We were awoken around 4:30am with coca tea and told breakfast would be ready in 20 minutes, we needed to be fully ready to hit the road before eating. Everyone still had on the same gear they’d left in the previous morning and it was really too cold to change clothes. I decided I should change everything on the bottom half of my body and in retrospect I wish I hadn’t gotten a second pair of leggings all dusty and dirty, and my socks from day 1 had been much more cushy and soft than the ones I switched into. We had a big breakfast as expected from the chef though it seemed too early to eat very much.
Leslie was still very ill but really wanted to press on to see Vinicunca (the Rainbow Mountain), so the cowboys got her a horse and a makeshift saddle of rolled up blankets. Even though she’d be taking the horse it was no easy go to hold on without a proper saddle, she’d also have to cross the steep passes on foot where it was too risky for the horse to maneuver with a rider, but she was determined to see it through. We all filled our water bottles with river water that the team had boiled for us and hit the trail around 5:30am, the goal was to reach the summit before 10am since the single day Rainbow trekkers would be arriving to the summit shortly after that and we wanted to have plenty of time with the mountain to ourselves. It was pleasant to see the sun come up over the mountains, it was also a welcome warmth as we’d all been chilled to the bone since the previous evening. I started out in ski jacket over alpaca wool sweater and long sleeve base layer, plus scarf, gloves, beanie and rain pants over my leggings to help break some of the wind.
The road was almost immediately steep but we managed one step at a time until we reached the top of a pass where we could see down to where our campsite had been and across a large expanse of valley to where a corner of the rainbow mountain was wrapping around. If we ever asked the guides “how much longer” they would think for a second and then respond “around 45 minutes” it became a running joke that everything was always “45 minutes” away, though really it might 2 hours or more. This pass had a lot of small piles of rocks where other hikers or locals had celebrated Pachamama.
We descended into the valley where there were small ponds and lots of chinchillas. We were passed up by a group of Andean mountain people (2 men and a woman) walking their 3 horses toward Vinicunca, we would later realize that they were going to the route that the single day trekkers take, here they would wait to sell horse rides up to the mountain at the point where tourists were beginning to feel they might not reach the summit. The locals had only sandals on their feet but still moved at a much quicker pace than we could manage.
On the other side of the valley, we of course had to ascend again toward the top of the mountain where we’d stand to view the Rainbow mountain. We swept across the face of a red mountain, over a pass and after a bit more hiking could finally could see the steep home stretch. To reach the summit we had about 125 yards of the steepest incline we’d faced yet, it was daunting but the adrenaline and excitement of reaching the Rainbow pulled me up to the peak. I was struggling hard on this morning’s trek but it was such a sweet relief to finally make it to the summit, I had a new energy. In the side of Vinicunca was the word “Cusipata” written in stones, our guides told us it is a Quechuan word meaning “the good life”, how appropriate! We took plenty of photos – serious and silly; we were the only group on the mountain at this time and it was magic at 16,700 ft altitude.
After 40 minutes or so we began our descent to where the vans would pick us up. It was about 2.5-3 hours down and for this part we were following the same route that the single day trekkers came up, they would descend on this same route as well. It was pretty much all downhill and easy going for this part of the trek, though it was the least scenic of all the terrain we had covered (which made me more thankful for the 2 day trail we’d conquered). I got a little loosey goosey with my steps and ended up rolling my ankle over the side of a rock, it hurt like hell for a couple of minutes and swelled up pretty nicely, but luckily it did not inhibit my walking or hiking since we still had Machu Picchu to look forward to.
Finally, we made it down to where the cowboys and chef had set up our lunch feast, another 4 course meal which was delightful. Then we said goodbye to the crew and loaded up into the van for the 3 hour drive back to Cusco. We all slept pretty much the whole way home. The driver took us to the hotel that was holding our belongings and then to our new accommodation. We switched to a hotel in the San Blas district which was our favorite accommodation of the trip, Hotel Pension Alemana. Since we had conquered what I called “possibly the biggest physical challenge of my life,” we decided to celebrate with a drink. We asked the hotel concierge to recommend a good Peruvian wine and then set out to the nearest market in search of it. She recommended Intipalka and we selected their Cab-syrah blend which we both enjoyed.
We spent the evening drinking wine and collecting ourselves from the adventure. We showered and got our clothes together for the hotel to launder for us. I ordered a salad from room service which was a fresh variety of sliced veggies and just what I needed after the heavy 4 course meals we’d indulged in on the trail. We went to bed warm and content.