Linda here beginning this entry…
In July of 2019, Jarrett and I embarked on one of the most “hard core” challenges we’ve embarked on as a couple. We’re both originally from Texas, which has a low altitude. I’m from Brownsville, which has an altitude that is actually beneath sea level at some points. Yet somehow, this did not cross our minds when we decided that on our second day in Peru in 2019, we could make it up to Mount Vinicunca, popularly referred to as “Rainbow Mountain,” which has an elevation of 5,200 m (17,100 ft). For those thinking of embarking on this trip and for reasons I will disclose later in this entry, I highly recommend you make this trip until you’ve had a few days to acclimate to the altitude.
As mentioned above, Jarrett and I had minimal preparation for Rainbow Mountain. We left it almost until the last minute to find a tour company to guide us there. Fortunately, we found the amazing Visit South America company. For those of us who like to avoid crowds, they offer the chance for you to be the first ones to arrive at Rainbow Mountain and the Red Valley. I remember arriving at the airport in Lima and having Jeff text me through WhatsApp, making sure that we coordinated and had everything we needed for the trip. To date, I haven’t met anyone who equals this company’s level of care for travelers.
What did we wear and/or use? We knew it would be freezing because of the altitude and the Peruvian winter, so we made sure to dress lightly, yet warmly. This means that while we layered on clothes, we were careful to wear items which did not weigh much and/or could wick our moisture because we did not want the sweat from the hike to add to the chill. We both made sure to wear good-quality gloves. We both had beanies on our heads, and we made sure to wear a good pair of socks and our hiking shoes to keep our feet warm, dry, and non-slippery on our hike. We did not need hiking sticks, but we did make good use of our headlamps.
What did Visit South America supply for the trek? They thought of everything they knew travelers might not think of. When they picked us up at 3:00 a.m. in Cuzco, they had blankets, warm matte, coffee, and coca leaf tea waiting for us in the car. We stopped by to pick up some freshly-made breakfast sandwiches. Jarrett and I didn’t have to worry about admission or parking fees. Visit South America took care of all that and also made sure to take an oxygen tank, a first aid kit, and an oil to help with altitude sickness. With nothing else to worry about, Jarrett and I slept under the warm blankets throughout most of the 2.5 hour trip.
When we arrived at the base of Rainbow Mountain, I must admit it was awesome yet overwhelming for this girl from south Texas. It was still dark out, but I could see that we were completely surrounded by snow-capped mountains. It was desolate, dark, and quiet, with only a few humble structures housing the locals. Maybe my mistake at that point was being so overwhelmed, but we kept going with our guide, Jeff.
From what I’ve read on the recent reviews for Visit South America, they now offer you the chance at this point to decide whether you want to ride a horse or a donkey up to the mountain. You will need to pay for this service separately because the families providing these services work independently from Visit South America. At the time though, Jarrett and I didn’t have this option, and we had been preparing to be fit for the journey, so we didn’t even think this would be an option for us.
On our way up, we encountered friendly stray dogs. They were like our cheerleaders, encouraging us to not feel intimidated. There were harsh cold winds, but the path itself was pretty smooth, even with the snow in the dark. Light was beginning to creep in as we continued our steep hike. The hike was about a mile long, but the steepness makes it challenging, even for reasonably fit individuals.
At some point, I had to stop hiking up the trail. I just felt dizzy and uncoordinated. Jarrett kept saying it was all in my head, but fortunately Jeff knew better and pointed out how blue my lips were. He asked me if I could try walking backwards, which I couldn’t. Fortunately, Jeff had an oxygen tank and we ran into a guide friend of his. His friend had an oil which helped me gather my bearings. I didn’t want Jarrett to miss out though so I asked Jeff and Jarrett to continue. Of course they refused to leave me by myself. I had Peruvian soles with me and had seen some donkeys and horses already coming down, so I knew I wouldn’t have to wait long. Sure enough, a lady came down with a donkey and they were able to leave me with her as she took me down the mountain, which was fun in itself. Once at the base, I spent a while just sitting there enjoying the sun shining on the mountains and the people.
The Summit at Rainbow Mountain
At this point, we’re going to switch voices to Jarrett’s perspective, because he’s the one that made it to the top!
I ended up leaving Linda and Jeff with a mindset that I needed to hurry as I didn’t want them waiting for me too long, and in case Linda’s situation deteriorated. With all that in mind, I took a very aggressive approach to hiking the rest of the way. While it’s only about 200 meters to the Rainbow Mountain viewing platform, it’s also the steepest part on sketchy cut out dirt steps. It was a hard climb, but I kept my pace and made it without any breaks. Being first paid dividends as I had no wait to view Rainbow Mountain. It wasn’t the iconic bright Instagram picture, but it was gorgeous none-the-less. Half of the mountain was covered in the fresh snow he experienced on our hike up, and the other half had the bands of color showing through. I spent a few minutes alone, just taking in the colors as my breath steamed in the cold Peruvian air as I wished Linda could have experienced the view as well (she would have hated the climb tho). A small group joined me after a bit, and I decided to continue up to the peak of Winikunka, which was another 100- 150 m of steep climb.
I climbed this section with the same aggressiveness as before. This part of the climb is also challenging because you are on areas of loose rock, but I was at the top in no time. The first thing you see reaching the top is an altitude sign. I was in total shock of just how high up I was. After that, I just took in the 360-degree experience of being that high and being able to see for miles. I honestly think this view was one of the most impressive of my entire life. I took in the view and captured some photos before heading back down. Around halfway down, the tour guide we met before offered to take a few photos of me, and I graciously accepted his offer.
The Red Valley
Once I made it back down, I met up with Jeff. He let me know Linda had started back down and that he was going to catch up with her. He also gave me a ticket to Fire Valley, gave me some vague directions abut which trail to stay on, and some ominous advice about paying the correct people. And with that, I was off. No other hikers heading this way, and I was completely alone on my trek, but I could look over and see all the growing number of groups heading up to Rainbow Mountain.
On the trail, I had a good idea of where I was going only because I could see the trail going through a small rock wall on top of a ridge; however, there were multiple branching footpaths, so my exact course was a little difficult to plot. I was quickly back gaining elevation and even ran a few segments, but I couldn’t keep that up due to lack of oxygen and exhausted from the previous climbs. I quickly made it to the gap in the wall, and while I was exploring the area, I found a group of juvenile caracara birds roosting on the side of a cliff. Shortly after that, I met a park employee, and he took my entrance ticket. We had a short mixed language conversation as I tried to learn where I needed to go and how long the trail was. I set out again, and quickly found an overlook into the valley.
I had no idea what to expect, but it didn’t take long for me to understand where the valley’s name came from. All around me were patches of vivid red dirt covered in snow. The color was extremely beautiful. After looking around, taking selfies, and pictures, I descended back down to the parking lot, making my way slowly through large groups still trying to make it up to rainbow mountain.
Now back to Linda’s perspective:
The Ride Back Home
On the way back home, we treated ourselves to the hot beverages again. We asked Jeff if he had any places along the way he would recommend for us to stop at for lunch, and we stopped by at a location to eat delicious soup and fish. Unfortunately, we can’t remember exactly where we stopped, but we can guarantee that it was great. Jeff and our driver (whose name I regret I can’t recall), are such traveled and knowledgeable individuals, that they made great company at lunch time too. For the rest of the ride, we talked about music and other South American countries to visit. By the time we got home, we were definitely ready for our nap!
We loved this experience! Even I, Linda, who didn’t even make it to the top, enjoyed the trip. If you have the chance to visit and feel reasonably fit enough to do it, we highly recommend you try it too!