My senior year of high school, I was lucky enough to go on a trip hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. It was a trip that truly made me fall in love with traveling – experiencing different cultures, accomplishing something really challenging and seeing beautiful historic sites.
It was yet another reason I was so excited to return to Peru and do another trek.
The Inca Trail was out due to a lack of permits (apparently it has become much more popular in the last 15 years!). So we debated between the Salkantay or Ausangate mountains. We were relatively indifferent between the two, as long as we got great views and could sleep in lodges (because I really dislike the cold and Brice really dislikes camping, we make one whiny couple, do we not?).
After seeing so many Instagram photos, I also definitely wanted to go see the Rainbow Mountain, so when we found Andean Lodges, offering a trek through the Andes to the massive Ausangate mountain, staying each night in cozy lodges, we had a winner.
What ensued was an insane 5 days covering 10 miles a day, at an average of 15,000 feet in elevation through a lot of snow cover and up a pass to 17,000 feet.
Incredible Views: Every turn seemed more beautiful than the next – the huge snow capped mountains, the colors, the llamas roaming the valleys below, everything was picturesque. I tried taking as many photos as possible to soak up these views forever but I know they don’t do it justice.
So. Many. Stars: I don’t know if I’ve ever see stars so bright and clear. With nearly zero light pollution, we saw the Milky Way with insane clarity, seeing all the dark spots and millions of stars. Definitely worth braving the cold to see.
Heat! While there was no electricity or heaters at the lodges, there was a cozy fireplace in the main area, tea served pretty much at all hours, and hot water bottles placed inside our beds before we went to sleep at night. Given the chilly temps, this was much nicer than camping!
Rainbow Mountain is as Beautiful as It Looks: I knew lots of photos of Vinicunca (as it is known by the Quechua people) are highly saturated and the colors artificially enhanced, so I wasn’t sure if it would look as special in person. Fortunately it did. The colors of red, gold, turquoise and green, caused by the minerals oxidizing over millions of years, were vibrant and unique. We got there a bit before the busloads from Cusco came in (nearly 1,000 people visit a day), giving me time to really enjoy the view.
We Did It! The feeling of accomplishment after reaching the top of that first mountain pass at 16,896 feet was pretty great.
Danger, Snow and Cliffs Ahead: Days prior to our trek, a huge storm came through covering the mountains with feet of snow. While we were told this was highly unusual for this time of year, it made nearly all of the standard trails unpassable. Our hike became much more of a challenging snowshoeing endeavor that often should have required cramp-ons as we managed on paths only one-foot wide next to steep embankments (or “cliffs” as our guide liked to call them to our horror).
It often felt unsafe and by the end, our entire group pushed our guide to take us on a shorter, easier route back down rather than risk the set route another day. We all survived without injury, but that added a layer of discomfort none of us were prepared for.
Elevation is Hard: The first night, sleeping above 14,300 feet, definitely didn’t feel great. A headache and lack of appetite made the evening difficult. Fortunately with lots of water, tea and rest, the acclimatization kicked in, and by day 3, I was back to my normal chipper self.
Jury is still out on our final overall assessment of the trek, given the snow’s added safety concerns. But we certainly got the scenery, adventure and feeling of accomplishment we were looking for.