Could there be positive effects of global warming? In the case of Vinicunca, better known as “Rainbow Mountain” that seems to be the case (depending on who you ask of course). This now uber-popular tourist spot high in the Andes of Peru didn’t exist until a couple of years ago. Why? Because it was completely covered by glaciers. Today, heading out to the mountain is one of the most common day trips from Cusco. Bus loads of people ply the back dirt roads, twisting through canyons and along rushing rivers for a view of one of the prettiest mountain landscapes in the country - and maybe even the world.
We hadn’t really considered seeing Rainbow Mountain until a couple of other travelers we were hanging out with suggested the excursion one late afternoon. Luckily, we were already stationed in the Cusco area so it was easy to hire a van and make our way out to the otherwise remote area.
The drive itself was pretty unforgettable - canyons, green hillsides, roaring rivers only a short drop from the bumpy dirt road. It felt like we were heading out on a grand adventure to untrodden lands. Then we pulled into the already bustling parking lot. Dozens of shuttles very much like ours, other tourists in their sturdiest hiking gear, locals trying to haggle you into using one of their horses so the challenging journey up is done by an animal instead of yourself. All of these put together made us realize that this wasn’t an off the beaten path destination - it was Peru’s new tourism cash-cow.
Now don’t get us wrong, Rainbow Mountain is pretty incredible. While many photos of the area are obviously edited, in reality, the mountain is still very colorful. And the striping - wow. It is definitely a unique geological site.
But what you often don’t see, or hear about, is the fact that the whole mountain range around there is insanely colorful. Maroon colored rock faces contrasted with deep green flora, vibrant yellows and even shades of turquoise are splattered across the whole massive valley. And, if you are lucky, you might even be able to see Nevado Ausangate, a mountain that sits at a whopping 20,944 feet or 6,384 meters. It is covered in snow and incredibly imposing. * The best view of the peak is from the highest viewpoint next to Rainbow Mountain (where you yourself will be standing at 17,100 feet!).
While Rainbow Mountain is still relatively new (it popped up on people’s radar around 2015) it is fast becoming one of the country’s top tourist attractions. And social media has only added to that fact. Because of this, there are a couple things to keep in mind in case you too are looking to check it out.
1. You will not have it to yourself. This just won’t happen. Sorry. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people visit Rainbow Mountain every.single.day. You realize this quickly, either on the narrow road into the valley (which is likely clogged up with other shuttles) or in the parking lot. So be prepared to jockey your way along the narrow singletrack trail that meanders its way up to the top of the mountain pass (where the famous striped face can be found).
2. It is a short, but challenging climb. It might only be 3 kilometers long (round-trip) but you are at a very high elevation (remember, you top out at over 17,000 feet). While the trail is easy to follow, and mostly flat up until the last push to the top, it can be taxing. We suggest being acclimated before taking it on - because nothing ruins an adventure like altitude sickness. *Another thing to consider is buying a couple of coca candies (yes coca as in the thing you make cocaine out of). We bought a handful at the start of the hike just to try them and we definitely think they helped (plus they tasted like normal candy).
3. Be good stewards of the area. Rainbow Mountain, while in pretty good shape right now, is not meant to host thousands of tourists a day. The area is a pristine natural wonder that should not be destroyed or altered. So try your hardest to leave no trace - this means no littering, staying on the marked dirt trail, only walking in areas you are supposed to (they ask you to stay off the actual striped part for a reason), and take only photos with you when you leave. All of us can do our part to help keep Rainbow Mountain as stunning as it is now for future generations.
4. Be considerate of the locals. Another thing you will quickly notice is that many of the local communities have created an entirely new industry thanks to the popularity of Rainbow Mountain. They have stalls set up to sell trinkets and the aforementioned coca leaf candies near the entrance to the park, but more noticeably they will constantly ask you if you would like to ride one of their horses to the top instead of walking. The constant onslaught of questions about renting a horse does (admittedly) take away from the overall sereneness of the landscape. But, and this is a difficult, gray area (like so many travel experiences), can you blame them for trying to make some money off of the incredible influx of tourists that now bombard their land? We can’t. No matter how you feel about it, remember that you are in their home country and visiting one of their holy mountains (each year, thousands of Quechua pilgrims hike to Vinicunca for the Star Snow festival (Qoyllur Rit’i) which takes place a week before the Corpus Christi feast on May 31st). So remember you are just a visitor in their home, so act accordingly.
While Rainbow Mountain is definitely a unique site to see, it is important to remember that in a perfect (healthy, environmentally sustainable) world we wouldn’t even know about the colorful place. The mountain is a clear symbol of our warming planet and the effects (whether good or not) of a changing planet. So if you are on the fence about visiting a place that is emblematic of that, consider instead looking at other trips in and around the area (including hiking stunning Nevado Ausangate). No matter where you go in the area you will likely see the same stunning colorful landscape - and not a lot of people. So don't be afraid to give up a visit to the tourist hot-spot and instead get more off the beaten path.