Altitude sickness ain’t no joke. I shudder when I think about that morning in Bolivia— suffering at 4,000 meters— as an alien tumor pounded against my skull. It took a good week of elevation changes in the thousands and a cycle down Death Road to stop breathing like an obese cow. But even now, post acclimatization and post terrible fit with Peruvian diarrhea, attempting to work out this morning was a cruel joke to my lungs. Therefore, the idea of ascending and descending over 5,000 meters of Peru’s newest star attraction— Rainbow Mountain— in one day was a big fat no f*&#in way.
What’s Rainbow Mountain?
Rainbow Mountain, also known as Vinicunca, was hiding off the grid in the Ausengate region until recently. It gets its name from the weathered strips of colored minerals that paint the hills like a rainbow. Maroon (iron oxide) and gold (iron sulphide), and other resplendent elements, oh my. It’s also a sacred mountain visited by about 10,000 Quechua pilgrims each year. And now, a shit ton of loony backpackers.
These days, just wander down the cobble streets of Cusco and you can practically trip over some bloke selling a day trip to Rainbow Mountain. Pay him about $40 and prepare to join 50 other tour groups, all longing to attain that crystal clear image for Instagram. The typical trip involves a 3:30 wake-up call (nope), a 3.5 hour drive to the start, a 4-hour climb along a meh path following a train of lemmings like you, a 3-hour jaunt back down, and then the drive home for dinner. For the lazy turds in the group, you have the option of straddling a sad, overworked horse for the upward portion. It looks like this…
This all seemed very masochistic to me. Between the ridiculous hours, the changes in altitude, and the special experience of sharing a rainbow with a thousand strangers (check out Roaming Around the World’s blog for the worst case scenario), I had little interest. Until I found Ayni Tours and the option to extend the torture to an overnight version. You leave Cusco at the reasonable hour of 6:30 a.m., begin your hike at 11 a.m., and are camping by 3 p.m. The next morning, you set out at 6 a.m., acknowledge Rainbow Mountain, and carry on through the very undisturbed Ausangate mountain range, finishing in time for lunch. Bueno.
It wasn’t gonna be $40. It wasn’t even budget-friendly. But hell, just like I’ve given up on the concept of creaky 16-bunk dorm rooms, I’m willing to spend a wee bit more to feel human. Plus, they promised quasi glamping, with wine, and a tourist-free viewing of Rainbow Mountain. After crapping Peru out last week thanks to really roughing it in Arequipa, I fully embrace snobby adulthood for this round.
Why the 2-day trek is better
“You descend through a valley of bright red mountains, significantly more colorful than Rainbow Mountain…”
1). You hike alone
For two days, we hiked in isolation. The only other living things that kept us company were our cheerful porters, flocks of curious llamas and alpacas, and local farmers more than willing to shake your hand and shoot the shit. The tranquility was wonderfully deafening. It was the way I imagine a hike should be— a cliche personal journey and test of will and all that.
We did see people at one point, but that was at Rainbow Mountain. At 8 a.m., a few hours before most tour groups showed up, a few early risers were lagging around taking their obligatory photos. And there were also the tell tale vendors asking me 50 times if I wanted to buy some coca tea. But after we stared at the muted Rainbow Mountain long enough, we took a beeline straight out of soon-to-be-hell and were alone once more. When we saw people again, it was at our final destination as we ate lunch: a sad procession of weary tourists in crowded vans.
2). You see better Rainbow Mountains
While Rainbow Mountain itself is a spectacle (and I’m glad I saw it), hiking to it and back aren’t as equally enjoyable. According to our tour guide and other hikers I’ve spoken to, the one-day trek doesn’t offer up the variety that is the Ausangate mountain range. Our hike was exceptionally consistent— gorgeous and colorful with every step.
The first day winds through a grass valley with sloping meadows and a glacier looming in the distance. You camp under an clear night sky, shadowed by jagged peaks. On day two, you hike through Vinicunca Pass, along lakes and snow-capped ridges before reaching the “better” view of Rainbow Mountain (from up higher). Finally— and this is my favorite part— you descend through a valley of bright red mountains, significantly more colorful than Rainbow Mountain. Some with stripes. Most just a delightful Christmas mix of red, green, and snowy white.
“I could be inquisitive and so could they, but no one was afraid of that they were exploiting each other…”
3). You interact with Peruvians who aren’t trying to sell you something
I am not the biggest fan of Cusco. I hated having to dodge shop owners. Massage? Tour? MASSAGE???? It’s definitely one— if not the— most touristy place I have ever been to. And the Sacred Valley, home to Machu Picchu and other Incan ruins, ain’t much better. Now while Cusco is fantastic for first world pleasures (American breakfasts, yoga studios, and decent massages when you do your research), you don’t get much of a chance to actually interact with the people of Peru. Or at least ones that you aren’t paying.
This trek felt special in that regard. For example, before we even started the trek, we came across a llama/ alpaca fair. Farmers from all over the region come down the valley for this annual event to see who had the best in show. People were friendly, drunk, normal. We weren’t spectators or walking ATMs. And during the trek, the normalcy continued. I could be inquisitive and so could they, but no one was afraid of that they were exploiting each other.
4). You don’t feel like a checklist tourist
Travelers to Cusco tend to do two things: hike the 4-day Incan trail to see Machu Picchu (pssst.. I found it underwhelming) and recently, gaze upon Rainbow Mountain. Both are quite packaged and scheduled experiences that you share with everyone else and their mom. Completing both gets you your bragging rights. I climbed this. I Instagramed the shit out of this. Awesome.
But is that why we travel? So many of the opportunities on the gringo trail are staggeringly popular for a reason, but they are often muddled by the desire to check list (guilty, as charged). I loved our trek because it was spontaneous. Untimed. More about reveling in the moment, rather than waiting to tick off the next. In the last 3.5 months of traveling, there have been few opportunities like this but they were often the most memorable.
“I loved our trek… because it was more about reveling in the moment, rather than waiting to tick off the next…”
Why Ayni Tours?
There’s like 10,000 companies that will gladly take your money and take you to Rainbow Mountain. And while they are all significantly cheaper than Ayni, I don’t regret this particular dent in my savings account just the same as others don’t when they fork over a thousand for the Incan Trail (part of our justification, at least). Ayni means “reciprocity” in Quechua, an ideal that the Peruvian and American owners, Domingo and Amanda, strive to achieve in their tours. Part of their profits goes toward the local community, the same communities you trek past.
Besides the warm fuzzies, Ayni just does it better (I wish I was getting paid to say this). First off, there’s the food. A trained chef tags along for the ride and whips up impossibly tasty dishes on his mini camp stove. Think fresh trout with blueberries and tons of fresh veggies. Hell, he made a cake one night and drew mountains on it with freakin’ dulce de leche.
Then there’s the comfort. You still camp and you still huff and puff dealing with the 5,000 meters of altitude, but the little things take off the edge. We were woken up with hot coca tea (helps with altitude sickness), given hot water to wash our faces, all after sleeping on actual air mattresses with hot water bottles tucked near our feet. Hot, hot, hot. Not glamping but as close as I could ever afford.
I get it. If you don’t have much of a budget or are short on time, then maybe the crazy ass day tour is ideal. If so, check out Infinite Juice or Hand Luggage Only for travel tips. Another intriguing option is to run the Sacred Valley and surrounding area with Peru Fitness Holidays.