the first stop on a trip 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, 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 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, and 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 somehow mustered the gumption to give a go at a mountaineering-based expedition that snaked along the glacier-cracked spine of the Andes for four months, and even though I was extremely unsure of myself and that decision, my time in South America ended up being a cornerstone for my passion towards mountaineering and the unusually glorifying sensation of spending months at a time carrying everything I needed in a beaten-up backpack on my sunburned – sometimes frostbitten – shoulders. I was so captivated by the blue balconies of Cusco, the cobblestone streets and Incan flute music of the Sacred Valley, the cascading glaciers tumbling down to the Andean highlands with their emerald green lakes, that for years after my first visit to Peru, I always revered it as one of the most enchanting places I’d ever been.
And so, last year when I was offered to lead a photography expedition in Peru — with the freedom to build my own itinerary based on what I think must be done in Peru in two weeks’ time — I seized the opportunity, let it unfold, almost too good to be true, and fast forward to May 2016, when I was stepping on a plane bound for South America, it somehow became, well, true.
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 especially different or unique this time around would be.
En 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 sunset. Instantly, I was taken aback by the way in which Peru flooded my heart, it 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 last time I’d been there.
And so, I did. And Peru unfolded before me.
From the moment my clients arrived to the moment that I type this, Peru unwrapped its treasures for us; presented its extraordinary beauty in a way I’d never seen before. 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 indescribably more spectacular than what I had remembered (maybe it was the deep navy blues and the streams of light beaming on the tumbling ruins, or maybe it was just the people I was with). 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 traveled across the nation to the Amazon, where we swung on hammocks beneath tangled 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 — swollen and deeply red — sunk below the horizon.
En yet, the most powerful and most significant moment of my time in Peru — and perhaps my whole time in South America — unfolded in a small village about 15,000 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 severe burning sensation emerging underneath your ribs. 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 illuminate their glaciers in mauve sunset light, then eventually braved the sub-zero temperatures to dive into hot springs of natural thermal waters, steaming and bubbling and enveloping us in glorious warmth as the rest of the world froze and the sky above us shifted into an impossibly clear display of the Milky Way. In the springs that night, alone with those people, under those stars in the Andes, is a moment I know in my heart of hearts that I will never lose or forget for as long as I live.
The rest of our time in Andes was spent climbing higher and higher into the peaks, traversing lakes of green and turquoise, sparkling in that gloriously high sun, reflecting glaciers and herds of curious alpaca. Rambling creeks and crumbling stone walls suggesting past villages, 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. I can be nostalgic about it, of course, but typically, I’m ready to move on. 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 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.