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You may be wondering, what on earth is this Rainbow Mountain? Or maybe not since in the time since I wrote this it has become scarily popular. I will never forget the first time I saw a picture of this fantasy place and my brain short-circuited with “How? Where? Why?” Back then it wasn’t as well-known. I immediately googled “mountain with painted colors” and eventually discovered the real name of this place; Vinicunca, in the Ausangate Mountains of Peru. Ironically I had just booked a ten-day trip to Peru to visit Cusco, Lima and hike the Inca Trail. I was bummed because had I known about the possibility of a Rainbow Mountain tour, I would have fit it into the trip.
One week before my trip, I was googling day trips from Cusco and guess what popped up? Rainbow Mountain! Hallelujah! I was ecstatic to see that it was available as a day trip, although not so close to Cusco. I didn’t even flinch when I saw that the tours had 3 am pick-up times followed by a three-hour drive and then a three-hour hike at an extremely high altitude. Whatevs.
Dammit, I was going to see Rainbow Mountain!
Apparently, according to authorities and by authorities I am referring to my guide, Cesar, this mountain was only discovered three years ago by Israeli tourists who were far off the beaten path. Eventually, word spread and people began hiking to see this crazy mountain. It traditionally was a six-day hike until recently.
It’s so unknown, it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. It is inhabited by the traditional Andean alpaca and sheepherders, many with strong Inca roots. Alpacas are everywhere!
The various colors of the mountain are quite a mystery to many, but not to geologists. I can’t pretend to understand all of it but basically, all mountains were underwater at some point in the Earth’s history and various minerals are deposited as various layers form over millions of years. Red sandstone once covered the entire mountain but was eventually blown away creating these striations revealing the layers underneath.
There are a plethora of Cusco tour operators offering Rainbow Mountain tours. You can book online (and pay more) or book in Cusco. Most trips are $30-40 with large groups. We actually booked a private tour with Cesar, a guide who previously had taken a friend’s brother on the Inca Trail. We paid $70 because he arranged a wonderful customized day trip for myself and two other women. I can’t say enough good things. (I’ve seen tours offered online for $100-$300!)
We were picked up at 4 am. Ouch. Each of us had a whole row in the van with a blanket Cesar thoughtfully provided and slept the entire three hours to reach the Ausangate Mountains. Breakfast was provided for us and then we started the hike. The starting elevation is close to 14,000 ft (4300 m) so already we were feeling it. Luckily we were acclimated after over a week at high altitudes. However, the Inca Trail had beat us up. We had sore muscles, swollen joints and I was still recovering from food poisoning.
Don’t even think about doing this if you are not well acclimated to the altitude!
Horses are available on this trail, at least for part of it, because the end is rocky and steep. They cost about $30. I am always skeptical of animals used at tourist attractions so I asked many questions about their treatment. The indigenous Andean locals own the horses and they appeared well fed. My guide said that they only work one day, then have from one to three days rest. Unfortunately, I cannot verify that this is true. Riding a horse seemed like wimping out, but at one point my body rejected that whole “working out with food poisoning” idea, so I rode but only for 45 minutes. The horse was huffing and puffing and I actually felt bad for it.
My love of animals was stronger than my desire to rest so I sucked it up and walked.
Along the path early in the hike, there are little stalls where the locals sell snacks and water.
There is even a toilet stall at one point.
That’s my friend Melissa. Don’t worry, I didn’t creep on a total stranger.
I think I’ve said enough. I’m going to let the mountain speak for itself and show you some pretty pictures!
Believe it or not, these flat parts are still hard because of the altitude!
Just before the summit, I looked back and saw how far I had come, not just on this day but this entire trip. I did something I never thought I could do. I felt so incredibly lucky at that moment, to be able to see these amazing sights. I actually cried. Rainbow Mountain made me cry!
At the top you have the rainbow on one side and the largest glacier in Peru on the other.
There’s even snow at the top (this is my friend Danielle building a teeny snowman).
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