The itch to travel often starts with an image. A glimpse of Peru's Rainbow Mountains spurred one traveler to make a journey she won't soon forget.
VINICUNCA MOUNTAIN, Peru – In the spring of 2015, I discovered a chain of mountains so beautiful it reordered my entire bucket list.
In photos, the peaks were striped in a rainbow of colors: maroon, mustard yellow, and soft blue. Fluffy white clouds scraped their soft peaks.
Hidden in a remote corner of Peru's Ausengate region, a few hour's drive outside of Cusco, Vinicunca is a remote place unmarred by travelers on the touring path.
At 16,000 feet, even the foothills tower above the landscape. For years, Vinicunca, more commonly referred to as the Rainbow Mountain (the translation in the local language means "seven-colored mountain"), was hidden under a thick layer of ice. But as regional temperatures rose, the snowpack thawed and revealed thick stripes of mineral deposits painted across sandstone rock. Tourism to Rainbow Mountain has picked up in the last six months, but it has not yet lost its mystique.
The journey to the summit began at 3:30 a.m. with a four-hour car ride from Cusco. A friend and I huddled in the backseat of our driver's hatchback, wrapped in a comforter with our heads pressed against opposite windows. The car whipped through small towns and sharp mountain passes, ending in a pastoral village where llamas and alpacas dotted the mountainside. Locals waited next to corrals of horses — a cheat for those who want to make the ascent without breaking a sweat.
Slowly we climbed through the lush valley, working methodically with only two quick breaks – to sip from a thermos of coca tea, and to shake the jagged rocks out of our hiking boots. The trail continued up a narrow mountain pass. Snow-covered Asungate, the tallest mountain in the region, appeared in the distance.
After four hours of climbing, the sandy terrain gave way to mountain peaks. I was overwhelmed with emotion. I felt like I was looking out at a fantastical world, an environment imagined by Dr. Seuss.
Standing there, where few travelers had ever been, I struggled to catch my breath. Was it the thin air or the view? At the top of the world, my head nearly in a thick bank of clouds, I took in the colors, the scenery, and the jagged granite and sandstone.
The time to go to the Rainbow Mountains is now. The reality is better than any dream.
How to Get There
Vinicunca, a.k.a. Rainbow Mountain, is a four-drive south of Cusco. Rent a car in the city or book a tour with a local company. There are not yet limits on the number of tourists that can hike to the site, and visits can be arranged at the last-minute. It's a good idea to spend a few days in Cusco to acclimate to the altitude before enduring the steep hike.
Arrange a Trek
The easiest way to do the hike is with a guide. Indigenous people speak Quechua, a local language, not Spanish. It is easier to communicate and reach the summit with someone who knows the terrain. Cusi Travel is an operator that supports impoverished communities and donates a proceed of all profits to scholarships for local students.
The altitude can be crippling. Bring Diamox, ibuprofen, and a bottle of oxygen. The steep terrain is also treacherous. Hiking boots with ankle support and hiking poles are strongly suggested.