I stopped and gasped hard for air.
My heart was beating faster than after a 100m sprint.
I felt like vomiting.
“The only way to feel better is to keep walking,” and so, I did.
I kept going, with my eyes on the prize: Vinicunca – the Rainbow Mountain.
It stood in front of us in all its glory, but it’s a good 2 hours away.
So near, yet so far.
The Rainbow Mountain of the Andes
For thousands of years, the Rainbow Mountain was covered by layers of snow and ice. It was only due to global warming and the melting of snow that it recently got discovered and became a dream destination for travellers.
Instagram somehow knew my location; photos of Machu Picchu and the Rainbow Mountain appeared on my feed almost every day.
The cascading stripes of colours in the mountain make it seem out of this world and I knew I had to see it for myself (and you, my friends).
The ‘authentic’ way of seeing Vinicunca is via the 5 or 6-days’ Ausangate Trek around the holy mountain Ausangate , a place of worship since pre-Inca times.
But like many tours in Peru, there is a shorter version dedicated to the non-hikers or those short on time: a one-day tour to the Rainbow Mountain.
Day Hike to the Rainbow Mountain, Cusco
I gathered a few friends, gave Friday night’s out a miss, and woke up at 2:30 a.m. on Saturday morning to be picked up by the guide.
A one-day tour to the Rainbow Mountain costs PEN $60 - $100 (USD $17 – 30), advertised throughout Cusco, and many tour operators lump everyone together on the same bus.
Like most budget tours, you never know what you’re gonna get.
The pick-up was scheduled to be at 3-3:30 a.m. but we waited till 5 a.m. before finally leaving Cusco. My friends were waiting in the cold while I was starving on the bus.
Apparently, some people overslept and we had to wait for them. Seriously! If you’re a backpacker staying in one of the many party hostels in Cusco, please stay away from the drinking and partying if you’re doing the Rainbow Mountain the next day.
Drinking in the already-high altitude Cusco makes things difficult. Attempting to hike the 5200m Vinicunca while hungover is not gonna accomplish anything for you. Such natural beauty should be as dreamlike and memorable as possible, no?
The 3-hour bus ride brought us through the winding Peruvian mountain roads, with cliff-sides akin to the Death Road in Bolivia. The driver gave us a scare each time he made a turn inches away from the cliff edge without railings.
Just as the sun slowly rose, we stopped at a little hut in the mountain valley for breakfast, before continuing to our destination.
When the guide gives a safety briefing and brings along oxygen tanks, you know shit just got real. Many people don’t realise that the Rainbow Mountain is a high-altitude hike and getting to the top is a potentially dangerous process.
Even though I’m not a hardcore trekker and grew up in urban Singapore, I’ve done my fair share of hikes in South America – particularly in beautiful Patagonia. More recently, I just hiked the second deepest canyon in the world.
But none of them proved to be more of a challenge than Vinicunca.
watch a 1min highlight of the experience here
Hiking Vinicunca - the Rainbow Mountain
The trail starts with a minimal, gradual incline through a picturesque valley of low-lying mountains, backed by the awe-inspiring snow-capped Ausangate. A herd of sheep and llamas walked beside us, while local horsemen ferried passengers along the trail.
The guide let us go at our own pace and my group of experienced hiker-friends decided to quicken their pace. I struggled to keep up with them.
The altitude, rather than the incline, is the real challenge of the hike. The trailhead starts at 4326m and ends at 5200m – the highest point I’ve ever been.
On hindsight, I should’ve walked at my own pace. My heart was thumping fast and furious, I was breathless as I gasped hard for oxygen, and my eyes and brain felt like they were popping out of my head.
“The highest point in Singapore is only 163m!” I complained to my friends.
“Holland is under sea-level!” my Dutch friend replied.
Fine, you win. I’ll shut up and keep going.
The alternative to hiking the entire way is to hire one of the numerous horses along the way. I’m not sure the price, but they sure looked tempting. But even then, the horses can’t take you all the way to the top as the last part is a steep uphill climb.
It was advertised as a 2 to 3 hours’ hike and we reached the Rainbow Mountain in 1h 35min, and that’s probably why I was struggling so badly.
Technically, we were at the hill opposite of Vinicunca. You can’t go onto the actual Rainbow Mountain. Ignoring the hundreds of people there, it was surreal to be up-close with the famed coloured-mountain.
Minerals combined with weathering resulted in the red sandstones contrasted with turquoise, maroon and mustard colours. Not exactly a seven-coloured mountain like in Purmamarca, it was nevertheless a geological wonder and a sight to behold.
And at 5200m, we put on our beanies and gloves as we struggled against the icy buffeting winds while soaking in the view.
The Red Valley
Most people end their trip here, but unbeknownst to many is a valley simply called Valle Rojo (Red Valley), 15 min further in.
Our guide offered to bring us there for an extra fee of PEN $5. A few locals ‘guarded’ the access to the valley and charged us an additional PEN $5 for the ‘entrance fee’.
I had no idea why but the guide started running towards the valley and we ran after him. Yes, running at 5200m! Needless to say, we didn’t last long.
As we entered the valley, we were speechless. The predominantly red valley looked like it was painted by a giant natural paint-brush; with its wavy patterns and splashes of green and grey. I stood there feeling so small in the presence of that natural masterpiece and just marvelled at its beauty.
I didn’t even know about the Red Valley and was glad that my friends requested for it.
As we walked back to the bus, the weather suddenly turned bad. It started raining – both rain and hail. There were reports of snowstorms and hikers seeing nothing after a gruelling hike, and I am thankful that it only happened on our way back.
At such high altitude, we were truly at the mercy of Pachamama (Mother Earth).
There is a phrase in Latin America – ‘vale la pena’ and it means “worth the trouble’. Vinicunca, the Rainbow Mountain, although a challenging hike, is definitely vale la pena with its gorgeous view.
It also serves at a great training hike for the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu.
Plus, I got a pretty Instagram photo.
And now, it’s your turn.