Follow me southeast of Cusco in Peru to 16,500-foot Rainbow Mountain (or Vinicunca in Quechua, which means seven-color mountain), a thrilling challenge that literally took my breath away as we ascended from green valleys, surrounded by snowcapped mountains and crisscrossed by crystal-clear streams to a colorful striated pinnacle that’s 8,500 feet higher than Machu Picchu.
I spent four months living in Cusco last year, and when I was there everyone was talking about Rainbow Mountain, a strenuous trek newly offered by tour operators all over town for around US$40. (Head to the Plaza de Armas and along Avenida El Sol, and you’ll have an array of excursions to choose from. ( Andean Path Travel at 51-946-649-731 is highly recommended by locals in the know.)
Described as astonishing, dazzling, magnificent and difficult, the hike starts at 14,500 feet. Since I was well acclimated to living and climbing stairs at 12,000 feet, I hoped I could keep up with two much younger friends, JJ and Jeremy, who invited me on this adventure, which left Cusco at the terrible hour of 3 a.m. and returned around 10 p.m. the same day.
The early van pickup in the historic district gives trekkers several hours of darkness for snoozing before breakfast near the trailhead. By 7:30 a.m., you’ll be led up some craggy stretches by an English-speaking guide, followed by a horse handler and small horses available for anyone suffering from the high altitude or exhaustion (for an extra US$20 round-trip).
Not me. I wasn’t going to ride when JJ and Jeremy were still on foot, nor was I game to chew coca leaves, until our guide promised that if I did, I would no longer be gasping for air. And he was right. Many trekkers walk the entire trail both ways, but there’s no shame in riding to Rainbow Mountain, as we quickly came around to doing, me atop “the horse with no name.” There are sections far too steep for horses to carry a rider, so periodically our guide signaled us to dismount and walk until reaching less arduous terrain. Breathing was much easier on horseback, and shortness of breath while hiking sometimes forced us to stop for a few minutes, especially on the very steep final stretch. Fortunately, on the trail to Rainbow Mountain, there weren’t any dizzying paths with sheer drop-offs to terrify me like the ones along the Inca Trail.
What you can expect — besides a little labored breathing — are mesmerizing photo ops like colorfully dressed alpaca and llama herders on a golden grassy slope, a few small Quechua-speaking villages, mothers carrying their red-cheeked babies, some turquoise lakes, and the 21,000-foot glacier known as Ausangate, which may look close but would take two days to reach. You won’t get a glimpse of the peak of Rainbow Mountain until you’re almost there, and from that point, there’s still another steep 300-foot stretch that delivers an even better view. With all the magical moments, coming and going, it’s no wonder that JJ, riding with both hands on his Nikon and eyes fixed in the viewfinder, kept falling off his horse.