Bear’s eager eyes stared up at me, his whiskered chin resting on his paws. As he lay on the earthen floor of the abandoned farmhouse where we’d set up camp, his eyes didn’t break away from me, my husband, or our guide Nilo while we shoveled down spoonful after spoonful of hot quinoa soup. He knew the leftovers were his and that it was only a matter of waiting. I put my face in the steam rising from my bowl. This and the fire a few feet away would be our warmth tonight.
The weather of the high-altitude Peruvian Andes is unpredictable, but you can trust that come sunset, the air will bite, reminding you not to let your guard down. Here at Ausangate, it’s the mountain that’s in charge.
- Day 1: Cusco to Tinqui to Upis
- Day 2: Upis to Ninaparayoo
- Day 3: Ninaparayoo to Huchuy Phinaya
- Day 4: Huchuy Phinaya to Pucaqocha
- Day 5: Pucaqocha to Rainbow Mountain
- Day 6: Rainbow Mountain to trailhead
Dates: April 3-8, 2019
Day 1: Tinqui to Upis
- Distance: 5 miles
- Elevation: 3800m – 4200m
- Hiking Time: 2-3 hours
Our hike had started just the day prior, after a bumpy pre-dawn ride from Cusco to the town of Tinqui, where we had breakfast at a local spot and stocked up on provisions for the 6-day trek ahead. The forecast called for rain, and we weren’t optimistic about a dry hike, so our guide Nilo encouraged us to buy ponchos as well. We eventually found them in a cluttered and dusty, but charming, general store, with free-roaming cats and a friendly owner.
From the town center, our driver dropped us off by what appeared to be a llama pasture. Here, our cook and horseman were already waiting, making our group now 5 people and 3 horses. Tim and I have never done a private guided hike before, and this was the moment we realized that these 3 men and 3 horses were all there for us. It was a little overwhelming at first, to be catered to with such a large team of support.
As we waved the van goodbye and set out on the trail, we knew rain wasn’t far off. We were only hiking 5 miles this day, so we tried to move swiftly through the boggy terrain, still wet and mushy from prior rainfall. The rain caught up with us, though, and we spent the hike soaked, arriving a few hours later to our campsite for the night.
Our campsite at Upis was a surprise luxury. We expected tents every night of the trip, but the company we were hiking with, Flashpacker Connect, had recently built small single-room cabins with views over Ausangate Mountain.
The clouds began to clear that afternoon as we warmed up with coca tea and wool blankets in our cabin, and we caught our first glimpse of the mountain we’d be nearly fully circumnavigating over the next week. It’s snow-capped peaks appeared blunted by the thinning foggy shroud until finally, they emerged into the sun.
Sufficiently dry and warm, we ventured out into the valley in front of our campsite to explore a little before dinner.
Our cook, Obserbio, served our meals this first day inside a larger communal cabin, while he listened to the local mountain radio station rasping out pan flute music amid the static. Nilo explained that these channels were also how locals kept in touch up here. With no internet or cell phone reception, this radio station was all that connected the tiny mountain towns together each day. The DJ would even share personal notifications, like an answering machine: “Juan, your mother is coming to visit you tomorrow. She started walking yesterday. Have the spare bed ready.”
After dinner, we taught Nilo a few card games and talked about our plan for the next day, and then, soon after it was dark, we all went to bed. With no electricity, once it’s night, there’s nothing to do but rest.
Day 2: Upis to Ninaparayoo
- Distance: 9.6 miles
- Elevation: 4500m
- Hiking time: 8 hours
The next morning, we climbed the hill behind our campsite to get to the trail. There wasn’t a clear trail defined at all so we were grateful for our guide. The morning started off foggy but quickly cleared up by the time we had gotten to the top of the hill and began crossing a valley. We were greeted by stunning views of Ausangate Mountain, countless adorable alpacas, and eventually, the black fluffy canine we eventually called Bear.
At one point, we came to a small stream. Nilo said that there were glaciers up the rocky hill past the stream. We asked how long it would take to go see them, and he said it was about an hour each way. We’d made good time all morning, and agreed to make the detour up to two hanging glaciers.
The ground at the viewpoint was covered in crumbling rocks and in front of us a deep crevice separated us from the two bulging rivers of ice hanging overhead. They looked close enough to touch but had to have been several hundred meters away from us still. After the challenging climb up, it was an amazing spot to relax and enjoy the views, before the equally difficult descent, thanks to the loose gravel on the steep trail.
After a few more hours of hiking through alpaca pastures (and yes they are as adorable as you’d think), we arrived at our campsite for the evening. Our porter and cook had already set up our tent for the night, and a late lunch was on the fire for us. After refueling with Obserbio’s delicious and hearty meal, we took a brief nap and then decided to make the most of our afternoon by walking the short trail up to a viewpoint looking over the many lakes and mountains that surrounded our campsite. Our legs were exhausted, but we remained motivated to see as much of this stunning wilderness as we could.
Day 3: Ninaparayoo to Huchuy Phinaya
- Distance – 12 miles
- Elevation – 4500m – 5000m – 4400m
- Hiking time – 8 hours
The next morning, after a hearty breakfast (we stayed well-fed on this trek), we started the slow ascent up to a high mountain pass, with Bear trotting by our side.
Occasionally Bear would spot a chinchilla darting among the boulders, and he’d dash off on the hunt. Whenever he got ahead of us on one of his wild chinchilla chases, he would wait, leisurely napping in the sun while we panted to keep up.
Bear moved as if he knew each inch of the unmarked trails, anticipating every step as he happily loped along. He seemed unbothered by the altitude, the unstable terrain, or even where he’d get his next meal. Completely secure in the most precarious environment, Bear was born for this, and Ausangate was his home.
Our hike took us past several small ponds whose stillness perfectly reflected the rugged landscape around us. Eventually, we reached the top of the pass, where we sat on warm rocks in the sun, enjoying a snack break in front of one of the most breathtaking views of my life. Here at 5000 meters, we sat in front of the very top of a snow-capped peak. Nilo said he always makes his phone calls from here since it’s high and clear enough to get cell phone reception, so we tried it out and managed to call our friend Phil from the middle of nowhere, and I texted my mom and grandmother to say hello. It was a strange moment of realizing simultaneously just how huge, yet how small, this world is, that we can stay connected at the tops of mountains in the remote Andes.
Of course with every high mountain pass, comes the descent back down a few hundred meters. Once we got down into a valley, we stopped for lunch at Surapampa, which actually had a small building with a kitchen and toilet – and by this time, using a toilet was a true luxury versus the rugged “squat over a hole” method.
Our team set up our folding table for lunch, with views of the mountain from which we’d come in the (relatively close) distance, however, as they set up the table we realized one of the pieces that stabilize the leg of the table was broken. Our once stable table was now down to 3 legs – which made for a hilarious and precarious dining experience as we tried to keep the table straight.
After lunch, we packed up, Bear still in tow, and made our way along the mostly flat valley, passed waterfalls and farmlands, to our evening camping spot.
At one point, Bear ran after some chinchillas on the hillside, and this time he kept going past us. We saw him in the distance, a black dot crawling under a wire fence into a yard with a thatch-roofed house.
Realizing this must be his home, I waved goodbye as he disappeared through the stone walls.
I imagined his reunion with his human, who in my mind was certainly a woman, though I don’t know why. I pictured her opening the door and crouching down to dog level, arms open. Bear would leap into her lap and lick her face, an expression of a dog’s characteristic unconditional love.
That’s not what happened, though. A half-hour or so later I stopped for a sip of water. I could still see the house and fence in the distance. As I gazed down the hill towards the home where we’d finally left Bear, I saw the unmistakable movement of pure canine energy bounding over a stream and up the hill towards me. Suddenly I was the woman I’d imagined greeting Bear. He ran straight into my arms as I crouched down. “You came back!” I cried.
That evening at our campsite, which was a small abandoned farmhouse, as Bear lay on the dirt floor next to us, patiently waiting for dinner’s leftovers as we warmed our red and chilly cheeks in the soup’s hot vapor, none of us knew it would be our last night with this little companion.
The next morning when we awoke, he was gone, and this time he never came back.
We packed up our gear for the day’s hike in silence. No one needed to point out Bear’s absence. As I hoisted my pack onto my back, Nilo smiled. “Don’t worry about him. He’s the spirit of this mountain. He is Ausangate.”
Day 4: Huchuy Phinaya to Pucaqocha
- Distance – 7 miles
- Elevation – 4600m – 5100m – 4800m – 4990m – 4500m (two passes)
- Hiking time – 7 hours
Our fourth day on the mountain began with a 3-hour climb up to Palomani Pass (5100m), ascending a total of 500 meters. Along the way, we admired bright red mountains in the distance and even a reddish-pink lagoon below a glacier. The landscape was becoming increasingly colorful and vibrant. At the top of Palomani Pass, we were able to see a miniature “rainbow mountain”, a precursor of the more famous Rainbow Mountain (Vinicunca) we’d hopefully see in the coming days. Across the valley on the other side of the, in the direction we’d be walking, we could vaguely make out Vinicunca Mountain, and the tiny dots of day-trippers in front of it.
We began our descent into the valley, all while taking in some of the most stunning views we’d had yet. Ausangate glacier loomed to our right-hand side as we hiked across the valley, giving us the most dramatic and massive views we’d had yet of it.
At one point shortly after we’d reached the top of the second pass of the day, Nilo asked if we wanted to see a lagoon beneath the glacier. We’d certainly learned by this point that if our guide asks if we want to detour, we should always say yes. A short 15-minute hike along the ridge towards the glacier brought us to a spot with several small pools of water around a larger milky blue lake beneath the glacier. We all had a great time finding different vantage points for photos, especially with the reflections of the mountain in the little lagoons.
We arrived at our campsite by lunchtime, where we had spectacular views of teal and aqua blue lakes, the mountain, and glacier, in addition to the luxury of a small hut where we could eat in relative warmth and shelter. The rumble of the calving glacier served as our soundtrack for the rest of the afternoon and evening. Though every view along this hike was spectacular, this particular campsite was really something incredible. I could have stayed there for days, just enjoying the peaceful views and the sounds of the mountains. Of course, the next day we had to move on to our final campsite of the trip.
Day 5: Pucaqocha to Rainbow Mountain
- Distance – 6 miles
- Elevation – 4500m – 5000m – 4700m – 4900m
- Hiking time – 5 hours
Our hike this morning started with a climb up the mountain behind our campsite, away from the view I had fallen in love with the day before. As we climbed, we saw another black dog that looked a lot like Bear, but we could tell it was a different dog. Far below us at the bottom of the hill, a local man with a different dog on a rope leash, yelled up to Nilo in a language we didn’t recognize. Apparently, this was his dog – and he’d been looking for him since October of the previous year (and it was now April!). Nilo grabbed the dog and kept him nearby until his human could reach us (which was so much faster than it took us to climb the same distance!). Watching their reunion was heartwarming – you could tell the dog recognized this man right away and was so excited to see him again. The man attached the pup to a rope leash, and off the man went with his two dogs by his side, back towards their home several hours’ hiking away.
Later that morning we arrived at our campsite, which was about an hour of hiking away from the famed Vinicunca rainbow mountain, which gets its name from the multicolored stripes going across its peak. With clear skies for the rest of the afternoon, we decided to take advantage of the good weather and venture out to Vinicunca then, rather than waiting for in the morning when we weren’t sure what the weather would be like.
I’m so glad we decided to make the extra little hike that afternoon. Not only was the weather perfect, but we also had the famous viewpoint all to ourselves, since most people visit as a day trip and come early in the morning.
Vinicunca was certainly beautiful, but honestly, it was extra icing compared to the views we’d had all week. I have to admit, it felt underwhelming. I knew what it would look like from all the pictures I had seen online, whereas the beauty of the previous 5 days was completely new to my eyes. None of the mountains, glaciers, and lagoons we saw on the Ausangate trek are “famous” the same way Rainbow Mountain is. I had no idea what to expect, and so my expectations were constantly blown away.
On our last night together with Nilo, Obserbio, and our horseman (whose name I sadly cannot recall), we exchanged a few emotional words. Because of the language barrier, Tim and I hadn’t spoken extensively with Obserbio and our horseman, but on this evening Nilo translated for us so we could express our gratitude for how well taken care of we were during the trip, and how thoughtful, kind, and hardworking they were to make this adventure possible for us.
Day 6: Rainbow Mountain to Trailhead
- Distance – 3.5 miles
- Elevation – 4900m – 4500m
- Hiking time – 3 hours
Our last day on the trail brought us back to Vinicunca in the morning, at the same time as all of the day-hikers. Unfortunately, the mountain was covered in snow, completely masking the rainbow stripes in a white blanket. I felt bad for them, knowing this was their only shot to see the mountain, and hoped it would melt for them before they had to leave. As for us, I was extra grateful we made the hike the day before to see it, and also appreciative of getting to see it covered in snow, which was definitely a different experience.
The most jarring thing, though, was the contrast of going from seeing hardly anyone else for nearly a week, to suddenly seeing hundreds of people, most of whom looked freshly showered and enviably fashionable. It reminded me of the feeling when we had hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu 5 years prior, and were pretty smelly and rough-looking compared to the Instagram-ready daytrippers. Regardless, I wouldn’t have had this experience any other way.
Over the course of 6 days, we hiked a total of 45 miles, with 2500 meters of climbing, and zero showers. To this day, Tim and I consider this one of our most incredible travel experiences and one of the highlights (if not THE highlight) of our 500-day round-the-world honeymoon.
That afternoon, when we arrived back to bustling Cusco, it was hard to believe we’d woken up just that morning in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by wilderness. In the comfortable apartment, we’d rented on Airbnb, we finally were able to shower, do some much-needed laundry, and spend a day resting before continuing our overland journey through Peru. Next stop: the so-called “White City” of Arequipa!