The glowing red clock at the front of the van read 2:14 a.m. Flashes of the outskirts of Cusco, Peru—streetlights, rows of cramped convenience stores, hand-painted ads on stucco walls—whipped past my periphery, punctuating the near darkness.
Circa-2013 pop music almost drowned out the sounds of our van rattling as it flew over pot holes and swerved around slower cars. I took a deep breath and tried to focus on the road straight ahead—instead of how fast we were going, instead of the tangle of apprehension and nausea growing in the pit of my stomach. I was utterly exhausted, but wide awake with nerves.
I wondered what I had gotten myself into.
Eight months earlier, curled up on the couch in our tiny rental house in Hartsville, SC, I first learned about Rainbow Mountain.
Also known as Mount Vinicunca, the “Rainbow Mountain” has exploded as a tourist destination within the past few years. It’s one of only a few places in the world where you can see an incredible natural phenomenon: hills formed by layers of sediment, dyed bright colors in nearly perfect stripes by naturally occurring minerals. The word from all the tour guides—although I haven’t verified this, so take it with a grain of salt—is that Mount Vinicunca was only “discovered” a few years ago. It used to be covered nearly year-round in ice and snow. But now (thanks, global warming!) it’s both visible and accessible for a good chunk of the year—and tourists are heading there in droves.
You’ve probably seen the pictures popping up on reddit/r/earthporn or your friend’s “Wanderlust” Pinterest board. They look too good to be real—rounded peaks sliced into vivid stripes of rusty red, coppery green, and burnt orange, set against a sweeping backdrop of the snow-dusted Andes. We couldn’t pass it up. A few quick Google searches later, we settled on a one-day trek with Flashpacker Connect and booked it right away.
It was only when we actually got to Cusco that we started to understand what we had signed up for. Consumed with preparation for our Inca Trail trek, we had barely thought about the Rainbow Mountain—even though the Rainbow Mountain was up first. It was only a day hike, after all…how hard could it be?
Well. A few days before we were scheduled to leave, I actually did the math on the elevation. The Rainbow Mountain trek begins at more than 15,000 feet—higher than any single point on the entire Inca Trail. Four and a half miles later, the summit reaches more than 17,000′. To put that into some more perspective, that’s about three times the height of Denver. Washington’s Mount Rainier reaches about 14,500′, and symptoms of altitude sickness usually set in at around 8,000′.
Speaking of altitude sickness: We gave ourselves a few days in Cusco (elevation 11,152′) to acclimate before the trek. Those first few days were…not great. The altitude sickness hit Chris hard, and we mainly spent our time holed up in our hostel—Chris lying in bed, miserable with altitude sickness, me silently panicking, Googling his symptoms and how to say “hospital” in Spanish.
When the day before our trek arrived, I was more than ready to cancel our plans to avoid Chris dying on a mountaintop from a pulmonary edema. But he claimed he was starting to feel better (with the help of some Diamox) and was not going to miss out if there was any chance he could drag himself up that mountain. So, we packed our day packs and went to bed early, in hopes of getting some good sleep before our 2:00 a.m. wake-up call. I barely slept at all.
And that’s how I found myself, nervous and nauseated, flying down winding mountain roads in the pre-dawn darkness. Thankfully, just when I was convinced that I wouldn’t be able to sleep a wink on the entire three-hour drive, my new best friend Dramamine finally kicked in—and, lulled by the faint strains of Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger,” I was out.
The next thing I knew, our van was lumbering to a stop on the side of a dirt road. As I blearily climbed out into the cold air, I looked up—and realized that three hours in a van had somehow transported us worlds away from the crowded, narrow streets of Cusco.
The sun, just beginning to wake up, gently illuminated a tiny mountainside town—a few ramshackle huts perched on rolling hills, surrounded by a meandering creek and herds of grazing alpaca. In the distance, towering glacial peaks: our first glimpse of the Andes.
Our first order of business was breakfast. As we sleepily headed toward the village, a stray dog immediately ran up to greet us, playfully nipping at my calves. Daniel, our soft-spoken Peruvian tour guide, shooed it away as he ushered us into the largest hut on the hill.
We ducked under the door frame to find a table set and waiting for us. Perched on tiny plastic stools, sipping tea and eating made-to-order pancakes with jam, Chris and I introduced ourselves to our three hiking mates: a couple from Colorado and a guy from Canada, all roughly our age. I started to relax (and wake up) as we swapped travel plans, chatted with Daniel and our pancake chef, and laughed at the pin-up llama calendar tacked to the wall.
But we had a tough hike ahead of us, and not a lot of time to waste. After a chance to use the makeshift “toilet” (hole in the ground shielded by a tarp), it was time to set off on our hike.
For the first 10 minutes or so, after passing through a few grazing llama herds, the path climbed steadily upward at a decent clip—leaving me immediately panting for air and worried about how I would ever make it through.
But then, after we took a short pause to catch our breath and shed a layer or two, the path leveled out into a gorgeous valley. For the next hour or so, the hike was downright pleasant. We passed tiny villages and mountain vistas dusted in snow and fog. As we walked, Daniel told us about the Peruvians who live in the valley, making a living raising alpaca and sending their children to school two hours away by foot.
Just when I was starting to think, “This isn’t so bad!” …we started climbing up out of the valley and toward the pass.
In my nervous rush to leave at 2:00 a.m., I had forgotten to bring my hiking poles—but in hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t have them. The hike itself, if you factored out the altitude, was very easy. The path was wide and clear, gently sloping upward at an incline that would be a breeze at a normal elevation. But at 16,000 feet and climbing, every foot gained was a struggle. We continued hiking, slower and slower, throughout the next two hours. We paused frequently to rest and nibble on snacks (which I wasn’t hungry for, but knew I needed to eat). As soon as we kept moving, I was immediately out of breath again.
Some had an easier time than others. “Deep breaths, shallow steps!” encouraged our Colorado friend, Mr. “I-climb-14ers-every-weekend,” as he strolled up the mountain. Daniel brought up the rear, checking in periodically to see how we were doing. “Bien!” we gasped. It was a frustrating experience, hiking in such thin air, struggling through a hike that felt like it should be so easy. The main thing that kept me going? These insanely gorgeous sights all around us.
Slowly but surely, we kept climbing, our carefree chatter subsiding to a determined silence as we neared the summit. At some point, I started singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in my head to help pace myself—moving one step with each note, allowing myself to pause after each stanza to take a few deep, unsatisfying breaths.
Finally, we reached the last stretch of the hike—an even steeper climb up to the top of the pass, a few streaks of rusty red visible to our left. A small stone wall marked our goal.
That last 20 or 30 yards took as much effort as the entire rest of the hike. But I forced myself to keep going, pausing now after every line of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” then every note, propelled only by sheer will and the knowledge that we were almost. there.
Several eternities later, I dragged myself past a small hand-painted sign reading “5200 m” (17,060 feet) and collapsed on the ground. Ahead was a beautiful mountain scene, with the famous Rainbow Mountain to our left. It was a little hard to see the mountain itself. We seemed too close, not quite like the pictures on the Internet—but at that point, I couldn’t care less. Because WE MADE IT.
At least, that’s what I thought. But then. “We go up there for pictures!” said Daniel, pointing, to my horror, to our right—where yet ANOTHER 20-30 yard climb led to the real summit. Immediately and despite all effort, I felt a tightness in my throat. The thought of climbing even one more hill at that altitude, just when I was sure we were done, was just too much. I told Chris to go ahead with the rest of the group while I sat down right there and fought back tears, trying to convince myself that the view was just fine where I was.
But eventually, determination won out. Step by exhausting step, I dragged myself up to join the rest of my group on the real summit.
And of course, it was worth it. I was rewarded with a complete 360-degree views of the (literally) breathtaking Andes, surrounding the one-and-only Rainbow Mountain—from this angle, just as magnificent as the photos.
You know that saying about rainbows? “You can’t have a rainbow without a little rain!” Well, as it turns out, that’s not quite true. You can see a rainbow without the rain—you just have to climb up to 17,000+ feet to get there.
Giddy with success and the strange, lightheaded high of oxygen deprivation, we took our photos, ate a celebratory snack, and gazed down below—at a steady line of tourists snaking up the mountainside like ants. That’s when we learned that the 2:00 a.m. wake-up call is a strategic move: while we had hardly seen another soul during our trek, hundreds of hikers were now heading toward the view that we were enjoying all to ourselves.
Eventually, we began our descent. Compared to what we’d already accomplished, the hike down was a breeze—easier with every step. I’ll admit that I enjoyed (probably a little too much) encouraging the stream of struggling tourists as we strode past. Plus, there was an unexpected bonus—by now, the snow had all disappeared, revealing a new landscape full of more bright reds and greens in the hills around us. The only problem? Because we were so drained and ready to be done, the same 4.5 miles felt at least twice as long. There was much less chatting. Even Daniel looked exhausted.
But of course, we did finally make it all the way back to our breakfast hut—where we basked in our accomplishment and devoured an enormous Peruvian feast: chicken, fish, rice, salad, veggies, at least three different kind of potatoes, and more.
After all this, it was somehow only 1:00 p.m. when we boarded the van for our 3-hour drive home. With the ball of nerves replaced by pride and the glow of success, I took one more photo of the scene before happily settling into my cushy seat.
This time, I didn’t need any Dramamine to pass out.
TL:DR: Altogether, our Rainbow Mountain trek was one of the most physically and mentally challenging things I’ve ever done. It was about six hours of hiking in total, an easy trail made tough by the intense altitude and early start. But between the mountain itself and its surrounding scenery, it was also probably the most beautiful hike I’ve ever tackled. On top of the incredible views, the sense of accomplishment was intoxicating—after conquering that hike, Chris and I both knew we’d be able to handle the Inca Trail. (It’s also worth noting that if you’re worried about the altitude, locals are stationed along the route with horses that you can rent for a small fee.)
I’m not sure if it’s the rose-tinted glasses of hindsight or if I’m just crazy, but even after all that worrying and gasping for air and fighting back tears, it was more than worth it. I’d do it all over again in an instant.
[P.S.: If you have the chance to do this hike, I 100% recommend booking it with Flashpacker Connect. Daniel was an amazing guide: knowledgeable and helpful, encouraging without making us feel pressured. The food was fantastic and plentiful, and the early start is SO worth it to avoid the crowds.]