If you were to ask avid hikers and travelers, Peru is commonly cited among the best hiking regions in the world. With Machu Picchu hiding among the peaks in the region, it has also become some of the most visited and most pictured. So when a flight deal came along smack dab in the dry season (May to September), we jumped on it. Not only that, the awesomeness of Peru even got our friend Keith to jump aboard this adventure last minute.
- the decision
- research and planning
- trip report
- final impressions
- useful links
This was a pretty easy decision as Peru has been a top destination of mine already. A sale ticket to Lima from DC for $285.4 with availability in the beginning of summer, June, was too hard to turn down. It didn’t hurt that I had $250 airfare credit as part of my Citi Prestige Card to recoup my annual fee for the card. There weren’t a lot of dates available, but we did find an itinerary that gave us 12 days in the area. With that amount of time, it gave us the option of doing a couple of treks already on my radar, Ausangate and of course Machu Picchu.
As an additional bonus, we were able to credit the mileage we earned to our Alaska frequent flyers programs for a rate of 6.8 cents per mile or 4178 miles, which was far better than Delta’s earning structure. If you aren’t going to status, this is a good tool for seeing where to credit your flights.
When I first booked the flight, I knew there were a few things I’d have to try to book early. They are government permits for both the Incan Trail and to climb the small mountain of Huayna Picchu in Machu Picchu. Looking 4 month ahead is not enough time as both permits are very limited, but that just puts us in the same boat as most of the tourists and it doesn’t really take away from the experience as I’ll get to that later.
Since our flight was to Lima, we still needed transportation to Cusco and flying was our preference to increase the time we had to acclimate. When you are a foreign national, you have to be careful regarding certain tickets that are only for Peruvians. Otherwise, you might be charged the gringo tax. There are several budget airlines that also operate in Peru. Here is a guide regarding the different airlines. Again, skyscanner is a good way to search all of airlines’ prices including budget airlines.
*EDIT 2019/06: More airlines are removing the additional fee for foreign travelers, such at LATAM in 2017. However, there seems to be conflicting information about other airlines or pricing issues (see Tripadvisor discussion). During our last trip, we didn’t encounter too much issues purchasing economy tickets. It is still a good idea to pay attention to the fare rules when you purchase your tickets.
For us, it was much easier to take advantage of British Airway’s award redemption chart to fly on their partner LATAM. Since it is under 500 miles, each one way ticket cost only 4500 BA avios and tax between Lima and Cusco with multiple flights a day. The round trip tickets (LIM-CUS-LIM) for both Meg and I, it was only 18000 BA avios and $29.86. Here is a little dated guide of BA avios.
In terms of For vaccinations, we are up to date from last year and there is no worry of the Zika as Cusco is too high and cold for mosquitoes. Peru also doesn’t require any visas ahead of time for tourism.
Lastly and the most importantly we had to plan for our treks. Keith was joining a few days later in Peru, on our day 5. Our main interest was to trek the Ausangate with a possible side trip to the Rainbow Mountains. That gave Meg and I about 4 days to get to Machu Picchu. Here is my lonely planet throne tree thread beforehand. Based on the feedback and my own worries, we definitely planned to be flexible in regards to our acclimation processes. In regards to the specific planning and preparation that went into each of the activities, I will talk about it in their own sections.
Lastly, the best source of local information is the South American Explorers in Cusco (* 2017 recent reports specify that they have closed down) from sources I’ve read. I didn’t have the time to contact them because most of my research was en route or while acclimating in Cusco. We also don’t speak Spanish… yet.
pre-trip: getting in and acclamation (trip day 1 and 2)
The trip started as I drove all night up to DC to met up with Meg. We saved on parking by keeping our car at Meg’s aunts place and taking public transportation in, thanks Nancy for all your hospitality. There is a bus from Rockford to Baltimore’s Airport (BWI) via the MTA’s route 201, it cost us $6 each and there wasn’t any issues with delays. Our first leg from BWI to Atlanta (ATL) was uneventful as I was asleep quickly having stayed up all night and so was Meg because she had gotten a little sick the day before. Our layover was about 6 hours so we were able to relax again at The Club Lounge for free with the Priority Pass as part of my Citi Prestige Card. The typical free lunch and drinks were great. Having had no sleep the day night before, I napped half the time there.
A cool thing I found during check in was that we were able to switch our seats to Delta’s Comfort+ for no cost on our second leg from ATL to Lima (LIM). We originally had seats together by the bathroom, so we decided the extra legroom, extra tilt on the seats, and away from the noise by the bathroom were worth two middle seats. We did not regret it one bit. The extra legroom allowed my knee to stretch out fully and that extra tilt with the headrest made it much better to sleep in. I don’t have an explanation on why we were able to switch our seats to Comfort+ for free, but I was able to replicate it on our return.
We arrived after midnight in LIM and planned to sleep in the airport before our LATAM flight. After clearing customs, we were able to check in right away as the LATAM check-in desk was always manned. Using my Priority Pass, we were able to relax for 4 hours in the domestic Cara lounge, which is very small lounge with some basic snacks and a full bar. Meg crashed out right when we got in, I took the opportunity to do some writing and get a couple of pisco sours in me.
I knew I wouldn’t be able to drink while trying to acclimatize. After a couple hours, the small lounge became very packed, so we left and found some cushioned seats without arm rests to lay out on for a few hours of pretty good sleep.
Our last leg from LIM to Cusco (CUS) on LATAM was uneventful as we got another nap in. The views outside of the window as the plane got close to Cusco was pretty spectacular as the snow covered peaks seem so close to he plane. From the airport, we took a taxi to our hostel. Cusco’s taxis are super inexpensive, usually around 5 soles and should be no more than 15 to places like the airport.
I had booked our first night at Hostel Tayta Wasi based on reviews of actually having hot showers, breakfast, and reliable wifi as I was still in the process of planning for both Machu Picchu and Ausangate. All of the reviews were right on and I’d recommend it for a budget travel. Typically I’ve like Airbnb coming from couchsurfing background, but Cusco’s Airbnb seemed to be saturated with hostels or hostel like places with really no cost different in comparison to booking from OTAs. Plus OTAs like Hotels.com give frequent stay rewards. Lastly, the redemption rates for Cusco for my hotel points were not worth it.
Meg and I switched on an off of being sick from a combination of travel, altitude, and prior sickness, so we ended up taking two days of rest and acclimatization. We spend the two days sleeping a lot, walking around town, planning, and eating things.
We stuck to more touristy trip advisor restaurants since we weren’t feeling our best. We especially enjoyed Morena’s Peruvian Kitchen with their fusion dishes and fancy chocolate milkshakes. The cafes and bakeries with empanadas, smoothies, and deserts were enjoyable also.
There are several city tours, many churches, and even more places for messages around the tourist centers of Plaza de Armas and Av El Sol, but we mainly walked around the cities looking at the markets, including the mad house of San Pedro Market and surrounding areas.
We did head up to the San Cristobal church and its bell tower to get a pretty good view of Cusco with Ausangate in the distance.
The best part of just walking around is you see parades and people dancing everywhere, though I think we were there during the national elections and Flag Day.
Machu Picchu and the Modern Incan Trail
The common perception is that the Incan trail and Machu Picchu are one and the same, which is of course untrue. Yes, the Incan Trail is the only trail that takes you directly into the ruins of Machu Picchu via the Sun Gate, though most tour groups will head down to the tourist town of Aguas Calientes, now called Machu Picchu Pueblo, and explore the ruins on a separate day.
So more than ever, Machu Picchu is mostly a stand-alone place to visit with many possible treks or routes you can do to precede the pilgrimage to Machu Picchu. Again regardless of which route you take, you end up at Aguas Calientes via a connecting train or a walk along the train tracks, which is the most popular, cheapest, and only other way to trek toward Machu Picchu. Hence, I like to refer to this walk along the railroad from hidroelectrica to Aguas Calientes the Modern Incan Trail. It is also the route we took.
- name: Modern Incan Trail: Hidroelectrica to Machu Picchu including Montaña
- type: multi-day point to point or in and out
- distance: 12 mi through hike, 17.5 in and out
- elevation change: 4880 ft ascent, 2501 ft descent
- time: 1.5 days
- location: Area de Conservacion Regional Choquequirao
- This is the shortest walking route to reach Machu Picchu. To avoid walking the train tracks, you can take the Perurail train for US$15. The Salcantay trail via Saint Teresa actually connects with this trail and is the main alternative most tourist companies push.
research and planning
Before we headed out on the Modern Incan Trail, we spend some time on our second day in Cusco buying tickets. We first had to buy the Machu Picchu Entrance fee. There is an online reservation system, but paying online can be problematic. We headed to the Centro de Pago on Calle Gacilaso to buy our tickets directly. While Huayna Picchu entrances were sold out way in advance, the entrance to Machu Picchu Montaña is wide open. Machu Picchu Montaña is the much taller mountain opposite of Huayna Picchu, but doesn’t have the ruins.
*EDIT 2019/06: For conservation purposes, new regulations are now in place regarding entrance times and the requirement of an official guide (Matador Network). With a guide, endless wondering might not be as prevalent. The other negative would higher cost with hiring a guide, but the history and stories could add to the cultural experience for some.
For transportation to get to Machu Picchu, local tour companies sell one way rides from Cusco to Hidroelectrica, the “trailhead” for the Modern Incan Trail, for 40 Soles a person. It is by far the cheapest way to get to Hidroelectrica. You can barter the return for around 20 Soles, making it 60 Soles round trip. However, the return pickup is from 2pm to when they have the last van full at Hidroelectrica. It is also possible to just pay at Hidroelectrica. We opted for only the one way in via the tour van to give us a full day in Machu Picchu rather than rushing out. Be warned, the tour van path has a lot of elevation change with many switchbacks. Carsickness on this route is common, so Dramamine is recommended.
For the way out, we opted to take Perurail from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo and then Cusco by collectivo. The Peruvian Rail tickets are much more expensive at around US$64 depending on demand. We booked the earliest train out on day 5, 2 nights after we arrive at Aguas Calientes so we’ll have the entire day at Machu Picchu and be in time to meet Keith back in Cusco on our day 5. If you buy your tickets online, you need to go to a Perurail station to get your tickets or you won’t be able to board. There is one in Aguas Calientes.
For our 2 nights in Aguas Calientes, we went with the cheap camping route. The cost for camping is 15 soles a night at the Camping Municipal right at the entrance of Machu Picchu, about 30 minutes from the actual town. Since we were camping, we packed one of our packs with a tent, our sleeping pads, 1 sleeping bag, and cooking materials. We only packed 1 sleeping bag because Machu Picchu was much lower than Cusco in altitude and much warmer. Lastly, we bought an isobutane canister for my portable stove from a gear shop for 22 Soles and some groceries. The best place for groceries we found were the large Orion supermarkets. There is absolutely nothing in Aguas Calientes for supplies, so pack everything you need.
Machu Picchu day 1 (trip day 3): Cusco to Hidroelectrica to Aguas Calientes
So when the tour saleswoman tell you to show up at 7am, what she means is really the van probably won’t leave until 8 or 9am. While you are waiting, you might want to wave down one of the other tour vans driving around so they can contact your van and tell them you are waiting. The moral of the story is that they may not be exactly on time with the pickup. If possible, have them pick you up at your hotel, have the hotel call them if they are late, and be patient. Maybe buy some baked goods and drinks while you wait because it’s a long ride from Cusco to Hidroelectrica going through Urubamba, Ollantaytambo, Santa Maria, and Santa Teresa.
If you have the stomach to handing all the switchbacks at very fast speeds, there are some amazing views of Nevado Verónica as you reach Ábra de Málaga. If that isn’t impressive enough, the cliff side dirt road from Saint Maria to Saint Teresa is quite breathtaking.
You’ll even drive through more than a few cascades.
More then once, I’ve heard it compared to the Death Road in Bolivia from those that have traveled it. Meg was very happy to be on solid ground at Hidroelectrica after the 6-hour ride. She was even happier we were taking a different way out.
The trailhead is the train station itself along with many tents set up to sell last minute drinks and snacks.
As you walk past the station, the tracks split. Follow the walk path and the left rail until the end of the tracks. Then you have a short steep up on the right that meets up with the other track. From there, the trail follows the rail and the river as it winds through the valley.
Look up once in a while and you can see the stones of Machu Picchu as you walk.
Once you reach a large platform (this isn’t the main station, just a loading platform), follow the road to the right and you’ll arrive at the camping municipal. On some reports people say that you have to go through a tunnel, but that is unnecessary and you’ve gone too far along the tracks. The road from the large platform before the tunnel takes you directly to town also.
The camping municipal is situated directly below Machu Picchu and you can see it on the ridge from the your tent.
We were actually able to see our tent while at Machu Picchu the next day.
There is running water for washing dishes behind the bathroom. We used water treatment on it as we were uncertain of its source. The bathroom there has a cold shower, toilets without seats, and no toilet paper. Aguas Calientes does sell toilet paper if you’ve forgotten it. It costs 15 Soles a night and the lady there will go around to collect. Make sure you keep your receipt, especially if you stay multiple nights or she’ll try to charge you a gringo tax. There is a bar back near the train platform and the bridge to Machu Picchu that sells drinks if you don’t want to walk to town. After dinner, we were out pretty early.
Machu Picchu day 2 (trip day 4): Machu Picchu and Montaña
There are 2 ways up to Machu Picchu from the valley floor. A US$12 bus that starts to run at 5:30am from Aguas Calientes or to hike up, starting around 5am. Either way, there will be a line well before the start time. The camping municipal is right next to the entrance for the trail, so it saved us half an hour in the morning for the walk up.
The way up is entirely stairs and there will be people rushing up the whole way because tourists do that. Just walk your own walk, as there isn’t a reason to run up the 1.76 mi route. The “sunrise” at Machu Picchu is mainly seeing the fog slowly lift revealing the ruins they hide and not so much a typical sunrise as you won’t see anything but fog early on. It wasn’t until 7am that the fog started to lift for us.
After a few pictures around the guard house, we started to head up Montaña as we had the 7-8am entrance. The distance is slightly over 1 mi, but it was another 1800 ft elevation gain and a lot more stairs. There was several overlooks as we headed up for the first few hundred feet before the clouds encompassed us. Heading up was still easier than heading down for me, as the steepness and minor exposure can give you some vertigo.
The top of the mountain was also engulfed in the clouds, so we had lunch while we waited for the sun to do it’s work with everyone else.
We waited for an hour and half before we decided to call it quits and head down. As we reached the first set of stairs down, the sky opened revealing Machu Picchu nestled among he green peaks around it.
After we returned the ruins, we took a walk over to the Incan bridge before exploring the main ruins itself.
The ruins was cool to walk around, but the best was still seeing it among the mountains and fog. We decided to spend the money and take the bus down the hill and into town. We needed to pick up our train tickets since our train the early next day. We headed straight back to camp afterwards as Aguas Calientes is a tourist town, in every sense, without an soul.
Machu Picchu day 3 (trip day 5): Aguas Calientes to Cusco
We woke up at 4:00am to pack up and make the half hour walk back to town. Our train was at 5:30am, but we had to be there at 5. The train itself was pretty empty. For picture purposes, if you are heading out toward Ollantaytambo, then the river is on the right side of the train.
At Ollantaytambo, it was easy to catch a collectivo back to Cusco and we were checked into our hostel at 10am. It was much quicker without having to go around the mountains on the back way.
Machu Picchu Impressions
- view: 4. Ruins are one thing, but they don’t provide the aesthetics by themselves. What really makes Machu Picchu so impressive is how it’s situated among nature. There are many tourists that spend majority of their time in the ruins, but for me the true wonderment is finding an overlooking rock and just marvel at it all. I fully recommend taking an entire day and immersing yourself here rather than rushing to catch the shuttle out.
- difficulty: 2. It was a lot of stairs and humid.
- technical: 1. There was only one way to go.
Ausangate and the Rainbow Mountains
The Ausangate circuit is a trek that is relative untouched by the massive tourism industry in Cusco. Because of that, this is one hike where there is plenty of solitude. On the flip side, it is much tougher as it is about 1 km higher than Cusco with passes that go over 5 km in elevation (16k ft). The highest elevation I have previously hiked was 14k ft in Colorado. The solitude that exists on this route also means that the trail is not marked and there are no signs to discriminate trails the locals use and the trail around the mountain. So, map skills, GPS, or a guide is imperative for a trek like this. All of this is pretty manageable for experienced backpackers.
However, we decided to add an additional layer to this already challenging task. There is information out there that the Rainbow Mountains are nearby and provides a side trip possibility. However the routing information out there is close to 0, as I’ll describe below. Given all of that, I was glad that Keith was joining us in this challenge.
- name: Ausangate and the Rainbow Mountains
- type: point to point, can be looped
- distance: 32.9 miles
- elevation change: 8532 ft ascend, 6994 ft descend
- time: 3.5 days
- location: Cordillera Vilcanota
- The stats here describe what we ended up doing. The traditional Ausangate trek is a loop in itself. It can be hiked in such a way to include the Rainbow Mountains in a loop. Information on that will be discussed in my impressions. Our final trek was a point to point hike from Upis to the Chillca area.
- *UPDATE 2018/08: since this trip report, we returned to Peru and completed the Ausangate Circuit. You can read about our experience in this trip report.
research and planning
My main guide book was Lonely Planet’s 2003 guide “Trekking in the Central Andes,” which I scanned a digital copy of the trek and put it on my phone, and my gps loaded with Open Street Map’s (OSM) Peru map (alternativaslibres.es). These were sufficient in guiding the main route of Ausangate especially since the gps map had a seemingly reliable route on it. It is not exact and the current trail do deviate here and there. To supplement, I had ordered the digital copy of Cicerone’s guide of the region.
The Cicerone guide provided some good insight in helping us in our attempt to find the Rainbow Mountains as it described a path splitting by Lake Hatun Pucacocha south over an unnamed pass toward the town of Chillca. That matched the itinerary from this tour site hinting at a possible route. Otherwise, information online was very scattered. The closest I can find to instructions is from this post on trip advisor. This seemed different from previous website’s itinerary where it said to head to Chillca first for the night. Though, it seemed possible a loop can be formed. From a comment on this trip report page, there is a GPS coordinate of -13.869534, -71.30296 given (though the original comment flipped the coordinates). This was the best trip report I found, but it still lacks description. Hopefully, the information from this report will help everyone looking for the Rainbow Mountains. Specifically see my impression here for suggested routes there from the Ausangate Circuit.
In general, it seemed like talking to locals on the ground was the way to find the rainbow mountains and it would be an adventure either way. The locals even played in our game of charades in attempts to help us. Needless to say, knowing Spanish would have been very useful.
*UPDATE 2019/06: The current OSM for Peru (alternativaslibres.es) now has all the routes to reach the Rainbow Mountains from the Ausangate Circuit. Furthermore, the updated OSM gps confirm all my hypothesized routes (see my impressions section for the discussion) to return to the Ausangate Circuit. see map below with my overlaid track:
Another worry about the adventure was our time limit, which was 6 days, with the possibility of the morning of the 7th to get us back to Cusco to catch our flight. We met up with Keith the afternoon when we returned from Machu Picchu on day 5 and our flight out is in the afternoon of Day 12. We spend the rest of Day 5 gathering gear that Keith needed and spending around 300 Soles buying too much food at the local supermarket.
gear list (Meg and I)
This didn’t included the consumables. For that, we budgeted food for 6 days, though we definitely took too much. Don’t forget the toilet paper once again.
Ausangate and the Rainbow Mountains day 1 (trip day 6): Cusco to Tinqui to Upis
The starting point of the Ausangate Trek is in the town of Tinqui, the way to get there is the bus that heads to Ocongate, which will continue to Tinqui. The terminal for the bus is near the stadium and not the main bus station in Cusco (estimated google map location). The cost is 10 Soles per person and a taxi from the tourist center shouldn’t be more than 10 Soles.
It takes about 3 hours to reach Tinqui. While on the bus, we met a French couple who were planning to trek Ausangate in 5 days unguided and we were able to work together until we left the circuit for the Rainbow Mountains.
Tinqui has a couple small shops and a couple of small restaurants. We planned to take it easy on day 1 to allow more acclimation to 4000m with the end point being Upis. After lunch in Tinqui, the 5 of us shared a taxi up to the village I believe to be Huarmisaya (though it might called Upis). It is here the road ends we begin our trek. The taxi cost us 8 Soles each and was well worth it. Especially since we took a wrong turn right of the bat.
Leaving the small village south and upwards, the trail branches and we mistakenly took the right fork. Pretty soon, I noticed we were off the GPS trail, which brought to question of how accurate my GPS was. I can tell you now that it is pretty accurate. Being unsure of the track, we wasted about an hour until we were able to confirm with locals the correct direction and that the GPS was right. After that, it was an easy 5 miles among alpacas
and a marsh on our right with Ausangate in front of us.
We arrived at the campsite just as the sun went down. A large hardship on our trek was the short days. There was roughly about 11 hours of sunlight and the temperature dropped below freezing as soon as the sun goes down. We set up our tent relatively quickly and cooked dinner before going to bed at the late hour of 7:50pm.
Ausangate and the Rainbow Mountains day 2 (trip day 7): Upis to Arapa Pass to Laguna Jatan Pucacocha to Unnamed Pass to Chillca
The coldness during the night provided a second challenge I didn’t have much experience with. That is condensation in the tent we woke up to the second day. A layer of moisture was on our sleeping bags and the inside of our tent with frost covering everything outside. This was a big concern because we had down bags. Trying to lay the bags out to dry in the more led to the moisture freezing.
The short duration of sunlight proved again problematic because we didn’t have time to dry things out.
So, that inconvenience lead us to start a little later than originally planned but it was a beautiful morning to start the climb up.
As you ascend, the terrain slowly changes from green to yellow. The altitude definitely made the progression slower, but the overall elevation change wasn’t that steep up to Arapa Pass.
From the pass, you descend through an area of marshy grass before starting a gradual descend down into the Ausangate valley after making a sharp left turn. Along the way you’ll pass a very still Laguna Yanacocha.
If you are looking to split off the Ausangate Circuit to the Rainbow Mountains, you will be able to see the first of the passes that you’ll need to take from here.
The trail continues downwards on the north side of the laguna until you reach a shelter at Laguna Uchuy Pucacocha. It made for a perfect lunch stop. *EDIT 2018/8/16: This shelter seem to have a few permanent tents in it now, perhaps set up by a local hiking company.
From the shelter, you backtrack a few steps, crossing the stream flowing out of the lagoon to circle around the right side of the lagoon.
The pass goes between rocky mound on the left and a set of pointy mountains on the right before coming out to a view of Laguna Jatan Pucacocha and the glaciers behind it. There is a small pond here, where we saw a group with guides and porters setting up camp. You can also descend down to the shore of Laguna Jatan Pucococha to camp as well.
The guide of the group told us they had come from the Rainbow Mountains, though they’ll refer to it as Colorado. The main trail for the Ausangate circuit continues around the hill at the opposite end of the pond and continues along the valley slowly getting up to Abra Apuchata.
*WARNING, the trail that splits toward the pass toward the Rainbow Mountains here is not clear at all, especially at the beginning. Clear knowledge of the terrain or GPS navigation is highly recommended here.
For the pass, you may want to start heading up slightly to the right of the Ausangate trail around this area.
*EDIT 2018/8: I took more photos at this junction when I returned to hike the Ausangate Circuit. See the 2 picture below indicating estimated locations that you should find the route to the Rainbow Mountains. This route is also on the most recent version of the OSM gps, so refer to that to reach the Rainbow Mountains.
The actual route we took continued along the main route for a little bit
before making the decision to go for the Rainbow Mountains. We cutting uphills from the trail until we reached a flat where another trail was more apparent and was fortunate to run into a couple locals going over the pass to confirm that the trail was the correct one.
As you climb, there is a pretty clear trail that navigates around some rocky terrain and
you’ll get some amazing views of the glaciers over the lakes. We could also see the cloud gathering and feel the winds picking up. Someone at the top spelled out planet peace, so we’ll call this pass Abra Planet Peace.
At this point the wind was whipping very strongly with the hail starting. The locals we meet earlier on the way up had told us we needed to head right after the pass, which was inline with the instructions I saw from online. However, there is no specific trail that heads that direction. The trail from the pass lead down into the valley, which was more along the lines of the tour group itinerary routing toward Chillca. This trail was described by the Cicerone book as part of their hike (not including the Rainbow Mountains). At this point, we decided to head down the valley as the weather was turning for the worst. I will talk about the exact way and recommendations at the end in my impressions.
As we descended, the ground quickly turned white from the hail coming down. It made for amazing contrast of green, red, and white.
When we reached the valley floor, we continued on trail that followed a stream with houses here and there. We didn’t feel really comfortable just setting up tent in someone’s backyard, though that’s really what we should have done. Instead we decided to get all the way to Chillca and see if there is a designated camping area. Shortly when we hit the dirt road, we saw a local car and the drive offered to drive us to Chillca for 10 Soles.
When we got to Chillca, it became apparent that we’d probably be better off just camping where found the car. Chillca is a small village and it seemed that most of the houses didn’t have electricity. However, the locals we were trying to talk to were teachers at the local school and offered to host us in one of the classrooms. We were very happy about that since the sun had set.
Ausangate and the Rainbow Mountains day 3 (trip day 8): Chillca to the Rainbow Mountains to another unnamed pass to the Anantapata Lodge
We woke up early the next morning, but either of us really have that great of a sleep. In hindsight, it was probably because we were not drinking as much water as we all should have been. We packed up and donated 30 Soles to the schoolteacher for letting us crash at the school. He told us that the Rainbow Mountains was back toward where we found the car. From there, we should head west and cross into the mountain range there.
As we left Chillca, the sun rose to what looked like another good day.
The school teacher’s advice was right on. The place where we found the car the previous day has a few cottages off the road with a direct trail into a break between the mountain chains. Looking back toward Ausangate, the snow from the previous day had blanket the mountain completely white.
The path through the mountain chain was the best we saw the entire time trip. That included some of the best toilets on this section I’d seen in any backcountry. This was for a good reason as there are many day trippers to the Rainbow Mountains from Cusco that take this route. By the time we hit the top of the first major uphill, the first of the day hiker caught up with us. We had read that the tourists mob the Rainbow Mountains after 10am and it was becoming very accurate. We were passed by a few more of the day hikers and reached to mountains around 10:30am after a grueling up.
Looking back down the valley, we can see a long line of tourists.
Regardless, we had found the Rainbow Mountains. We dropped our packs and headed up to the peak opposite the Rainbow Mountains where the first day hikers had gathered.
Personally I thought the views were pretty awesome, but the consensus between all of us was that it might not be worth it to go off the Ausangate circuit. I think the amount of tourists might have taken away from the experience. But I’ll talk about that later.
After lunch, we continued on the trail heading north.
Our goal was to hook back up with the Ausangate circuit. From the looks of it, we’ll have to cross another pass to get back to the previous valley and then try to get back to the Ausangate Valley. As we continued on the trail in the red scree around the valley, Keith was able to spot what appeared to be a trail heading through one of the pass in the distance.
It was good, because the trail we were on shortly disappeared and we were making our own trail. As we reached the bottom of the pass, storm clouds were once again rolling in. The climb became more difficult as the cold wind in conjunction with my heavy breathing started irate throat and lungs.
From the pass, it looked liked the only way back onto the Ausangate Circuit was back to Abra Planet Peace that we crossed the day before.
We did not stay at the pass for long as the wind and sleet were hitting us pretty bad. We decided to try to make is as far toward Abra Planet Peace as we can before setting up camp, which didn’t end up being that far.
I was very drained at this point and had picked up a cough that got progressively worse. After hiking downward through an area of red slopes following a few hoof prints here and there, we arrived at the moraine scree field.
The best way was to go around it. We were also out of water at this point, so we headed for the building with a red roof call the Anantapata Lodge. At the lodge, we found a few Peruvians guides with tents set up and settling in for the night. The lodge itself was completely closed and empty. They did have running water so we decided it was a good of a place as any to set up camp and call it a day.
Ausangate and the Rainbow Mountain day 4 (trip day 9): quitting point
So, the 3rd night was the worst of all. The worst was that even though I was feeling warm in my sleeping bag but still shivering uncontrollably. When I finally stopped shivering, I couldn’t stop coughing from the combination of cold air and the need to breathe more due to altitude. At one point in my stupor, I even thought I might had pneumonia or something. It was good Meg was there to tell me that was stupid and snap me out of it. Needless to say it was a pretty terrible night.
Out of all the treks I’ve done, this was the only time I never felt rested after a night of sleep. Both Meg and Keith shared that same sentiment. The idea of calling it was discussed since crossing Abra Planet Peace would commit us to the rest of the trek. With 3 days left, we would also have to cross both Apacheta Pass and Palomani Pass here on day 4 to be on track. So that’s 3 passes with 2 over 5000m while we were all not in the best shape and having to set our own path up to the first path. Little did we know at this time and I’ll discuss in the impressions, there was an alternative way skipping both Abra Planet Peace and Apacheta Pass.
We decide to give the 3 pass day a shot and see how we felt, which was bad. My cough had not gone away and every time I took a deep breath, I’d start coughing. As you can imagine, this made going uphills incredibly slow as any ascension in elevation made me breath hard at this altitude. So we called it quits. I think all our spirits were a bit lifted with the decision. Our plan was to head back down the valley and catch a ride, maybe with one of the tourist vans out. To get there we had to cut across a few marshes to meet up with the trail we had taken the previous day. While on the way down, that where we got a look at a separate trail crossing a different valley toward Ausangate. That motivated me to hypothesize the actual route to take in the impressions below.
When we reached the gathering of vans, we found the same taxi we saw the night before. He agreed to drive us out to the town of Pitumarca for 60 Soles and they were worth every Sole based on how beautiful and difficult the drive was. At Pitumarca, we took a local van collectivo to Combapata, where buses to Cusco runs. We could have gotten off at Checacupe also, but the major bus stop was in Combapata. The shuttle was 3 Soles each and the bus was 6 Soles each.
Ausangate and the Rainbow Mountains: impressions
Although our trek was cut short because of illness, it was all worth it. Well, maybe not the nights. Returning and giving it another shot is definitely on my list, especially since I’ve figured out the route now as I’ll point out below.
- view: 5. The aesthetics of this Ausangate speaks for itself. Whenever you are so close to a glacier, it is awe inspiring for me. The isolation of it all, at least on the main circuit, added to the experience. That’s not to mention the many lakes of different color that dots the trek. The Rainbow Mountains by itself wasn’t as impressive, but it might be that pictures online capture it pretty well and the amount of tourist there. I would say it’s a 3.5 by itself. I think that because it is just one view really limits how impressive it can be where as Ausangate is just endless views. What I would want to explore is that entire range heading south (as described via Wikiloc & trails are now labeled on the OSM gps for Peru). There is a clear path that leads toward a few more red formations. It is also hard not to consider the additional difficulties to get there from the main circuit, though some of it was pretty impressive too.
- difficulty: 5. For us, the altitude definitely made it hard. A typical incline became just that much more difficult. None of us felt very rested after sleeping, perhaps because of the altitude and coldness through the nights. In the end though, I think the bad weather across a couple of passes really wore on me and might be the reason I picked up a cough. I would recommend maybe another day of acclimation even in Tinqui or at 4000m, which is 1000m higher than Cusco. The trek did get the best of me and I will go back and finish the loop.
4. Yea, this was difficult mainly for the navigation needed when you are trying to find the Rainbow Mountains. You have to be aware of the basic geography of the area and be able to navigate the terrain without a trail. Part of what slowed us down was we had to stop often to reorient and figure out where to go next.If you are doing just the main Ausangate Circuit, I’d probably put it at a 3. A GPS or map is a must. The Open Street Map (OSM) Peru Map (alternativaslibres.es) does have the Ausangate Circuit marked on it, so I’d recommend getting it if you aren’t confident. In term of technical skills, it is just really walking. You don’t encounter any ice or technical terrain.
- *UPDATE 2019/06: As mentioned in the planning section, the OSM Peru gps map (alternativaslibres.es) now has all the routes from the Ausangate Circuit to the Rainbow Mountains. So I’m lowering the technical rating to 3.
tips and thoughts
- The days are very short, ~11 hours. So plan accordingly for each day’s hike
- Based on what we encountered, the mornings were usually the best weather with some sort of storm rolling in during the afternoon around 2. That seems to be similar to the Colorado in the States. I would recommend timing your major passes based on that.
- Learn how to deal with condensation in the tents before you go. It gets very cold once the sun goes down.
- Sunscreen and chapstick are pretty important
- We lowlanders all suffered a bit from the altitude with headaches, a healthy stash ibuprofen was very useful.
- Don’t skimp on water. Part of our headaches might be that we didn’t drink enough. The cold air usually makes my water consumption while hiking a lot lower. So definitely drink a lot at night.
- Some sources say the water is ok to drink without treatment, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Most fields are covered in alpaca, sheep, and horse poop.
- Hiking sticks are pretty useful for this trek. The elevation never changes so fast that they become a nuisance by getting in the way.
- I do wish I had talked to South American Explorers Cusco beforehand. Based on feedback from comments below, I’m not sure they are that helpful with any trip preparations. *EDIT 2017/12: seems like the South American Explorers are now closed via Richard from BestHike.
- If trail finding isn’t you thing, I’d recommend just doing the Ausangate circuit. That would be challenging enough. There are plenty of day tours from Cusco to see the Rainbow Mountains in 1-2 days.
- If anyone has explored the Rainbow Mountains continuing southwest, I’d love to hear about it. Perhaps a possible separate trek altogether.
route recommendation to visit the Rainbow Mountains (Colorado)
As I mentioned previously, there isn’t a lot of information available out there about getting to the Rainbow Mountains from Ausangate circuit. This is my contribution to the community and hopefully it will help you navigate there.
If you are following our route (see map for reference), my first recommendation is not to go all the way to Chillca for your 2nd night camping. Instead, camp either at the point you would start to cross the mountain chain (bottom right spot) or a bit further up on valley (bottom spot). Both have streams running nearby so you can get water and the latter even has an outhouse.
This would set you up to hit the Rainbow Mountains early next morning before the day trippers get there.
To return to the circuit, you can continue over the unnamed pass we did from the Rainbow Mountains and continue to the point where we eventually quit.
From that point follow the top purple route I have indicated on the map above, which connects you to the circuit at Laguana Ausangatecocha. For the connection, there may not be a trail at all for certain parts. From lower in the valley, I did see what appears to be a trail at the end of the connection as highlighted in the picture below. It would be good if someone can confirm it.
*UPDATE 2018/8/9: As I am planning my return to Ausangate, I saw several gps trackings via Wikiloc confirming this route (though they used it to reach the Rainbow Mountains initially rather climbing Abra Planet Peace). *UPDATE 2018/8/16: After recently completing the Ausangate Circuit, I can also personally confirm that there is a trail that heads up that drainage connecting with the Ausangate circuit at Laguana Ausangatecocha.
Alternatively if you don’t want to go through the unnamed pass we did, you can return to the Chillca area, turn left at the road, and follow it up on the right side of the valley to Laguna Ausangatecocha as described above. If you turn right at the road, you can also go around through Chillca and connect the trail at Pampacancha (as indicated by the bottom purple line). This route is mentioned in the Cicerone book, but going the opposite direction.
Lastly, you can also camp at the Anantapata Lodge for night 2 (top spot) and follow our route in reverse. You can climb the unnamed pass into the Rainbow Mountains’ valley in the morning along with the Rainbow Mountains. *Edit 2019/4/16: From PK’s comments at the end of this post, it seems that camping at Anantapata Lodge and going for the Rainbow mountains in the morning might not give you too much of a headstart over the day hikers. You can read about their experience on their webpage.
The return options are the same as I previously discussed.
Cusco and Sacred Valley day trips
So we had a couple of extra days in Cusco we weren’t expecting, though I wasn’t 100%. Our original hostel was full, so we ended up at Hostal Cusi Wasi. It had hot showers and internet so we could plan the next couple of days. One option I saw from a response to my LP thorn tree forum post was a 2 day Huchuy Qosqo trek from Chinchero to Lamay. Because I didn’t know how I’d feel, we decided to see after a full night sleep.
My coughing continued through the night and the next day. So, a trek was out. We decided to base out of Cusco, extend our reservation for a couple more nights, and do some day trips as Keith hasn’t seen any ruins.
Moray ruins and salt mines of Maras (trip day 10)
From the Cicerone book, there was an hike outlined that was entirely downhills. It would take us to the a series of circle ruins I had seen posters of and some historical salt mines. The attractiveness of this hike was that it was pretty much entirely downhills. It might have been intended as a downhill mountain biking trail, but as long as I didn’t have to breath hard, I was ok.
- name: Moray ruins and salt mines of Maras
- type: through
- distance: 9.0 miles
- elevation change: 611 ft ascend, 2765 ft descend
- time: 4.5 hours
- location: Maras
- It’s a nice stroll, but the entrance fee to Moray is steep as we found out. It was 70 Soles for each individual. It was actually a ticket for 4 sites that also included the ruins at Ollantaytambo and others.
To get to Moray, we first took a collectivo to Urubamba as directed by the guide book. However, there was a stop near Maras that we could have gotten off earlier at. From where ever you stop, you have to taxi up to the ruins.
The ruins were cool circular terraces but we were not allowed to go to the bottom of them.
After spending some time at the terraces, we headed toward the town of Maras via a dirt trail with some nice views of the mountain range.
From the town center of Maras, we headed north toward the valley.
There were marked signs for the Salt Mines. There was an entrance fee of 10 Soles per person. The salt mines have been around for generations. It was the reason why the royalty of the Incans were able to have fish in the mountains as salted fish was able to go from coast to the mountains in 48 hours via runners. We walked through the salt mines as the sun started to set.
Pass the salt mines was a bit more downhill until you reach the village in the valley. Through the village and a bridge we reached the main road. Within seconds, we were able to wave down a bus heading toward Cusco. It cost us 7 Soles to get back to Cusco.
- view: 3. The high point was the salt mines. All reflections on the water in each little salt pool was pretty cool.
- difficulty: 1. Our word for the day was “stroll”.
- technical: 1.5. Pretty straight forward, though no markers and only 1 sign.
Ollantaytambo (trip day 11)
Since we already paid for tickets to enter the ruins at Ollantaytambo, we thought why not. Again we took a collectivo from Cusco to Ollantaytambo for 10 Soles. Once we were there, we spend a hour or so following the path around the ruins. That included going up top to the lookout. As far as ruins go, I thought this was more interesting than Moray even though Moray was more aesthetically pleasing. Since we didn’t pay for a guide, it was pretty fun making up stories about the ruins.
After the ruins, we got a few drinks in town at a café before heading back to Cusco. The collectivo are located by the train station and cost 10 Soles each person.
During the few days we were based out of Cusco, we spend most of the time walking around, buying some souvenirs, and eating. Keith did the tourist thing and got a guinea pig, which was a bit too greasy. While that wasn’t Keith’s favorite, we really like the ceviche at Restaurant Sumaqcha. My personal favorite was the deep fried pork and stuffed peppers Meg got at a very traditional place called La Cusquenita Tradicional Pikanteria. One the cheaper side, the kabab joint by Plaza de Armas was good. And of course, the Peruvian chicken joints were very good and economical. Look for a place with a lot of locals and I’m sure it will be good. Lastly, don’t shy away from the street food around. Some of the fruits were very fresh. I personally like the quail eggs while Keith enjoyed the beef heart skewers. None of us liked the potatoes there in general though, they were a bit spongy.
We all flew out on LATAM from CUS to LIM, which was uneventful in the afternoon of our 12th day. Keith was flying out of LIM a couple hour after us, but he didn’t check his bag. We had to with the camping gear and a couple bottles of pisco, so we were stuck landside at LIM until the Delta check in desk was manned (4 hours before take off). There were a lot of restaurants landside with slow internet. We were surprised by Pikeos Café’s lomo saltado in that it wasn’t that overly prices and served as a good appetizer.
After dropping off our bags, we headed airside and chilled at the VIP Club Lounge. My Priority Pass Membership with Citi Prestige allowed me to bring 2 guests for free. Nothing like a few more Pisco Sours to celebrate the end of a trip.
After saying goodbye to Keith, the rest of our flights were uneventful and we were able to get another free lunch in ATL at The Club Lounge between flights. Our return flight came in to Ronald Reagan Airport (DCA), which provided some good views of DC. To get back to Meg’s aunt’s place, we were able to take the subway all the way for an easy return commute.
Heading in to this trip, I had pretty high expectations. All of those expectations were met. It wasn’t without frustrations as navigating off trail trying to find the Rainbow Mountains is pretty difficult. It didn’t help that I was getting sick in the process. And I am a bit disappointed that we didn’t finish the entire Ausangate loop, especially knowing what I do now. Despite all that, I wouldn’t trade the experience though. It was quite a unique adventure that I’m not use to as I’ve never done something that had no trails whatsoever and navigation was based on the geography in front of you. Now, I look forward to returning and giving it another shot.
Other than the Ausangate loop, there were indeed many tourists. It’s understandable as the aesthetics in the region is amazing. What’s more is that you can enjoy it all despite the tourism.
This trip to me felt like an appetizer. It was just a taste of what’s here. There is so much more trails in the area that I would love to walk. I’ve never been more envious of those on month long trips through the area. Cusco and Peru is a destination that I will return to, hopefully it will be more than just 12 days next time.
other useful links for the Cusco region (trip reports)
new trip reports
- travel2walk – Ausangate Circuit, August 2018 (our redemption tour)
- The Hiking Life – Ausangate Circuit, 2017 August