyes and pulling on extra layers. Cusco was as gorgeous as we had hoped, full of colour and life, with pre-Columbian buildings and traces of baroque architecture. Rainbow flags sailed on every corner, and we thought we had stumbled onto a pride march before someone explained to us that it was the official flag of Cusco. We soon discovered that festivals and parades and spectacles were a daily occurrence in Cusco’s beating centre. Literally, daily.
But as much as it had to offer during the day, it had just as much to offer at night. Bartops of Loki and Wild Rover in the evening; dancefloors of Temple and Chango after we were kicked out of there. It was a cesspool of all the people we had collected along the way, a tide of familiar faces, ghosts of countries past. The layers of connections were so deep one night, I drew a map to capture how everyone knew each other at the table. But Cusco did that; it drew people in and caught them in its sticky web.
Even Cusco’s outskirts had ruffles. Ausangate, or ‘Rainbow Mountain’, was one of the most unreal magical places that one has to lay eyes on themselves to believe what they’re seeing. Although always known amongst indigenous people, remote and 5,100m high, it was only discovered commercially about 2 years ago, when someone managed to bring back a picture of those red, blue and yellow hues and showed it to a tour office in the city whose mouth filled with saliva and eyes shown with dollar signs as they plastered the picture on every billboard and blank wall in town.
We also took refuge in the Amazon, through the gateway of Puerto Maldonado, sailing along the river that could carry us all the way to Bolivia and Brazil if we let it. We canoed with caymans, zip-lined with cappuccino monkeys, caught catfish but no piranhas, and were chased by the endangered giant otter species. I saw stars like I had never seen them before. The mist of the milkyway swept across the sky like a confident brush stroke on canvas.
And of course, the reason everyone comes to Cusco, to Peru, to South America… there was Machu Picchu. The 4-day Salkantay trek there was cold and long and sleep-deprived, but totally worth it. You camp at mad high altitudes in 0 degree temperatures woken up by a boiling cup of tea at 4am everyday, walking up and down and all around for the day before settling in for soup and your sleeping bag cocoon for the night. It was a sigh of relief sinking into those hot springs in Santa Teresa, a momentary collapse of your muscles before hitching them up again for the walk along the train tracks to Aguas Calientes. Winding and flat, it’s actually a very pleasant walk, even with your backpacks strapped to your back. Aguas Calientes was a town built with the sole purpose to serve those on their way to Machu Picchu, so you have to forgive it for being a little expensive and touristy. It’s still hilly and pretty and colourful, and bonus: it has showers.
Four days of walking culminating to its climax. There’s something about waking up while it’s still dark outside that hollows out the pit of my stomach. Throwing on clothes, hair frazzled, we felt our way through the inky streets, taking wrong turns before stumbling upon the right one. For awhile we followed two tiny spotlights ahead, letting it guide us like fairy dust in a Disney movie. Then we came upon the lights of a hundred flashlights, winking across the bridge, petering slowly up and up and up. Clear your head, breathe, and take one step at a time. Keep putting one foot ahead of the other, steadily, surely, a couple thousand times. At the top, the sky was still veiled but darkness was relaxing its grip. Finding a cosy spot at its apex, I sat crosslegged, catching my breath, watching as the sun crept over the mountains, shyly peeking over at Machu Picchu. As its rays trickled over, the crown of the mountain was suddenly blazing and aglow. Like two people falling in love, as the sun slowly bared itself, so did Machu Picchu, shedding its shadows layer by layer, illuminating one part of itself at a time– its walls, its pathways, its bumps, and all the spaces in between.
I took a couple of photos and then put the camera away, stuffing it deep into my bag to try and rid myself of the temptation. Some moments, photos can’t capture. The movement of light, the shifting of colours, the significance, the awe. I remember just trying to take it all in, being glad to be alive and there.