Rainbow Mountain (Vinicunca)
Rainbow Mountain, Vinicunca, is a bucket-list item due to its many beautiful colours of dirt, impressive elevation and scenic placement in the Peruvian Andes. Sitting at 5200m above sea level, on a clear day it offers stunning views of the gigantic valley, never-ending mountain peaks, brilliant streaks painted into the dirt and a chilling view of the Ausangate glacier. I bought this tour, which included breakfast, lunch, transportation, walking pole and a guide, through a company in Cusco, called Destiny Peru. I was charged 90 Soles, plus 10 Soles for entry to Rainbow Mountain upon arrival and 5 Soles for entry to the Red Valley.
The day started with a 3:30am alarm, catching the bus at 4am, and a 3-hour bumpy bus ride. I was the only Canadian in our group of Australians, Germans and Ecuadorians. The group ate breakfast (eggs, bread and tea) in a small town before hopping back in the bus for another 20 minutes through farmhouses and fields of livestock just being woken up by the morning sun. The road twisted and winded up the mountain base until reaching the drop-off area for hikers. At the drop-off area, and all throughout the hike, there were horses waiting to be hired by people who could not complete the hike on their own. People could ride the horses for 70 Soles, which was a great aid to complete the trail for those unable to hike the whole way.
The hike was a different kind beautiful than I was used to; the vast sandy mountains are very different to the grey rock mountains of Canada. The colours were unreal, like a painting, and got brighter the higher we got. The further we hiked the quieter everything seemed. It was as though I could hear the mountains breathing. The undulating dirt trail was not difficult - it was the elevation that burned the legs, raced the heart and challenged the lungs. There were many locals selling coca tea, beer and snacks along the way. It was about an hour and 45 min up to the summit. Nearing the top, where the dirt trail turned into stairs, there were a shocking amount of dogs (perros) begging for food (comida) and traditionally dressed alpacas and little boys posing for pictures to make money.
Almost at the top, my pace slowed and breathing quickened. The dirt trail turned into dirt stairs as the hill grade increased. I struggled to keep moving to the top. The sun, which had been baking me the whole way up, was suddenly replaced by crisp wind.
Luckily, I was one of the first hikers to the top, which meant mountain views everywhere without hundreds of people in the way. It was heaven. The beautiful glacier, Ausangate, was peaking out of the snow, rising up from the rock, grass and sand covered valley. It was cold at the top with the mountain-wind blowing. Rainbow Mountain was actually beside the summit of the 5200m hike. It was stunning. The lines of red, brown, yellow, grey and green looked as though a toddler had taken a hand-full of markers and drawn a squiggly line across the mountain side. My heart and soul were bursting.
To the left of Rainbow Mountain, a tiny faded line from many footprints lead to the Red Valley. The dirt got redder along way until at the "entry point", we looked into a sea of bright red, spotted with small, brilliant green patches of succulents and cacti. The floor of the valley followed a river, so the intense red dirt turned into intense green life. There wasn’t really a solid trail to follow to go into the valley, so we ran and zigzagged until we found the best way down.
In the valley, we found many large farms of potatoes, sheep and alpacas. The farmhouses were mostly mud and the fences were piled up stones. The stones used for this fence construction are very expensive and precarious to build. Some, with many layers of supporting stone looked strong and some looked as if they’d fall over if you blew on them. The life for these families must be so difficult. They are all hours and hours away from any towns or other civilization that they must walk when they need supplies or to sell their products.
The altitude always affects me the most when descending, but this was one of the worst. The hike started at 4300m, summited around 5200m and finished back at the breakfast spot at 4000m. On the way down, I started getting really dizzy and developed a bad headache. I drank what water I could, but had to save some enough for the rest of the hike. The end was far away. The guide got me to smell “llama pee” - a tincture of alcohol and plant essences that are supposed to increase blood flow to the head and relieve altitude sickness symptoms. Eventually with the water, llama pee, and some snacks, we were slowing making our way to lower altitude. We passed 3 small boys walking in the other direction, dragging a beat up toy truck behind them. They were probably making their daily commute back from school. It was a long, 4-hour walk back to the road. Near the end, some local farmers were climbing up a cliff side to cut down aloe vera plants to feed to their guinea pigs (cui). As we passed, they offered us chicha, the fermented drink make from barley. I had a sip of this bittersweet, milky drink, and asked the guide to finish my cup. Although I enjoyed every aspect of this amazing hike and the beautiful mountains, the nausea and headache was really getting to me, and I was happy to finally come to the road that lead back to the eating spot. Finishing an hour ahead of the rest of the group, I put my feet up and chugged more water and juice while we waited. Once the rest of the group arrived, we had a lovely lunch of soup, fried potatoes, pasta, salad and chicken strips. The ride back to Cusco was not enjoyable with my nausea and headache hanging on strong but once we got off the super windy mountain roads, I was finally able to sleep for the rest of the 3-hour drive.
Starting elevation of trek: 4,326 m/ 14,189 ft
Summit altitude: 5,200 m/ 17,060 ft
Total distance: 19km