Cano Cristales, the Rainbow River


Cano Cristales – The Rainbow River

Cano Cristales is one of the worlds most beautiful rivers. Located in the inhospitable Meta region of Central Colombia, Cano Cristales, depending on when you visit it is a multicoloured river with Red, Orange, Blue Reflections, Yellow, Green, White and Black.

There are a few ways to get to Cano Cristales and we hummed and hawed about which method to take. The easiest but most expensive is a tour from Bogota; or you can take the bus from Bogota to Villavicencio and fly from there; or alternatively you can try a minimum 18 hour bus journey from Neiva which is about 7 hours south of Bogota. We met one guy who took the bus and he said it was awful, the ultimate chicken bus with constant army stops and worries about your luggage going awol. We decided to take the middle option from Villavicencio.


We started at Terminal de Transportes in Bogota and took the Expresso Boliviarno bus to Villavicencio. This was a spectacular three hour bus journey on asphalted but very windy roads. There are beautiful lush green valleys with regular waterfalls. Depending on your outlook the huge amount of tanks and soldiers along the road could give you some sense of security from potential guerilla attacks!


Tanks on the Road to Villavicencio

Villavicencio is a modern, wealthy city of 500,000, a ‘former’ drug and currently a cattle and oil hub. If you can get here early enough you can catch a flight direct to La Macarena the same day. We decided to hang on for a day, there are three decent shopping malls, some good restaurants and a nice walk in the hills around town. If you need any gear for the Cano Cristales treks, this is a good place to stock up although there are plenty of shops with waterproof shoes, hats etc in La Macarena and it will probably be cheaper for basics that you can leave behind there too.

We stayed at Mochilero’s Hostel it was about 28 dollars a night with really friendly owners and decent information on Cano Cristales and the Meta region. We had an en-suite room with TV, air-con and cold water, worryingly at the time our room didn’t have a key but the building was safe. As our Spanish was pretty awful the hostel helped us to book a flight to La Macarena – they would also have booked a tour if we wanted one. It took a while to get through to the airline-tour operator – which had us a little concerned as it was a Saturday afternoon and everything was starting to close for the weekend.

I spent the rest of the afternoon doing the Veredera El Carmen walk that takes you up into the countryside, there were plenty of beautiful birds, butterflies, ants, amazing vegetation and a few youthful drinkers! With the heat it is worth stocking up on water and a few snacks, there is a little snack shop in a tiny village just past the graffiti painted bridge at the start of the walk and randomly a restaurant after a few kilometers. Up to the restaurant the path is good offering great views back to Villavicencio, continuing on it gets a lot quieter with few people, a little steeper and also tougher on the ankles. You cross a few small waterfalls, this is a really beautiful walk but I recommend going with company, I was a little unnerved by the drinkers who seemed to take an unhealthy interest in me – could have been the gringo novelty.

We ate in the Burger House restaurant where we had a couple of really good burgers, we also ate in Rodizio an expensive but really tasty all you can eat Brazilian restaurant, the waiters come round and empty skewers of every meat you could want onto your plate – this includes prime cuts to all kinds of guts!

La Macarena

We took the morning flight to La Macarena, Villavicencio has a small airport mainly for charter flights and oil workers, there is a shop and real South American security who thankfully didn’t take our full drinks bottles. Our bags were weighed carefully at check-in. Then we waited for 3 hours as our plane was delayed inbound. The weather was bad in La Macarena and the plane could not take off. When it arrived a fair few green faces could be seen entering the terminal. Our plane was a British Aerospace Sarpa Air Ambulance Jetstream 32 carrying 19 passengers, we were really nervous beforehand as we thought we may end up in a tiny 3 or 4 seater or a cargo plane and the weather is notoriously stormy in the Meta region. The plane smelt fairly pukey and the seats were tiny. They also seated people based on size. We didn’t have a hostess and the door to the cabin didn’t close which is strange when you are used to flying in Europe. The take-off was smoothish and we only really experienced turbulence when we hit the clouds. As we approached La Macarena the weather cleared up nicely and there were spectacular views of green forest with a snaking river out of the tiny window. The landing was smooth with only a few bounces.


Bends in the River, the approach to La Macarena

The heat really hits you when you get out of the plane. We were also greeted by a dog, a cowboy baggage handler with a donkey and cart, which would embarrass Ryanair or Easyjets low fare business model.


La Macarena Baggage Collection


Taking the Luggage to the Terminal!

La Macarena airport is an open shed with a registration office, guides information office, snack bar, a few chairs and some toilets.


La Macarena Terminal / Shed

Across the road was a tour office which sold tours to Cano Cristales for $80 per day per person – they didn’t exactly do the hard sell or offer group discount. We decided to check out the guides office at the airport – the guys spoke rapid Spanish which we found hard to understand – but offered us a guide for $120 dollars total for the day for up to 6 people. We met another couple who signed up to do a couple of days with us. This made a lot more sense than $80 each with the tour company. We then went searching for our bags, which had disappeared along with the donkey on arrival, they turned up in a building near to the airport.

We then set our sights on finding accommodation. There are plenty of places and it is pretty hard to prebook as there is limited access to the internet. Everyone who is not on an organised tour seemed to turn up and knock on doors until they found a room to suit them. Prices seemed to range from about 15 to 40 dollars a night. We found an en-suite room with air-con and TV at La Cascada for $30 a night. The hotel was very clean compared to the cheaper ones. It didn’t offer food but there are plenty of eateries nearby. During our stay we only saw one giant cockroach in our room, it seemed pretty stoned so was an easy kill.

That afternoon we went to explore the little town of La Macarena, on the ground it is pretty whacky, there are lots of random souvenir shops, a few restaurants, bars, multiple amounts of pool halls, a disco and some general store type places.


Friendly Pool Club

In one of the souvenir shops we picked up a couple of pairs of wellies for the next day, you can also get rain ponchos and other useful stuff.

We visited the square where ten years ago, the locals used to process coca leaves into cocaine, now there are a lot of horses and dogs, a playground and some concrete pingpong tables.


Macarena Plaza where Coke was once produced, kids play pingpong and riding a motorbike

On the opposite side of the square the church which looks ordinary from the outside, inside is fantastic, decorated with colourful paintings of Latin American Jesus, Mary and the Apostles. The Last Supper painting has a dog, gauchos, barbed wire fence and what looks like traditional Colombian skewered pork as the main course – it is well worth a quick visit.


Colombian Last Supper La Macarena Church


Macarena Plaza and Church


We also visited the various river docks on the edge of town and took a look at some of the pool halls, the locals are more than happy to play/beat you depending on your level and their sobriety. As it was very hot and humid we decided to stop on the main street and have a few beers, the locals were really friendly and happy to help us enhance our Spanish and drinking skills.


A Friendly Macarenian Local

It is a great spot for watching the world go buy, horses, dogs, multiple children on motor bikes, town drunks/characters and the odd tourist.


Great Place for People and Dog Watching

You don’t need to bring too much to Cano Cristales from La Macarena, plenty of water, lunch, snacks, camera, swimming gear, unfortunately you can’t wear sun-cream or insect repellent due to the delicate ecosystem, so it is important to cover up fully as the sun can be strong when it appears and though there weren’t too many mosquitos, there are a few biting creepy crawlies – it did however get quite uncomfortable in the heat so light clothes are important. Some people ignored the sun-cream rule– one pale redhead seemed very comfortable displaying his skin, spending a day in shorts and a tee-shirt. I wouldn’t recommend buying wellies unless you have leather feet, you are going to get wet over the knees within a couple of hours and they will be uncomfortable to walk in and full of water most of the time. We gave up on the wellies after the first day and wore our trainers and just filled them with paper in the evening, the heat eventually dries them out.

Getting to Cano Cristales

The next morning we eventually met our guide after waiting for an hour at the information office at the airport, the highlight of the wait was seeing a giant toad which is apparently poisonous.


Giant Grumpy Poison Toad

When he arrived he took us to another information office on the outskirts of town to register our route and to watch a Cano Cristales video in Spanish – you only have to do this once. You are also timed in and out of the park. There are a limited number of tourists allowed into the park each day and they are allowed enter for only 6 hours. It is worth keeping this in mind if the weather is very dull in the mornings and clears in the afternoons as it did when we were there.

After registering we walked back to town, the muddy walk was interesting taking you past the army barracks and a college with a football match, again this was heavily patrolled by soldiers.

We organised a packed lunch for about 3 dollars from a local restaurant and then headed to the dock. Lunch turned out to be very tasty – chicken and rice wrapped in the banana leaf it was cooked in.

Getting to Cano Cristales from La Macarena is quite an adventure. At the dock our guide organised a motorboat taxi to take us upstream. The boats are long and very narrow, quite scary and especially rocky going cross current.


Scary Boat

The captain took us across the river where we were stopped by a group of soldiers. One was loading what I think is an automatic machine gun, they were friendly and we had to sign in as we were crossing to the dangerous side of the river. The rest of the boat journey was uneventful apart from a few monkeys, turtles and birds.


Colombian Soldiers on the River

The boat stopped at a muddy port, here there was a small shop, cowboys and jeeps waiting for us.


Modern Day Cowboys

We were then driven in the back of the jeep along a mud road for about 30 minutes to a starting point for all walks – the drive takes you through some amazing countryside and the flatness often offers spectacular cloud formations in the background.


The Jeep Drive

Depending on your wishes/abilities you can pick a long hike of about 12km through to a shorter 5km hike (this is prearranged as you need to register your hike in the information center).

The Rainbow River

For the first couple of kms we crossed one small stream and walked through spectacular vegetation and rock formations in a mixed but often swampy landscape. The start of the walk wasn’t tough though we worked hard to keep our feet dry.


Soldiers on Patrol


Cool Plants

We reached our first proper patch of river which was quite impressive, though the weather was pretty poor so the vibrant red colour didn’t really come out.


Butterflies at Our First Stop

We then walked through similar landscapes for another couple of kilometers and reached the main river – it was spectacular there were a lot more flowers and river was bright red with colourful rocks and pools. We also saw our first waterfall.


Red and Yellow Colours


The First Waterfall

Crossing the river we all got our feet wet, my new ill-fitting wellies filled up with water giving a bit of relief from the fast forming blisters. Our guide helped me down the waterfall to take photographs. We continued to a swimming spot and enjoyed a dip close to another waterfall. The rain started here so as well as our feet we got fully soaked. It is pretty pointless wearing a raincoat unless you have a really posh lightweight breathable one, we just got sweaty on the inside and wet on the outside.

After our swim we kept walking, generally hugging the river, we got to see some really spectacular yellow green flowers in the river.


Green Flowers

We scrambled downhill through some thick vegetation and stopped beside a good sized waterfall for some lunch. We then walked down river through amazing river formed rock formations, in the mini gorges the flowers and colours were really vibrant.


Closeup of Some Vibrant Flowers


As we continued downstream the river widened and the colours deepened.


Bright Red Flowers


Blue, Yellow and Red


Cano Cristales through the Trees


Cano Cristales flowing through Rock Formations

We eventually reached a very rocky area with about 40 people, some swimming in deep flowerless pools – it was quite a surprise after seeing barely a soul all day.


Crossing the River on a Soggy Plank


Swimming Area

This area is where all tours of the river finish before the walk back to the jeeps. There is plaque for a 25 year old soldier Tor London Juan Carlos who was washed away after falling in to the river, we nervously crossed a none to sturdy plank at the same point. The swimming area is pretty cool, there is deep water which is quite safe to swim in, also in places the rocks formed natural jacuzzis. Further down stream from are some even more spectacular rock formations, stronger current and more colourful flowers.


Waterfall and Rock Formations


Red Flowers and White Torrents


Flowers and a Pool


Closeup of Flowers

Finally there is a walk of a couple of kms back to the jeep which can be pretty tough with the sun beating down especially if you have welly blisters. It does give your clothes a chance to dry out though. We returned for 3 more days doing different walks – you get different waterfalls, you get to see flowers at different colour stages. We had some pretty severe rain during our stay both at night and when walking, we had to cross a few really difficult rapids, on one occasion, I slipped in to over my waist and the guide had to drag me out, luckily the camera stayed dryish.  We also had the opportunity to walk across a deep stream, pretty much up to the neck, holding the bags over our heads – which was fun when you are trying to carry a nice non waterproof camera!


Crossing the Stream

La Macarena and Cano Cristales are a photographers paradise especially when the sun comes out. I would recommend bringing a water proof camera, my attempts at photographing through a freezer bag which leaked were mixed and probably not worth the risk or effort.


Underwater Photography through a Bag…Spot the Fish!

Back to Villavicencio

It was a bit sad to leave, everyone was very friendly and welcoming. I would love to have spent more time around La Macarena, maybe visiting some towns down river. The return journey to La Macarena was more interesting than the inbound journey.

We had to de-register from La Macarena at the airport and then checked in at a random desk it all seems very informal. We weren’t assigned seats for the flight and were told to head out to the runway. There were zero security checks, which was quite refreshing! There were a couple of planes so we decided to hang around the nicest looking one! One looked like an Air Colombia cargo plane, two guys were loading a motorbike on it quite awkwardly they were struggling to lift it up the steps and through the double doors.


Getting a Motorbike onto the Plane


Taking Shelter

We took sun shelter under the wings of this plane.  After the motorbike, live chickens, a dog and various other bits and bobs were loaded on, we were then motioned to get on the plane. It was a bit of a mess, the motorbike was tied upright to some webbing in the middle of the plane.


Sharing Space with a Motorbike

The dog and chickens were hanging around the tail with all the other luggage. We found a seat in the middle as it had a window, about 24 more people got on, the seats were fold out army style, facing inwards. There was female pilot and co-pilot and an engineer on board. Before take-off, the guys who checked us in got on the plane and kicked a child off apparently whoever booked the 11 children on had only actually booked 10. With this kerfuffle over – the plane started taxiing down the runway for take-off, when suddenly the engineer started running through plane, it seemed nobody had bothered to shut the door and we were a third of the way down the runway before the pilot stopped and the door was secured.


Can We Shut that Door?


Cano Cristales from the Plane

The flight was really smooth and we didn’t need the seatbelts, I would recommend flying cargo. We had to fill in a page with our names and details, something that probably should have been done at the airport. We flew for an hour and were sure that we had flown over Villavicencio, the plane kept going and some of the others on the plane seemed to think that we had missed our stop or got on the wrong plane – we didn’t have hostesses to ask, so we just sat tight and hoped that we wouldn’t end up in the backend of nowhere. We eventually approached a city and could tell from the surrounding mountains that we had come to the right place – the pilot landed the plane more smoothly than any landing that I have ever experienced. The airport security was easy, there really wasn’t any. It is fairly easy to get a taxi to the bus station from the airport.

Overall I would recommend the DIY method from Villavicencio ahead of the organised tour from Bogota. The bus journey to Villavicencio is spectacular and the city is interesting enough for a day while your organise the rest of the trip, also the flights were cool with great views. We spent 6 days at La Macarena and this was much cheaper than the 2-3 day tour from Bogota. It can cost even less if you meet up with a few people and split the costs. You can negotiate your own routes with a guide choose your own hotel and restaurants and have much more control and say in what you do. As we were not on a tour we had to pay for the boat and the jeep in cash on top of the fee paid to the guide and entry to the park, but divided between 4 of us this was not very much.


  • By Road – The bus to Macarena leaves from Neiva, 6-7 hours South of Bogota, it takes about 18 hours in an uncomfortable vehicle on difficult roads in humid conditions. Neiva is also close to the spectacular Tatacoa Desert. For those with time and on a very low budget.
  • From Bogota – You can do a tour from Bogota, some of the main hostels advertise this. You can book just flights but they are a lot more expensive than from Villavicencio
  • From Villavicencio – You can take a Bolivariano bus from Bogotas bus terminal

Bolivariano Buses

Villavicencio Wiki

You can head straight to the airport from the bus and try get on a flight or book a flight for the next day.  When returning to Villavicencio, confirm your return in advance! It is worth spending a day in Villavicencio. We stayed Mochilleros Hostel in the center, it is not the best or cheapest but they organised flights for us.

  • Accomodation – I recommend La Cascada, aircon is a godsend, also you can dry your clothes and shoes on the roof.

La Cascada Hotel

You can show up in Cano Cristales and find a cheaper place to stay easily enough.

  • If you are not on a preorganised tour, go straight to the guides office at the exit of the airport, up to 6 people can go in a group, the more people the cheaper it gets. They have very limited English, so a bit of Spanish really helps. You can not go into Cano Cristales without a guide.
  • Bring comfortable lightweight clothes, sun cream and insect repellant aren’t allowed, apparently  you can be checked. Bring swim gear. Your feet get wet so any shoes with that you don’t mind getting saturated.
  • Bring plenty of Camera gear, an underwater camera would be great. A circular polariser enhances the colours and eliminates glare on the water.
  • Explore the town,  church and surroundings and meet the locals, it is a really cool place.

Vinicunca, the Worlds most Beautiful Rainbow Mountain


Vinicunca ‘The Rainbow Mountain’

Getting There

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.


Ancient Inca Terraces

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.


Ancient Inca Terraces

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.


Scary Bridge

The Trek to the Rainbow Mountain

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.


Queshuny with Ausungate in the background

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.



High Altitude Furry White 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.



One of the Worlds highest and remote toilets


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.


Yareta Rock Plant with Vinicunca Ridge

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.


First Valley – What I first thought was Vinicunca

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!


Local Family – The Most Inaccessible Habitacion

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..


Baby Alpacas and a Small Pueblo


Fluffy 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.


Local Girl


Child and her Mother


Walled Pueblo

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.


Moss Bridge

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.


Purple Scree Slope

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.


Vinicunca Valley Reflection

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.


Vinicunca and Yareta


Vinicunca Ridge

At the Rainbow Mountain

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.


Local Boy and Vinicunca

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.


The Magic Mountains


Red Yellow and Red Green Mountains


Rainbow Mountain and the Red Mountain


Ausingate Glacier


Vinicunca From the Next Valley

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

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.


Looking Back on the High Valley from Vinicunca


Horse and Valley

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.


Girl Moving 6 litres of Soda up the Valley


Woman Weaving and Her Son


Two Shepherds and their Office

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.


My Guardian Angel – deter a Horrible Dog

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!

Some Travel Tips

  • I would recommend boots or good walking shoes, also a waterproof depending on the season, it also gets very cold at the top, so layers are good, as are gloves and a hat.
  • I recommend a dog whacking walking pole (there aren’t many trees for sticks) and to give the dogs on this trek a wide berth, not everyone will have a local guardian angel to fight their corner.
  • Jorge provided us with a lunch, but I would bring extra water (there are plenty of farm animals and I did not see anywhere safe to top water up) and snacks, the locals are friendly and appreciate some fruit or biscuits.
  • A camera (preferably something that takes pano photos) and a spare battery as there are lot of good photos to be taken. A tripod and a circular polarizer were useful.
  • Coca leaves are readily available in Cusco and it is worth getting a bag to cope with the increased altitude, the locals also appreciate the leaves or coca sweets.
  • If you do the day trip don’t be afraid to rent a horse if you are worried about the distance and the altitude, all the ones on this walk seemed to be well treated.  My legs were pretty useless for a few days.
  •  Though it’s possible to do this trek on your own, it is a lot easier logistically even just for the transport to take the small group tour, it is still a remote area and doesn’t yet suffer from the mass tourism of other more popular treks around Cusco. Contact Jorge at Mama Coca Expeditions  for transport or a tour.  If you are going it alone – head to Pitumarka from Cusco, then get transport to Queshuny.
  • I wish I had done a 2 or 3 day trip to explore the coloured mountains more and to see the sunrise and sunset over them.
  • There is at least one fee collected by the locals, it is only a couple of dollars and the locals keep the trek well.
  • Google Maps Location