While planning my trip to South America, I came across the Ausangate glacier hike that passed by Vinicunca, also known as the Rainbow Mountain, located outside of Cusco, Peru. Six days of walking and camping around a glacier at (a minimum of) 15,000 feet sounded very challenging. As I looked into it further I noticed that there’s almost no information about it online, and whatever you can find highly recommends hiring a guide as well as horses to carry your gear. Going as part of a guided group costs anywhere from $500-$600 – so almost immediately, I deemed the experience too expensive and something I wasn’t prepared for. I tossed the idea out the window.
After arriving in Colombia and posting the first picture of my travels on social media, a friend I met at UMass 11 years earlier wrote to me to say he was in Chile. Nick and I exchanged our vague itineraries, but since I was in the very north of the continent and he was in the very south, we figured it might be difficult to meet up somewhere, especially considering how little we were both planning along the way. As my time in Peru approached, he started mentioning that he and his friend Jimmy were planning to do the Ausangate trek and they were determined to do it without a guide. They kindly invited me to join them but I was nervous I’d be holding them back. This would be my first time backpacking and camping along the way, and we would need to carry all the gear and food we’d need for 6 days. These guys are very experienced hikers who had just spent 2 months exploring Patagonia. Nick’s response was that “this is a group effort” and so began the most laid back planning of the most difficult hike I’ve ever done.
Side note: if you’re looking for useful advice about how to plan for and actually do the Ausangate trek, check out Nick’s blog for lots of helpful information.
The only information available online about doing this trek without a guide are a few blogs that make it sound daunting. There’s no marked path and factoring in the elements of being at such high elevation, it’s considered to be a pretty dangerous experience. You’re completely remote since the only people you see during the trek are a few farmers who live in tiny villages, and only some of them speak Spanish in addition to their native Quechua. This also means that you need to carry all your food for the entire trek, and purify water along the way with either filters or iodine tablets. Finding a map of the trail is nearly impossible, and there’s only one person in Cusco who sells topographical ones. His office address is listed incorrectly everywhere online and his Facebook page said his office was now closed indefinitely. The best alternative we could find was a cartoon image of the trail that had no real information and no connections to the detour we’d have to take to get to Rainbow Mountain. We did buy map at a bookstore that highlighted most of the trail we wanted, so we finally decided to just go and hope for the best. We knew we’d run into other groups who had hired guides and figured they’d be kind enough to give us a little info here and there as we went along.
After a few days of acclimatizing and gathering the essentials in Cusco, we started the adventure with a 4 hour bus ride to the trailhead located in Tinke (or Tinque) at 4,303 meters (14,117 feet). During the ride we noticed that the whole hike was marked on maps.me, the greatest app ever made for backpackers. It works offline and allows you to leave pins in places you’ve been. It works the same as other map apps, except it often includes hiking trails. Somehow we had missed this in our planning but it made us feel a lot better about what we were about to embark on. We dilly-dallied for a bit in the village square making lots of jokes about our survival, and finally hit the trail. We paid the 10 soles (~$3) it costs to enter the trail and noticed that a few other Americans and Canadians had also registered that day (albeit hours before our leisurely start time). We crossed our fingers that they weren’t too far ahead.
After an hour or so of walking, the weight of my backpack started to dig into my shoulders. The altitude is no joke, and the slightest incline made the weight I was carrying seem way worse. I never actually weighed my bag, but I’d guess it weighed somewhere around 25 pounds which frankly is too much for me. I tried to silently coach myself step by step, but after another hour I was almost in tears. I needed to ask Nick and Jimmy to carry some of the weight I had, and I hated admitting that. They were already carrying more than I was. Without even the slightest blip of a complaint, they immediately started rearranging weight to make things a little easier for me. My pack was still heavy but removing some food made an enormous difference. Before setting off again, we broke out the coca leaves that we brought which help with the effects of being at such high altitude. I was skeptical at first but it’s amazing how chewing them seems to lower your heart rate and reduce the pounding in your head from being so out of breath.
The first few hours were mostly rolling green fields covered in alpacas with a random house here and there and very few people. So when we stumbled upon a little girl who was lost, crying, and only spoke Quechua, we weren’t really sure what to do. Jimmy gave her a Snickers bar and let her play with his iPhone while Nick and I went on a mission to find another human being who could help. It took a while of climbing ridiculously steep hills, but we finally found a woman who spoke Spanish. They didn’t know each other, but the woman seemed to be familiar with the girl’s family name. We felt good about leaving them to figure the rest out on their own.
We hiked up and over a few more steep hills and finally came across a guided group. They confirmed that we were going the right way, and we more or less followed them to our first camp site located in Upis at 4,400 meters (14,435 feet). Right away we were surprised by how much more was available to us there than what we had read about online. We had anticipated a field with the slight possibility of other campers. Instead there were hot springs, toilets (but no running water), and a shelter under which we could put our tent. We did pay a few soles to the farmer who owned it all to be able to use these amenities, but it was a small price to pay for wind and (potential) snow protection. We swam in the hot springs, made some dinner, and were asleep by 7:30pm. Sleeping at such high altitude is very cold and a little bit scary. Both Jimmy and I woke up in the middle of the night feeling short of breath and very panicky. I remember feeling like my body had forgotten how to breathe properly and if I didn’t keep mindfully breathing I would stop completely. Of course that wasn’t what was happening and eventually I did fall asleep again, but it was definitely a reminder that this hike was no joke. On the bright side, 3 people in a 2 person tent means a very cozy and warm sleep.
We woke up early on day two and very leisurely got ready to hit the trail. We chatted with the French family and their guides we had met the day before and they were very helpful. We knew we had the app to guide us along a dotted line, but we were hoping to get some landmarks to base things off of. Unfortunately since there are no trail markers out there, the directions were more or less “turn left after the second reddish mountain.”
Day 2 was very difficult for me. The first pass we crossed was 4,850 meters/15,900 feet. It was a frustratingly slow and steady incline for 2 hours. We started off chatty and chipper but soon I couldn’t even hold a conversation. Nick and Jimmy were far ahead of me, keeping a steady pace while I stopped every 70 or so steps (I was counting to keep myself motivated). At one point I somewhat deliriously wrote a little song with my name in it telling myself that I could do it and to just keep going. Nick and Jimmy were so patient and every so often they’d stop and wait for me to catch up. They never seemed annoyed at my pace and were really supportive of our progress as a group. I can imagine that doing this with any other type of people would have been totally discouraging but they never let me feel like I was holding them back. In fact, we passed the French family and their guides where they stopped for lunch, and we were surprised to find out they left the camp an hour before we did! Maybe we weren’t moving so slowly after all.
And then around lunch time we got lost.
There were signs pointing to a mirador overlooking a beautiful lake so of course we followed them to see what was up there. After taking some pictures we kept going to the left around the lake which was the opposite of what maps.me encouraged, but it looked like a shortcut from where we were, and going right didn’t look like any sort of a path. So we bouldered around the lake for about half an hour only to realize that above it was another lake. Mountains can be tricky this way. Unless we had a canoe with us there was no way we were getting across dry. We found a spot that had enough rocks for us to make it across, but now we were cut off from the path by the first lake, and the only way forward was up and over the steepest grassy knoll I’ve ever seen. We really didn’t want to backtrack so we made the choice to go up and risk finding more lakes on the other side. It was the kind of incline that if you stumbled backward you would have tumbled down, which made hiking with all the weight on our backs very precarious. Slow and steady, we made it up. At this point we were all hangry so we found some nice rocks to perch on and eat lunch. From that perspective we could see exactly where we had gone wrong, and saw the guided group we had passed heading in the correct way. We scurried down the hill to catch up and follow them. We weren’t interested in any more detours.
The trail on this route is very different from any other hikes I’ve done. It never feels like you’re summiting a peak in the same way you notice when hiking a mountain. As I’ve mentioned, you can definitely notice even the slightest incline, but each time we reached the top of a pass, it was never the same sense of accomplishment that I’ve felt when summiting a mountain. The coolest part about the view is that since the trail goes around the Ausangate glacier, it’s always right there in the distance. It is enormous, emitting an almost overwhelming sense of awe. Every once in awhile, I would look up and remember that I was hiking around a glacier in Peru; that I was surrounded by thousands of alpacas, all with the same adorable/confused look on their faces; that I was in the most remote place I’ve ever been on this Earth. It was all so surreal.
We finally reached our second campsite located next to Lake Ausangatecocha where the only other people were the French family and their guides. Elevation was 15,233 feet, so it was COLD! While we still had some sunlight, we cooked the most delicious dinner you can imagine – ramen noodles with tuna and a cheesy sauce. Seriously, reminiscing about this meal makes my mouth water. I guarantee if I ate it for lunch today I would think it was disgusting, but after 15 km of hiking up and down multiple 5,000+ meter passes, ramen never tasted so good. Our evening entertainment included a few tunes on Nick’s ukulele as we passed around some whiskey. I tried to learn a few keys, but it was so cold that I couldn’t move my fingers.
As soon as the sun went down we bundled up in our sleeping bags and watched a movie on a phone in the tent. Looking back, it’s crazy to think of being in such a remote place and having the luxury of watching a movie. When we turned it off and were surrounded by complete silence, we could hear parts of the glacier falling from the top. All I could think of was that we were living in an episode of Planet Earth live! I’ve never heard anything more majestic than that sound.
The next morning as we got ready for what was going to be the longest day of our hike, I ate a Snickers for breakfast. It tasted better than any candy bar I’d ever eaten. We took our time to get ready, something I really appreciated about Nick and Jimmy – they were never in a rush to get anywhere, and that took a lot of stress out of the situation. As soon as we started walking, we were met by a Quechua woman and her alpacas who collected 10 soles from each of us, apparently as payment for camping (that part was unclear), and we were on our way to the Rainbow Mountain.
Side note: The Ausangate circuit does not pass by the Rainbow Mountain as we originally thought. In fact, the easiest way to visit the Rainbow Mountain is with a guided group from Cusco. Buses leave around 3am in order to arrive by 7am, hike the 3-5 hours to and from the summit, and be back in time for lunch and a ride back to Cusco.
From our campsite it was a 2 hour hike to the base of Rainbow Mountain where we (luckily) got to leave our backpacks for free! We could see herds of people coming down the mountain after their early morning hike, and we seemed to be the only people walking up. We had a good feeling about how great the view was going to be. Somehow, out of the thousands of people hiking that day, I ran into my friend Tom whom I met in Chile and then later traveled with to Lake Titicaca and Arequipa, Peru. Small world!
After 2 more hours of intense uphill hiking, we reached the top of the Rainbow Mountain. At 17,060 feet (5,200 meters), it’s the highest altitude I’ve ever climbed to. It is so hard to describe how I felt on the top of that mountain. Besides being very cold and hungry, I couldn’t stop staring at the incredible views. We could see the Ausangate glacier in the distance, and I felt a huge sense of accomplishment knowing that we walked from there to get to where we were.
The coolest part about it was that we were the only people at the top! I’ve read many travel blogs that talk about the crowds taking away from the experience at the summit and later having to photoshop people out of the background of the iconic Rainbow Mountain photo. I can say with 100% honesty that there was no photoshopping done to this picture. Nick, Jimmy, and I stood at the top taking in the insane views and hoping we didn’t get blown off the side of the mountain by the wind. We had the rainbow all to ourselves.
When we reached the bottom, we had to make a decision to cut our hike short by 2 days. Jimmy was on a tight timeline to make it back to Cusco for a flight, and we were risking having to walk back to Lake Ausangatecocha mostly in the dark. We decided that the Rainbow Mountain had been the real goal of the trip and chose to make our way back to the main road to catch a bus to Cusco. This is where things got interesting.
The first person we came across to ask for some information was a potato farmer who had just finished planting some crops for the day and was headed back to the main village where we could find a bus. He offered us a ride in his car, from which he’d removed the back seats to make room for the potatoes, and he wanted us to pay him 60 soles (~$20) for the ride. Looking at the map, it was not a long ride so we decided it was too much.
We walked to Chillca, the next closest village on the map, and asked the owners of the first shop we passed for the bus schedule. Turns out it only comes Saturday-Tuesday…and we arrived on Wednesday. But they did tell us that a man named Francisco lives in town and has a car, so he might offer us a ride. We walked down the one road in the village asking for Francisco and it seemed like the whole village came out to the street to curiously investigate the gringos. We were finally directed to his house/minimart (literally a room where his family sold things, cooked, and slept). His wife Olga was home, but Francisco was out for a few days herding the alpacas, and anyway his car wasn’t working. She offered us her backyard as a campsite and said we could cook/drink beer in her store.
Chillca has the nicest residents who were all very curious about where we came from and wanted to help us get back. Olga and her friends said there was a truck that usually passed through Chillca at 8am and the driver would surely give us a ride to Pitumarca where we could take a colectivo to the highway where the bus passed by. This all sounded crazy but we had no other option, so we settled into Olga’s store and enjoyed another delicious ramen and tuna meal.
We started on our way at 7:45 the next morning and sure enough a truck came along at 8am. The driver and his 2 passengers work for an NGO that visits public schools to teach students good hygiene practices. We waved them down and they offered to drive us the 2 hours to Pitumarca for free. I can now say I’ve officially hitchhiked. We chatted with them about the school system in Peru, and about how children in these rural areas sometimes walk 1-2 hours to get to their schools. Yet another example of how travel constantly reminds me of the privileges I’ve had.
Everyone on the street and on passing buses in Pitumarca giggled and waved at us as we walked through town looking for breakfast and a bus stop. Keep in mind, we’d been hiking and camping for 4 days at this point – I’m sure we looked dirty and crazy. When we got to the main plaza we came across a group of high school boys in their school uniforms who yelled “Hello! Selfie?” Of course we said yes.
Our tuk tuk colectivo brought us to the highway where waved down a bus to Cusco. Although it was different from our original plan, I loved the hilarity, adventure, and spontaneity of the end of our trip.
I finished this hike on June 8, 2017, 6 months after having first read about it and doubting my ability to actually do it. I saw and learned a lot on this hike, but what stands out most is the overwhelming notion that I am so much stronger than I think. I arrived back in Cusco feeling like I could do absolutely anything. So this one is dedicated to Nick and Jimmy who kindly took me under their wing and made this hike possible for me. Without their patience and generosity (and countless silly jokes) I would never have believed I could do it.