America,  Peru,  TDM,  Travel Journal

Vinicunca (Peru): Discovering Rainbow Mountain

After Machu Picchu, the discovery of the Rainbow Mountain is the excursion the most put forward by the travel agencies in Cusco

The “rainbow mountains” or “montagne arc en ciel” or “montañas de colores” are spectacular mountains that seem to be covered with paintings of 7 different colors. This work is 100% natural and has been made over the millennia. The red results from iron oxide, the green from copper sulfate, the yellow from sulfur, ..

Part 1: Travel Diary
Part 2: Practical Tips

Part 1: Travel Diary

The tour is fairly standardized regardless of the agency chosen and includes

  • The pickup at your hotel at 3am
  • Transport to Vinicunca
  • The breakfast
  • Hiking with a guide
  • Lunch
  • The return to Cusco

The guides are equipped with the first aid kit including an oxygen tank, this expedition takes us to 5100 meters of altitude. At this height there is about 45% less oxygen than at sea level

To tell the truth, the pickup at 3am made me hesitate a bit (it’s too early!) but the idea of discovering this beautiful place, the opportunity to do a little bit of physical activity (my last footings go back to Valparaiso) and the curiosity to discover how my body would react at this altitude made me decide

Since the service will be more or less the same depending on the agency, it is in your interest to compare prices. A first agency proposed me the tour for 120 soles, which corresponds to the price in high season. We are currently in low season (January 2017) and I finally found the tour for 65 soles, to which I will have to add 10 soles of entrance fee

The next morning at 3 am, one thus comes to recover me at the hotel. I took care to go to bed early the day before but the night was still far too short..

It’s a 3 hours drive by minivan to a tiny village where a simple breakfast awaits us, our two guides advise us to put coca leaves in our drinks to avoid altitude sickness. I found the breakfast a little light compared to the effort that was going to follow, so I advise you to plan an extra snack for the ascent

This stop is also the occasion for a briefing which will be reduced to its congruent portion in its English version. The rudimentary English of our guide will moreover make him say that we will walk “seventy” kilometers outward journey and “seventy” kilometers return. Fortunately, we had to understand “seven” and not “seventy”. He indicates to us that it is necessary to count approximately 3 hours for the rise and 2h30 for the descent

We take again the mini-van for about ten minutes to arrive at Vinicunca, starting point of the trek at about 4100 meters of altitude, we will have thus right to 1000 meters of difference in level. My first impression is that it is damn cold! At 3 a.m. in Cusco, my fleece was enough for me, at 6 a.m. in Vinicunca, the coat, the cap and the gloves aren’t too much! As good shopkeepers, the villagers are there if you forgot something : drinks, chocolate bars, socks, hats, ..

The ascent starts and the first few hectometers make me realize that the level of our group of a dozen people is very heterogeneous, a good part of the group is quickly distanced from the leading group of which I am proudly part

It must be said that the difference in height added to the altitude make this trek quite demanding and the agencies are careful not to mention that a correct physical condition is required. Luckily, the villagers propose to all those who aren’t able to speak, to ride on horseback, it is necessary to pay 40 soles for the ascent, or 80 soles for the ascent AND the descent

The first hour is still quite frustrating because we stop regularly to wait for latecomers. My little mountaineering experience taught me that it takes a slow and steady pace to achieve a good ascent. We’re not there at all and I lose the rhythm and get cold at every break

During one of these forced breaks, a Korean woman explains to me that she has already been to Paris and that she hated the subway (“It smells bad!”). I answer her that I understand, if she knew that it was because of (or thanks to?) the Parisian subway that I went around the world..

After a while, a tacit agreement is found: everyone will go at his own pace. No risk of getting lost anyway, it’s all right, we’ll meet up again

The landscapes are magnificent: we first go along a river and then we cross pastures populated by many llamas and sheep. We see small simple villages. Here no mobile network and in my opinion no electricity

After about 2 hours of walking, the rainbow mountains are finally visible. It is however the triple punishment: the altitude, the angle of the slope which increases and the cold make the ascent really trying. I have to work hard and it must be obvious since more and more villagers offer me to ride horses

The villagers are also impressive: they are as tall as 3 apples, wear simple sandals and climb up and down at a steady pace without any apparent signs of fatigue or shortness of breath

At the end of 2h30, we arrive at the most difficult part, moreover the horses stop there, those which rested until there will have to be employed if they want to go to the end. 15 minutes of walk and we arrive in front of the colored mountains. Village women sell drinks and chocolate bars. Small walls make you want to sit down. Don’t sit down at all! Many people make this mistake and don’t have the courage to leave for the last meters of the ascent where the view is much more spectacular

I finish with difficulty, I am largely in the lead of our group but one of our two guides who was well behind caught up with me then overtook me in a few minutes. We see those who are used to it!

Reaching the top sounds like a victory and the view is our reward. The 360° panorama is magnificent, the different colors are well visible, we also have a very beautiful view on a glacier in front of us, sumptuous!

I stay 30 good minutes at the top to admire the landscape while waiting for the others and then I start to come down because I’m getting really cold. Only small disappointment: our guide will not give us explanations while other groups are entitled to it. Considering his level of English I couldn’t expect much anyway

The descent seems quite long, the fatigue is well felt and muscles that aren’t used to being solicited begin to complain. My arrival on the parking lot is marked by lightning and a big thunderclap. Just as I enter the mini-van a terrible hailstorm begins, I would be the only one not to take it 😃

Then we are entitled to a rather simple but welcome lunch, it feels really good to eat after this effort!

Then return to Cusco around 7 pm

The only mistake of the day will finally be to have decided to take a night bus to Puno the same evening. After the short night and the effort of the day, I really needed a good bed!

Part 2: Practical Tips

A good physical condition is required, unless you take the horse option
Beware of mountain sickness. Plan a few days of acclimatization in Cusco. If necessary, go to the pharmacy the day before to buy Sojochi Pills over the counter

To take with you (but everything is sold on the way if needed)

  • Some cereal bars
  • Water
  • Warm clothes, hat & gloves
  • Poncho for the rain

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