Peru is a country reknowned for its picturesque tourist destinations. Boasting one of the 7 Wonders of the Modern World in the form of the archaelogical settlement of Machu Picchu, along with other attractions like the crevice of Colca Canyon and the floating islands of Lake Titicaca bordering neighbouring Bolivia, Peru has established itself as a must-visit destination for backpackers and holidaymakers alike. Many of these most famous attractions have gifted timeless page filler for tourist brochures and coffee table books, providing iconic images which have helped bolster the country’s now thriving tourist industry.
But alongside these established sites, a recently publicised geological anomaly has begun it’s rapid rise to the heirarchy of Peruvian tourism. Aided by the viral nature of modern social media, the breathtaking landscape of the affectionately named ‘Rainbow Mountain’ is the country’s newest tourist showpiece. Accessible from the nearby city of Cusco, and with an extensive collection of tour agencies offering day trips from there, Rainbow Mountain or Vinicunca, to give it it’s traditional name, has found itself a ‘must-see’ destination when visiting the area. With it’s reputation preceeding it, I embarked upon one of the advertised full-day tours in the week I spent staying in Cusco.
As a relatively new attraction, there was little information to be found online about the mountain itself, save a few reviews of different tour operators on TripAdvisor. The general concencus I gathered from the ones I read suggested that the hike was not a walk in the park and required a great deal of effort to reach the top. None of the reviews were particularly complimentary of any one tour company, so my girlfriend and I spent an afternoon gathering information from the different agents in Cusco to see which offered the best deal.
We settled on a company named Conde Travel, the operator we spoke with in store was very friendly and explained a lot to us in well-spoken English. At the price of S/.100 per person the tour included; 4:00am pick-up, breakfast, entrance to the park and lunch, returning at approximately 7:00pm. We found that the prices offered by the tour agencies were all in the same ballpark, any that teased a price of S/.90 required paid entrance to the park on arrival, so there was nothing to choose between in that respect.
With a slightly-later-than-billed pick up time of 5:20am we set off from Cusco. Fresh from a near hour and a half stand in the cold we were quite awake, and stayed so until our arrival at a small house where we were fed a welcome local breakfast of bread and pancakes. Sat outside, we were provided with Coca leaves and tea to help prepare us for the altitude. There was some debate amongst the group as to the actual height of the mountain, and several wild figures were banded around. We found out later from the tour guide that it does in fact rest at 5200 metres above sea level, which I have since discovered is greater than that of The Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps. I thought back to the reviews and questioned the decision to have worn the shorts that I had on.
A further 45 minutes in the van had us arrive at the base of the trail, a heady 4326 metres in altitude. A large gravel car park bordered by makeshift tents and plastic portaloo’s greeted us, in one corner there were two sets of goalposts, the beautiful game always welcome even in the most unlikely of places. The whole area had an overwhelming sense of temporariness. Indeed a lot of work appeared to be ongoing in forming a more grounded welcome, with locals wheeling barrows of gravel to form new pathways.
The opening of the mountain to guided tours in January 2016 created a window of opportunity for the Peruvian’s who call the surrounding area home. In years previous, the peak had lain under a carpet of snow, undisturbed by the hundreds of people who now tread it’s path daily. Adjustment in the global climate has made this venture possible, unearthing the magnificent palette of colours on the face and inviting the world to visit. In the surrounding tents and lining the route of the ascent locals are selling a number of stimulants to aid the trek, from Coca tea to M&Ms and Snickers, quite justified in cashing in on the hoards of tourists being unloaded on their doorstep.
With entry pre-paid, we started on our way up the trail. It truly is a picture prefect landscape and every excuse was made to stop for a photo opportunity. Llamas and Alpacas graze against the backdrop of sheer rock faces climbing into the distance. The snow topped peak of the adjacent Ausengate Mountain stands proud against a lightly clouded sky. It is immediately apparent why the spike in popularity has been so sharp.
The climb itself presented an unexpected challenge. Despite having read about the effects of the altitude, I don’t think I quite understood the full extent until I experienced it. A few minutes of regular paced walking induces a shortage of breath and a heightened heart rate, forcing you to slow down. Add to this the rate of ascent, which in some places is fairly steep and you have the making of an ardous 6km slog to the top. A shrewd capitalisation sees locals dotted along the route at various intervals offering horses for rent, which a good number of people take them up on. An honest day’s work on the horse owner’s part, as they have to lead the horse to the summit and back down again!
Roughly two and a half hours after setting off, we reached the top and along with a piercing wind and a massive drop in temperature, the prize of breathtaking views of both Rainbow Mountain and beyond. Despite the harsh cold, there were still resilient women and children selling goods camped behind dry stone walls. I managed to resist a celebratory bottle of the regional lager Cusquena, partly due to the headache I was now suffering. A rather brief explaination from our guide glossed over the cause of the multi-coloured surface which we were facing. Tectonic shift had forced up sedimentary layers, the colours of which were a result of the environmental conditions imposed upon them at the time they were exposed.
We were allowed a 40 minute window for taking photos, which we gladly took advantage of. Frustratingly, it will take a better photographer than I to totally capture the magnitude of the beautiful and vast landscape that we looked upon. No matter how many pictures I took I couldn’t quite do it justice!
Retiring from the summit we retraced our path down the dusty slope. The majority of day tours operate similar hours and as a result we didn’t cross the path of anyone still making the climb. A far quiter and more relaxing descent followed with everyone setting their own pace.
This afforded me time to appreciate the effort that has gone into opening Rainbow Mountain up for tourism and also the ongoing work to accommodate for the influx or visitors. Small stone buildings are in the process of construction near the bottom, perhaps to be turned into a more permanent shop or toilet block. An abundance of promise lies on the horizon for the people who make a living here, perhaps it will have grown into a different community in five or ten years time. Although I can’t help but feel a slight shame for the way in which Rainbow Mountain has been subjected to drastic environmental alteration due developing global climate change. As a direct result of the current social and political landcape, a new tourist destination has been born.
If You Go:
It is worth reading reviews of different tour agencies on TripAdvisor before you go. If you are planning to hike the mountain, the following items are recommended;
- Jumper or Jacket
- Coca Leaves
- OxiShot (Oxygen canister sold in various shops around Cusco)
- Snacks and water for the journey.