I could see the giant white glacier hovering above me as I made the final push to the top. Breathing hard due to the elevation of 4990 m, I paused and took in the incredible view in front of me. Ausungate Mountain capped with a thick layer of white frosting stood before me in all its glory. There were 3 small glacial pools scattered around the base of Ausungate, each slowing off its own unique shade of blue/green. With a huge grin on my face a let out a triumph yell with arms raised high in the air and took in the stunning Andes around me.
I was on a 3 week self-guided adventure trip with my boyfriend K and trekking in Peru had been at the top of my bucket list. Going to Peru and NOT trekking in the incredible Andes would be like going to Nepal and NOT seeing the Himalayas up close and personal. We had opted to forgo the classic 4 day Inca Trail hike in favor of the high snow capped peaks of the Andes. Though I would have loved to do both, time was a factor and we had a lot of ground to cover in 3 weeks.
While researching various treks, I came across a wonderful trekking outfitter called Flashpacker Connect. They were advertising a 2 day trek to Rainbow Mountain that takes you past the mighty Ausungate Mountain (pronounced “ow-soon-ga-te”). Just seeing the pictures of Ausungate had me immediately hooked. THIS was were I wanted to hike! Rainbow Mountain, which is usually the highlight of this trek, was just an added bonus for me. Knowing that K wasn’t very interested in hiking I thought this short, 2 day trek would do us just fine.
One thing to note for this trek is that it takes place at a very high altitude. With the hike starting at an elevation of 4100 m (yikes!), we’d be trekking up to a maximum elevation of 5050 m.
K and I arrived in Cusco the recommended 3 days before our trek in order to get acclimatized. Cusco sits at a lofty 3400 m above sea level so we’d have a few days to see how our bodies reacted to the change in elevation. Armed with altitude medication we stepped off the plane wondering just how we would fair at this high altitude.
I should note here that both K and I are fairly fit and in shape. We both work out regularly, whether it be through an activity (mountain biking for Kelly) or a work out (I love running!). I had been told that when it comes to altitude, it doesn’t always matter how fit you are. Sometimes it just depends on the person as it affects everyone differently.
I had booked us into a cute little hostel that offered amazing views of Plaza de Armas. The only catch was that it was 2 blocks uphill from the plaza. I figured a few daily trips up and down the streets of Cusco would be a good warm up to the trek and allow us to gauge our tolerance for high altitude activity.
Over the 3 days we saw the sights around Cusco including many of the famous Inca Ruins such as Saqsaywaman. While I barely noticed the altitude, K had minor symptoms such as mild headaches and feeling out of breath on our short walk uphill to the hostel. He was beginning to wonder if he’d be fit for the trek. But by day 3 he was feeling much better and more confident, all altitude symptoms resolving.
On the night before our trek we met with our guide Alki at the Flashpacker office in Cusco to go over the trip details. We immediately liked Alki who was a local Quechua and had lived in the Andes his entire life. He was soft spoken with soft facial features that lite up when he smiled. His English was very good and throughout our briefing he made jokes and answered any questions or concerns we raised. We looked over the map Alki had given us outlining our trek and displaying both elevation and campsite locations. It gave us a great overview of what was in store for us.
Before leaving, Alki handed each of us a small duffle bag for extra clothing and such. We were only expected to carry our day backpacks with what we needed while hiking. All our clothing, toiletries, etc, would be placed on a pack horse and meet us at camp. Our remaining luggage would be stored at our hostel for the 2 days.
Trek Day 1
An Early Start
The next morning at the very early hour of 4 am, K and I were ready and waiting. Alki, along with our incredible cook Charlie and our second guide Freddie, arrived under the cover of darkness in a large van to collect us. We made one more stop before heading out of Cusco, picking up our trekking partners. 2 American sisters, E & E, would be joining us on the hike. Due to a late return from Machu Picchu the night before, they had not been able to make it to the trip briefing.
We left Cusco with bright stars shinning above, heading for the mountains. Everyone settled in, wrapping up in blankets that had been provided and falling asleep for the first part of the 3 hr drive.
It was straight, well-paved highways for the first half before we turned off onto a dirt road. This rough route wound its way through villages and up and over a mountain pass. By the time we were traversing a switchback road up the pass, the sun was shinning brightly in the sky making it impossible to miss the shear vertical drop off the side of the road. The bottom of the valley was a very long way down and as I peered out the window I couldn’t see anything but open space. I hoped our driver was feeling more awake than me as my life – all our lives- were literally in his hands.
After 3 hrs of driving we stopped in a small road side village for a bathroom break and breakfast. Charlie, our amazing cook, got to work right away. Charlie was a short Quechwa man who always had a huge smile plastered on his face and he never seemed to stop moving. Always jumping and running from one place to another, he was a ball of energy that was never short of breath in the high Andes.
We had gained another 600 m of elevation during the drive and now sat at 4000 m above sea level. It was here that I first started to notice how easily out of breath I could get while simply walking around.
After a breakfast of coffee, tea, bread with butter and jam and a fresh fruit salad, we all piled back into the van. It was another 30 min drive through gorgeous countryside to our trailhead.
The Trek Begins
We passed fields of alpacas and crossed a mountain stream, driving steadily towards a wall of mountains on an ever-fading dirt road. Just as the road disappeared entirely we stopped on a grassy plateau. There were 3 horses waiting near by along with our horse handler. Everyone unloaded and starting packing up the gear.
Once everyone was ready, Alki lead the way following a worn dirt path on a steady uphill trajectory. Our second guide Freddie took up the rear, making sure no one was left behind.
Taking small, slow steps, Alki set the pace ensuring that none of us became too out of breath at this high altitude. We were starting our trek at 4100 m and had more elevation to gain. This was definitely a time where slow and steady would win the race.
The weather was beautiful with the sun shinning brightly above us in a clear blue sky. I started out in only my t-shirt but soon had to put on a light jacket as the wind picked up. It was perfect trekking conditions: sunny but cool so no worries about over heating.
We trekked past traditional Quechwa houses made of mud bricks, houses that belonged to the local alpaca farmers and their families.
Observing the landscape around me, I took in the colorful scenery. I saw sections of iron rich, red earth that resembled Mars. There were stripes of sulphurous yellow and a blanket of green grass covered pastures that were filled with grazing alpacas. Looking up I noticed the jagged peaks of 2 near-by mountains, Alkatari and Surimani. Later we would trek and camp right below their protective walls.
Alki kept us moving forward, taking breaks often to catch our breath and snap a few pictures of the gorgeous world around us. The alpacas were an ever giving source of entertainment for us. They were so cute with their long shaggy coats and would stare at us with large curious eyes and mouths full of grass. They were pretty skittish though, never letting us get too close.
Up and up we went, heading to the top of Pucacocha Pass. As we approached the summit (reaching an elevation of 4990 m) I could see a collection of rock inukshuk’s marking the top. Stepping up to the summit, strong winds hit me head on as I gazed up at the majestic Ausungate Mountain.
We spent a good 45 min at the top of the pass, taking pictures and soaking in the stunning views all around us. The view in front of us was spectacular, with the giant snow capped mountain. But looking back the way we had come I found the views equally as stunning.
When we had had enough of the strong winds, we each took a seat on the ground behind the wall of inukshuk’s and opened up our snack bags. After breakfast we had each been given a snack bag to hold us over until we made it to camp for lunch. I was constantly amazed at how quickly I got hungry, my body working over time at the high elevation.
Once finished, Alki set off in the direction of the camp. We traversed the barren landscape hiking right below Surimani Mountain, accidentally cutting off a group of alpacas. Dark storm clouds began rolling in and we picked up the pace, hoping to made it to camp before the thunder storm hit.
We managed to beat the storm, which had shifted direction and by-passed us. Walking into camp, which was surrounded by a herd of sheep and alpacas, Alki directed us to our tents. They had been set up underneath a wood and straw structure for added protection. I was happy to see a think mattress and extra warm sleeping bags already and waiting.
We each collected our Flachpacker duffels and put our bags in our tents. Alki showed us the small building that was to be our dinning room with an adjoining kitchen. Charlie was already busy cooking us a hot lunch on the 2 burner stove set up on the concrete floor. Seriously, it was amazing what this guy could whip up in such a limited kitchen!
Soon enough we were being served fresh Inca soup which was followed by 4 platters of food. Again, I couldn’t believe how hungry I was!
After lunch coca tea was brought out. We were camping at a staggering 4700 m. Putting dried leaves directly into the hot water, I drank 2 cups as I had developed a mild headache when we reached our lunch spot at Ausungate Mountain.
With a few hours to kill until the next tea time at 5 pm, everyone retreated to their tents for a little afternoon siesta. K and I left our tent flaps wide open so we could enjoy our front row view of Ausungate Mountain (with the occasional alpaca wandering by).
Dinner seemed to come much too soon as it felt like we had just eaten lunch. But again, I was hungry! Using our headlamps to supplement the one overhead light in the dinning room, we dug into another one of Charlie’s delicious meals.
Alki went over the next days itinerary with us, which would begin with a 3 am wake up call. Although it was only 8 pm by the time we finished dinner, everyone retired to their tents. It had been a long and tiring day and we had another one tomorrow. Before crawling into our tent, K and I took a moment to star gaze at the incredible night sky above us.
Trek Day 2
Another Early Morning
At 3 am on the dot Alki called out to K and I, making sure we were awake. Getting dressed quickly in the near freezing temps, we were all packed up and back in the dinning room by 3:30 am. Charlie brought out a breakfast of pancakes drizzled in dolce de leche (caramel spread) with a side of eggs. Everyone filled up on coffee and accepted a snack bag from Alki, similar to the one we had the day before. By 4 am we were ready to trek.
With only the light from our headlamps to guide us, we headed up to the top of Abra Warmisaya Pass at 4985 m. No easy start here! We got right to it, huffing and puffing, gaining elevation again. As we crested the pass the night sky was giving way to dawn and we put our headlamps away.
We continued on, down the other side of the pass where we encountered a lagoon. Large black ducks were enjoying an early morning swim as we spotted chinchilla’s bouncing among the grey rocks.
Looking down the valley I was met with one of the most gorgeous views I’ve ever seen. Pictures do not do it justice. The landscape made me feel like I had discovered a lost world, untouched by man. The early morning sun lite up the pristine grass covered valley as clouds lazily rolled off the mountain peaks. I fell behind the group, too mesmerized by the stunning site in front of me.
Catching up with the group, we continued on through the high alpine heading to Vinicunca (aka Rainbow) Mountain. Alki’s goal had been to get us to the top of Rainbow Mountain by 7 am so we could have the whole place to ourselves before the 600 + day trippers arrived. The scenery continued to take my breath away (or maybe that was the altitude…)
Our timing was perfect as we reached the summit of the neighboring mountain by 7:10 am. This mountain would give us the classic view of the colorfully striated mountain next to us. Clouds kept rolling up and over the mountain so we had to patiently wait for an opening before frantically snapping pictures.
Walking a short distance down to the valley between the mountains, we had a nice long break and ate our snacks that had been handed out at camp. A local vendor arrived as well as a security guards who ensure no one actually climbs on Rainbow Mountain.
Just as people started arriving, we began the long hike down. I couldn’t believe the number of people hiking up on day trips! Our group was very happy to have had the mountain to ourselves in the calm of the early morning.
Reaching The Finish Line
By the time we arrived at the parking lot an hour and half later I was tired! 2 very early mornings and trekking at altitude had taken its tole and I was happy to be finished (though sad to leave the gorgeous mountains behind). After taking one last group shot we found our driver and made our way back to the village we had stopped at for breakfast the day before.
When we arrived Charlie was well into cooking our final group lunch. While we waited, our whole group enjoyed a celebratory beer together, cheers to our incredible adventure.
I have to say this was definitely one of the most epic treks I’ve ever done. My 2 days in the Andes was the highlight of my 3 week adventure in Peru. As I mentioned before, K really isn’t a big fan of hiking (he’d rather ride his mountain bike). But after this trek he confided in me that this trek made him like hiking again. I can’t express enough how incredible this trek was! If you’re an outdoors lover like me, definitely plan on trekking in the Andes while you’re visiting Peru.