Rainbow Mountains: Hiking in Peru’s Technicolor Range - By Lisa Ballard

November 06, 2019
An alpaca named "Adolfo" eats his lunch on summit ridge of Mount Winnikunka, after carrying his food there on his back like a hiker. (His owner was standing by him, and had loaded him up.)

 

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.

The what?

After a quick Google search, I knew I had to see this unique mountain range.

A local Quechuan woman with her pet alpaca on the summit ridge of Mount Winnikunka. The design of her hat tells which side of the ridge she is from. This is as far as she can go. She's not allowed to cross to the other side.

 

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.”

"Taxi" anyone?

 

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 same warming climate that exposed the Rainbow Mountains is taking them away. Lichens, like these, and alpine grasses are working their way up the sides of the mountains - a boon for the grazing herds of alpacas, but not for hikers intrigued by the colorful scenery.

 

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.

A large herd of alpacas graze below the remnants of the glaciers around the Rainbow Mountains.

 

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.

 

The Rainbow Mountains, with their striking striated colors, were formed when the Andes were under an ancient sea. Layers of different sediments created the vibrant stripes.

 

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!