Want to believe that magic is real again? Buy a beaded pom-pom hat and poncho, alpaca your bags (sorry), and book a trip to Peru. A country where the locals believe gods called apus live in the mountains, where you can create lightning with your bare hands (instructions later), and where you’ll find mountains that look like rainbows. Travel to this wild west South American land to learn about the ancient 15th century Inca Empire, to see alpacas wearing earrings, and to chew your body weight in coca leaves.
If you’re not a wuss, maybe some Andean trekking will take your fancy. At over 5000 metres above sea level, you’ll struggle to breathe, but it won’t matter. Because you’ll be surrounded by more snow-capped mountains and llamas than you can poke a potato at (Peruvians grow more than 4000 varieties of the delicious starch). And, once you’ve finished, there’ll be enough pisco sours to make you forget all about the roasted guinea pig – a Peruvian delicacy called cuy – you ate earlier. Which just might be the most magical thing of all.
HIGH TIMES IN CUSCO
Your Peruvian launch pad will no doubt be Cusco (or Qosq’o in the native Quechua language), the country’s cosmopolitan ancient capital and South America’s oldest continuously inhabited city. Nestled high in the Andes mountain range at 3,400 metres above sea level, you’ll need to take it easy on day one, or risk throbbing headaches, dizziness, vomming, and other gross side effects of altitude sickness. What better excuse for simply roaming the ancient cobbled laneways, where ornate cathedrals are built on the ruins of Inca temples, where women clad in traditional colourful skirts and bowler hats will let you take a photo of them and their pet llama for 20 cents, and where Andean massage hawkers dot each corner. Cozy up in Greens Organics with views over the main square Plaza de Armas, and order a bowl of quinoa soup and a cup of coca leaf tea. Yep, these are the very same leaves from which cocaine is extracted – sadly, they won’t get you high, but they will help you acclimatize to the altitude. With an extra twinkle in your toes, you’ll now probably have the energy to continue weaving through the trendy San Blas neighbourhood, picking up cheap faux-alpaca jumpers, vintage llama wool ponchos, colourful knitted beanies and beaded wrap bracelets woven by local women on the street corners. It’s the perfect ensemble for your Sacred Valley début.
HOLA, SACRED VALLEY
A one-hour drive from Cusco via a narrow road of hairpin turns, you’ll find Peru’s Sacred Valley (or El Valle Sagrado if you want to sound worldly), which is more magical than a unicorn farting rainbows, and which stretches between Cusco and the famous 15th-century Inca citadel Machu Picchu. You’ll likely be initiated into the valley with a ceremony. Flower petals will be scattered on your head, you’ll be expected to dance awkwardly while locals sing traditional songs, and coca leaves (an integral part of these native rituals) will be offered to the apus. From here, you’ll wander through lush valleys, skirted by snow-capped summits and divided by the chocolate Moove-coloured river the Inca called Willkamayu or Milky Way. Along the way you’ll see terraced farmland, worked with methods unchanged since the time of the Inca to produce corn, quinoa and potatoes, and villages of thatched-roof adobe houses where there are more cactus and donkeys than people. Don’t miss Huchuy Qosqo archaeological remains, equally impressive for its 15th century ochre-coloured stone buildings and ancient irrigations system as for its pink earringed alpacas (so locals know whose herd is whose) which you’ll see roaming the grounds. Salinas de Maras is another must-see, a patchwork landscape of more than 5000 terraced pink, brown, tan and white salt pans that have been used for salt extraction since, say it with me now, the time of the Inca. You’ll spend the night in a lodge or homestay at one of the high-altitude villages, Lamay or maybe Pisac, and here’s where things will really get trippy. Once you’re in bed and warm, lift the sheets, shuffle your legs around, and you’ll probably see tiny lightning bolts spider-webbing around your limbs. These sparks can be explained by science and the high altitude, but why ruin all the fun? Let’s call it magic.
TREK IT LIKE IT’S HOT
From here, you could follow the beaten track to Machu Picchu. But you’d be joined by the estimated 5,000 tourists that visit every day, waiting in lines longer than the ones outside the loos at Field Day, just to get that selfie. Instead, why not try pretending to be gangsta by taking on the Ausangate trek. The what? Exactly, no one’s ever heard of the thing. Sure, it’ll take you five days. Sure, it’ll snow sometimes and you’ll be as cold as a witch’s tit. And sure, it won’t be that easy to breathe most of the time. But damn girl, the sights you’ll see! Raggedy snow-dusted mountains, lush valleys smattered with llama, alpaca, viscacha (like a fat rabbit), bobcats and condors, centuries-old glaciers that’ll make you feel insignificant in a really good way, and alpine lakes so still and pristine you won’t even need that mirror inside your Rimmel compact (you cheapskate). You could camp, but that would be really painful. And it wouldn’t make sense. Not when there are sustainable lodges en route with vaulted eucalyptus wood ceilings, mud-brick walls, solar lamps, open fires, tasty hot meals and the most smiley and colourfully-dressed staff you ever had the pleasure of laying your peepers on. The best part of all, though, is that you won’t even have one bar of phone reception, and you’ll only see about three other hikers the whole way. C’mon, that’s a good thing – medicine for the soul, some might say.
SOMEWHERE OVER THE RAINBOW
Finally, on your last day of trekking, you’ll glimpse the thing you came all this way for. The Rainbow Mountain. Striped turquoise, terracotta and turmeric, from mineral deposits of copper, tin and iron that layered over millions of years, it’s a technicolour dreamscape that’s every bit as magnificent as the name suggests. Hopefully, you’ll bump into some of the day trippers who left Cusco at 3 in the morning and took a four-hour bus ride and three-hour hike to get here, so you can brag about trekking for days to do it the right way. Just don’t expect a pot of gold at the bottom of this rainbow; all you’ll find is a rustic stall made of old stones selling white bread rolls and Inca Kola (Peru’s famous bright yellow bubblegum-flavoured soft drink – don’t even). The stallholder may not be shaking up pisco sours, but you should buy that weird-looking dried corn from him because you deserve a reward, dammit. For having done something that definitely made you stronger, both inside and out (aww). That gave you a shut-the-door profile pic for every social account you have – yes, even LinkedIn. And that proved to you that magic really might be real, after all.
Nina Karnikowski toured with Crooked Compass.