By Majid Muhammad
A few months ago, I decided to give my frequent travels a new theme: I would dedicate as many of my upcoming work breaks as I could to visiting the world’s New Seven Wonders. I began by crossing the Roman Coliseum off the pre-set list, as I had managed to see it when I vacationed in Italy back in January. I set my mind on visiting Machu Picchu next.
Besides the dent in my bank account, travelling to see the New Wonder came at another price: plane and altitude sickness. The turbulent hour-long domestic flight from Lima, the capital city of Peru, to Cusco, left my travel buddies and me praying for our lives. At every Andes Mountain peak that we flew over, the turbulence worsened, sending our stomachs into a seemingly endless marathon of summersaults. Images of a documentary I had once watched about the 1972 Andes plane crash kept flashing through my mind. Thankfully, however, we arrived safe and sound.
Reaching Cusco, a city sitting approximately 3,400 m above sea level, marked the beginning of our altitude sickness. The decreased oxygen levels had my friends dropping like flies—one even had to see a doctor! For some reason, I was more immune and only experienced light dizziness. To combat the expected discomfort, we were advised to drink plenty of coca leaves, which were ubiquitously sold by vendors throughout the city, and to rest until our bodies adjusted to the new levels of oxygen.
By morning we were feeling more like ourselves, and so we ventured out to explore the city. Situated in south-eastern Peru near the Urubamba Valley of the Andes Mountain range, Cusco was the capital of the Inca Empire from the 13th to the 16th centuries. The Empire stretched all the way across to what is now Colombia in the north and Chile in the south. We marvelled at the city centre’s rich and colourful architecture, which led it to become a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983, as a testament to Cusco’s vibrant history.
Due to its prime location in the Sacred Valley, Cusco is an ideal base for exploring Machu Picchu and a number of other local Inca sites. That combined with the fact that the majority of South America’s native population is clustered in Cusco has made the city popular amongst backpackers and cultural travel junkies like me. To this day, the natives still preserve their ancient traditions and language: Quechua, which is only spoken by approximately one million individuals today. We met and attempted to converse with a few of the young and friendly natives, who approached us to have photos of their baby alpacas taken by us. However, we didn’t get so far because of the language barrier. It was apparent from their appearance that many of the locals were poor. Yet, we never spotted any beggars during our trip. Everyone seemed to have found a way to earn a decent living.
We wandered through Pedro Market, a short walk south of the main square, where we found everything a tourist would desire from Peru, from alpaca wool jumpers to traditional Peruvian souvenirs. The market is open daily and is shaded, so it provides a cool vibe against the heat and a shelter from the rain. Not far off from the market, and just two blocks from the square, is Choco Museo (the Chocolate Museum), where we took a chocolate-making workshop and learned more about the chocolate-making process. The museum also has a café, where you can sip on delicious hot chocolates and munch on chocolate bars.
Our last stops were the Inka Museo (Inca Museum) and Cusco Cathedral. Located in a Spanish colonial building, the Inka Museo houses a collection of Incan jewellery, textiles, and pottery. Cusco Cathderal is the city’s first Christian church. It took almost 100 years to be built.
By the third day our bodies had acclimated enough and we were ready to go to Machu Picchu. Of course, there are a number of ways to get there. You can take the train or trek for approximately 4 days, as many tourists do. However, due to our time constraints, we opted for the fastest option: the bus.
We got on our bus at 4 AM. Though it was summer, we shuddered from the morning chills. We travelled for more than 70 km to the sacred location, feasting our eyes on the serene views of endless corn and potato fields along the way.
But nothing was as serene and majestic as seeing the ancient city, perched upon the edge of the mountains, just as the sun was rising and the llamas were noiselessly taking their morning strolls around us. Finally, I had made it there. I remember thinking that it was worth it: travelling halfway across the world, enduring a turbulent flight, the sicknesses… It was all worth it. I was standing on the very ground from which a great civilization once arose. It was then and there I realized that no matter how much adversity you go through, no matter how occupied your mind is, magnificence like this will always numb you and put your small worries into perspective.
I took as much of the scene in as I could because I wanted to remember this moment forever.
But in the end, I had to leave; a sea of tourists was waiting for their turn to bask in this magnificence. I just made sure to leave my worries right there on that mountain.
Majid Muhammad is an Emirati traveler and explorer.