We were given a few warnings about Rainbow Mountain, mainly these two: “You won’t be able to breath” & “The last hour is incredibly difficult and you will feel like you’re going to die”. Maybe those things would have been true, if it weren’t for a magical little plant called coca. The coca leaf is used as a natural medicine for digestion and altitude sickness, and in my opinion it does not get enough credit. This little plant made this hike doable and deserves to be credited.
We started our trip at 3 am, running from our apartment in San Blas down to Plaza de Armas to catch the bus at the Basillica. This was pretty painful as Cuso’s altitude of 11,152 ft makes it nearly impossible to run anywhere. I often get out of breath walking to my apartment, so as you’d imagine, I was a bit worried about hiking to a mountain at 16,520 ft elevation. We rode in the bus for about three hours through an incredibly beautiful mountain range which many herds of alpacas and wild horses call home. These mountains were a bit different than the one you pass through to get to Machu Picchu. Fluffy yellow-green plants line the mountain sides and there are beautiful white rivers running all along the range. White and brown alpacas roam around with frost on their backs chewing at the lush grass in their natural habitat. The temperature changes dramatically here. The direct sun is extremely powerful and will burn your skin and make you sweat, but as soon as you step into a region shaded by one of the gigantic mountains, you start to freeze.
We finally arrived at the base of the trek and ate enough bread and coca to fuel us for the walk. We started walking, and I started doubting. It was very difficult and the first few steps were not promising. I found myself gasping for air after the first ten minutes but we made frequent stops and chewed an entire bag of coca leaves. Coca tastes pretty horrible when you chew it directly but its effects are worth it. The hike was not what I expected. I thought the entire range would be full of multi-colored mountains like you see in a google image search of Rainbow Mountain, but that is not the case. It is incredibly beautiful, dont get me wrong, but different than what you would expect. The mountains themselves are gorgeous and very colorful but they are each more or less one solid color, for example one marooon mountain with deep green accents, one grey mountain with subtle variations of black and white and one bright turquoise mountain, sit side by side. Hovering above them all is Ausangate, a white glacier towering above the landscape like heaven itself and adding a brilliant contrast to the scene. Ausangate is considered by local Peruvians as the deity of Cusco. Since pre-Inca times the mountain has been a place of worship and offerings and this tradition continues today. Ausangate has an elevation of 20,945 ft, making it the highest mountain in the entire Cusco region.
Along the hike there are tiny villages scattered around, each consisting of no more than 20 people. You can hear music playing from some of them as you walk by and it is impossible not to imagine what life is like for these people. The entire hike was consistently difficult but the last twenty minutes or so were especially steep. At this point, all I could do was concentrate on repeating “left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot” until I reached the peak. When I finally arrived at the cima, I lay flat on my back and closed my eyes until I felt well enough to look out onto the range and appreciate the view. When I opened my eyes and turned to my left, Vinicuna was in from of me, a beautiful swirl of all of the colors I had seen throughout the day wrapped up into one beautiful mountain, creating a sense of unity as if the mountains decided to collaborate on one masterpiece that contained a little slice of the entire community.
The way back felt more like sleepwalking than hiking. We were all overwhelmed and exhuasted. Here are some shots I managed to snap, many of which I barely remember taking.