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South America

Peru: Rainbow Mountain

By the time we returned to Cusco I had been traveling through South America for two weeks. I was feeling pretty confident and Gaia had done really well climitizing so we decided to go out on a limb and hike Rainbow Mountain, also known as "Vinicunca" or "Montaña de siete colores". Information varies, so I'm not sure what the true elevation is or the length of the trip, but there seems to be some consistency with the following facts:

    Return hike distance: 12-15km
    Starting altitude: 14,189 ft
    Highest altitude: 16,466 ft

To give that some perspective, Mt. Robson, a beautiful mountain close to my hometown that just happens to be the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies sits at 12,972 ft elevation. If you're not used to elevation anything above 8,000 ft increases your chances of altitude sickness.

3AM comes early, but by now I was used to waking before the sun. Looking out of my hotel window I could see the city of Cusco shrouded in darkness. Quietly, I crept out of bed so as not to wake Gaia. I was well practiced in the art of waking early for expeditions so we were already packed and dressed. When the van arrived we only had to hop in and the journey began.

The beginning point for the trek is a 3 hour drive from the city so Gaia and I settled into the cramped van to try and get a few hours sleep. Sleeping in a vehicle is hard to do at the best of times, and these cramped quarters certainly were no different. About two hours into the trip the sun started to rise and we came to a long, twisting, sometimes single lane, dirt road that clung to the side of the mountain. The views of the valley below were absolutely stunning, I couldn't help smiling through my clenched teeth. As we swung around tight corners kicking dirt up and over the edge of the cliff I grasped for Gaia's hand. It was a gentle assurance more for me than her.

At the parking lot our "bilingual" guide (she spoke maybe a handful of English words) told us to dress warmly. The van door opened and the cool crisp air flooded the vehicle. It was sharp enough to take your breath away- which didn't leave much breath for the beautiful surroundings.

The elevation was difficult to ignore. Our first few steps had me huffing and puffing as we hiked alongside a small creek, slowly making our way along the path. Gaia kept asking why the hiking seemed so difficult compared to past hikes (like Huayna Picchu,) so I used the remainder of my breath explaining to her how elevation affects oxygen and telling her to save her own breath. Gaia stared at every corner with curiosity and intent yearning for the horses to be around the bend.

Finally we came over a hump and there they were, an entire field of horses. We picked our horse and lead (who only spoke Quechua) and Gaia happily leaped on. I'd read reviews that the horses sometimes strayed ahead so I expressed to my guide that I wanted them to stay near me.

We made our way through the magical valley, Gaia by horse, and me following by foot. The first kilometer had me shedding a layer as I was working up a sweat. I checked to make sure Gaia wasn't cold, hungry, faint, or thirsty at the first gathering point, and we continued on. The next stretch after that was a bit of a climb and I started falling behind the horse. I wasn't too worried though. It was a little steep and would have been hard for the horse to slow down so I imagined that they were waiting at the top of the hill where a bunch of people were gathered around a small kiosk.

The chill in the air increased and it started to snow. When I reached the plateau I quickly scanned the crowd and felt my heart sink as I realized that Gaia wasn't among the groups of people waiting. A gentleman from our group who was walking ahead of me told me that he had offered Gaia his extra layer since she seemed cold (this layer was pretty vital in her protection from the elements). Glancing ahead I could see her making her way up the mountain with her horse and lead.

I left the rest of my group behind in order to chase after her and although she was always in eyesight, she was just that far away that I couldn't reach her. I used every reservoir of energy to try and catch up to her. I knew that as badly as I wanted to just run ahead, I wouldn't be able to so I tried to hire a horse. She was in safe hands but I had no idea how the elevation was affecting her since we last checked in and her lead didn't speak English. The icy wind was also a major concern of mine since she was sitting on a horse not moving and I had the remainder of the warm clothes in my backpack.

Several leads turned me down, they didn't want to offer their services for such a short distance. I briefly thought I could reach Gaia when they got caught up at a steep section but it was momentary, and before I knew it, they had scaled the area. I was left behind once again. Finally, after climbing that part myself I found a lead who would take me and I hopped on the horse. I told him to go as fast as he could since she was out of sight by now. We raced up the mountain. Coming over the next ridge I saw a group of adults surrounding a child sitting on the ground wrapped in blankets and I immediately knew it was Gaia (I hadn't seen any other kids that morning).

I quickly jumped off of the horse and ran over to her. She sat there shivering but was completely coherent. I threw the remainder of our warm clothes on her and scooped her up in my arms. I asked her if she was okay and she just kept saying she was freezing cold through chattering teeth. She showed no signs of altitude sickness or anything else other than exhaustion. The 3AM wake up, the cold, and the elevation all had a role in how her body responded to the stresses of the day. I held her until the shivering stopped and I could hear her soft snore. Sitting in the skiff of snow cradling her closely, I listened to the steady beat of her heart and the gentle heaves of her breath. It wasn't long before the cold started snaking it's way through my body. Finally when I couldn't stand it anymore, I stood up and started lugging my 50 lb child up the mountain.

By the time I had caught up to Gaia we had made it to the end of the horse trail. It was the drop off point for the tourists traveling by horse. From there we had to walk a short distance in order to see the mountain clearly. The viewpoint was within reach but felt completely unattainable. Since I was supposed to wait for the rest of the group anyway I decided to start carrying her up.

Shortly after standing up I could feel Gaia start to waken. I asked her if she wanted to walk and she muttered something about going back down so I upped the incentive (Lego, totally real honest parenting, I offered her Lego). She took the bait and we decided to aim for the first of the two viewpoints. A gentleman from our group suggested he piggyback Gaia part of the way, and we graciously accepted. After a while he put her down and walked back to the meeting point.

Gaia immediately ran over to me and threw her arms up. I picked her up and we continued our climb. Staring at the ground I practiced placing one foot in front of the other. By this point my legs felt like lead and my breath kept catching in my throat but I was determined to get us to the top. When I felt like my legs were going to give out from Gaia's weight I went a few more steps and a few more steps and then put her down. She would walk for a bit, I would pick her up for a bit. Through this method we were able to get to the first viewpoint.

Standing on the lookout I was overcome with pride and excitement. A few ladies walked over to congratulate me. One started with saying, "Whenever I thought I wasn't going to make it, I turned around and there you were carrying a child up the mountain."

Gaia, while now happy and content, didn't quite share my extreme excitement. We sat on a rock enjoying the glorious views and basking in the few rays of sun that had finally appeared.

Maybe I was floating on a feeling of accomplishment, maybe it was the sun shining, or maybe it was the fact that we were finally not climbing anymore, but hiking down was so much easier. I held Gaia's small hand as we picked our way back to the horses taking in the tremendous views and periodically stopping for photos. We easily found her horse again and started the journey back to the trailhead.

The first 2/3 of the trip down was fairly effortless. Suddenly, the lead pointed behind me and started ushering us to quicken our pace. I turned to see a massive wall of black cloud heading our way. It was pretty apparent that it was moving towards us at a rapid speed and we still had a few kilometers to travel until we reached the truck. Within minutes the wall reached us and it rained down on us with full force. The water flowed off of my gortex jacket mimicking the streams flowing down the mountain. My dry bag kept our gear safe but there was no saving Gaia and I or any other poor soul on that mountain. We were all absolutely soaking wet. The last bit of our trek painfully stretched on forever- particularly after Gaia had to dismount the horse and continue by foot. The rain had created a muddy disaster. Every step was carefully calculated. Seeing the image of the van slowly inch closer as we slogged down the mountain pass was my only salvation.

Finally we arrived at the van dripping wet but victorious. Since we had planned on continuing South and not heading back to Cusco we were lucky to have all of our luggage waiting for us in the van. This meant that we had a dry change of clothes and dry socks. I'm pretty sure some of the passengers in our van would have given away their left arm for a pair of dry socks.

The sun came out for our drive and life seemed good again. In true Peruvian style we ended up getting a flat tire which left us stranded for another hour. I typically would not have been fussed but it had been a long day. Sunset was nearing and I was about to get dropped off in a tiny town that hardly, if ever, saw tourists. All I wanted was a warm bed and I tossed around the idea of heading back to the safety and familiarity of Cusco but I stayed true to our plan.

The van pulled up to the town just as the sun dropped behind the mountains and I felt my stomach tense as Gaia and I stepped out of the doors. After a rushed goodbye we found ourselves alone in the town of Checacupe. I'd google searched hotels prior to arrival but hadn't come up with anything until the next town over, Sicuani. In Spanish, I asked the lone 3 people in the town square if there were any hotels nearby. They just stood there and looked at me strangely. One gentleman told me to wait for the van to Sicuani. Or at least that's what I thought he said.

We sat on a bench waiting for the collectivo (a small van) as the darkness crept up on us. A van drove past and when I asked for Sicuani he shook his head no. Same with the next, and the next. Just when I was about to give up a van sped up to us, door wide open with a man hanging out shouting "Sicuani, Sicuani". We jumped in and hadn't even sat down before the van sped onward in search of its next passenger.

Arriving in Sicuani we found a place to sit down and eat. A taxi took us right to our hotel. Walking into my room that night the sight of a warm comfy bed with thick blankets piled on was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.

Okay, so now that you've read that, I have to admit, despite the trials this was definitely one of the highlights of our trip. Ask Gaia though and you'll get a different answer.

BY THE NUMBERS:

Rainbow Mountain definitely wasn't what I expected. The hike was stunning, the mountain was stunning, but I had envisioned a little less snow and a better view of the mountain (the second viewpoint is where you get the stunning panoramic view but Gaia was too tired to hike to that one).

If you google "Rainbow Mountain" you'll see that the photos of the mountain itself are vastly different from mine. You never know what the weather will be like, just as you never know how your hiking comrades will adapt. Your best bet is to be prepared and take it all in stride. 

Elevation affects everyone so differently. One of the guys in our group got extremely ill, and he was just as fit, if not more fit than the rest of us. Sleep deprivation, dehydration, and diet all play a role. I recommend getting a good night's rest and packing plenty of high energy snacks for the hike up. Our tour included breakfast and lunch but we ate breakfast at 7AM and didn't have lunch until roughly 3PM. There are vendors selling water along the route and other goodies, but I always prefer to bring my own. The cost of a horse is not included in the tour and is between 60-100 soles per person. There are horses all along the route, so you can always pick one along the way if you're not feeling well (bring exact cash, nobody carries change) Please remember that even if you do hire a horse for the whole trip there are still a few slippery and steep sections that you will have to walk. Tours depart from Cusco and return to Cusco unless otherwise discussed. The full "Rainbow Mountain tour" range from 70 soles- 150 soles in Cusco. You can purchase online ahead of time for 150$ but I wouldn't say it's necessary. Many tourist offices just sell the tours and then you all end up with the same company in the end anyway. I would recommend doing some research into tour companies with good reviews, my company was actually horrible. They were supposed to carry oxygen and didn't. When tending to the gentleman who was quite nauseaus they went to give him some alcohol to inhale (I am not sure why but they thought it would alleviate his symptoms? Don't ask my the science behind this) but accidentally sprayed it in his eyes. I had been assured at the office that my guide was bi-lingual, but she was not. If it weren't for the bi-lingual Columbian in our group I would have had no idea what was going on. The only saving grace was that our driver was quite skilled and very kind.

What To Bring:

  • water or sports drink (gatorade was our drink of choice- although there are some snacks and beverages for sale along the trail)
  • warm clothes (more than you think you could need and lots of layers)
  • good sturdy shoes
  • rain jacket & backpack cover (or a poncho that will fit both)
  • snacks
  • a camera
  • sunscreen (between the sun and the wind, I walked away with one hurting face)
  • mosquito repellant
  • exact change for snacks or horses
  • 10 soles for the park entrance fee
  • A waterproof bag for your passport (Important!! some people had their passports ruined in the storm. Or better yet, leave it somewhere safe. I left mine hidden in my bag in the van and it was perfectly safe upon return)
  • Optional: a change of dry socks and or flip flops to leave in the van for your return (in case of bad weather. Sometimes it's sunny and glorious and too hot, sometimes it rains like crazy, sometimes it snows. We saw all 3 on our hike)