The first stop on a journey around the world.
It’s a Friday afternoon and I’m sitting at a cafe overlooking the main historic square of Cusco, Peru. It feels remarkably quiet compared to the past few weeks, as all the clients I’d been guiding across the Andes, the Sacred Valley, and the Amazon have all gone back to the United States this morning.
This leaves me here, with a strong espresso and a bar of cacao I picked up on my way out of the Amazon this morning, nestling into the warm sun and welcome quiet like an exhausted trekker nestles into their sleeping bag at the end of an especially exerting day. I’m comfortable and aching with a special kind of tired, there’s a slight breeze rolling down the golden hills beyond Cusco’s cathedral, so now’s as good a time as any to write.
I first went to Peru when I was barely out of high school. I'd found the gumption to join a mountaineering-based expedition that snaked along the glacier-cracked spine of the Andes for four months.
Even though I was extremely unsure of my abilities and, therefore, that decision, my time in South America ended up being the spark that ignited for my love for the mountains, and the strangely glorious sensation of spending months at a time carrying everything I needed in a beaten-up backpack on my shoulders. I was so captivated by the bright blue painted balconies of Cusco, the cobblestone streets and Incan flute music of the Sacred Valley, and the black-streaked glaciers tumbling down to the Andean highlands with their emerald green lakes, that for years after my first visit to Peru, I always considered it to be one of the most enchanting places I’d ever been.
And so, last year when I was offered to build itineraries for photography-focused expeditions in Peru, it was the perfect opportunity to return.
Truth be told, I wasn’t sure what to expect in the weeks before returning to Peru. My first visit, while captivating, was tainted with extraneous circumstances that made that experience particularly challenging, and while I was excited, I wasn’t sure how different or unique this time around would be.
And yet, from the moment my plane touched down in Cusco almost three weeks ago now, an enormous sensation of deja vu washed over me. Even walking through the twisted alleys of the ancient city I was overwhelmed with familiarity; the ability to recognize landmarks and street corners and benches that were tied with memories; I was caught in the rain there; I tried my first cuy here; I spent hours there waiting for the bus that never arrived. Instantly, I was taken aback by the way in which Peru flooded my heart; Peru somehow feeling more comforting and familiar than it was when I had spent months there prior. Trying to figure out why this time was different, I realized it’s because this time, I was free to make Peru mine, to do everything I felt I’d immensely missed out on the last time I’d been there.
So I did, and Peru opened up around us.
We followed the music and parades across the cobblestone squares of Cusco, photographing the festivals and markets with their rich colors of reds tapestries, vibrant fruits, smoky golden lights. We saw Machu Picchu, and were actually the first of thousands of people to see the ancient kingdom emerge as the clouds cleared at sunrise, and to be honest, it was more spectacular than what I had remembered. We rode trains alongside rivers swollen with rapids, we ate warm chocolate in the shadows of cathedrals, we rode horseback to high vistas overlooking deep, terraced valleys. We flew to the Amazon, where we swung on hammocks beneath tangled jungle canopies, fell asleep to the sounds of rain on thatched roofs and monkeys screeching from just outside our bungalow windows, ate fresh fruit picked from the trees in the backyard after learning about medicinal plants from an Amazonian shaman, or watching caymans and birds in the river as the sun sank below the horizon.
And yet, the most special experience from my time here — and maybe even from all the time I've ever spent in South America — unfolded in a small village at about 13,700 ft, nestled at the base of the Ausangate Mountain in the high Andes.
We drove, then trekked, for hours to this remote corner of the mountains, placed thousands of feet above the tree line where the oxygen was so thin that it was impossible to walk a few meters at an incline without a burning in my lungs. We were welcomed into the home of a local family who fed us soups heavy with potatoes and quinoa, plates upon plates of rice and cups of steaming hot mate de coca in their dining room, thick with the smell of woodsmoke and blustery mountain air blowing in through the cracked windows. As evening settled, we watched the grandiosely massive peaks reflect the mauve sunset light off their glaciers, then eventually braved the sub-zero temperatures to dive into the surrounding hot springs, steaming gaps in a frozen landscape, underneath an incredibly clear Milky Way.
The rest of our time in Andes was spent climbing higher and higher into the peaks, walking past lakes of green and turquoise, reflecting glaciers and herds of alpaca. Rambling creeks and crumbling stone walls, and of course, the best possible lunches (guacamole made then-and-there, eaten on fresh bread we picked up from a bakery down in the valley).
Usually when I’m about to leave a place, I’m ready to go. But landing back into Cusco today from the Amazon, my knees bruised from miles trekked, my bag dusty, and my nose freckled from weeks under the high altitude sun, there is genuinely nothing more I want in my heart than to keep going into the mountains, to be on those glaciers again.
But it’s time to move on. Just a few more days to soak in all that is Peru, all that Peru is, and the onto the next stop on this round-the-world journey. Morocco.
Entonces, hasta la próxima vez.