We first saw it on Instagram. A mountain made up of all the colors of the rainbow. After a bit of research, we came to find out its name was in fact Rainbow Mountain. The only way to get to this corner of the earth is to complete the Ausangate Trek. Immediately, I knew I had to go.
We worked it into the final portion of our 7-week South America tour with LATAM Airlines. Yep, we saved the best portion for last with the best tour operator around – Andean Lodges. The 5 day/4 night trek would take us to some of the most amazing landscapes I’ve witnessed to-date. It’s important to note here that while Machu Picchu is an incredible sight to see, Peru has various out-of-this-world landscapes. I urge you to see more and do more in Peru.
This article is about to get long, so bear with me. Grab some coffee, tea, beer, wine, hard liquor… we’re about to spend some quality time together 😉
Hiking the Apu Trail
To us, the concept of the trek was simple: hike from lodge to lodge while witnessing some of the most stunning landscapes in the world. For the Quechua people of the Andean region, their home was far more than a walk in the park. Ausangate is an “Apu”, or a sacred mountain. At 6,384 meters (20,944 feet), it’s the highest in the area, making it the most sacred of all the Apus. During our time in their homeland, here’s a breakdown of what happened:
- Total Distance Covered: 40.83 km (25.3 mi)
- Max Altitude: 5,200m (17,060 ft)
- Minimum Altitude: 3,877m (12,720 ft)
Day 1 – Cusco to Chillca Lodge at 14,331 ft.
We started the journey in the car driving three hours to the base of the Peruvian Andes where lunch was served. Dessert consisted of chewing on coca leaves, an ailment for headaches and stomach problems (read: altitude sickness). After we were well fed and mouths were stuffed full of coca leaves, we started our first hike which totaled 3.3km from the drop-off point to the first lodge. A road trip + seated lunch + easy hike? I could get used to this. Oh, how things were about to change…
After hiking through a flat route alongside the Quencomayo River, hundreds of llamas and alpacas appeared. Even though I was feeling a bit ill due to the first signs of altitude sickness, I was so excited to be surrounded by all of this wildlife! We even ran into a few school children who we couldn’t communicate with, but smiles are universal.
We arrived to the lodge at around 4pm, a time I looked forward to every day as this would typically mean rest and relaxation. At an altitude of 14,331 ft, we did exactly that. Orlando Garcia, the Community leader of Chillca, was there to greet welcome us inside and handed us gifts in the form of alpaca slippers. We would take these to all 4 lodges, and I would wear them to bed with me every night. A true luxury!
That night, I sat as close to the fire as humanly possible without actually getting inside the fire. The lodges are very comfortable with homemade meals and comfy beds, but no heating system (or electricity in general) is in place. We slept in about 35 degree weather each night. Thankfully, the Community staff put hot water bottles inside our beds to help us fall asleep in the cold. I am so thankful that Wade came along – you’ll want/need as much body heat as possible here! Speaking of the cold, our electronics got just as cold as we did. They die faster in extreme temperatures, and no electricity means no charging. Interesting. So how did we overcome this obstacle? We brought multiple batteries and slept with all of them (and our phones!) in our pockets every night to keep them warm. Comfortable, right? Mmmhmmm. It’s a small price to pay for being able to capture the surroundings the next day.
Day 2: Chillca to Machuracay at 15,797 ft.
We had an alarm clock every morning in the form of a Community member singing us awake in their native language. It was actually quite a refreshing way to wake up – much better than my iPhone alarm if I do say so myself! The actual quality of sleep was marginal that night at best. I got strangely warm and woke up various times to catch my breath. We had a lot less oxygen to work with at such high altitudes, but with day break came breakfast at 6:30am each day. By the time we defrosted our extremities and pulled on two more layers for the day, we had a hot bowl of quinoa oatmeal in front of us!
We walked from 7:30am – 2pm that day for 9km. At 2:05pm, it started snowing. Things were about to get interesting. I thought I remembered buying waterproof hiking boots, but we were about to put that theory to the test.
Lunch consisted of soup and Spanish tortillas, as if an omelette and a pancake had a baby. Delicious in my book, but what wouldn’t be after an entire morning of trekking? We walked (read: jumped) through beautiful marshes full of Yareta moss which left me feeling like I just beat a level in Super Mario Bros., most likely contributing to the dull headache I felt all day from low oxygen. You better believe I stuffed my mouth so full of coca leaves, I could barely speak.
As 2pm rolled around, we saw the lodge, a beautiful spectacle underneath a hanging glacier. Coming in at 4,800 meters high, Machuracay is the highest lodge in Peru, and one of the highest lodges in the world.
Day 3: Machuracay to Anantapata at 15,584 ft.
This was a rough day for me. I laughed. I cried. I was in awe of extreme landscapes. It was an emotional rollercoaster to say the very least. I think the llamas probably agreed.
After breakfast we did an offering to Pachamama, a goddess known to the indigenous people of the Andes as Mother Earth, asking to protect on our journey. The process involves collecting sweets and coca leaves. Each person takes four coca leaves and blows on them in the direction of each mountain peak while thinking good thoughts. The leaves are then collected with the other offerings and set on fire.
Afterwards, we started our hour and a half ascent in deep snow. If you’re wondering about my hiking boots, it turns out one of them was waterproof, the other not so much. How does that even happen?! I hiked the entire day with one soaking wet foot, while the remainder of the days started by wrapping a plastic bag around that foot to act as a makeshift umbrella. You do what you gotta do when you’re in the middle of nowhere.
As we climbed Palomani Pass, the highest of the trek at 5,150 meters, I kept thinking to myself: it ain’t about how fast I get there, it ain’t about what’s waitin’ on the other side, It’s the climb. Thankfully, Miley Cyrus got me through that pass, and we were given this view:
Then it was downhill from there through snow and mud to Narnia. When I say Narnia, picture Willy Wonka’s chocolate river with vivid colors set on high saturation all around.
Wade and I decided we wanted an alternative view of this incredible scenery, so we left the group and hiked along Ausangate Cocha Lake. I ended up getting eaten alive by mosquitoes and then sealing my bad fate by falling into a river. Make that two non-waterproof boots now. At least my soaking wet feet and I were able to eat chicken noodle soup for lunch afterwards. It was immediately after those gluttonous 10 minutes that I was zapped of all energy. We still had 8km left of trekking through hail and mud, and that’s when the tears started. It’s easy to see my pain and unenthusiastic nature in the below photo. I only wish we had service that day so I could have broadcasted my mood on Snapchat for all to see. It would have been one for the books.
We arrived to the lodge around 4:30pm wet and exhausted and at an altitude of 4,700m. ‘Challenging’ doesn’t even seem an appropriate word to sum up the day. I sat in front of the fire drying my clothes (and boots) until dinner, which consisted of Peru and Chinese food mixed together with flan. The lodge was colder than the previous night which I didn’t think was possible. There was an argument about this, since the night before was spent right next to glacier at the highest altitude, so that should’ve been the coldest. Whatever. Both were cold as shit, so I grabbed Wade and my hot water bottle and headed for bed.
Day 4: Anantapata to Huampococha at 15,748 ft.
Rainbow Mountain Day was finally upon us. This is what we were here for! Morale was a lot higher this day, until we got word that it might rain at noon, right when we were scheduled to get to the mountain…
After our breakfast of quinoa with apple and cinnamon, we started kilometer 1 out of 11. We walked and we walked and we walked some more until we saw it. Vinicunca, affectionately known as Rainbow Mountain. The pastel colors in a layered pattern appeared like a dream, exactly like what I’d seen in photos. That view would only get worse as we climbed closer and fog and ferocious wind settled in. What do you do about it? Pose like Vanna White, I suppose.
Sometimes you get great views. Sometimes, you don’t. It couldn’t have been worse weather when we got to Vinicunca that day – hail, wind and blizzards obstructing our precious view we trekked so far to see. I was determined to stick it out. When the hell would I be back here, in this exact spot, gazing at this painted mountain?! After enduring what seemed like an eternity of hail and harsh winds (which was probably only about 20 minutes), the weather started to clear and the views became even better and more dramatic.
What was probably the most mind-blowing realization of that day wasn’t the Rainbow Mountains. Instead it came afterwards. I’d only ever seen the view of that one colored peak. Nobody ever talked about what came after it, which in my mind was even more dramatic and photogenic. Painted hills of red and green were before us, all dressed up in their Christmas best, begging us to take a photo as if it was tired of being overshadowed by a less exciting previous viewpoint. These went on for miles, and I thought the only appropriate way to celebrate this part of the world was to make a sand angel and bask in all its glory. Really, my feet just needed a break, and a damn good one it was.
We ate lunch in a tent that day in the most beautiful surroundings I could ever conjure up for a lunch meeting. Veggie soup and causas laid before us as vicunas roamed the mountains peaks beyond us.
We ended the day at 4,780m, basically the same as we started. I don’t know if it was the fact that we only had one day left, or if the veggie soup had been extra good that day, or my serotonin levels were just out of whack. It was as if the Narnia soundtrack went off in my head as we spotted the fourth and final lodge. It was my favorite out of them all, as they kept getting better and better as the days went on.
Offering panoramic views of Huampococha lagoon and snow-capped mountains in front, the lodge rests at the base of a type of aggro-crag or pride rock that points up the sky. Wade and I found a high spot on a rock and hung out with the dogs and llamas that afternoon while going through the 876 pictures we took that day, not including iPhone or Osmo photos. We ended up taking over 20,000 photos in five days. TWENTY THOUSAND NOT INCLUDING IPHONE OR OSMO PHOTOS. Who do we think we are?? Some kind of Ausangate paparazzi I suppose. I hope the mountain was flattered.
Day 5: Huampococha to Cusco
As our 6am wake up call came in the form of a singing lady, I realized this was our last day in the mountains. It was bittersweet. My body was exhausted, my lungs tired of overcompensating for the lack of oxygen, and truth be told – I could use a cheeseburger. I’m a huge fan of quinoa, but t’was time for some meat. But first, pancakes.
Our breakfast of my favorite items included granola, yogurt and pancakes(!!!), and then we started what would be our final summit to 4,975m. We stopped for a while once we reached this point to enjoy the view one last time. I hadn’t been this far out of my comfort zone in quite a while, and I was thankful for that in this moment.
We then descended to 4000m to make for a total of 8km that final day. Before we reached the van that would take us on the 3 hour drive back to Cusco, we met a group of local craftswomen who had a beautiful display of hats, scarves, bags, and blankets we could purchase. The women work with alpaca wool and colors created from natural dye. I’m a sucker for scarves, so that happened.
We then said goodbye to everyone who made our trek so incredibly memorable and headed to Cusco. And by Cusco, I mean the airport. That’s right – we went from hiking 5 straight days in the mountains to boarding an international flight all the way back to Arkansas. That’s Cusco to Lima to Miami to Dallas to Little Rock all without a shower. I felt compelled to apologize to the passengers sitting next to me on the plane. How rude of me!
What to know
Off the bat, I was very impressed with how Andean Lodges ran their business. A staff member met us for a briefing the day before the trek, again on the morning of Day 1, offered to check us in for our flight upon departure and met us at the airport on day 5. Not only were they attentive and helpful, but they are also extremely involved with the community. It’s very much a partnership between Andean Lodges and the locals who helped build the lodges and aid in taking care of the guests each and every trek, whether it be cooking all meals or making fires to keep everyone warm. In total, Andean Lodges has helped secure over 70 jobs for the community. The community responded by sharing their culture and landscapes while providing proof of sustainable tourism development high in the Andes mountains.
I reserved an entire paragraph about our fearless guide, Daniel, alongside his beautiful wife Sara. I fully believe that a guide can make or break an entire experience for the whole group, and lucky for us Daniel made all of our wishes and dreams come true for this trek. I can’t imagine having to adapt and help all walks of life and personalities during a challenging 5 day mountain trek. PHEW. What a job! Daniel nor Sara batted an eye, and I’m so happy to have new friends to visit in Cusco upon my return. Daniel has also spent a good deal of time guiding in the Amazon, a trip I still have on my bucket list. The couple is also working on building domes in the Sacred Valley, available for an unforgettable night’s stay in 2017.
- The weather can change in an instant. If it’s bad weather, you won’t be able to see much. Prepare yourself mentally and physically!
- We took a route that no other agencies take which gave us a sense of seclusion. Andean Lodges is the only agency of its kind.
- The lodges are not equipped with electricity, although hot water is available for showers from about 4pm-6pm daily. Hot water, hot meals and a warm bed are a luxury in these parts, and I was so happy to have them!
- Eating by candlelight has never been so much fun.
- There is a charging station at lodge #3.
- A horse will accompany you during your trek. If you can’t carry your day pack during summits, you can give it to the nice horse. Llamas will leave after you in the morning with your bigger overnight bag, and somehow arrive to the next lodge before you that afternoon. It’s magic.
- You get in from trekking anywhere from 2p – 4pm daily with snacks and coca tea awaiting your arrival.
- Altitude sickness happens in the form of massive headaches and stomach aches. You can bring medication, but coca tea is best.
- Nightly entertainment comes in the form of playing cards, dancing and harp playing by the locals!
- With the impact of the 1 day tours, the locals are afraid this is going to drive out the vicuñas. Not having any infrastructure for the new 1 day tours means that people use the bathroom wherever and whenever, which isn’t good for environment. The only way to see this unique part of the world is with Andean Lodges.
- While it’s possible to do the trek without a guide, I’d never recommend it. The trek is challenging and having a knowledgeable guide to explain Andean customs is part of the experience.
- With several high passes over 5,000m, the Ausangate Trek is considered fairly difficult. The trek is classified as grade C which means the trek is fairly long and many sections are at high altitude.
- The best time to hike Ausangate is during the dry months between May and September. The shoulder months of April and October are also pleasant.
- Cost for the 5 day/4 night trek with Andean Lodges: $1,450
Where to stay in Cusco
It’s recommended to stay in Cusco for a minimum of three nights before embarking on such a trek. The JW Marriott in Cusco was beyond comfortable with an amazing staff and perfect location in the center of town.
What to pack
This can be tricky. Don’t worry about overpacking since you are given a small bag by Andean Lodges that can only fit a few changes of clothes alongside warm accessories like gloves, hats, scarves, rain jackets, etc. You can store your bigger suitcase or backpack in Andean Lodge’s storage room in Cusco.
- Hiking Boots (need to be broken in!)
- Long sleeved shirts
- Hiking pants
- Waterproof pants
- Rain jacket
- My favorite camera gear of the moment