Somewhere Over The Rainbow: A Trek Through Peru's Ausangate Circuit
Words & Photos by Dan Oliver
"Hola, cuanto a Upis?"
"Si bien, vamos!"
And like that, I'm saddled up on the back of a motorcycle heading to a trailhead deep in the mountains of southern Peru. After a few tough sections of rocky roads with steep inclines, we flatten out, and the driver lays the throttle down. I had one hand holding the bike, the other holding my hat, and my backpack with trekking poles poking over the top working to counteract gravity every bump we hit.
We flew past herds of alpacas on both sides of us and were leaning into turns as we progressed in elevation. As we hit our next straight away, I realized the towering mountain in front of us wasn't being blocked by clouds but is rather the monstrous glaciers of Nevado Ausangate.
I'd like to think it was the chills of anticipation that struck me, but I suspect it was likely something in my brain that registered the temperature drop after sighting the snowy cliffs ahead. This movie-like progression was cut short as we halted to a stop waiting on a herd of livestock to disperse.
Everyone understood the assignment besides one baby cow who remained on the road, so young that it required a coat for warmth. It was, in fact, the most adorable cow I had ever seen in my life. After a couple of motorcycle maneuvers and a brush of my hand as we passed by the clumsy calf, we were back on track towards Ausangate.
At 6,384m, Nevado Ausangate is the sixth highest peak in Peru and part of the Cordillera Vilcanota range located southeast of Cusco. I wouldn't be climbing the peak during this trip. Instead, my plans called for a solo trek of the Ausangate Circuit, a famous high-altitude route that circumnavigates the Ausangate glacier. The standard route is 70km, and I was planning for as many as four days to complete it.
Today's plan was to reach camp below Vinicunca and summit early tomorrow morning before the crowds hit. Vinicunca, also known to many as Rainbow Mountain, is a popular destination for tourists in Cusco but is conveniently located a short distance from the Ausangate Circuit. It would be 11 miles and a few thousand feet of elevation to camp, and it was already noon as the motorcycle pulled into Upis.
I thanked my driver, handed over the 35 soles, and got straight to shuffling around gear and extending my trekking poles. The noise of the motorcycle's engine revving downhill faded, and I was left with the sound of water flowing as I examined the layout of Upis.
Not much of a town, rather a deserted hiker's encampment with a couple of signs for camp spots and several buildings ranging from first-class camping huts with glass windows to farm huts made of mud. No point in sticking around, I thought. It wasn't like anybody would be coming by to welcome me to Upis.
I took off hiking the circuit in the counterclockwise direction. Coming off a few days of downtime in Cusco after my trek to Machu Picchu, I kept thinking how incredible it was to be back on the trails. These were completely new landscapes, and at 4,500m, those pesky flea-sized mosquitos from Machu Picchu were history. It was November which typically marks the start of the rainy season in Peru, but skies were showing blue. This is how epic trips should start.
Approaching the mile mark, I was greeted with my first alpaca sighting, a large herd that swept over the hills away from me as I advanced on the trail. The farmers owned a small hut with a stone fence that bordered the trail. A curious boy playing in the yard came over to greet me with a wave as I passed by.
Not as friendly were their two farm dogs who ran to the fence barking viciously at me. I kept moving as not to overstay this welcome and was followed for the next tenth of a mile. It now came to mind that while I was researching routes and information, I read a blogger's post who said he heard about a hiker being attacked by a dog on this trek, presumably, by one of these herd dogs. Nothing to cause alarm, but I reminded myself to stay alert, especially when passing any homes.
I'd been climbing elevation for a while now, and, atop a hill, I began to see some cairns. As I neared in, I made out Abra Arapa Pass written in white rocks – Oh snap! This has to be the top of the pass! Excited knowing my next few miles would be downhill, I got out a Snickers to celebrate.
This pass lay at 4,725m which is the lowest elevation of the several passes along the trek, but after starting below 3,500m in Cusco that morning, I felt the altitude. I whipped out a green sack of coca leaves that I bought in the San Pedro Market of Cusco–a Class 2 felony in the United States but a simple remedy to altitude sickness here in Peru.
Coca leaves have been chewed in Peru for thousands of years and counteract altitude by clearing your head and helping you breathe more clearly. I threw in a handful, slid the sack into a water bottle holder for easy access, and hit the trail.
The effects of the coca are near instant. You grind a chunk of leaves with your teeth before throwing them into the side of your gums. It's my second time chewing, the first being a test run at a Cusco hostel. I imagine it's an acquired taste, but the effect itself is pleasant, like drinking a Coca-Cola as you're fighting against falling asleep and taking an Advil to relieve a headache. Both are subtle but effective.
The next couple miles flew by as I approached Hatun Pucacocha, a glacier lake with a strong teal color, the first of the trek. At this point, I was routing off of the main circuit trail to head towards Vinicunca. I planned to loop back into the main circuit the next day, about five km away from where I broke off. Instantly the trail turned to the road less traveled, and I started breaking out the GPS more frequently to spot-check my location.
This stretch turned out to be a favorite, passing by herds of lamb and huts that surround the banks of Hatun Pucacocha. I started the climb for my next mountain pass and used the scenery as an excuse to take breaks every ten steps. Once the familiar cairns came into sight, I put my head down and pushed for the peak. Two passes down, one to go for the day.
I took a quick break before lining the GPS up with my first view of the new landscape and mentally followed what I could of the path into the valley and around another mountain before I spotted the final pass of the day.
It's never a surprise that the last climb of the day is always the toughest. Abra Warmisaya laid at 4,985m of elevation and broke the record for my highest altitude to date (soon to be broken again tomorrow).
Looking out, I saw what must be camp for the night and Vinicunca along the horizon. The mountains that lay next to me were even more magnificent, built like a bookcase of rocks beautifully stacked together. I sat in awe of the landscape.
Being that it was already past five p.m. and the sun would set before six, I got moving to camp. I was counting on the lakes shown on my map next to camp to be something similar to those beautiful teal glacier lakes near Ausangate. But, to my strong disappointment, they were anything but. My head was throbbing from altitude now and having finished my last sip of water atop Abra Warmisaya I needed to hydrate. My only option near the camp was a dry alpine lake, full of algae and complete with a skull of what I presumed to be an alpaca sitting in the dried-up sediment. I kept repeating, "I've had worse, I've had worse…" in my head, knowing this was likely a lie as I downed half a liter.
To my surprise, another group at camp welcomed me into a shelter. About five men, mostly porters, but their client was English speaking and came to chat as I unpacked. His name was Juan, and he said they were on their second day from Upis. He was impressed by the time I made. We shared experiences and talked about lightweight backpacking versus hiking with stock.
Juan was fascinated by the size of my pack and how my sleep system relies on a Hyperlite tarp when a shelter is not available. I was equally as fascinated by seeing a gas can for cooking that was the size of a beer keg! We parted a little envious of each other; his hot meal in a cook tent sure beat the nuts and dried fruit mix that was my dinner. I remained vertical long enough to see the sky clear and turn purple before retiring to my 20-degree bag dressed in all my clothing.
Rainbow Mountain didn't exist six years ago. A fact most people don't find out until they visit, and others who visit may never come to know. The mountain is less a phenomenon than it is a tragedy. Of course, the mountain was there, but a glacier covered it, so nobody knew what lay underneath.
Come the year 2015, and with the help of climate change, that glacier melted away, revealing the awe-inspiring colorful sediment layers. Unfortunately, in a rush to popularize this savvy new tourist spot, the Peruvian government seems to have overlooked the underlying problem they face. As I approached, I surveyed the surroundings with this in mind. It was evident that this is not the only mountain whose glacier has been depleted.
I reached the summit shortly after seven a.m. and chatted briefly with the only other person up there–a vendor setting up bags of Lay's potato chips and getting ready for the day's rush. I snap photos and eat a packaged pastry breakfast and wait for skies to open up. More vendors are piling in, and women now reach the summit with alpacas groomed for photos. In the distance, groups of people looking like ants marching in a line down the path to Vinicunca became more frequent.
I was approached to buy an entrance ticket for 20 soles. After making some broken conversation, I hand over two notes. Not anticipating the place would get any better once people showed up, I decided to take off. I had a big day planned, and time would be the factor of whether or not I could complete an extra mountain pass or not.
My route back to Ausangate was to loop around to the circuit rather than backtrack over the last two mountain passes, plus an extra mountain pass on the circuit to get to the same place as my reroute. It took all morning with a gentle descent followed by a gentle ascent, but the mileage was quick, and before I knew it, I was climbing up close and personal to the glaciers of Ausangate again. This was the highest mountain pass on the trek, surrounded in all directions by glaciers, mountains, and grassy valleys.
Abra Palomani is the highest pass at 5120m and the best view along the Ausangate Circuit. I had a clear day, and I could see my route back to Rainbow Mountain. The coolest part, though, was that I was standing on my own personal "Rainbow Mountain." It was a place where a glacier once stood, and now all that remained was the colorful rock beneath. No entrance fee, no vendors, and complete solitude. It was one of those places.
I was pushing mileage today so that my third day would be a light hike out, and I could be back in Cusco or another hiking destination by evening. This meant I was trying to tackle the last mountain pass of the circuit this afternoon.
I showed up to the last lodge before the pass at three in the afternoon and decided I could do the five miles over the pass and to the next camp with enough time, so I kept punching it. The next couple miles took me through easy valley terrain with a backdrop of Qullpa Ananta, another 6,000m icy peak that captures your imagination.
My daydreams ended abruptly as the sharp barking of dogs split the silence, and looking a hundred meters to my right, three were sprinting out of a farm hut and over hills towards me. Similar situations were frequent, but this one set me in a panic. With enough time to realize I may need to fight, I switched the grip on my trekking poles to wield them like swords.
Instantly I was being circled by three mixed breeds snarling at me, only a trekking poles length away from canine teeth dripping with saliva. I locked eyes with the alpha whose ferocity shook me to my core. I turned with every step of this dog, quickly checking my backside and swatting my second trekking pole at the other two barking behind me. I lost my footing on the uneven slope and dropped to my knees, not letting my poles lose the perimeter from the jaws of the alpha. We were deadlocked, both of us showing teeth, knowing it's either fight or flight.
Then a faint whistling comes from the hut.
Still on my knees, I looked over to see scraps of meat being tossed in the air by a woman at the hut. The first dog takes off back home, followed by the second. The alpha started relaxing but wasn't budging until the woman got more persistent with her calls. Finally, I'm left sitting alone in the dirt hyperventilating with no help from the lack of oxygen at this altitude thinking what-the-actual-f*ck!!!
I got a move on quick, and not before long, I was over the pass with an easy gentle ascent that let me cruise up and get looking for camp. Unfortunately, there were no shelters there, but a nice stone-fenced camping area had a small overhang structure. Good enough for me–I could hang my tarp, but after this 38km day, I was spent, not to mention, traumatized from the recent events.
I opened my eyes and checked the time. It was four a.m. Seeming brighter than normal, I unbundled my face to see that a sizable dusting of a few inches of snow now surrounded me. Well, I guess I'll cross this bridge when I get there–after a couple more hours of sleep. Five a.m. hit, and with the wind now picking up, my awning was no longer sufficiently blocking the snow, and I was getting buried. "I guess we're crossing this bridge now!"
Packing up like this always sucks; rolling up each piece of gear and tucking it away required some unthawing of the hands, but it's the snow-covered path that has my attention. Would I be able to navigate the 15kms out of here? Some sections of this circuit can be non-existent as is, even without a covering of snow.
At 4,800m, the snow was already wet pack, so the path turned out to be okay. The snow that I woke up cursing ended up becoming a highlight of the circuit. It changed the landscape beautifully as I walked through giant thermal pools that were crystal clear, so deep you wonder if they even have a bottom.
Taken in by the passing of lakes, I missed the trail that would circle me back to Upis. This didn't bother me as the path I was on led to Pacchanta, making for an easier extraction back to Tinki. As I approached Pacchanta, the trail turned into a road, and the snow was mostly in puddles. Although I never got a last look at Ausangate being socked in by the morning clouds, I was pleased its glaciers were getting replenished with snow. I hope that no "Rainbow Mountain" lies beneath its icy top, and if it does, that we may never get the chance to find out.
As I hiked away from the mountains, kids ran past me late to school, and a motorcycle stopped ahead. It was my cue to run as well.