We just came back from another trek with Apus Peru! This time we did the 5 days Ausangate trek – including the recently famous Rainbow Mountain (called Winicunca). It is hard to get across how incredible this experience was. The past week is a blur of glacier-capped peaks, temperatures deep below zero, wide open valleys full of Alpacas, heavy breathing, night skies full of stars and amazing food. But I guess I should start from the beginning.
Day 1: Cusco – Chillca – Rainbow Mountain
Our day started with the smiley faces of our guide Herbert and our cook Fortunato, knocking on the door of our hotel close to San Blas square. We were super happy, we already knew Fortunato from Salkantay and we missed his contagious laughter. The van was already filled up with most of our group. Mike and Fernanda from Canada/Mexico, Anthony and Megan from Australia and Kathy from Northern Ireland. Plus Fortunato and his super young assistant. After picking up Robert from California, the last person missing in our little adventure pack, we hurried out of Cusco.
Surprise On Day One
After about two hours of driving, the road and scenery changed dramatically and we continued for another 2 hours up and down amazing steep valleys. At the end of this (what looked like) forgotten road, we found a parking lot PACKED with buses of various sizes. Herbert was as surprised as we were because apparently neither the buses nor the road itself had been here the year before. Our campsite, that was originally some 2.5 hours of hiking away just got waaay closer and was reachable by 20 minutes of relaxed strolling through the valley.
Herbert had the great idea to go up to the Rainbow Mountain on the same afternoon instead of the next day. This was one of the greatest guiding judgment calls ever made 😉 We had a first of many amazing lunches at the crowded parking lot – and until we were done the tourists had cleared out completely. We grabbed our backpacks and started our hike to the famous Rainbow mountain. This mountain hasn’t been a hotspot for long but in the last few years, it became all the fuzz. Every tour company in Cusco is offering this trek – most of them do it in a day.
Due to the high altitude, the hike was hard. But all the tourists were gone and the sun started to set. On the top of the Rainbow mountain, there was no one – except amazing light and freezing cold.
It was getting dark and the full moon rose above the valley on our way back to the campsite. We finally arrived in the dark, with Herbert slightly stressed about the dark and all of us grateful how great all things had worked out.
Day 2: Across Warmisaya Pass
The night was freezing. Much colder than Jamie (and other team-members) had expected. But we got through it reasonably fine. She had a sleeping bag borrowed from Apus and apart from not sleeping a lot, no harm was done. We got up early by the familiar call of “Coca Tea!”, accompanied by a slight knock on our tent. At 7:20 am, we were all done with breakfast, heading up through the valley. It was still freezing but the sunshine was lazily coming down the mountainside and we couldn’t wait for it to reach us.
This trek was another cleanup trek but the Ausangate trek obviously sees way less traffic than the Salkantay. I was the only one that carried a trash bag and we hardly had to bend over to pick up something. The trail was steadily climbing all the way to the pass. Bam! The full view of the Ausangate massif appeared as we tipped over the top of the pass. A 6000-meter mountain right in front of us, like a huge white guardian looking over the wide valleys. Epic! The hike up had been tough on the group – the altitude was quite something (4985 m). I got used to pushing through the altitude headspins the last couple of months and when I got to the top, I had a lot of time to myself before the group arrived.
Beautiful Like A Movie Scene
Our lunch spot was close to an empty looking lodge. Cook Fortunato surprised us with every meal and this one was no exception. Especially once we had seen how he was preparing impossible meals on his lap with a cooker on the floor. Huge respect! The scorching midday sun was almost unbelievable, thinking about how frozen we were only a couple of hours earlier.
After lunch, we continued down the valley through some Inka-flat terrain (this means overall it is straight, but you can do a couple of hundred meters up and down along the way – in Andean terminology).
We had many wow moments on this trek. At times it seemed like the valleys were set up in a way that an awesome view just pops on you every few meters. Jamie put it like this: “Every time I turn around the view it looks like someone quietly put a beautiful movie scenery up behind me. You know, one of the painted ones that look super fake because they are too perfect.” The campsite for our second night was no exception to this. Tucked directly under the south face of Ausangate, only a couple of hundred meters from the glacier.
Projections, History And Avalanches
The evening program was full of history of the local people complete with pictures projected from Herbert’s phone. “Projected by his phone??” you might ask. Yes, Herbert’s phone actually had a projector! It almost ate all of his battery but he projected ancient Inka buildings and Andean indigenous fashion onto the walls of our dining tent. The less-freezing night was only interrupted by an avalanche rumbling down the glacier in the middle of the night. I didn’t even hear it because I was passed out but the rest of our pack was slightly freaked out 😀
Day 3: Across Palomani Pass
Day three was waiting for us with another pass to climb. This time we had no slow valley ascent until the pass – the Palomani pass meant full on business. The saddle was going to be the highest point of the whole Ausangate trek. Proud 5200 meters – or 5100, depending on who’s watch you believe 😉 The climb was steep but shorter than the day before. We had already been sleeping in a pretty high elevation. On the top, we encountered quite a bit of snow – and a stunning view over the Ausangate and the coming valley. Jamie and Mike had trouble with the altitude again – when she finally had fought her way up, she was feeling pretty sick. We took some obligatory pictures (duh!) and descended quickly.
We had actually been faster than Herbert’s prediction and made the ascent in 2 hours instead of 3. Reaching our lunch spot took almost two more hours. There we all basically passed out. We had to wait for Fortunato’s specialties so we all took the opportunity to catch up on some sleep in the sun.
River Bath And Reading Time
After lunch, we still had to climb up a bit to make it to the campsite. The way was beautiful though, green and rich. Full of wetlands. When we arrived at the campsite we realized that we weren’t alone. Even though the valley was broad every group in it chose the same campsite. Jamie and I decided to take a hikers shower in the cold mountain river close to the camp. We tried to motivate the rest of the group but they pretty much thought we were nuts 😀 Once we were done, Anthony arrived to take a bath as well. Nothing better than cold spring water after a long day of hiking (and the third day without a shower).
In the evening our new favorite ritual started: Group reading of “Born to Run”. I had taken the book with me because I wanted to read it to Jamie. The book is one of my all time favorites and I had my suspicions that she wouldn’t read it by herself. Everyone got excited about the idea of some light entertainment before going to bed after I mentioned that I was carrying a book. So all the native speakers took turns in reading a chapter out loud. Outside the tent, it was freezing but inside we were imagining to be in the Copper Canyons of Mexico, searching for Caballo Blanco. #backtotheroots
Day 4: Across Campa Pass to Pacchanta Hot Springs
We took some long exposure shots – Jamie wrapped in her sleeping bag. Everything you left outside for a few minutes had ice on it. The night was clear and freezing – even I was cold. Getting up, packing and having breakfast had already become routine and soon we were ready to push through another day on the trails. We were headed to another pass but today it climbed super gently for about three hours through the valley. As the valley turned left it uncovering more and more snowy peaks.
The air was freezing and we were all slowly panting up the hill. Steadily climbing up on through the hillside, looking over the glacier below us, we eventually made it over the non-dramatic pass and started descending. That was it. No more steep ascents for this trip. By day four the group had finally managed to keep Herbert’s tips in mind: “Take it slow, step by step. Take a lot of breaks.” Well, you can’t really do anything else at that altitude.
Alternative Trail And Creepy Pond
After the pass, the trail splits in two. Herbert decided to not follow the “official” route of Apus Peru and instead take us on the left trail. The path was amazing. Passing countless deep blue lakes and the Ausangate glacier flowing down majestically behind it. One lake we passed looked more like a pond – maybe 10 meters radius. But we could see that it was freakishly deep. Herbert told us a creepy story about a diver that found a golden statue on the bottom but died while exploring a connection between the pond and the big Ausangate lake. Jamie, with her fear of deep water, is still thinking about it today.
The trail at this point winds back and forth through the wide valley, marked and maintained by the people from the community of Tinki. We could all feel the hot-springs in our bones at this point and continued stomping down the valley until the growing amounts of trash and Alpacas let us know we were close. The area around the Pacchanta hot springs is growing like crazy.
New “hospedajes” grow on every spot all around the pools. Unfortunately, the tourism and development also bring a big trash problem with it. The small community is overflowing and our campsite was no exception. But on the bright sight for us: We were able to buy some beers and sweets. After dinner Anthony, Robert, Jamie and I headed to the hot pools and soaked our tired muscles until it became too dark to see each other. But we saw the stars glittering above and the Ausangate massif in the backdrop. Doesn’t get much better than that.
Day 5: Pacchanta to Tinki
On the last morning of the trek, the good mood was still present everywhere, but you could also spot a hint of relief in the faces. After all, the previous 4 days left its mark on everyone. I love sleeping in a tent but freezing temperatures and high altitude don’t make it uber pleasant. The trek on the last day follows the car road down to Tinki and is a bit uneventful in comparison to all the eye candy of the previous days.
The trash all around the road kept our eyes pinned down and it was a bit sad to see how the existence of the road itself destroys the environment around. We collected three full trash bags in the first 30 minutes of walking. Then we hit the Ausangate checkpoint were Herbert had to show that he had paid the entrance fee for all of us. He talked to the gatekeeper for a bit. Apparently, the community pays someone to clean the road we had just passed. The gatekeeper told us sadly that he might have to let that person go since he wasn’t doing his job properly. I have no idea how this arrangement was supposed to work, but there had obviously been no one picking up anything. We collected bottles that were sticking out of the ground – obviously, they had been there for months.
One The Way To Cusco
Our ride caught up with us while we were rolling down the road at different speeds. The car picked up all the gear at Pacchanta and then collected us as scattered kids on the way back to Tinki.
The drive back to Cusco was a sleepy one. The new Trans-Oceanic Highway makes the drive much faster and super smooth. We stopped briefly for a picnic lunch by the road and were back in Cusco in seemingly no time.
Since our group had been very harmonic and we all got along well the goodbyes were kind of sad. Everyone was going their own ways and we don’t know if we will ever meet again. But I guess this is how it is supposed to be: Bittersweet melancholia over an amazing adventure and new friends made. We got contacts from everyone and will try to stay in touch. After all, come October we are going to be in Australia – Anthony and Megan here we come 😉
Thank you Apus Peru, thank you, Herbert and Fortunato. Thank you trek-friends 😉 This was an amazing journey.
More pictures in the gallery.
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Also published on Medium.