My tip: take the horse on the way up, whatever the cost. You do not have lungs like the locals.
I, unfortunately did not have enough dollar to take this option and stoically ignored the calls of locals running up to offer me assistance.
The week that I ended up in Cusco ready to visit potentially the highlight of the trip, Machu Piccu, the people of Aguas Calientes pueblo decided to go on strike. This meant that I delayed my journey and opted to visit Rainbow Mountain instead. Rainbow Mountain is situated several hours drive or several days walk from Cusco. I decided to save my strength for the big hike up Machu Piccu Mountain and booked a tour. The tour option had only been running one year but was already one of the most talked about and popular tourist trips from Cusco.
At 3am, I was picked up from my hostel and collapsed, somewhat hungover, into the colectivo that would take me to the starting point of the trek. I and the other passengers slept most of the journey. I awoke, with a crick in my neck, to the sight of towering lush green hills on my left and the bus winding along the side of a teetering dirt cliff with an alarmingly fast flowing river crashing way below us. I sobered up fast.
By about 8am, we had breakfasted on what may have been rice in lukewarm hot chocolate and were sweating it up the trek to Rainbow Mountain. I had packed based on the weather prediction of cold and cloudy. This was my first sight of the mineral stained mountains.
The first few steps I took convinced me that I could make it to the top. The gradient wasn’t too steep. The landscape was expansive and colourful. The fresh grass contrasted the pink mountains, clear sky and distant glaciers. There were the remains of ancient farming pens and lamas dotted the mountains. Despite this, it reminded me pleasantly of walks in the Lake District.
But as I struggled heroically on, the resemblance faded and I began to lose hope. Coca leaves are widely available in Peru and are a god-sent to help alleviate the symptoms of altitude sickness. I had plenty of snacks, glugged water like a fish and chatted to the other friendly tourists between gasps.
But still, this was the hardest walk I have ever done. Every step was an effort. Our tour guide had disappeared off into the distance and my fellow walkers were one-by-one giving into the temptation of the horse rides. My head was becoming unbearable and I was moving slower and slower. I was in sight of what I believed to be the top but a destination had never looked so far. I mentioned to one of the guides that my head hurt and he gave me some mixture of pure ethanol to inhale and rub on my hair. It helped… for about two minutes. Eventually, the mountain became, if possible, steeper and I reached the summit.
By the time I had staggered to the top (and I MEAN staggered), it seemed rather foolish and redundant to pay to be carried down the mountain. Buoyed by my achievement and relishing the fact that my head felt noticeably better every few metres I descended, I practically bounced back down.