February 12th, 2019
My Guide to Cusco, Machu Picchu and Rainbow Mountain
While staying in Lima, I took a short flight to visit Cusco, a historic city filled with stunning colonial architecture. While there I also did a two-day trek up to Machu Pichu and visited Rainbow Mountain. Here are my highlights and advice for anyone visiting these monumental places.
Photo Credit: Joel Cárdenas
Take altitude sickness pills before you start traveling. Cusco is 3,300 meters or 11,152 feet above sea level and altitude sickness is real! I purchased the pills at a pharmacy in Lima but didn't start taking them until a little before my flight, guess what happened, I got sick my first day there. However, once the medication was in my system, I felt much better. I also chewed on coca leaves (no, it is not cocaine) which helped with altitude sickness.
Be prepared for shortness of breath. I am a very active person but I struggled on the steep hills of Cusco. Just take your time, stop to take breaks and enjoy the scenery and art around you.
Take a free walking tour. There are various tour companies that will do different kinds of tours. We went with Free Walking by Marco: The Blue Team and our tour included learning about the "Big Rock" which is literally a very large rock. It is impressive because 1) how did they get it here and 2) how did they so precisely cut it to fit perfectly on this wall (notice the 12 corners). The guides work off tips so make sure to take care of them at the end.
Shop at the markets. Cusco residents and businesses rely heavily on tourism. Walking into shops, you will see an assortment of goods from alpaca textile products to souvenirs. You may also play a little dress up as the shop owners put you in traditional clothing.
Take in the views. We visited Limbus Resto Bar, that is known to have the best views. Visit in the evening to enjoy a cocktail, watch the sun fade and the city light up.
Wear Hiking boots. I did not pack and did not want to pay $100+ for hiking boots I would seldom wear, so instead, I rented them from a local shop in Cusco. For 20 soles (about $6), I was able to rent them for three days. Best $6 I spent because the Inca trail we hiked was very steep at times and the rain made the rocks slippery.
Pick a good tour company. We went with Southern Peru Explores and they did a phenomenal job taking care of us. They cooked all our meals, and I'm not talking about peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, I mean they gave us a fine dining experience with locally sourced ingredients. They also brought all our camping gear up the mountain for us. We were struggling trekking with just our backpacks, imagine if we had to carry all that equipment, we might have not made it. After our long first day of hiking, we arrived at our campsite where our tents and sleeping bags had been set up for us. We spent the evening relaxing and enjoying a delicious dinner that included dessert and wine!
Ride the train. The train was part of our package with Southern Peru Explorers and it was probably my favorite part. Riding it felt like I was taking the train to Hogwarts and the Polar Express at the same time. Huge windows, skylights with food and beverage service made this ride comfortable and beautiful. With these tables in between us, we were also able to play some card games.
Appreciate the history. My other favorite part about our trip was learning how Machu Picchu was built. The attention to building a strong and self-sufficient city is incredible. The Inca people, who built this city, followed three philosophies, Ama Sua. Ama Llulla. Ama Quella. which translates to "Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not be lazy." You can see this philosophy was followed thoroughly by their lack of doors. I mean no one had doors, just a little rope going across the doorway was all it took to keep your belongings safe.
Stay Positive. We did a two-day hike and even for a fitness junkie like myself, it was harrrddd. Take your time to take breaks, take in the views and feel good that you are about to see one of the 7 Wonders of the World. Also, you will be sweaty and stinky from this hike and it's okay, so will everyone else. Just pull yourself together for that iconic picture at the top.
Bundle up. There will be a temperature change being at 5,200 meters or 17,060 ft above sea level. Have no fear if you forgot your favorite beanie because there will be merchants there ready to sell you warm hats, gloves, and scarves made from llama and alpaca wool. Many of their items are colorful just like their traditional clothing.
Take it easy. Rainbow Mountain is at an even higher elevation than Cusco. Even just taking a few steps can cause you to lose your breathe so take it slow and give yourself time to recover in between walking. If you really want to step up your game like Sahoua did, bring an oxygen tank. #baller
To ride or not to ride a horse. You can take a horse up and down the mountain. However, you have to unmount the horse just when the mountain starts getting really steep and you contemplate if you should just turn back. I decided to ride a horse because I wanted to help provide a source of income for the locals. I also love animals and was excited to be close to a horse. However, after seeing that these horses trek up and down the mountain all day, I could only assume they were not having fun and when I looked into my horse's eyes, he looked tired. If I could do it over, I would have chosen not to ride a horse and instead would have walked my lazy butt up there on my own.
Take pictures with all the alpacas and llamas. These animals are docile, have soft fur and sweet faces. You will find locals (sometimes children) holding them and proposing you take a picture with them. Tip the locals and enjoy your moments with these cuties pies.
Have real expectations: Many pictures of Rainbow Mountain have been enhanced to make the colors more vibrant. Although in real life it doesn't look like the Skittles flavors, you can still appreciate the complexity of the colors and lines that have naturally formed. Also, be prepared that there will be lots of people there and they will help enchance your pictures.
My last advice for anyone taking this trip, know that you are privileged and blessed to be able to visit these places. Take a moment of gratitude to appreciate that.