Vinicunca

travel

Into thinner air: hiking Rainbow Mountain

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARainbow Mountain

Rainbow Mountain, or Vinicunca, is picking up popularity as a day trip from Cuzco, Peru, with mesmerizing striations of red, yellow and green minerals comprising the fantastic landscape that resembles, you guessed it, a rainbow! But behind this Instagrammable paysage is an arduous journey that requires grit and perseverance, and I’m here to share my experience of conquering this bad boy.

I had one last free day in Cuzco before I was off to Chile, and I had already experienced the lush Sacred Valley and extraordinary Machu Picchu. I had met a cool couple from Quebec at my Airbnb who had just returned from a trip they were raving about to Rainbow Mountain. When I saw their photos, my mind connected this vaguely familiar scene to an acquaintance who had posted a photo in this very place a while back. I asked them a ton of questions about the experience, just as they were getting my advice about going to Machu Picchu.

By then, I needed no further convincing: I was going to see Rainbow Mountain.

It was about 7:00 p.m. when I went into central Cuzco for dinner and happened to walk by a tour agency that had a photo of that striated mountain. Being a complete control freak, I inundated the seller with every question I could think of: how high is the mountain, how far is the drive, how do people normally feel in those altitudes, what kind of shoes I needed; I was clearly stalling.

Nonetheless, I purchased a ticket for about ~$25 USD, which included transport from Cuzco, food and guides. Easy and cheap! Turns out if you book online in advance, it’s astronomically high – so it’s better to buy from a local operator. I got some dinner but also bought enough food and water to pack for my journey.

After a night of literally one hour of sleep from both anxiety and altitude (I didn’t sleep too well in Cuzco that whole week), I was picked up at my Airbnb at 3:00 a.m. from Cuzco in a small bus for about 12 people. This portion of the drive to the place where we were to have breakfast was to be ~3 hours long, so I settled into my seat and dozed off, despite the windy mountain roads.

Here’s where there’s an unfortunate twist, and I don’t want to scare anyone.

I woke up clutching a man as I felt everything around me move violently from side to side. I knew something was wrong. Then BOOM!

The bus had crashed! HOLYFUCKINGSHIT! I was still groggy and confused, looking up at this man who, just moments before, had been sitting across the aisle also sleeping. It appeared I had been thrown from my seat and into his lap as the bus pulled to a crash. I apologized and got off of him. His wife was kindly comforting me, and I was in shock, not knowing what the fuck was happening. There were some cries from the back of the bus of confusion and fear, but it seemed no one was hurt. I was okay, just shivering from shock, I suppose. What a rude wake-up call! No, it could have been worse. I was filled with regret and bad omens, thinking I should have never come on this trip – the signs could not be clearer!

It turns out that the driver had fallen asleep! And to think, this person had actually stopped to buy coffee on our journey, and he still managed to knock out behind the wheel and put everyone’s life at risk. We were driving on the edge of the Andes Mountains, for Pete’s sake! If we had gone off to the right, we would have crashed to our deaths in the depth of the mountains. Luckily, we had veered left and he jolted awake to try to gain control before we stopped.

In the midst of all this, I went outside to observe the damage – it didn’t look like much, but the bus wouldn’t be able to take us further. This is a rural mountain road, and there wasn’t a person or car in sight!

Beware of sleepy drivers

Within the next half hour, another bus came by and picked up a few passengers, and the rest of us went on the next bus, which was smaller and more cramped. I had managed to meet a new friend, a cool British chick also solo traveling, and we already considered ourselves blessed after surviving a crash.

2 hours later, we arrived at a small village nestled in a valley, where we were served breakfast and the guides explained the directions, distances, etc. I could barely eat, to be honest, and this was a clear effect of the altitude. I tried to force myself to have a few bites, because I knew I needed the energy. This was late September, and the weather was frigid but sunny (it was about 6:30 a.m.). I had dressed in layers, thankfully. And with that, we set off to the base camp, some 30 minutes away.

The hike began at 4,300 meters (14,100 feet). I was glad I had at least spent a week in higher altitudes to acclimate. The extent of the effects I felt up until that point were breathlessness going up any stairs and a harder time sleeping. But at this altitude, at least 1,000 meters higher than Cuzco, I felt very winded.

Let’s do this thing!
Beginning our snowy hike
You can negotiate a trip up with a horse and porter
Welcoming the break

The ascent is gradual throughout most of the hike
Unusual mountain plants
Alpacas greeted us along the way
We peeled off layers as the sun melted the snow
Andean clothing is always so colorful

The hike itself is 10 km roundtrip, so about 3-4 hours up and 2 hours down.  The hiking level is difficult, but that’s really only from the altitude. The terrain is normal, no extremely steep parts, and with hiking boots it’s not hard on the feet. The physical exertion feels 100 times worse than at sea level, so I really didn’t know what I was in for. The guides did have emergency oxygen tanks if anyone felt ill, and there were locals walking beside us offering a horse to carry us or our stuff up, for about $20.

What I remember was taking a lot of breaks, which I kind of beat myself up over, thinking it was a reflection of my fitness level (which is normally quite high). No, this was my body’s reaction to the high altitudes, and I should have given myself a break.

(If you have ever watched the show Malcom in the Middle, then you’re familiar with Malcom’s friend Winston. Well, I sounded like Winston the entire way up – I had to breath and wheeze through every single word I said. It was funny and awful at the same time.)

Snow had fallen the night before, so the trail was covered with snow throughout the journey. By the time we’d come back through, the snow would melt and the mountain range would transform colors.

Even lifting my arms was a struggle
“Just keep going!” My mantra during the hike

My friend had decided to get a horse about 2/3 of the way into the journey to help her up, and I gladly gave her my heavy backpack to carry to the top with her. I continued on foot with my water bottle in hand, munching determinately at the coca leaves between my teeth. By the way, Andeans believe coca leaves and any products made from them relieve symptoms of altitude sickness. Whether that’s true or not, chewing them also helps give you a jolt of energy, and I knew I needed it along the way.

Plenty of horses available if you need one
I may have eaten one of his brothers for dinner that night… oops

No matter how hard it got, the views at every step were distraction enough

Just when I thought I was getting close to the end of the journey, the guide would literally run past me (damn you with your freakish large lung capacity…) and yell, “Almost there. Only 2 more hours to go! Let’s go!” I wanted to punch him, but I could not even raise my hands to do so. So I persevered on.

Views like this literally took the little breath I had away

The ascent was gradual, but the final meters were the steepest and hardest. I could see the finish line, but it felt like the Vertigo Effect would taunt me and surprise me with another ridge I had to cross.

Almost there! This part was the steepest ascent and super hard

Finally, I had made it! Sweet victory, it tasted so good. Seeing the fantastic Rainbow Mountain in all its unique glory at 5,200 meters ( ~17,000 feet) felt like conquering the world in that moment, especially considering the trying experience getting there that day.

I did it!!!
These views will forever be etched in my memory
Kelly, a great hiking partner throughout this whole ordeal!
Parts of the mountain are closed to hikers to preserve it
View of our trek from above
Absolutely worth it!
That moment when you realize you have to go allllll the way back
Wild furry friends enjoyed playing in the snow! They trekked the entire way with us

We got to hang around the top for a good 30 minutes or so, taking photos and enjoying the view. The actual Rainbow Mountain is closed to the public for preservation and rightfully so. This trek is getting more popular by the day, and I’m lucky I got to visit it before it becomes the tourist mecca of Machu Picchu, which can bring with it environmental consequences. It’s the double edged sword of tourism.

Some of the other great hikers who conquered Vinicunca that day
A selfie for the ages (mind my clearly exhausted face!)

The fun didn’t stop there though. Now came the long hike back for about 2 hours, and mine included a splitting headache from the altitude. The way down did get a bit easier as altitude decreased, I just remembered wanting to tie a compress around my head to reduce the headache. Along the way back were much fewer people, at times we were completely alone with only wild alpacas keeping us company.

The snow was all melted by now
These guys are lucky to have this view every day
Alpacas galore!
It felt surreal to end this journey
The desolate road back
Debating if there’s time to use the toilet

We made it back to the bus, which took us to the small village where our day began for a warm and savory lunch about 3:00 p.m. Remarkably, my appetite had come back swinging, so I devoured the local dishes they prepared, as I wrapped my mind against the huge feat I had accomplished.

It was time to go back to Cuzco – a bumpy three-hour bus ride that got us back at about 7:00-8:00 p.m.  I made sure to share the experience with my Quebecois friends, as we compared our tales of alpine defeat.

The experience was truly remarkable, and I’m so glad I did it. If you’re wondering, the bus crash was never brought up once among the tour guides, nor was there even a wink at a partial refund for the danger we had faced before even arriving. If this were another country, I guess it would have been handled very differently. This was Peru, for better or worse.

I do have tips if you’re interested in doing this:

  • Drink plenty of water and electrolyte-enhanced drinks
  • Pack power bars or fruits for replenishment (if you have any appetite)
  • Chew on coca leaves or drink coca tea to fight off altitude sickness
  • If possible, spend a few days beforehand in Cuzco to acclimate to the altitude
  • Slather on sunscreen
  • Wear layered clothes for different microclimates you’ll encounter
  • Don’t be afraid to take breaks on the hikes, even if you fall behind – it’s a very hard hike for any level of fitness and everyone’s bodies react differently to high altitudes, so take it easy. The guides will try to push you to go so they can fit their time commitment (assholes…), but I say listen to your body first and foremost.
  • Leave nothing but footprints, literally. The mountain range is so beautiful and pristine, but people are the worst thing to happen to nature. Take care of the environment the way it has taken care of you.
  • Have your cameras or phones charged and ready to document your journey.
  • Bring cash, as there’s a 10 Sol entrance fee ($3 USD) and then coins if you need the toilet
  • There is an alternative you can do to the group tour, which is to hike the trail on your own and take a taxi there and back – you will need to negotiate the price (I’ve heard it’s ~300 Sol roundtrip). You don’t have to leave at 3:00 a.m., and you will go when there are no crowds. But you will be on your own without any guides or help. The trail is not difficult to follow, but bear in mind with high altitudes not having any help around can be risky.

Would you try this trek? If you have already done it, share your experience below!

“Leave nothing but footprints”