“If trees can survive up here, we can survive too.”
I tried to be encouraged by the words of my similarly altitude-deprived comrade as I trudged beneath the shadows of one of Peru’s most sacred peaks, 15,000 feet above sea level. I was regretting the countless Pisco Sours I’d imbibed during my journey thus far—from Cusco to the Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu, and onward (and upwards) to Rainbow Mountain. “Diablo Montana,” I cursed under my breath.
The Ausangate is the highest mountain in the Central Andes, a site of many pilgrimages for the particularly devout (and less oxygen-inclined) travelers for centuries. And today, thanks to a partnership between REI Adventures and Andean Lodges, it’s a feasible journey for any traveler brave enough (or delusional enough) to declare themselves in excellent physical condition. (Reader, I’d purchased my first pair of hiking boots a mere week prior to leaving for the trip.) I credited my endurance to a steady stream of cocoa leaves (Peru’s very own, locally-grown, version of Gatorade) and Diamox (an over-the-counter lifesaver that is not available, incidentally, in the United States).
My first bit of advice on how to survive a ten-day trek to the world’s highest lodges? Take drugs. A fellow traveler, over-confident after a few days at altitude, discontinued his daily Diamox regimen at 12,000 feet. The next day, he woke up blind—his vision only improving once he resumed the magical pills, procured at a Cusco pharmacy. My second piece of advice? If Machu Picchu and Rainbow Mountain are on your bucket list, there is no better way to experience this part of the world than via the Ausangate Trek. We passed golden deserts and red lagoons, mountain streams and snow-capped peaks, as we transcended into thin air. Perhaps in today’s ultra-digitized world, we need to ascend to a land where texts can’t send, and helicopters can’t fly, where cars don’t exist and where the most reliable method of transportation is a fleet of highly decorative llamas and alpacas. But, let’s start at the beginning, shall we?
Cusco & The Sacred Valley
We started our trip at the devastatingly chic (and historically significant) Palacio del Inka, located just off the bustling cobblestone streets of Cusco’s picturesque main square. Here in the open-air courtyard, I encountered my first alpaca and sampled my first Pisco Sour—both of which would become defining elements of my first experience in the Peruvian Andes. The swank accommodations on the sparkling Plazoleta Santo Domingo added a touch of elegance to our trip—a much-appreciated counter-balance to the days and nights spent trekking for our supper. (Though the Andean Lodges and the hospitality of our hosts was its own form of luxury—but more on that later).
After our first day in Cusco, we headed out to the Sacred Valley to explore the Pinchincoto salt mines of Maras and witness a street parade in the high Andean town of Chinchero. Later, we visited Huilloc Village—our first foray into immersing the traditional (and effervescent) Peruvian way of life, one we would find preserved in its entirety the further we journeyed up into the wilds of the highest mountains in the Central Andes. That evening was spent amongst the luscious gardens and divinely elegant architectural designs of the Sonesta Posada Del Inca Yucay, located on the Plaza Manco in Urubamba. This Sacred Valley stopover was our final night before our trek began in earnest: We boarded the PeruRail for Machu Picchu the next morning.
The Inca Trail & Machu Picchu
The next morning, we set out to follow the last leg of the Inca Trail, hiking seven miles up to the Sun Gate. We descended upon Machu Picchu in the late afternoon, a time of day when the iconic site is shockingly free of tourists. (For once, the early bird isn’t rewarded for their endeavors.) Though Machu Picchu is accessible via several short flights of stairs, the Sun Gate trek is well-worth the expended effort. Not only does the trail reward hikers with a majestic view of the 15th-century village in the sky, but it allows travelers to avoid the chaos customarily associated with heritage sites of this popularity and magnitude. The Peruvian government limits the number of Inca trail tickets issued daily—and the results are certainly appreciated when you arrive at your final destination. Unlike other historical landmarks in South America and beyond, by comparison, Machu Picchu is relatively free from the selfie-wielding throngs that descend upon the pyramids of Chichén Itzá and the geysers of Yellowstone National Park.
After our first glimpse of Machu Picchu, we spent the night at the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, a luxurious sanctuary in Aguas Calientes that is a member of the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World. I would find myself incredibly thankful for its rejuvenating spas and divine Peruvian cuisine early the next morning, as I began my trek up to Machu Picchu Mountain. Reader, I suffered. If the hike up Huayna Picchu is referred to as the stairway to heaven, I posit the trek up Machu Picchu is the broken escalator to (my own personal) hell. Climbing the endless vertical incline up the narrow cliffside steps, I kept thinking about the exceptional levels of fitness the Incans must have attained by constantly traversing such steep terrain. Physical prowess, of course, couldn’t protect them from the Spaniard’s eventual arrival on horseback, intent on destroying their sacred place. And Colonialism’s shadow lives on not only in the Peruvian landscape but in the language—even the name Machu Picchu is argued to be historically inaccurate.
When I finally ascended to the top of the mountain, I discovered the lookout entirely enshrouded in clouds. I was gasping for air and contemplating whether I’d made a massive mistake by signing up for this trip when the sunlight broke through, casting its rays on the top of the Peruvian Andes and illuminating the ancient village—a vast civilization perched upon a cliff, suspended among the South American sky. Machu Picchu looked like heaven from above and, in a way, it was—an intermediary gateway to heaven, at the very least. Or, rather: A 15th-century virgin burial ground, to be precise—one with an open-air plan (half of the burials were above ground). 80% of the residents of Machu Picchu were female, all of whom were chosen in their youth to be the wives of the Sun God, mythical creatures born to die before adulthood for their husband in the sky. Though the Incans were astonishingly prescient—and their belief in astrology is one that I, alongside nearly every other millennial, happily carry into the present-day—the mass slaughtering of young virgins is one tradition I’m very comfortable leaving in the past.
When I boarded the train back to Cusco, for an intermediary night at the Palacio del Inka, I felt a pang of sadness—was the highlight of my ten-day trek already over and completed by day four? Of course, I was blissfully unaware of the wonders that lay ahead on that final afternoon departing Machu Picchu. What I’d previously regarded as the climax of the trip—Machu Picchu, the crowning jewel of bucket lists and Instagram feeds and Hinge dating profiles everywhere—was merely the beginning. (Though the visit was essential to our understanding of Peruvian history and culture, a knowledge that would increase incrementally as the trip progressed.) Packing my bags back at the hotel, I had no idea that the magnificent Sun Gate vista was merely an appetizer for the visual feast that was to come in the following days of our trek along the Ausangate. I hadn’t any idea what to expect on the journey ahead—which turned out to be quite fitting. After all, where we were going, we didn’t need any roads. (They also, quite simply, didn’t exist).
The Ausangate Trek & Andean Lodges
We began our lodge-to-lodge trek on the sixth day, setting out for the first of four accommodations: Chillica Lodge (elevation 14,334 feet). While my previous hikes were interspersed with sightseeing at local villages, train rides through the Andes, and Pisco Sours at Five Star resorts, this was the beginning of my experience of staying exclusively at Andean Lodges. We headed south from Cusco, following along the Vilcanota River and the steep walls of Japura Gorge, bidding farewell to our van—and all cell reception—for the next five days in the village of Chillica. When we arrived at our home for the evening, we were warmly greeted by our Andean hosts with a beautiful meal, cozy slippers, a roaring fire, and even a musical performance. Any soreness or weariness I experienced during my hike was immediately alleviated by such warmth and hospitality.
I was reminded of the words of my tour guide, Alfredo Fisher, while describing the society in 15th-century Machu Picchu: “There is no word in Incan for a friend—All are family.” Here I was, 600 years later, witnessing this national ethos firsthand—the past and present blending together high up in the Central Andes. I loved meeting my new hosts every evening and discovering the richness of their way of life—a way of life that (thanks in part to programs such as Andean Lodges) has been miraculously preserved for centuries. And this cultural exchange is mutually beneficial. “We want to educate people about our world, our community, our own experience,” declared Orlando Garcia, our host that very first evening. “We want tourists.”
Garcia leads the Association of Alpaca Shepherds and Producers of Chillca and Osefina and represents these communities with Andean Lodges. Not only has Andean Lodges provided gainful employment for local villagers, but they have since been able to erect women’s clinics and kindergartens with the profits—all of which are split equally between all residents of the community. Sustainable travel concerns more than just protecting the environment—though you never want to leave a place as beautiful as the Ausangate worse than you found it—but preserving local culture, as well. Initially, there were concerns when plans for the trek were announced—how could you build a boutique hospitality industry in a land where planes have difficulty flying? (The Andean Lodges are so far north, women have to descend to lower altitudes to give birth). Wouldn’t this perhaps be too challenging for the average vacationer? “The beach is great, but when you leave, what do you take with you?” asked Roger Valencia, Peru’s former Minister of Culture. “Here, you see living culture: How to transform a harsh environment into a home.”
This trek would attract a specific type of traveler, a different kind—someone coming not just for the selfies and the sunbathing, but for the education, the experience, and the immersion into another way of life. And I did feel genuinely immersed with my surroundings, and Fisher imparted the importance of the Ausangate itself: “I love the Ausangate because, to me, it means life. And it’s because of the glacier, which is the origin of life.” The Ausangate is home to the Quelccaya Glacier, one of only two flat tropical glaciers in the world (the other is in Papa New Guinea), and—like all glaciers on this planet, particularly in the Southern Hemisphere, it’s rapidly disappearing. The polarities of traveling throughout the Central Andes makes the experience so jarring and unforgettable. Lush tropical forests transition to barren, snow-capped mountains; Red Lagoons give way to Glacier Valleys. Peru, in short, contains multitudes. The trip demonstrated not only the need to preserve and celebrate local culture but to save the local ecosystem as well. “Aside from being a beautiful area, the Ausangate trek shows us the impact of what we are doing in the world,” says Valencia.
In the next four days, we trekked to lodges of varying altitudes: Machuracay Lodge (elevation: 15,797’), then Anantapata Lodge (elevation: 15,584’), and finally Huampcocha Lodge (elevation: 15,748’). I expected the trip to become more tiring as the days (and miles) went on, but I was surprised to find myself more energetic and enthusiastic with every passing hour (if not with every dreaded incline). The trek itself was meditative: By simply putting one foot in front of the other, repeatedly, for over a week, I found myself becoming more aware of my surroundings. And, not only of the passing (and, in some cases, accompanying) wildlife, though these creatures were endlessly entertaining. It should go without saying that the unspoiled environs of the central Andes are a birding paradise—though it’s a hobby that, inevitably, tends to slow you down.
We had nothing else to do but keep on keeping on. And the more I did, the more I started feeling lighter somehow, my body freer with every step. Shouldn’t this be happening in reverse? I felt myself subconsciously responding to this unfiltered time to relax, have fun, and mentally unwind—to thoroughly detach from the trials and tribulations of my heretofore busy existence. And nothing is more fulfilling on a spiritual level, or more amusing, than observing a llama in its natural habitat—that is, utterly oblivious, on its own agenda, and painfully tricked out in swag. The haughty demeanor of the llamas and alpacas (who were reliably better accessorized than I was for the duration of the trip) provided reliable entertainment on our journey. Our fluffy comrades were trailed by ‘emergency horses,’ referred to as “Andean ambulances with oxygen tanks and first-aid kits” by the crew. Additionally, a smattering of sheep soon joined the pack in various Andean communities—though not native to the region, they provided infinite income sources. “Sheep are like ATMs out here,” Fisher informed me. (He was my eternal source of Andean wisdom).
I also bonded deeply with my fellow travelers—the entire crew instantly began to feel like one large family. Stranded together up in the Peruvian peaks, we exchanged confidences and formed the type of real human connection that can often go missing in the day-to-day bustle of urban life. I felt myself revert to a childlike state of bliss as the trip progressed, and I found myself becoming looser as the days wore on, and the longer we were up at dawn and just set out to walk. And talk. And walk some more. I rapped in Spanish to my newfound llama friends and danced around the lodges at midnight in my flannel pajamas, somehow energized, not wearied, by the fact I was in the middle of the most strenuous adventure of my life. Perhaps it was unsurprising, as I was in the shadows of Ausangate, one of the most life-giving and life-affirming destinations on the planet.
Rainbow Mountain & Huampoccasa Pass
I awoke before daybreak on the last full day of our trip, face chapped, at 15,748 feet, ready to head to Winicunca—better known as Rainbow Mountain—before the crowds arrived. With my braids, my Peruvian headband, and various woven bracelets, I never felt more like myself (or the best version of myself). Our REI leader asked me if I was headed to Rainbow Mountain or Coachella—a clear indication I was thriving. But the changes weren’t only aesthetic. Maybe, I realized, I don’t need oxygen after all. Or, most shocking of all, cell phone service: I certainly didn’t need Instagram (to mindlessly scroll when I’m procrastinating, or trying to quiet the restlessness of my thoughts.) I spent the first few days waiting for those terrifying thoughts to come—and waiting for my body to collapse—and then feeling astonished with each passing hour that neither had. I was effortlessly engaged with everyone and everything around me. I didn’t have to remind myself to be present—it was just happening. And I was meeting strangers at a purely vulnerable level—nowhere to hide, nowhere to be (except in Peruvian paradise, of course.) And, if we’re truly honest: Nowhere to breathe.
On that fateful morning, I woke up giddy as a teenager—if teenagers were giddy. Even though it was 4 am, and even though I was about to embark on an uphill climb when we’d been promised an initial descent (or at least I’d told myself that), I remained resolutely upbeat—amazed at my reserves of goodwill. I was at full energy, full capability, and—like an incoming freshman who unabashedly can’t wait to experience her first high school dance—I was ready to see that mountain. But unlike that first high school dance—-which is often a letdown, even if you didn’t attend an all-girls day school—Rainbow Mountain was nothing short of spectacular. And not even the pitiful sight of day-trippers gasping for air in their oxygen masks could take away from its wondrous beauty. (For the record, taking a bus from downtown Cusco is technically cheating. Like taking the stairs to Machu Picchu instead of the Sun Gate, it is an ignoble act if performed by the physically-able traveler.) You only see these places for the first time once, so make it count.
That morning, ascending upon the technicolor dreamscape was an awe-inspiring experience—an absurdly breathtaking climax to a week of exploring lilac lakes and magenta mountains, orange sands turquoise water. Every day, a different visual feast, and, (accordingly), a variety of equally tangible extremes of weather—from hail to snow, to the burning lower-hemisphere sun. It wasn’t hard to see why the locals of these mountaintops, the guardians of this community, were so passionate about their home environment. And that mountain, in particular, which looked like it was painted in broad strokes by a particularly inspired practitioner of Surrealism. “The Rainbow Mountain is so special because it’s one-of-a-kind,” says Fisher. “For the Inca culture, it was a symbol of fertility, happiness, and living in harmony with nature.”
Even today, these Andean communities live in harmony with nature—each morning, we asked permission to walk on the Ausangate. They live by its spirits, its energies, them being the population of the high Andes. Their clothing’s vibrant colors mirrored the vividly-hued shocks of reds and orange in the land, the blues, and pinks of the sky. Nature itself is humanized: Phenomena in the natural world is always either masculine or feminine. And, just as the higher you go in the mountains, the natural colors begin to fade, so, too, conversely, does the resident’s apparel become even brighter—presenting their own version of that magical rainbow. In the words of Fisher, these communities are truly “living in symbiosis” with their surroundings.
But the sanctity of this sacred place was once threatened by capitalism and greed—the iconic Seven Colors Mountain (a World Heritage Site since 1983) nearly became a victim of the international mining industry, when a Canadian company threatened to exploit the entire area for its resources. The people felt powerless to protect their land, and, rightfully so—-we usually know how this story ends. (See: The devastation of the Dakota Pipeline). But, they quickly came up with a solution—one predicated, in fact, on tourism. “We had to let the world know,” Valencia declares. Hence, the solution: A collaboration with Fly Emirates on a full-page advertisement for Rainbow Mountain called “Touch the Unknown.” The ad promised readers a free flight to Rainbow Mountain if they could correctly identify its location. At that time, Rainbow Mountain was so unknown that it caused a stir—it wasn’t the tourist destination of today that beckons outdoor explorers and urban travelers on day trips. The photo went viral, and the mining plans were abandoned for fear of a global backlash. “Show the world this place, and then it becomes the world’s property,” says Valencia. “That’s how you protect sacred places.”
On our last day, we returned to Cusco via the Huampoccasa Pass—the final stretch in a journey of 50 miles and nearly 17,000 feet. Reflecting on my trip, I discovered that, left to my own devices (or lack thereof) with minimal oxygen and even more minimal Spanish skills, I could survive in a foreign country. And not only survive, but thrive. Not only did I have a greater appreciation for the vastness and beauty of the world, but I was energized by the notion that tourism can be a force for good on the planet—helping to preserve the cultural history and identity of a place, as well as its natural resources. And that was a lesson well worth sacrificing my daily oxygen intake to learn.