Near-Death Experience on Rainbow Mountain
At 4:30 a.m. a tour guide arrived at my hostel in Cusco. I was ready and waiting with a small backpack filled with my camera, water bottle and a few snacks. Our return was planned for 6 p.m. and meals were provided by the tour. It was pouring rain as we gathered the others around Cusco and eventually, we were off to Rainbow Mountain.
Rainbow Mountain, also called Vinicunca or Winikunka, and Montaña de Siete Colores or Montaña de Colores, had recently popped onto my radar. The colorful “stripes” of Rainbow Mountain are due to it’s mineral composition:
Pink for red clay, mud and sand
White for quartzose, sandstone and marls rich in calcium carbonate
Red for iron and clays from the Neogene period (23.03–2.58 million years ago)
Green for phyllites and clays rich in ferro magnesian
Earthy brown for fanglomerate made of rock with magnesium from the Quaternary period (2.58–0 million years ago)
Mustard yellow from sandstones rich in sulphurous minerals
The photos I’d seen of the beautifully colored mountain range peaked my interest and I couldn’t wait to get some of my own.
Our bus drove two hours before stopping for breakfast in a small town. We were served bread and butter with jam, pancakes and tea. After breakfast was another hour drive into the mountains. The night before had stormed heavily and the rain turned to snow high up in the mountains. The roads were covered with fallen trees and moving water as the snow began to melt with the rising sun.
Day 1: Morning | Hike Rainbow Mountain
As we pulled up to Rainbow Mountain, the bus parked and everyone began to unload. Things got very confusing pretty quickly. There were hundreds of tourists unloading at the same time. Guides were shouting over one another and no one knew where to go. You could feel the excitement in the air. Our guide gave my group a team name (Huayna or Wayna, meaning "young peak") in case anyone got lost.
A bunch from our group had to use the toilet and luckily there was a tiny Porta Potty in the middle of the snow. In preparation, our guide suggested we wear sunglasses but no other precautions were mentioned (huge mistake).
First off, wear hiking boots and waterproof ones depending on the season. Sneakers are not enough and will be soaked through in wet weather. The hike is high in the mountains and even though it's near freezing the sun is incredibly hot. I spent most of the hike carrying my coat, sweatshirt and long sleeve shirt because I was sweating to death. It's not necessary to take all these layers on the hike. Leave your coat in the bus.
It's extremely important to wear sunscreen EVERYWHERE. The sun's reflection off the snow was so intense that in the following days I came down with second degree sunburns. The sun reflects mostly on to your neck, chin and face when hiking so make sure to cover those spots generously.
Pack water and snacks. The hike is three hours up and three hours back down so it'll take most of the day. A walking stick could be helpful if the weather is particularly icky including any snow, rain or ice. Of course, sunglasses are necessary and a hat might be helpful.
One by one, we filed through the entrance paying a fee of ten soles. Many of the groups stayed together as they hiked but I learned if you want to make it to Red Canyon once you reach the top you'd better have some extra leftover. I decided to take off on my own and meet up with my group at the summit.
The three hour hike up Rainbow Mountain was brutal, one of the toughest things I've ever done. It's beyond me why locals didn't cancel the climb due to poor weather. Nearly six inches of snow was now six inches of mud and slush. People were slipping and sliding all over the place. Small streams began to form and rush down the mountain as we climbed in the opposite direction.
A few hikers paid for a guide and horse to carry them up the mountain. Originally, horses seemed excessive but as time went on I wished for one of my own (although I heard they are super expensive). Not only did I struggle with the hike itself, the altitude was getting to me. The mountain, Vinicunca, is located on the way to Ausangate mountain in the Andes of Peru and stands 5,200 meters high. It's no joke.
The sun came and went leaving it either boiling hot or quite chilly at times. The hike itself went through phases of flat sections and extremely steep areas. The toughest bit of the hike is just before you reach the summit. Once you arrive at the top you can rest or continue on to the Red Canyon range. Sadly, I was nearly dead so I didn’t continue on.
And worst of all, after the intense climb there was no reward. Rainbow Mountain was completely covered in snow. No one could see the beautiful colors dripping down the slopes like melting ice cream (my disappointed face below says it all). And even if it was clear, forget about a nice photo. The top of Rainbow Mountain was so much smaller than expected and packed with tourists. I felt like one little nudge and I'd go flying off the side of the mountain.
I will admit though, the views were breathtaking. Every direction was filled with sunny blue skies and white mountaintops. The guides told us we had to be quick because a storm was coming, that high up the weather turns quickly. After a 30 minute rest we began the descent.
Day 1: Afternoon | Descend Rainbow Mountain & Scale a Mountainside
Descending Rainbow Mountain was just as tough as the climb. We literally had to side step inch by inch in some areas as to not slip and fall. Water continued to rush down the mountain faster and faster and the whole valley was soaked through.
On my way down I came across a girl who was perched on the ground with an oxygen mask to her face. It looked as if she was having a panic attack or hyperventilating, puking all over the place. Later on, I learned that another girl had fallen and twisted her ankle on the mountain. To top things off, our guide continued to scream at us to hurry up down the mountain.
Once I reached the bottom I was incredibly grateful; I was feeling nauseous from the high altitude. I grabbed a Snickers bar from a vendor and chowed down. As the Huanya group finished up, we loaded onto the bus. Our guides seemed to be rushing us off the mountain (foreshadowing at it's best).
The bus began it's climb down when almost immediately we noticed a backup. Nearly 20 buses were lined up in front of us. Confused, we began to grumble and look out the windows for answers. It was pretty evident why we had stopped at that point. Our only road off the mountain had washed away.
As we sat waiting for a plan, the road began to crumble even more and fall into what was now a strong river. A few women began to panic, praying to Jesus out loud, expressing disbelief and horror. It was beginning to cool off so we unpacked blankets from the morning and wrapped them around ourselves. One of our guides took off to phone for help.
After some time a plan was finally hatched. With the weather cooling off, no food or water and no way out we had to do something quick. We were to scale the side of a mountain to reach a tiny village nearby. In this town we would find food and warmth before the sun went down and could wait for rescue. The Huaynas evacuated the bus (leaving the driver to fend for himself) and began to hike over the side of the mountain.
What we were told was a 20 minute walk turned out to be a terrifying hour long hike over steep terrain. The ground was slippery and unstable. Eventually, a beautiful little village came into view. It sat between two enormous mountains in a bright green valley. I was never so happy to see civilization.
As we got closer to the village, we passed crops growing on the steep sides of the mountains. When we reached town, local kids welcomed us with a rainbow flag, the official flag of Cusco. A few of us gathered and waited for everyone else to show up. I played with a few of the kids, asking their parents if it was okay to take a photo. In turn, I tried my best to speak Spanish with them, telling the girls how beautiful they were and showing them the photos I had taken.
As space cleared, we made our way into a local restaurant. It was now late afternoon and everyone was starving. The original plan was to stop for lunch just off the mountain but that wasn't happening and none of us brought much to eat since all meals were included by the tour.
After we sat down we learned the restaurant had run out of food. The cook was able to serve us some soup and hot tea to warm up. We paid for our meal and then met up with the others at another restaurant. The sun began to set and we realized our other guide had disappeared. No one had seen him in hours.
There was a group of girls I made friends with, one from Hong Kong and two from Brazil. We sat in a circle huddling together telling stories and talking about how insane the day had been thus far. No one knew how we were going to get off the mountain. We were three hours away from Cusco in freezing temperatures without much food or water. There was no place to sleep, no cell phone service and our guides had disappeared (#imightdie).
There was nothing to do but wait. I started thinking, what if all the other roads leading to the mountain had collapsed? How long would we be stuck here? Days? There was no place to shower and only a Porta Potty outside. Then, it went BLACK. The power went out and a hundred or so of us were shivering in the dark.
Out of nowhere our guide appeared. He yelled, "Huaynas and only huaynas..." There were multiple tour groups waiting just like us but we were the only ones being called. The guide began to tell us we would be safe but first we had to hike four kilometers in the pitch black, cross a mudslide, jump into a truck, drive to a new bus and then back to Cusco. The girl next to me burst into tears. No one wanted to go back outside in the dark.
Day 1: Evening | Cross a Mudslide & Tumble Around in a Dusty Truck
Huaynas didn't have a moment to delay. I didn’t even have time to visit the bathroom. We wrapped up in our blankets like burritos and stepped out into the darkness. I've never seen so many stars in the sky. It was pitch black. The only sound was rushing water nearby but it was tough to tell how close it really was. A few of us who still had battery life used our phones to guide the way.
We huddled close together in the cold and walked four kilometers in the dark until we reached the mudslide. Local men were gathered with tools shoveling mud. They gave us a hand as we carefully climbed across. Thank God, we had reached the truck that would bring us to safety. Twenty-nine of us loaded in, our backs to the edges and feet toward the center. It looked like a military vehicle, the ones covered with a tarp and only wooden planks inside.
Without windows the one hour ride was terrifying. Every once in a while we would stop and hear honking and see lights flicker through the cracks in the boards. We had no idea if we were about to fall off a cliff or into the river. Dust poured into the truck so much that everyone covered their faces to breath. It was so bumpy my tailbone split open and started bleeding.
After an hour we made it to the little town where we ate breakfast earlier that day. They had prepared a meal for us but almost immediately a few of the girls began to freak out. The dust had gotten into their eyes and they were now blind. The girls were holding their eyes screaming and crying.
Without time to eat, I shoveled some rice and popcorn in my face as our group loaded up and began the trip back to Cusco. At nearly 1 a.m. we arrived in town, dropping the ones who were unable to see at the hospital. Then one by one we were dropped at our respective hostels.
The nightmare was over. I couldn't believe I made it back alive. I hopped into the shower to clean off the mud and dirt that was caked all over my clothes and body. At least I had made it back in time for my morning tour to Sacred Valley. And the best part, my Peruvian friend and travel buddy had passed up on the day because he wasn't feeling up to it. He was sound asleep in the bed next to mine.
Later, I learned Rainbow Mountain is only a recent discovery due to climate change. It's always been covered with snow but as the climate has warmed snow melted revealing the brightly colored soil. Because of this Peru doesn't have the proper infrastructure to offer safe tours during poor weather. It requires passage through a valley and an easy method of transportation hasn’t been developed to accommodate travelers. With time, I'm sure transport to Ausangate will develop but until then, travelers beware.