This is what it's like hiking Rainbow Mountain
Rainbow Mountain is magic.
It’s also high. The altitude ascends to 5,200m at the top.
Before you get that far, you start the way all good hikes in South America start.
With a 3am pick up.
I rolled out of the snug bed as Ha-days' hand peeped above the covers and wriggled goodbye.
The good thing is that when you start at 3am, your bound to drive until 5 or 6am, so you can curl up into a ball in an attempt to temper the cold and sleep the entire way.
Even though I'd layered two pairs of socks beneath a pair of wooly llama ones, my toes still froze.
We stopped for breakfast at Pitumarca around 6am. After carb loading on bread rolls and jam, we piled back into the van. From Pitumarca the van wound its way up through the mountains to reach the trail head at K'ayrawiri.
In total the hike up to Rainbow Mountain took just over a couple of hours.
The hill started out flat, then snuck upwards until it sloped to near vertical right at the top.
The whole time your climbing the air's getting thinner as the altitude's getting higher. Towards the end more than a few hikers were gulping open mouthed as they trudged on, hands on hips, while others opted for the four legged taxi service provided by the the locals.
Donkeys are positioned in incremental stages along the hike, right up until a sign warns you it's your last chance to hitch a ride.
Every so often, I would turn around to take in the view (and sneak in a quick break, lets be honest).
It is, literally and figuratively, breathtaking.
There are wide, sweeping views of snow capped mountains in the distance.
Finely dressed locals are dotted along the trail living their daily life.
Hikers move past in slow motion en route to the top.
The day I went the sky was a pure blue. The mountain range merged and sloped from mossy greens through deep browns to dusty reds. The air was cracking and sharp. When I passed the llamas they stared at me for a brief moment before returning to munch on some grass.
Our crew started off together, laughing and joking around for the first hour or so. After that, fitness levels and altitude adaptability caused us to spread out quick, some pushing ahead, others falling behind, everyone arriving at the summit eventually, albeit at different stages.
Near the top of the trail, the pastel colours of Rainbow Mountain began to look like a matte painting against the blue sky.
The first stop gave me a chance to drag in a breath or two. To the left was The Red Valley, where we would hike our way out. To the right, was the final leg of the trail. I took a photo before making the final ascent.
That last part was the hardest. The altitude is sneaky. By the time I'd reached the top, each step forward felt like my body was pushing up against a force I could feel but not see.
Having made it, I plopped down onto the dusty ground and looked back out over the way I'd come.
Even with the unavoidable amount of tourists scattered about, the view looking back towards Rainbow Mountain is a spectacular scene.
Reds next to greens next to yellows slope down either side of the maintain in pastel coloured cascades.
It looks like the mountain has been painted on.
We hung out at the top while the rest of the crew arrived, admiring the view and our own efforts to get there.
A half hour (and many, many photos) later, it was time to move on, in order to make room for the continuous stream of arriving hikers.
Instead of turning back around and returning the way we'd come, we took the long way home.
Hiking out through the Red Valley isn't available on every tour to Rainbow Mountain, so if you prefer a change of scene like I do, Inka Time Tours offer another option.
The hike through the Red Valley starts out high amongst dry, deep red mountains then descends into a low, lush green valley.
It's a long, winding, llama filled way out.
Through low rivers, past stone huts and over grassy green hills. I felt a bit like a Nike wearing shepherd making the long journey home.
It's almost another tour in itself.
It took around three hours to make our way through the Red Valley. I was grateful to the drivers of the Jeeps that picked us up at the end. They are the only ones who didn't nod off at one point or another during the three hour drive back to Cusco.
By the time I returned to Nino's it was as dark as when I'd left.
Ha-day and I took our usual spot (by the fire) and ate our usual meal (pumpkin soup) at Nino's, then I slipped under the layers of blankets that covered the bed and passed out.
I had one day to rest my weary legs.