Peru has a kind of magic to it, especially the mountain town of Cusco. It’s the former capital of the Inca Empire, thus often referred to as the “imperial city”. It has extremely well preserved both colonial and pre-Colombian architecture with indigenous building techniques. You see locals wearing traditional costumes not just for tourist photos. Some of them walk around with alpacas, which mainly are for tourist photos that they’ll ask money for. Souvenirs made of colourful, intricately patterned textiles are sold at every other corner, local street food including guinea pig and alpaca meat at every other. There are traditional music and dance performances on the plazas. The indigenous culture feels so alive here that you can almost sense the mountain spirits watching over their sacred city.
Cusco lies high up in the Andean mountain range so altitude sickness can be brutal. In the first couple of days walking around the city I felt like my heart was jumping out of my chest at the slightest uphill or quickening of pace. Drinking coca tea and getting acclimatized for a few days is advisable if you want to be able to do any hiking to the surrounding destinations without fainting or vomiting. And you’ll want to, because you’ve come to a hiker’s heaven. Cusco is surrounded by wonders, and it’s where pilgrimages to places such as Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley and the Rainbow Mountain are made from.
It’s better to start with Machu Picchu, as it actually lies a bit lower than Cusco. Some hike along the Inca Trail for several days to reach it, some prefer to take the train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, a small town on the bottom of the valley next to Machu Picchu mountain. I opted for a more economical option to the fairly pricy train ride and took first a long minibus ride to Hidroeléctrica power station. This might not be for the faint of heart as the minibus was driving centimeters from cliff’s edge with a direct fall of dizzying heights, on an unpaved road on crumbly soil prone to land slides, in a country known for the frequency of bus accidents precisely the type where they plunge off cliffs to death. At the end of the drive, feeling lucky to be alive, we descended into a valley where the Hidroeléctrica is located. To get from there to Aguas Calientes you have the options of buying a ticket for a shorter train ride or hike for around 2,5 hours along the train tracks, which is what I did. Besides a short uphill in the beginning the trail has basically no elevation, so it’s doable even if you experienced some symptoms from the altitude in Cusco. The hike was actually a beautiful experience: following the tracks through a lush jungle, feeling the magic intensifying at every step as you approach the ultimate destination.
After arriving to Aguas Calientes in the evening I bought both the entrance tickets for Machu Picchu and for the bus to get there for the next day. It’s also possible to hike up, but I opted for saving my strength for exploring the site itself. The next day I boarded the bus and had butterflies in my stomach as the bus climbed higher. The first sight of the ancient city with perhaps the most geographically stunning location on earth made me silently scream of awe. Since seeing pictures of it in my childhood history books I always thought Machu Picchu to be the most gorgeous of all the wonders of the world, and I didn’t stand corrected. I spent several hours hiking to different viewpoints inside the area, admiring the view from all possible angles and petting lamas that wander the site. You should know that there are toilets only outside the site itself by the bus station, and with one ticket you can only enter the site once – so you can’t exit to go to the toilet and re-enter after that. It’s a bit of a bummer to have your bladder dictate the length of your visit, but admittedly it’s an effective way to keep the masses of tourists from piling up.
The Rainbow Mountain
Another beautiful trip I’d recommend to take from Cusco is to Vinicunca, the Rainbow Mountain. Its colourful peak was discovered only recently because of the melting snow that uncovered it. It’s about as high as Mount Everest base camp, at 5 200 m. I would not recommend doing this until your possible altitude sickness symptoms in Cusco have completely subsided. It’s also possible that you didn’t experience symptoms in Cusco but will here, as Cusco lies lower at 3 400 m, so I’d wait a few days before going in any case.
It’s a few hours minibus ride to the beginning of the final hike. I saw people in terrible shape who turned back after attempting the hike. Many took horseback rides for some part of the trail, but even the horses won’t take you all the way up so you have to complete it by walking. To my surprise I quickly left the rest of my group behind and didn’t find it very hard to walk all the way, although I had to take it significantly slower than I would in lower altitudes. I’m not especially sporty, in fact this was pretty much the only time in my life that I excel in a sport, so it really is all about acclimatizing. If you make it without too much suffering, the views are definitely worth it. The rainbow of colours in the soil is repeated in the costumes of the locals and in the textiles on the horses that go up and down the trail aiding the altitude victims. Up in those altitudes everything is so fluffy – the alpacas, dogs, and even horses have a teddy bear-like coat. In the distance you can see even higher mountains that are still snow-capped.