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Rainbow Mountain: Hiking to the secret wonder

The first question that probably comes to mind when you look at the picture is, “Is this place real?” and that is exactly what I wanted to find out for myself. Like most people looking to visit Peru, I had no idea such a geological wonder even existed. After all, isn’t Peru all about the other wonder – Machu Picchu? I am glad to say it is not. Once my pre-trip ‘research’ led me to the Rainbow Mountain tour, I knew I had to it. That also meant I had to make a choice between this and the #1 thing to do in Cusco: Sacsayhuamán, historic capital of the Inca Empire. Looking back, I think I chose wisely.

The Rainbow Mountain is located in the Cusco region of the Peruvian Andes and sits at 5,200 m or 17,100 ft above sea level. I had booked my tour through Rainbow Mountain Cusco but interestingly, received no confirmation or communication about the booking. So there I am in Cusco, a day before the tour, not sure whether I’m going to be on that bus to the mountain the next day. Plan B was always Sacsayhuamán but I wasn’t thinking about that just yet. So I tried calling and emailing the tour operator but to no avail. As a last resort, I dropped them a message on Whatsapp and much to my surprise, got a response within 20 minutes. So there it was, plan A was back in business and I was overjoyed like a 5-year old.

The bus picked me up around 5 am local time. The Rainbow Mountain is about 100 kilometers southeast of Cusco and the drive takes approximately 3.5 hours. It was pretty dark when we started, I could hardly see anything outside so I used the time to catch up on some sleep. I knew I’d need all that energy for the hike. After about 2 hours of driving, the bus made a stop for breakfast at Quesiuno village. For breakfast, we were served a giant piece of bread with omelette and cocoa tea.

After the half hour stop for breakfast, we continued on our journey – another hour or so of driving through the Andes to get to the starting point. Once there, we were handed out our entrance tickets, walking sticks for the hike, and instructions on sticking together as a group. Some people chose to hop on a horse right at the start. I was too excited to even consider that option. It was time to go.

The terrain for the first half hour or so was pretty flat. I hardly broke a sweat. What made it even more enjoyable were the stunning views along the way. The colorful landscape is home to Alpacas and Llamas and is a sight to behold. Nature is at its best where it hasn’t been rearranged by the hand of man. Just the dose of energy I needed for the challenge that lay ahead.

For the next hour or so, the hike got progressively more challenging and my pace got progressively slower. Thin air at high altitude means there is less oxygen to breathe. No wonder I was breathing so heavily that I could hear my own breathing. ‘Not too far now’ is what I wanted to tell myself but I knew it wasn’t true. The sun too had disappeared as if to say you’re on your own, bud! From that point on, it wasn’t about physical fitness any more, it was all about mental strength. I sat my arse down to refuel. The thought of taking a horse for the remainder of the hike did cross my mind but to me, it felt like I’d be giving up. The horse doesn’t get you there faster but does help you preserve energy for when you get to the summit. I’m glad I paid little attention to that passing thought.

After almost 2 hours of hiking, I got a first glimpse of the rainbow colors through a restricted side view of the mountain. I could now tell myself, ‘not too far now’ and this time, I knew it was true. Not too long ago, I was almost ready to give up but with the destination now in sight, fatigue slowly started making room for excitement. It’s funny how often, the moment you’re ready to quit is usually the moment right before magic happens. In just a few more steps, I was there – at the summit. So was it magic? Not just yet.

To be honest, the first look of the rainbow mountain wasn’t as impressive as I had imagined and this is because I was too close to it. The vantage point is from the top of the mountain facing the rainbow mountain. So after having come this close, I now had to walk away from it to see the colors distinctly. That meant more hiking but this last stretch wasn’t nearly as hard. After reaching the top (again), I turned around to have another look and sure enough, this time it was magic – the wow moment. The view of the colorful mountain range from the vantage point is breathtaking. I sat my arse down again, this time to take it all in and reflect on what I had just accomplished. I wish I could have captured each and every moment I spent up there and it still wouldn’t have been enough. I just didn’t want to leave but after about an hour, my body had cooled down and the cold had become unbearable to the point where the double layers I had on, the gloves, the ear muffs had all become ineffective. Add to that, the rain I could see on the horizon heading in my direction, I knew it was time to head back.

The journey back wasn’t short of excitement either as the rain chased me for most of my hike downhill. I had managed to stay dry for most of it until the rain finally caught up in the last ten minutes. But it all had been worth it, including playing cat and mouse with the rain. As I made my way back to the bus, I turned around for one last look at the adventure that just had been. Would I do it again? Probably not, because it won’t be even remotely as fun the second time around. Some experiences are best if done just once – one of the most memorable experiences of my life!

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