I Hiked Up A Rainbow & You Can Too
At Vinicunca's summit, you can see the entire valley in all its gobsmacking glory.
I was awoken by a bang. My phone, alarm ringing, had vibrated itself off the bedside table and onto the hardwood floors of my hostel room. Disorientated, I quickly tried to figure out where I was and why. For some godawful reason, I’d set an alarm for 2:30am.
I spotted my hiking boots at the foot of the bed and remembered. I was in Cusco, an old Incan city in the heart of the Peruvian Andes, and today was the day I’d be summiting a rainbow.
Like the cliché, social media-obsessed millennial that I am, I first saw Rainbow Mountain on Instagram. A fellow traveller showed me a picture of her friend atop the colourful summit and my mind reacted accordingly: I want to go to there, I decided. Wherever this mystical place was, I needed to see it with my own eyes.
The girl in the photo recalled in that caption that it was one of the hardest Peruvian hikes she’d done (including the notoriously difficult Inca Trail). An oxygen tank was used. Not once, but twice.
But, still, I had to climb it.
Rainbow Mountain, or Vinicunca as it’s known to the locals, managed to stay a bit of a traveller’s secret until now. The trek was only recently opened to tourists (before that it was relatively undiscovered to anyone outside the region) and only a handful of companies offer guided day tours.
The day began with a 3am pick-up. The start of the trek is located three hours from Cusco, so after a bumpy van ride to our breakfast spot and another short ride to the beginning of the trail, we were ready to hike.
The trail started in a relatively flat valley between the mountains. Aside from the llamas, alpacas and stray dogs scattered about (this is South America, after all), the landscape was relatively sparse.
There’s no sugarcoating it: the ascent to Rainbow Mountain was challenging. The reason for this is twofold: one, it’s a mountain, so by definition, you’re walking uphill the majority of the way. It’s one of those hikes where you think you see the end in the distance, only for another summit to appear as soon as you get there. This continues on for the three-or-so hours it takes to reach the actual top of the mountain.
Secondly, it’s the elevation. The summit of Vinicunca is 5200m above sea level. By comparison, Australia’s highest mountain, Mount Kosciuszko, is 2228m tall, and the world’s highest, Mount Everest, is at an elevation of 8848m. Altitude sickness is a real thing and it can affect anyone – young or old, fit or unfit – which means reaching the ascent can come with a side of headaches, dizziness, lack of breath, and a sense of exhaustion that makes even standing still a challenge.
While I wasn’t affected by the headaches or the dizziness (I chewed on coca leaves, a trick the ancient Incas used for centuries), the altitude did make the walk feel like one, long arduous journey with an indeterminate end.
But – and it’s a big “but” – I’d do it all over again just to catch a glimpse of that unbelievable view one more time. It’s a stunner.
The actual “rainbow” mountain sits to the left of the path, a mesmerising swirl of colours. Like China’s Zhangye Danxia mountains, the rainbow rocks are the result of mineral and sandstone deposited over millions of years. When the tectonic plates lifted the mountain range, the layer cake of coloured rocks rose from the depths of the earth.
With a splattering of deep reds, soft blues and electric yellows, the whole scene is surreal. It looks like it shouldn’t exist, but it does, and — after an agonising hike like this one — the sight of it can overwhelm even the most unsentimental hikers. (No kidding, I cried when I got to the top.)
At the summit, you can view the entire valley in all its gobsmacking glory. The skyline is like a hit list of natural wonders: there’s a mountain-top glacier in the distance, as well as a lagoon poking its emerald head out from over the peaks and valleys. I recommend taking a well-deserved rest and just taking it all in.
You can organise your Vinicunca day trip from any number of tour companies in Cusco (there’s a bunch surrounding the Plaza de Armas main square) and it shouldn’t cost more than about $30 (PEN80) for the entire day.
(All images: Rebecca Russo)