We were given a few warnings about Rainbow Mountain, mainly these two: “You won’t be able to breath” & “The last hour is incredibly difficult and you will feel like you’re going to die”. Maybe those things would have been true, if it weren’t for a magical little plant called coca. The coca leaf is used as a natural medicine for digestion and altitude sickness, and in my opinion it does not get enough credit. This little plant made this hike doable and deserves to be credited.
We started our trip at 3 am, running from our apartment in San Blas down to Plaza de Armas to catch the bus at the Basillica. This was pretty painful as Cuso’s altitude of 11,152 ft makes it nearly impossible to run anywhere. I often get out of breath walking to my apartment, so as you’d imagine, I was a bit worried about hiking to a mountain at 16,520 ft elevation. We rode in the bus for about three hours through an incredibly beautiful mountain range which many herds of alpacas and wild horses call home. These mountains were a bit different than the one you pass through to get to Machu Picchu. Fluffy yellow-green plants line the mountain sides and there are beautiful white rivers running all along the range. White and brown alpacas roam around with frost on their backs chewing at the lush grass in their natural habitat. The temperature changes dramatically here. The direct sun is extremely powerful and will burn your skin and make you sweat, but as soon as you step into a region shaded by one of the gigantic mountains, you start to freeze.
We finally arrived at the base of the trek and ate enough bread and coca to fuel us for the walk. We started walking, and I started doubting. It was very difficult and the first few steps were not promising. I found myself gasping for air after the first ten minutes but we made frequent stops and chewed an entire bag of coca leaves. Coca tastes pretty horrible when you chew it directly but its effects are worth it. The hike was not what I expected. I thought the entire range would be full of multi-colored mountains like you see in a google image search of Rainbow Mountain, but that is not the case. It is incredibly beautiful, dont get me wrong, but different than what you would expect. The mountains themselves are gorgeous and very colorful but they are each more or less one solid color, for example one marooon mountain with deep green accents, one grey mountain with subtle variations of black and white and one bright turquoise mountain, sit side by side. Hovering above them all is Ausangate, a white glacier towering above the landscape like heaven itself and adding a brilliant contrast to the scene. Ausangate is considered by local Peruvians as the deity of Cusco. Since pre-Inca times the mountain has been a place of worship and offerings and this tradition continues today. Ausangate has an elevation of 20,945 ft, making it the highest mountain in the entire Cusco region.
Along the hike there are tiny villages scattered around, each consisting of no more than 20 people. You can hear music playing from some of them as you walk by and it is impossible not to imagine what life is like for these people. The entire hike was consistently difficult but the last twenty minutes or so were especially steep. At this point, all I could do was concentrate on repeating “left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot” until I reached the peak. When I finally arrived at the cima, I lay flat on my back and closed my eyes until I felt well enough to look out onto the range and appreciate the view. When I opened my eyes and turned to my left, Vinicuna was in from of me, a beautiful swirl of all of the colors I had seen throughout the day wrapped up into one beautiful mountain, creating a sense of unity as if the mountains decided to collaborate on one masterpiece that contained a little slice of the entire community.
The way back felt more like sleepwalking than hiking. We were all overwhelmed and exhuasted. Here are some shots I managed to snap, many of which I barely remember taking.
It really bothers me that you always see the same picture of Machu Picchu. It's even worse to see the roped off section full of hundreds of tourists standing in line for hours at this one particular spot to capture that same picture. Machu Picchu truly is a wonder of the world and I feel extremely lucky to have experienced it in the way that I did, being chewed up and spit out by the mountain, eaten alive by insects and pushed to a level of exhaustion that I have never before reached. It is common for tourists to take the train from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu since it is quick and painless and I have to say I don't blame them, I may be slightly more comfortable right now had I not trekked through the Selva for 10 hours. However, if you want a full adventure you might consider taking a 6 hour bus from Cusco to Hidroelectrica, walking 4 hours in the Selva to Augas Clientes, waiting until 4 in the morning to hike another 3 hours to the Inka ruins, and then another 3 hours up and down the Machu Picchu mountain itself. If you're like me and are traveling with a group of crazy adventure enthusiasts this will probably be your way as well. When we finally arrived, the Inka Ruins we were literally inside of a cloud. We couldn't see more than ten feet in front of us and I started to panic that I had chosen the wrong day to do this. An hour later, the cloud dissipated and the sun rose and what I had thought to be sky revealed itself to be a group of giant mountains, deep green and blue in color, intersected by puffy white clouds all around them. I have never felt as humbled as I did at that moment. The experience itself was beyond words, enough beauty to bring you to tears. I walked around the ruins with my jaw on the floor for a few hours as I learned about the incredible life of the Inkas and the groups of people that came before and after them. My eyes, as usual, overpowered my ears and I found myself lost in the art of it all, the cut of the giant stones, the hundreds of colors in the mountains, the shapes of the clouds all around me. At this point I was extremely tired and the sun beating down relentlessly on me wasn't helping. I thought I would sit for a while and just watch, but my friends found me and told me to get ready to hike Machu Picchu. I’m convinced this mountain is unlike any other. There were a few points where I stopped and contemplated if I was going to be able to make it without water. The entire hike was steep with minimal places to rest. The path winded up the mountain on the edge and at certain points was so narrow that only one person could pass through safely. When I finally reached the top I was breathless, both from the extreme heat and the incredible view. The Inka ruins were now only a spec in the green blanket that lie below me. I took my time enjoying the feeling of accomplishment. The hike down the mountain was painful and a bit scary. For the first time I experienced knee pain and my legs felt like jello, shaking uncontrollably. For the most part I was too tired to be bothered with my camera. Here are some shots I took with my iPhone of one of the best days of my life.
My first day in Cusco felt like the longest day of my life but also one of the most exhilarating. After 22 hours of travel I arrived at the Cusco airport and was greeted by my new roommate Paola. Paola is from Bolivia and has been living in Cusco for the past few months to work as a facilitator for Visionaria. We took a taxi to San Blas, sobre Lucrepata - up to our apartment on the top of a very steep hill overlooking Cusco. Salva, Paolas roommate who was supposed to leave for Bolivia today got the date of his flight wrong so he was stuck in Cusco for another day and I was fortunate enough to meet him. Paola describes Salva as a citizen of the world. He was born in Italy, speaks 7 languages and has been traveling around the world working for a rural tourism project called Qoricocha. Against all advice I’ve been given I decided to go for a walk with Paola and Salva down to Plaza de Armas and Plaza de San Pedro, the main centers in Cusco. Walking around was difficult because of the altitude but I couldn't help myself. There is a beautiful cathedral and basilica in the center of Plaza de Armas and on the way they pointed out the huge stones of the Incan empire which still support many of the buildings here. The stones are a greenish grey color and have rounded fronts and straight cut edges. Cusco es muy hermosa. People come here from all around the world not only to experience Cusco itself, but to see the natural beauty that surrounds the sacred Valley, mainly Macchu Picchu and the Rainbow Mountain. An Italian woman named Giuseppina who is also volunteering here in Cusco told me about her experiences on the climb: “You feel like you’re going to die, she said. But the people are so crazy, 20 of them at the top screaming at you ‘you can do it, you can do it’ and you do do it, and you feel on top of the world, united with all humanity, it is beyond religion”. Thanks to that description it will be the first thing I do once I’m acclimated which they say realistically takes about a full week. After a very delicious mushroom ceviche lunch, I took a long nap and got up for my first night out in Cusco. I still felt very tired and light-headed with a terrible headache but Giuseppina encouraged me to put mind over matter and soak up every moment of my time here in this magical place, including and especially the first day, "You have to climb the mountain when you're tired" she said. Downtown is very much a city and the nightlife is crazy. We went to an Italian bar and listened to a very talented group of musicians. We met an eclectic group of people from all around the world and quickly made friends with everyone. Out of all of the impressions I had in my first 24 hour experience in Cusco, the most prominent is the impression left by the people I met, people from all around the world, in all walks of life, completely welcoming and warm, embracing life in their own way. Many people come here to volunteer for a sustainability project or to work with children or poor families. Everyone seems to be on a similar moral spectrum and its a really great feeling to be surrounded by their energy. I already feel inspired. I must have been on some kind of adrenalin kick because we went to a club called Club Chango and danced until 5 am. The altitude sickness seemed to disappear while I was dancing.
As I prepare for my flight I remember the last time I was in Peru, three years ago, participating in the Centro Selva artist residency in the amazon. I was fortunate enough to be there for Peru's independence day on July 28th, when I created this pastel piece. I'm feeling very grateful today as life's spiral brings me back to this beautiful country and I'm excited to be inspired by the entirely unfamiliar mountainscape of the Andes.