After Machu Picchu I was back in Cusco, a place where Inca culture was sadly once replaced by Spanish, and Spanish culture sadly now replaced by mass tourism. The historical centre is nice to walk around, but the number of people coming up to you with some sort of offer is incredibly annoying. I’ve been to Machu Picchu, I’m not hungry, your art looks shit, I don’t want a massage. I was only back here for a few days to recover for my next venture, trekking the Ausangate circuit, which would help me get to the Rainbow Mountain.
I had never heard of the Rainbow Mountain before I came to South America, an Aussie guy I met in Chile told me about it. Ever since then it’s been on my mind. I love that there is still an element of mystery about it. I’d been telling many others of my desire to go there who had no idea of its existence. Pretty much everyone who travels in this part of the world goes to Machu Picchu and the Uyuni salt flats and all that, which having been to these I can say are great, but I’d been after something else. In 2016 I’m uncertain there are any perfectly kept secrets left in this part of the world. The Rainbow Mountain is yet to be fully discovered by the wider travelling community, and though there would be day trippers, by taking on a five-day Andean trek in the process to see it, I’d found my something else.
Given I have quite literally been an idiot abroad at times on this trip, I wasn’t doing it completely alone. In Cusco I met back up with a familiar face, the mysterious BJ I met in Mendoza. My companion for this venture, BJ lives in New York, is 26 years old, a keen photographer, has rude initials, eats the whole core of an apple, and perhaps more importantly than all that, is a seasoned trekker. He was the one with all the gear and I was the one with no idea. My only previous experience of trekking at this sort of altitude was the very straightforward Inca trail just a few days previous, as well as getting lost on day hikes in Bariloche. It’s recommended to hire a local guide and horse round the Ausangate circuit but we decided we’d go without. A little less safe but a little more adventure. A lot more work but a lot more reward.
So the Ausangate circuit, it circulates through the stunning cordilerra Vilcanota, a range with several gigantic peaks above 6000 metres. The Ausangate peak, standing at 6372 metres, is considered sacred in the region. The experience transpired to be the most extreme challenge I’ve ever taken on. April is sort of between where the wet season ends and the dry season begins, and the weather changes were more ridiculous than those we know in Britain. It absolutely intensified the difficulty of the trek. Boggy marshlands, frequent hailstorms, seemingly never-ending rocky ascents, ice tumbling from the peaks above, freezing temperatures in the night, and masses of alpaca shit on the trail. A trail that does a better disappearing act than Dynamo the magician it so happens, we quickly discovered that’s why were told to hire a guide. Carrying our big backpacks stocked with supplies to last us for days, it wasn’t hard to imagine why we had been recommended a horse, but these were the challenges we had to contend with.
From Cusco we headed out to the village of Tinke, a two-hour bus journey, but this was Peruvian time so two hours became closer to four. Tinke was how we both imagined a rural village in Peru would look. Small buildings, a dusty road, randomly placed animals, plenty of people with no teeth. Not exactly exciting. We walked a few hours uphill and away from the village, and having started at a higher altitude than the highest point of the Inca trail, it was already very tough for me. We’d lost the trail early but at this stage it was only really a road of boring construction work, and having been set back by the delayed bus we decided to wild camp a little off the road. We were joined by a third companion, a dog, that stayed with us all the way from Tinke. BJ was far less sympathetic than I, our perro looked so cold as we munched on our dinner of noodles, but we hoped he’d see sense and find shelter elsewhere. I feel like I’ve turned slightly mad at times after all this time travelling solo, but not quite enough to let this stray dog sleep in the tent.
The next morning we rose early for the first full day of hiking, hoping to make up for the lost time of the previous day. At this point we were walking towards a phenomenal mountain. We were like Frodo and Sam, with our unwanted tag-along dog, still with us, taking the role of Gollum. A shortcut that went wrong meant we had to cross a river. I was still assessing options when I turned to see BJ already with shoes off battling the freezing cold runoff from the mountain. My turn, and given how high the water reached on BJ’s legs I really hated the idea of having to walk in wet trousers, so off they came and I took the plunge. My body, lending itself to idiocy, so nearly toppled over from the power of the river, but I just managed to hold it together. It was a close shave, but I still managed to get my boxers damp, and no, I hadn’t wet myself. My pasty thighs briefly frozen by Andean rover, promptly warmed by Andean sun. Gollum miraculously made it over too, but when we shortly walked past a rare group of other hikers he thankfully gave up on us, where we were going was no place for a dog. We imagine he joined this other company on the way down. Clearly the precious he was seeking was a little more precious than a few dropped noodles from dinner.
We should have learnt our lesson. Having made good progress through the day, we made up for falling short on day one by making it to Jatun Puqa Q’ocha lake, our intended camping ground for the second night. We’d begun to see turquoise lakes, red soil, and orange blades of grass, like if a child had used the completely wrong coloured pens in a colouring book. Yet with the following day our detour to the Rainbow Mountain, we thought we’d make our task a little easier by getting as close as we could, and then wild camping again before it turned dark. What an awful idea that turned out to be. The field we took this other shortcut across was actually a terribly boggy marsh. Between our four feet, each was totally submerged in water at least once, some more. All efforts to keep dry throughout the day’s storms rendered meaningless. The fact we took out this section then rather than the following morning was a scant consolation, because we were drenched, and at around 4700 metres, cold. The next day though, the Rainbow Mountain.
Setting off at 6.30am we were in high spirits, (something neither me or I imagine my Mum ever thought I’d say) despite climbing into wet boots. Temporarily leaving the Ausangate trail for the day, we were on our way to it. This majestically colourful mountain that absolutely didn’t seem like it could be real. Though as the morning went on we encountered more and more bad news. Three different locals gave us absolutely useless information as to how far we were from it as our climb went on and on. There was so much uphill, two hailstorms hit us hard, and our progress was slow. More than five hours had passed and we were still climbing. Cocky day trippers on the way down with their small bags smiled on at us as we struggled up. Clearly more interested in the destination than the journey, rather like those who take the train and bus to Machu Picchu, they hadn’t earned it like we were doing, each step becoming a small victory for the pair of us now.
Then finally we reached the summit. This place did exist. It was like we’d stepped into a Roald Dahl book. The colours are so surreal, and it’s difficult not to think the locals have just painted some lines on the mountain. The scientific reason for the colours lies somewhere in the minerals, to give a non-scientist’s answer. I didn’t really care for that in this moment. We were both so tired from the climb, which I think made us appreciate the mountain’s beauty a little bit more, we could just about summon the energy to offer appreciation that is. I enjoyed looking down on the mountain we’d just conquered as much as I did its amazing colours.
An Andean Condor swung by our way too. A nice bonus, it’s wingspan was incredible, and it came close enough for me to see it’s feathers in detail bristling in the wind. It was by far the biggest bird I’ve ever seen in the wild. I’m not even sure there’s any competition, probably a crow before that. As that suggests, I’m not exactly a wildlife fanatic, but I do enjoy a good David Attenborough doc when one comes around. In fact it might be best to go and read my experience of the Condor back in Attenborough’s voice, mine is unfortunately about as charismatic as Jack Dee’s.
On the descent a big hailstorm hit. For brief respite I thought of things from home that could warm me up. My Mum’s Sunday roast, a game of seven a side at Goodwin, a beast bomb from West Street Live, a Pukka Pie. They were all so far away in that moment, and it hurt. We said little as we struggled through the hours back to where we began the day, to return to the Ausangate trail. It started to turn dark but we pushed on to our target of the same lake as the night before. So sensibly we walked around the big bog this time, but stupidly it was pitch black by the time we reached it and we were using torchlight. It was 6.30pm, we’d been going for fully 12 hours. We’d seen the Rainbow Mountain, and our time up there was mesmerising, but outside that window what an awfully hard day.
After all that we still had a further two days of hiking to go. Day four began with a tough ascent to the highest point of our trek, at over 5200 metres, more than 1000 metres above the highest point on the Inca trail, and climbing up starved my lungs. I struggled through this section, but we took our time and BJ helped me through it. We eventually overcame that pass for stunning views of the mountains surrounding us. The rest of day four was easy work, so we ended up getting through a decent amount of day five’s work too. It was nearly a perfect day, but BJ had a closer shave than I with a river, he fell in one quite spectacularly. In the moment I did my utmost to not be a smug bastard when I found a series of rocks to cross the river and keep dry, but fair play to BJ, he squelched on without fuss. If it had been the other way round I’d probably have made a drama. We pitched up alongside the extraordinary Puka Panta and Pachanta peaks, which was a weird way to wake up the following day – I’m not sure of the next time I’ll wake up with snow-capped peaks in my face.
As the trek went on longer we unwittingly began to talk more and more about fast food. BJ’s cooking on the trek was actually pretty good, but there was something wonderfully enticing about the thought of disgustingly unhealthy food. A KFC back in Cusco’s main square started occupying our thoughts the more the hiking sapped the energy from our bodies. We quickly realised on the fifth day we could press for Tinke by the afternoon and be back in Cusco that evening. KFC that day was suddenly a reality. We became like Harold and Kumar craving their trip to White Castle. So we gave it one last big push. I became a man possessed, and on the flat powered ahead of BJ, who’d opted to maintain his steady pace. I was exhausted by this point, but I felt like Jamie Carragher in extra time of the 2005 Champions League final, seeming like there was nothing left, but somehow finding a way to get through it all. We didn’t have an exhilarating Champions League win on the line, but there was a potential KFC following five days in the wilderness.
Tinke came back into view. About a mile of school children cheekily asking for sweets also hysterically laughed as I came past them, and I don’t know why. I think I narrowed it down to either the fact they rarely see a man with a beard, not least of the ginger variety, or simply at how rough and beaten I looked by the elements. I certainly had no sweets to offer them, and overcome with tiredness, I wasn’t really bothered by giggling children at my expense by this point. A massive thunderstorm was approaching Tinke and it was just as we were leaving, so who was the joke really on kids?
We were finally back in Tinke, not exactly civilisation as we know it, but definitely a step closer to it. Just as we prepared to wait for a bus back to Cusco, a car pulled up with two men shouting ‘CUSCO CUSCO’ in the annoying way you hear in Peruvian bus terminals. It was a bit shady, but they were after all only small, had already offered a lift to a local woman in the back, and we desperately wanted to leave, so we just got in. With an absolute maniac behind the wheel we were on our way back to Cusco very, very quickly. This guy was on one. I’ve never been in a car with so much use of the horn, and my heart rate has just about recovered from all the risky overtaking. We overtook an overtaking car at one point. Yet all was quickly forgotten, we made it back to Cusco far quicker than the bus would have done. We’d completed it. Over five days I’d tested my body like never before, and I was physically and mentally drained. So our first port of call? KFC. Devoured.