Also known as the Vinicunca or mountain of 7 colors, the rainbow mountain is indeed a sight to behold. It is made up of different colors ranging from pink to white to red to green to earthy brown and mustard yellow. It is formed by different sedimentary mineral layers in the mountain that have been exposed by erosion. Its interesting coloration is due to weathering and mineralogy, for example, its red coloration may indicate iron oxide rust as a trace mineral, the mustard yellow color is due to the mountain’s deposit of calcareous sandstones rich in sulfurous minerals, etc.
This mountain has always existed but was covered by a thick layer of ice and snow which hid its colorful ambiance for hundreds of years. It was only in the year 2015 that it was observed, the thick layer of snow and ice melting away most likely due to climate change. Since then, it has increasingly been a popular point of tourist attraction and this has encouraged the creation of a new route to access the province in which the mountain is located. This new route was created for tour buses and cars going specifically to this tourist site.
Location and elevation
It is precisely located on the road to Ausangate mountain (sacred mountain) in the Andes of Peru in South America. It can be found in the district of Pitumarca in the Canchis province. It has exact coordinates of 13.870227°S, 71.302951°W. It stands tall with a maximum altitude of 5200m above seawater which roughly translates to 17,100ft, while it has a starting altitude of 4326m I.e. approximately 14,200 ft. Cusco, its closest city has an altitude of 3399m.
How to get there from Cusco
There are two means by which you can get to the top of the rainbow mountain from Cusco. Each of them has its advantages and specific purpose so you should only go with the one that would completely suit your plans
- Full day trip
Here, an early start is needed for this trip. There is initially a 3.5 hours journey from Cusco to Pitumarca. From here, it is suggested to travel to Qesoyonu where the trek up the mountain can finally begin. Because of the length of the journey, coupled with weather and safety concerns, the buses leave Cusco as early as 3:00 am. Overall, about 7 hours may be spent just staying in the vehicle while the hike itself may not last up to 4 hours.
- Quick trek
This is essentially a back road hike which takes only about 30 minutes. Since 2017, some tour guides have been advertising this route. Upon reaching the mountain at any time of the day, instead of using the marked trail road, another path is utilized instead. With this method, you can get to the top of the mountain faster. However, you may not be able to properly view the rainbow mountain and not take pictures with the mountain as a background. The perk here is that you would take a route that is not popular and would not be swarmed with tourists and tour guides alike. Plus, you may not have to leave Cusco at 3 am or 5 am just so you can return early and safely. Additionally, if you are on a tight schedule, you get to make it up and back down in good time and carry on with any other activity you have planned. This is usually the route for first-time hikers who believe they may not be able to hike on a steep mountain for up to 3 hours.
What to wear while there
The two major weather conditions observed here is the rainy and dry season. It is best to dress according to the season. Most visits to the mountain occur between April and August when the weather is calm and there isn’t much rainfall or snowing. This would also ensure you have a more enjoyable and interesting experience as the colors of the mountain have been said to be duller during the wet season.
Climbing the mountain and having a better look at the ensemble of color is always part of the plans of tourists who go there. It is also a very exciting experience. Hiking would involve an almost 3 hours walk to the top of the mountain as it can only be accessed by foot. For those who might have difficulty climbing, a horse can be rented for some parts of the trip. The trail is well marked and is usually simple enough to follow even without the help of a tour guide.
- What to wear for a hike
Depending on the time the hike is supposed to take place, weather appropriate clothing should be worn no matter. Simple, lightweight and protective clothes are recommended e.g. leggings, undershirt, thin sweater, socks, and even gloves. Hats and sunglasses for the sun’s protection should also be worn.
- What to pack for your hike
During a hiking expedition, only essential items should be packed. They should usually be lightweight and anything that can be worn instead of kept in a bag should be worn to reduce the weight of luggage carried. The essential items you would require for hiking include
- a hat ( to protect the head and shield the eyes from the harsh UV rays of the sun ),
- a small backpack ( to carry the other essential items not worn),
- comfortable hiking shoes ( should not be too tight or big, but just right, should be lightweight and have a good grip)
- warm jacket ( the temperature tends to drop the higher you go so it would get cooler as you advance)
- sunscreen ( to protect the skin from the sun’s rays at such a high altitude)
- trekking cane ( provides more grip especially when walking for a long distance and on a steep ground like during a hike)
- Water (at least 1.5 liters. It is very important as it is easy to get dehydrated during long walks. It also cools the body’s temperature and ensures heat regulation during climbing)
- Coca candy ( known to help with altitude sickness and keeps you energized during the hike).
- Toiletries: though some toilets and latrines are located all the way up to the mountain summit, it is essential to hold your own supply of at least tissue paper, to ensure hygiene and lessen the potential spread of infections.
- What to expect during your hike
It is very possible that altitude sickness may occur especially for first-time hikers. Altitude sickness is characterized by bad headache, nausea, vomiting and even the tightness. At that altitude, the oxygen saturation level is at 11%, about half of the normal 20.9% saturation value achieved at sea level. It is best to arrive in Cusco and stay a few days first to acclimate before you attempt to hike. If you realize you aren’t affected by the altitude sickness, then it is best to go all the way to the top and have the best view.
In the 4 years of this site being a tourist attraction, it has attracted a lot of tourists and usually, there is always a large crowd of tourists, their tour guides, villagers selling groceries and even some animals like alpacas and camelids roaming about. Basically, a whole lot of people are usually there at all periods of the year so you should always expect a crowd. The only place where there is little crowd is at the summit as most people can’t climb that high. Also, hiking at night or very early in the morning can provide a lonesome experience.
You should also anticipate all types of weather and be packed and ready for them. From very chilly mornings to very hot afternoons, drastic weather changes can be frequently observed. So wear light clothes but also pack up a warm jacket.
Where to eat
When it comes to food, the best option would be to buy all you need; food, water, and groceries from the city of Cusco or Pitumarca where there are provision stores. If this is not possible, some villagers sell snacks on the way to the top of the mountain. Even on the top of the mountain, there are some small shops that sell warm food and drinks e.g. coffee/tea. If you plan to stay for more than a day, then it is advised to make adequate provisions and bring your own food which can sustain you during this period.
In essence, the rainbow mountain has been an internet and especially Instagram sensation and even though many of the pictures posted have been digitally altered to brighten the colors, the mountain still has a very beautiful and breathtaking view up and close. It has been listed by National Geographic under the top 100 sites to visit before one dies.
So, if the weather condition is fine, you have your hiking equipment ready, you have properly acclimated and are stock up on water and appropriate groceries, then you are ultimately good to go and should have an interesting time.