Lima, Cusco, Machu Picchu

As European summer keeps edging closer, I have been moving to increasingly colder places. From the heat of Cartagena to the springy Medellín, overcast Bogotá and onward to higher altitudes past Lima into Cusco and the highlands of southern Peru. Since I touched down in Lima for my two weeks in Peru, I have slowly begun to realize that my journey is not far from its final stages anymore, now nearly ten months in and with only little over a month to go. As hard as it is to do from abroad, I now really need to start looking into how I will settle back in once I’m home, and what life will look like after this year on the road.

At the same time, the fact that I am traveling home from Rio de Janeiro and need to get there in time for my flight has required me to accelerate my pace considerably, with over 5000 kilometers still to cover in three countries. So real time to think is somewhat limited by this, and the past two weeks have once again been mind-blowingly intense.

Lima was kind of a run-of-the-mill capital, and not really worth spending many words on. What did strike me was the surrounding landscape of desert-like sand dunes which ran right up to the Pacific Ocean. This was the first indication of the stunning diversity in Peru’s landscape I would continue to witness throughout my stay. A twenty-three hour bus ride took me from sea level to 3200m altitude through a never-ending succession of winding roads, slowly snaking into the mighty Andes mountain range and the old Inca capital of Cusco. This ride started a week that will remain an absolute highlight of my journey.

Cusco is a scenic place, squeezed into a valley carved out of the surrounding mountains, colonial in style and ancient in culture. Because of the altitude and mountainous climate, the sunny days can be pleasantly summery, but as soon as the sun is gone a dry chill settles over the city and the nights are never warm. On first glance, it seems to be the venue for a massive gay pride celebration, with rainbow flags flying throughout the streets and squares, when in fact this is merely the official Cuscanian city flag. A neat coincidence, and I wonder if this is where the pride movement got their inspiration. After two days of settling in, I embarked on a tour that would last four days and ultimately take me to one of the Seven Wonders of the World, Machu Picchu.

I almost decided against doing a tour at all and instead making my way up there myself, but was luckily persuaded by a super chill Dutch guy who was going as well. As far as value for money goes, this might be the best organized activity I’ve ever gone on. Over the course of four days we did what felt like every thrilling mountain activity imaginable. Obviously I had ignored my own intention to not party the night before we left, and therefore found myself sick to my gut on the cramped minivan ride that would take us up to 4500m altitude for what would turn out to be the most insane bike ride of my life. At an average speed of 40km/h we practically raced down the narrow winding roads over 80km and down nearly 2000 meters in altitude. The views were spectacular, though looking at them for more than a split second would probably have had lethal consequences. Hangover cure, absolutely. As if that wasn’t enough for one day we then went on a proper rafting ride with class III rapids and a generous dose of ingested Peruvian river water.

Day two was hiking, a good 24km partly along the original Inca trail, a daunting series of stone steps next to a several hundred meter vertical drop. It was as frightening as it was stunning. Thermal hot springs to relieve our sore legs at night, and several Pisco Sours to relieve everything else. Zip-lining and more hiking on day three to finally arrive at the base of the mountain for the highlight of it all.

We got up at 3.30am, it was pitch dark out. Armed with headlamps, water and sugary snacks we started the 1700 step ascent towards the Inca city perched on top of the mountain 400 meters higher. The effort was substantial, but dwarfed by the reward at the top. Even though it’s hard to rank these kinds of things, I can say that Machu Picchu is most likely the most fabulous natural sight I’ve ever seen. It’s a vast, drop-dead gorgeous ruin of an empire that was hidden, lost and found several times over its 500-year history. The landscape around reminded me somewhat of the alien world in Avatar, simply out of this world. It’s hard to fathom the effort it took to construct this city, and another great example of human ingenuity and resolve. The memory of this place is going to stick with me for a very long time.

The same night our jolly group of travelers, subtly dubbed the Sexy Lamas, disbanded and I arrived back to Cusco, tired yet very satisfied. Time to leave the Andes and move on to even higher pastures. On the border between Peru and Bolivia lies the largest high-altitude lake in the world, Lago Titicaca. The perfect place for some solace from the intensity of what has come before. Bolivia will be the second-to-last country of my journey as this adventure is steadily drawing to a close.

And I’ll be committed to make the most of the time that remains.

June 17th, 2017

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