Your visions of South America might come in varying shades of reds, greens, yellows and blues, I know mine did. Even the flag that greeted us as we stepped out of the airplane was seven stripes in seven colors, ushering us into Cusco (along with a handful of coca leaves). We’d just come from a week in the Galápagos where we’d boarded the plane in shorts and t-shirts, wholly unprepared for the high-altitude and low temperatures of the Andes. Just when I thought our Spanish was getting good though, Peter tells the cab driver were feeling very beans (frijoles) instead of cold (frijo).
We were here for Machu Picchu, mainly, but had budgeted for a few days beforehand to spend in Cusco - acclimatizing to the altitude and checking out the sights. We walked through the hilly, cobbled streets of the city square, passing through markets lined with brightly colored woven fabrics and handicrafts, ladies at stands waving strange fruits and clamoring for our attention. Streets packed with people, some walking around with llamas and alpacas in tow, or carrying churros, or trinkets, or choclo con queso. We spent the rest of our time in Cusco taking day trips out of it, there was so much to see in Urubamba and we didn’t have much time before heading into the mountains. We took a day trip to Chinchero, to a textile center where we saw the natural elements for dyeing wool, laid out in a rainbow at our feet (blue corn for purple, ch’illca leaves for green, tara beans for blue). Another trip to Moray, an Incan amphitheater of circular terraces, the original purpose of them still unknown. And to the salt flats in Maras, ancient panels of white and beige cascading into the mountains of Sacred Valley.
And finally to Rainbow Mountain, we’d been wanting to come here for a long time. We got up at three in the morning, shivering outside our hotel room waiting for the bus, it was a long drive from Cusco and we wanted to beat the crowds. The hike itself wasn’t bad but the altitude made it difficult, we were far from the slowest in our group but I must have really looked like shit because the guide was hovering over me constantly, forcing me to eat coca candies, rubbing oils in my hair that would supposedly help with the elevation. After what felt like an eternity of slow, trudging steps (but in reality was about an hour), we reached the summit - seven stripes in seven colors, now draped over the sides of the mountaintops, weaved into the fabric of the porters guiding horses back and forth along the trail. It had been a while since we’d been in the mountains, and in spite of dizzying headaches and thin air already making us gasp for breath - damn did it feel good to be back.