After an incredibly scenic day along the Ausangate Circuit yesterday, we are linking up to Vinicunca today for a spectacular sunrise at Rainbow Mountain. The added benefit of beating the crowds travelling from Cusco is certainly not lost on us, but what really sets the experience aside is the insane early morning glow on an already vibrant landscape. It’s like a journey across Mars.
Trail stats: Anata to Hanchipacha via Rainbow Mountain
Elevation gain: 500m
Highest elevation: 5,050m
Trail hours: 4hrs
Highlights: Hiking by headlamp under the stars; amazing views of Ausangate glacier at sunrise; only the second group to arrive at beautiful Rainbow Mountain, well before the crowds!
As promised, I’m awoken today with a gentle tap on my tent and a piping hot mug of coca tea at 2.45am. This is not even early morning, this is simply the middle of the night.
I thankfully had the foresight to do all my packing last night and sleep in my hiking clothes, so I meet dad and Eileen in the mountain hut only a few minutes after my groggy wake-up for a quick brekky before hitting the trail.
I can’t recall ever hiking by headlamp in the past (to be fair, I’ve tried to get up for sunrise hikes on countless occasions, but invariably ended up turning the alarm off on the first buzz and quietly going back to sleep before anyone realised what’d happened), but it’s actually an incredibly cool experience. The glaciers and snow-capped peaks around us glow in the moonlight and thousands of stars twinkle overhead as I keep my light trained on my boots, steadily ascending towards Warmisaya Pass.
If hiking in the dark is thrilling, a slightly less desirable condition this morning is the extreme cold. There’s no wind, and thank ferk for that, but it’s still bone-chilling and far below freezing as we trudge towards Rainbow Mountain.
I refuse to stop for any breaks for fear of crystallising, but no matter how quickly I walk or how many gloves and hand warmers I pile on (and believe me, there is no shortage), my fingers are still icicles. By the time the first light begins appearing over the horizon, I am (by my own diagnosis) narrowly saved from hypothermia.
All morning, one of the dogs from camp has been tailing me. At first, I am incredibly frightened by my unwelcome companion, especially after the very aggressive dog fight that took place outside the tent last night. I know I’m not going to make any friends by putting this in writing, but I’m also really not a dog person.
I soon realise, though, that this dog could not have been the instigator in last night’s shenanigans. She walks next to me or behind me the entire way to Rainbow Mountain, sitting patiently next to me if I stop for a quick photo and thankfully saving all barking/jumping/biting for another time.
As it turns out, my Spanish vocabulary is perfectly equipped to handle new canine friends, and Ron (hastily named before I discovered she was a she) obeys all my requests to siéntate and espera. By the end of the morning, I am genuinely sad to leave her behind. She kind of feels like my dog…
About 3 hours into our morning walk, amidst an incredible glacial landscape and vibrant dirt (which is more exciting than it sounds), Rainbow Mountain finally comes into view in the distance.
What is now one of Peru’s most Instagrammed natural wonders, Vinicunca wasn’t on anyone’s radar during my first visit to Cusco. Although I was shocked and appalled to arrive home right around the time that photos of its rainbow-striped surface began popping up online (how could I have missed this?!), it turns out that the mountain had been covered by ice up until mid-2015 and was a complete surprise to most everyone else, as well.
That advantage of waking up in the middle of the night is arriving to Rainbow Mountain before the flood of day-trippers from Cusco, as this has become an insanely popular tourist destination. If there’s one thing I really dislike, it’s sharing beautiful views with hoards of people, so I am delighted when we arrive to the lookout over Vinicunca with only a single other group of hikers.
As the sun rises higher in the sky, more of the rainbow stripes are revealed and it’s truly a magical sight. The popularity is well-deserved and we all hang out far longer than is really comfortable in the crisp morning wind, just enjoying the unique view.
From Vinicunca, we only have about 30min of easy downhill hiking to reach the van, stopping briefly for a snack along the way. The rest of the morning (it’s barely past 8am, we should be sleeping!) is spent eating a fantastic spread of Peruvian cuisine in a tiny mountain town and making the long drive back to Cusco.