We had spent 5 months in Peru including a month in Cusco and were two weeks into the Bolivia leg of our trip when Niamh showed me amazing photos of a rarely visited mountain called Vinicunca, close to the 6000m Ausungate peak south of Cusco, there was very little information available, apart from what I have just written above. I saw that you could do it by extending an 8 day trek around Ausangate but didn’t really have time to do this.
After more intensive research, I learnt that a new ‘road’ was being built that gave access to a village about 12km hike to Vinicunca. There was also an American company offering a two day tour for about 350 dollars. I decided that if they can get there, then I could work out a way of doing it myself. So we hopped on a couple of buses and hightailed it back to Cusco, passing Ausungate on the way.
In Cusco, we asked at a lot of tour offices and none of them had heard of Vinicunca or its new road. Eventually we found a very small tour company called Mama Coca which shared its building with Moe’s Restobar, on the outside was a photo of Vinicunca. We were welcomed into the office by Jorge the owner, he had only been open for a week but had great experience as a qualified guide of the surrounding area. He offered us a couple of options, a one day trip or an overnight trip to Vinincunca. I wasn’t too sure as I wanted to photograph the rainbow mountain with good sunlight. Jorge offered us the option of heading there for the day and if the weather was bad, we could camp overnight and turn it into a two nighter.
We also had the option of taking public transport on a couple of collectivos or he would organise private transport. Whatever we chose, it would be a very early start. Niamh decided not to go as it was a long walk at high altitude and she did not feel fit enough to tackle it in one day. I booked for the next day as I was fairly used to the altitude after already spending 9 months in the Andes. I would definitely recommend spending a few days acclimatizing in Cusco first; at 5100m this is about the highest non-technical mountain walk around Cusco.
Returning to our 28 dollar hostel, with all my supplies, I let the guy at reception know that I was leaving on a tour at 3am. I went to bed at 8pm probably the earliest night I have had in the last 25 years but didn’t sleep a wink before getting up at 2:30am. I had a quick snack then went to head out of the hostel, the fecking door was locked, one of the 4 bolt deadlocks that insurance companies love. I was securely locked inside, there was no sign of any staff to let us out and I was quite worried. I had a good look around to see if there was a back exit, a wall to climb or a way out through the car gates – nothing, the walls were high, the place was as secure as a high security prison unfortunately without guards to let us out. We couldn’t contact the owners, they hadn’t left a number and they turned the internet off at night. Jorge arrived on time at 3am and I let him know that I couldn’t get out. We were shouting for staff but got no response. After 10 minutes Niamh started banging on all the rooms of the hostel waking up every guest before eventually stirring the guy we had spoken to earlier who was obviously was not taking his night porter duties seriously and had sloped off into an empty room to sleep. I finally managed to get out at about 3:30, Niamh had thoroughly reprimanded the receptionist in her typically Irish way. Luckily Jorge was patient enough to wait, but I would have understood if he had left as he had another guest to consider and we had a long way to travel. Jorge had decided to use one of his drivers so there wasn’t as much time pressure to get collectivos which was great. There was another girl on the trip, Victoria from Sao Paulo, it was her first major hike.
The car was comfortable and we got out of Cusco really quickly, the scenery was probably spectacular as we headed in the direction of Ausungate, unfortunately it was very dark so we saw none of it. After a few hours driving we were running low on petrol, driving through villages with early markets but no open petrol stations. We would have been fine to get to the start of the hike but would have really struggled getting back. We eventually stopped at our designated breakfast stop in Pitumarka, the last decent size town before the start of our hike. We stopped at small house beside a beautiful church and ate a local breakfast, bread, butter, jam, fruit, coffee and coca tea. It was nice to stop despite it being icy cold, the sun rose and lit up the town and the surrounding mountains. Jorge seemed to know everyone even in this small, remote town and was able to organise a consignment of petrol before we had finished our breakfast. The next stage of our trip was from Pitumarka towards Queshuny. Here we took on a passenger, a young girl coming along for the ride, her father was ahead of us on a motorbike and was helping with some of the logistics at Queshuny.
The drive to Queshuny was spectacular, we drove through steep valleys with the most amazing Inca Terraces that I have seen. Some are still used for farming today, but I would be terrified trying to get anywhere near the steepest ones.
We also stopped at a wonderfully shaped canyon, a fantastic viewpoint of Ausungate which was just waking up with the early morning sun hitting the peak. There was a bit of volcanic activity on the landscape, with quite a few steam vents. With the remoteness and outstanding natural beauty it was easily one of the best drives I have been on in South America.
We stopped close to Queshuny, a really small pueblo set on a flat meandering river valley, surrounded by mountains, the most impressive being the imposing Ausungate. First we had to cross the river on a makeshift bridge, basically two stripped trees. It was one of the scarier bridge efforts, as one of the logs was pretty rotten, so we had to cross on the one curved trunk. We all made it across safely, I used the run and hope for the best method that has served me so well in the past.
We then strolled into Queshuny, where Victoria rented a horse and guide for the trek. I started trekking on my own whilst Victoria got accustomed to her horse.
The first section of the walk takes you up a hill, through a steep, narrow, pretty river valley, to the right Ausungate was still visible, to the left the hill was covered in furry white spikey high altitude cacti.
The path was well warn by the locals, after a couple of easy water crossings and the negotiation of a few boulders the valley flattened and opened up. Here I met some friendly locals waiting with horses to rent. Also, sitting alone on the hill there was one of the most randomly positioned long drop toilets that I’d ever seen. Basically a few planks of wood knocked together and surrounded by white plastic, the sun shining through would show a silhouette leaving nothing to the imagination.
I let Victoria and the guys catch up and then started working my way up the valley. Though heavily grazed by the usual Peruvian livestock, there was some Yareta the most spectacular green rock like plant and also plenty of multicolored rocks some with colorful algae.
After following the path for about a kilometer, I could see the valley split and what I thought was Vinicunca. There were layered colors on cliff face that continued onto the left of the split, although quite colourful, I was a little underwhelmed and thought I may have been conned by some cunningly photoshopped images. I speedwalked the valley trying not to feed my ‘is this really it’ neurosis.
As I got to the end of the valley, the left side offered a cool rust colour with some nice rock formations and the colours became a little more impressive in the valleys in front of me. There was a small lone thatched house off to the left of the path, so I decided to explore. I wandered over, this was probably one the most inaccessible habitacions that I had ever seen, one house at the junction of 3 valleys – no roads, no running water, no hospital for at least a day but a solar panel propped up on a rock beside the house supplied electricity. The only things missing to make my ideal home were Cable TV and Internet. A family of 6 spread over 3 generations lived there and were very friendly and welcoming, I tried my pidgeon Spanish and received great smiles in return, the locals in this area were 90% Quechuan and spoke little Spanish, they got my badly pronounced, Buenas Dias and Hola. I shared some fruit and some biscuits, took some photos and got hand signal directions to Vinicunca, with an assurance that the colourful valley in front of me wasn’t it!
As I headed towards the valley on the right, I wondered what it was like to live there, though the Incas hadn’t made it to this valley, the ancestors of these guys had pretty much continued the Incan exploration – at night you would easily have the clearest skies in the world, once the single solar panel has run down for the night, you would only have firelight, starlight and moonlight at night.
In the next valley there were plenty of dogs, llamas, sheep and alpacas..
There were a couple of tiny pueblos with about 10-15 small thatched or corrugated roof houses, these guys had no solar panels or running water, it was cold even in the early afternoon, so I could only imagine how cold it would get at night.
Towards the end of this valley there was a river crossing on another rickety bridge, this one was built on some rocks with a grassy top, under the grass were couple of tree trunks.
The path then ran steeply up the left of the valley and split into lots of animal tracks. Towards the top there were fantastic 360 degree views. You could see Vinicunca in the foreground, though the colours weren’t too impressive yet, to the right was what looked like a giant purple black scree slope standing in front of the now cloud covered Ausungate.
I walked quickly up this valley, there were quite a few pools of water, giving beautiful reflections of the valley. The colours of the rocks, mountains and vegetation gradually became more vibrant.
The last couple of kilometers of the walk were pretty much up hill, which was tough as you are hitting the 5100 meter mark. The vegetation disappeared apart from some Yareta and a steep path started. There were continuous layers of colours to the left leading up to a ridge.
Two local kids greeted me and literally dragged me by the hands up the mountain, I had to run to keep up with them, which didn’t do me much good at that altitude.
We stopped at a gap between peaks to the left and right. I kept walking up the final 100 or so meters to the peak on the left, this was steep and slippy because of the loose gravel.. About half way up, I turned around to see what was the most amazing view that I have ever seen – directly in front was a triangular ridge with multiple layers of colours on both sides, reds to purple, pastel greens, yellows to orange, pale blues and whites; there was a red and yellow peak where colours merged seamlessly into each other ; there was a large dark red mountain and further in the distance was a green red mountain. To the left and right were valleys with vibrant greens from the vegetation mixed with exposed layers of multicoloured rocks. To cap it all up in the far distance there were harsh snowcapped Andean peaks, under the blue and white sky.
On reaching the top you get a clear view of Ausungate and it glaciers. Despite it being absolutely freezing and extremely windy, I took a lot of photos at the top. I was a bit nervous about walking straight down to the col and used this as an excuse to walk down a couple of 100 meters into the other valley before joining Jorge and Victoria by walking up to the col. I slipped a couple of times on the way up as there wasn’t really a defined path, I got a few scratches on my hands – but luckily nobody saw, so my pride remained intact.
The route down is equally beautiful in the afternoon sun, you get a fairly different perspective in reverse, I pretty much jogged down to keep up with Victoria on the horse.
I got to meet some more lovely locals, one small girl trying with great difficulty to carry 6 liters of soda drinks up a hill, a woman weaving, villagers building a house and a few shepherds.
In the final valley as I was giving up my race against Victoria and a horse, a vicious dog started chasing me, it got a bit close and I had to poke it with the stick but it kept attacking. Suddenly a lady in traditional dress came running over, threw a rock and hit the dog from 30 yards, the dog scurried away yelping.
I was cracking up with laughter when the dog decided to have another go at me and on cue the woman hit the dog again from a distance. I ran ahead to Victoria and her guide and the dog kept its distance from the three of us.
The rest of the trek was relatively uneventful, I finished 10 minutes behind Victoria with very little mileage left in me. The whole walk was about 25 miles and the altitude really took it out of me. The drive back was fairly quick 3 and a bit hours. We arrived back in Cusco at about 5:30. The whole trip was about 14 hours, 8 walking, 6 in the car.
I would recommend this trip to everyone, to see one of the most amazing mountains in the world, coupled with a spectacular drive and meeting interesting people who live in the most remote conditions with the bonus of Alpacas!