With a full day to kill in Cusco, Peru before flying back to the U.S., Alpaca Expeditions set up a hike for me to the top of Mount Winikunka in the Rainbow Mountains.
After a quick Google search, I knew I had to see this unique mountain range.
My guide, Jaime, picked me up at 3 a.m. for the three-hour drive into this curious place in the Andes. The last third of the drive was more hiking trail than road. We wound up and up, finally arriving at the trailhead at 15,000 feet. It was a crisp morning, well below freezing.
The view from the trailhead gave me pause. We were above the clouds as the sun came up, turning the surrounding mountaintops into jagged, rocky islands. “Let’s get going,” urged Jaime. “We need to get on top before the clouds move higher.”
The first 1.5 miles was not difficult except for the cold and lack of oxygen. The trail climbed moderately toward a distant ridgeline. Next to us, local Quechuans led horses up and down the trail, peering at us inquiringly.
“Taxi,” explained Jaime. For those who couldn’t handle the climb on foot at this elevation, a seasonal cottage business had evolved. For 60 Soles ($18), one could get a ride up about two-thirds of the way. Ironically, the end of the ride was just where the trail got steep.
The final half-mile was a vertical son-of-a-gun. When I reached the top, at 16,500 feet, my jaw dropped at the spectacular view.
So much color, even more vibrant than my bright blue LOWA Badia GTX boots!
The entire mountain range was multi-hued stripes, as if Willy Wonka had created a massive mound of alpine eye-candy.
In 2005, whitewater rafters on the Urubamba River took a day off on their downriver trip and went for a hike, discovering the Rainbow Mountains.
The glaciers that had blanketed the area for thousands of years had just melted out, leaving behind ribbons of color.
In another 10 years, scientists predict it will be covered up again, this time by lichens and alpine grasses, which are already creeping up the Rainbow Mountains’ gravelly slopes.
Climate change gave us this remarkable geological phenomenon and will soon take it away. What a privilege to see it while it lasts!