Climbing the Rainbow on Vinicunca, Peru
Gather around friends, as I tell you about the time that I overcame my crippling fear of strenuous exercise to climb the most majestic mountain on earth- Vinicunca. If you haven’t heard of it, that’s probably because you know it as “Rainbow Mountain,” for (hopefully) apparent reasons.
Let me give you some more context. I am not one of those travellers who factors exercise into my trips. I was affectionately called “chicken muscles” for most of my formative years and unfortunately, the name was accurate. If I do one minor trek on my trip, I spend the rest of it patting myself on the back. So when the group I was travelling with proposed the day trip from Cusco, my first instinct was a hard NOPE. Although the hike itself was apparently quite easy, the altitude reached 5000m- unknown heights for these lead legs. Luckily for me, my only quality stronger than my laziness is my stubbornness, so when the rest of the group decided to go for it I quickly changed my tune.
The day began like any good one- piling into a minivan at 4 AM, eating cookies and claiming it was for “blood sugar reasons.” The drive from Cusco takes about 2.5 hours and should be included with any tour company you book beforehand. We arrived before sunrise and snuck in some extra snooze time before making our way to the breakfast tent. Here we were fed eggs, hot chocolate and some cold cuts, but after the bumpy ride none of us were particularly hungry. Be sure to pack lots of trail snacks, you’re going to need them!
At sunrise we set off from the trailhead at about the same time as three other groups. As the trail starts out narrow, steep and rocky, this leads to a bit of a traffic jam at first. Once you reach the open section, you will have a lot more personal space. The beginning is a little tricky for an uncoordinated type like myself and I kid you not, I could hear the neighbouring alpacas laugh at me as I tried to stay on two feet. Jerks.
Then, something amazing happens. The skinny trail opens up into wide open land with gorgeous mountains everywhere you look. And the best part? It’s totally flat. This part of the trail will let you gain back a little of the confidence you lost in the beginning. As tempting as it is to motor through this easy stretch, take the time to look around you. Rainbow Mountain is chock-full of gorgeous views before the peak is even in sight. You’ll see snowcapped mountains, ash-black hills, sassy alpacas, and little coloured rocks that look exactly like the fruity cereal balls that you would binge-eat as a kid. Getting too confident here can also be dangerous- you’ve got a whole lotta hike ahead of you.
At this point, the trail will start to incline and you’ll begin to feel that altitude hitting you. We agreed to take it slow but push on to the next flat spot where we would stop for a break. I cannot stress this enough, but you need to look into what tour company you go with beforehand. We went with Flashpacker Connect and we could not have been happier. They were a bit pricier, but you really get what you pay for and in a situation like this, spending the extra dough saved us from what could have been absolutely miserable. Our guides joked and motivated us to the top, were there with oxygen when we needed a boost, set up some pretty epic photo ops, and overall just saved our butts. They can also provide horses for portions of the trail if you don’t feel up to hiking the whole time. This is one occasion where you do not want to cheap out and coming from this penny-pincher, that’s saying a lot! But, I digress.
I’m not going to sugar coat it, from this point on it’s going to be a total slog. While the path is really not that challenging, the altitude makes every step feel like you’re waist-deep in mud. More than once, I dramatically flopped into the starfish position and insisted that my legs were no longer working. Instead of getting frustrated, just go slow and take lots of breaks, unless you’re that couple in matching track suits that ran past me and smirked (AKA my new arch-nemeses). Luckily, from this point you should be able to see the peak and know that all of the work you’re putting in is going to pay off tenfold.
Climbing Rainbow Mountain is physically one of the hardest things I’ve done and one of the most costly excursions on my trip. That being said, I would do it ten times over just for that amazing feeling you get at the top when you look around and realize where you are. Staring out at the multicoloured stripes of the mountain, I felt like my world had been photoshopped. If Peru didn’t have enough amazing sights to offer before, this was probably the final step in solidifying this country’s legendary status. I dare you to hold in a face-splitting grin when you reach the top and feel the pride of pushing yourself to see something this breathtaking. I won’t describe it in too much detail, because I’m hoping you guys can experience it for yourself.
A lot of people vouch to stretch this hike into two days, but we were in and out in one. The hike itself took about seven hours and we were fed again at the end of the trail before taking off. It definitely makes for a long day, but making it back to Cusco and eating about two pounds of pasta really topped off the day. All in all, this was one of the best days of my entire trip and one of those memories I will look back on when I’m eighty and smile at what a badass I was. Just remember guys, if chicken muscles can do it, so can you.
- Bring all of the water and snacks.
- Bathe in sunscreen. I promise that even when you’re freezing, you’re burning.
- Dress in layers. The temperature changes during this hike are constant, and you’ll need to strip and re-dress often. I wore yoga pants, one of those tank tops for sweaty people, a hoodie, and a windbreaker.
- Pace yourself on the flat stretches. Wearing yourself out before you hit the incline is the worst.
- Make sure to always take the time to look around, the scenery is constantly changing.
- Listen to your body. The altitude affects everyone differently and making yourself sick trying to push through isn’t going to help anything.
- Strike a power lunge pose at the top and embrace your inner mountain warrior. You just climbed a freaking mountain!