What it's Like to Hike Mount Vinicunca, Peru's Rainbow Mountain
Deep in the Peruvian Andes exists an ancient land of unbelievable natural beauty, if you're willing to work for it
Graham Hiemstra, Sam Huff, Heidi Shultz
Contax T2, Yashica T4
I awoke with a jolt. Awful noise was everywhere. It was pitch black. My phone’s alarm was ringing. Sam’s phone alarm was ringing. The bedside telephone was ringing. It was 1:51 AM in Cusco, Peru, and our ride was already downstairs, waiting. We were headed to Vinicunca Mountain—or, Rainbow Mountain, if you prefer the recent marketing-minded Western rebrand—just as soon as we wrapped our minds around what was happening.
Three hours later, just as the sun began to peak over the surrounding mountains, our oversized cargo van pulled to a halt. The road in was windy, and rocky, and perched on endless hillsides that made the internal roll cage a bit too real of a necessity.
At the trailhead we stretched legs, craned necks, and marveled at the surrounding beauty, and at the heard of alpacas. With just under a handful of hours of rough sleep and a cold empanada in our system we readied ourselves for ~10 miles of hiking at well above 15,000 feet elevation (4500m).
Thankfully our local guide had the foresight to get us going before the other tourists arrived. In recent years Rainbow Mountain has seen a surge in international popularity, and though we were visiting during the rainy off-season, the unbelievable painted hills still draw a healthy crowd daily. After a brief cocoa leaf tea we hit the otherwise empty trail.
At all elevations along the trail the surrounding landscape is absolutely unreal. Picking your head up when hiking is always a funny thing to remember to do, but here, each time we stopped to take in the terrain, we gasped. No joke. Brilliant greens, deep purples, and rich reds streaked the touring mountains and rolling hills all around.
Though the hike was challenging to say the least, at no point was there any reason to turn back—the thought of what still laid ahead was as strong as draw as could be felt.
On the list of provided amenities our guide company Flashpacker Connect offered was oxygen. Back in NYC, at sea level, when planning the trip, I laughed. Standing at 16,500 feet, head literally in a cloud, I half wished I had taken our guide up on his offer. The air was thin, but the views were truly stunning—equally breathtaking, to grab the low hanging fruit from the joke tree.
Rich minerals cascade over the saddle of a hill now called Rainbow Mountain. And the shoe fits. It’s a rainbow in many senses of the word. Vibrant colors exist in every direction, to the point that it was difficult to decide on where to point my camera. When shooting film one must be conscious of every frame—here, I shot without restraint, knowing only operator error would result in anything but a keeper.
After some alone time on the summit—or rather, the saddle of it—my group of three watched as low hanging clouds parted, revealing wave after wave of tourists making their way upward. Some on foot, others on horseback, all with a porter or three. But we couldn't judge—we were there for the same reason. We were all there to see Mother Nature at her best.
That said, I've never been more thankful for a pre-2 AM wakeup call than I was then.