The Incans believed Cusco was the centre of the universe. Today it’s the centre of all things touristy in South America. I spent a couple of days in the city 6 months ago during the rainy season and, while I liked the old town, a gloomy pallor hung over everything and I was quick to head south to Arequipa after completing the obligatory trek to Machu Picchu.
This time, to the backdrop of sunshine and blue skies, my impressions were totally different. The grubby brown hills that once reminded me of something from “The Road” looked inviting; the dark, dingy alleyways now quaint and clean. And if it had been busy with tourists the first time, now it was positively rammed. After weeks in small town Peru roughing it in construction sites and mud-brick houses I had a minor culture shock at the sight of a so many white people and the opulence of the 5 star hotels and alpaca wool boutiques. No-one stared or shouted “gringo” either. For once I was just another tourist.
I could’ve easily spent a week or two doing tours of all the ruins, salt steps and market towns in the area around Cusco but I wasn’t in tourist mode and didn’t want lose too much momentum. However, there was one thing that I was determined not to miss: Rainbow Mountain. Since it was on my way south I decided to forego doing an an organised tour and hike it independently.
At 2.45am I squeezed into the back of a van along with all of the vendors and a man with a metallic smile offered me a seat on a bale of hay. The van was completely packed, 20 illegal immigrants crossing the border to rainbow country, and I could barely move, although given how cold it was I was soon thankful for all the body heat. An hour and a half later we arrived at the base camp and I was shepherded into a shack where an old lady literally threw two blankets over my head and I sat there shivering like a munchkin waiting for the sunrise. At first light I set off up the mountain. It was practically deserted – just me, a Peruvian family and a small group of French tourists – and I charged ahead, determined to be the first to the top. Within an hour and a half I was metres from the mirador. All the rainbow glory was soon to be mine and mine alone. I’d bask in the pristine silence, watch the sun slowly rise over the snowcapped peaks, have a nip of rum and take in one of Peru’s most stunning sights. Then I heard a voice.
“Oh my god! This is totally gonna be my new profile picture!”
Like effluvia from a backed up toilet, a group of very talkative American tourists emerged from the other side of the mountain and started taking group photos and making bad jokes.