I decided to do two treks before the one to Machu Picchu. I wanted to check how my body felt with the elevation under strain. Rainbow Mountain is one that I was really excited about seeing. I don’t know why I felt so drawn to it, but it immediately made the top of my list for treks in Cusco. I gave myself two days to settle in the city before booking the trek. I am very glad that I did. A man at my hostel had gone the day before and the entire mountain had been covered in white snow, not a color to be seen. I was really apprehensive. I didn’t want to get all the way up to the top only to have a white view. Needless to say, I am so glad that I waited the two days. I guess luck was on my side.
It is a new tourist attraction. It just opened for tourism four years ago. It was discovered recently because what used to be pure glacier is now thawing due to global warming. Then the BBC and National Geographic did a documentary on the mountain and that was all it took to put it on the world stage. 8000 people a day durning high season make the trek to see the colors. We were in low season because of the possibility of what happened to my bunk mate. You don’t know what type of scene you are gong to get at this time of year. The highland people around the mountain have taken advantage of the tourism, offering horse rides for those who are struggling up the mountains, pictures with llamas and snacks and drinks.
However, there are some downfalls with the mountain that makes you think a bit. First, the highland people who like the tourism have now discovered the power of money. They buy smart phones and go into the city of Cusco, moving away from their traditions. There is also a massive increase of alcohol abuse. About 40% of the highland people do not like the tourism because it is depleting the traditions they have fought so hard to preserve. Then there is government corruption. The mayor is in charge of all the money for Rainbow Mountain. The goal is to invest back into tourism, better roads and bathrooms for the tourists, etc. However, the people are asking that the money be put back into the people of the land, with schools and community structures that will make living easier. Second, there is no regulations right now. The mountain is in danger of eroding from all of the tourists. So this year, they are deciding how to regulate the attraction like they did with Machu Picchu.
Getting to Rainbow Mountain:
First thing to know – DO NOT book with any other tour but Rainbow Mountain Travels. You have to get up at 3am, but it is worth it to be the first one on the mountain. There were only about 20-30 people when I reached the top. This meant my pictures were incredible and I didn’t have to wait for anything. Plus, the guides are great, they give you blankets, and they carry an oxygen tank if you need it. I didn’t, but it was nice to know it was there.
Second, while the elevation is not as bad as Cusco, it is high. And there are some steep parts at the final stretch. Chew the coca. Chew and chew and chew. And bring some walking sticks. They are great when you are a little dizzy from the lack of oxygen and your legs are wobbly on the way down. The trails are really narrow. As you are descending, tons of people who didn’t book through Rainbow Mountain Travels are ascending. You will be skirting out of the way a lot and the poles help with the balance. Let those going up go first. They are the ones in the battle with the mountain and you have already won.
Third, pack water (at least a liter), one sole coins for the bathrooms, sunscreen, and warm clothes for all parts of your body. The top top of the mountain is freezing. I’m talking frost-bite hands kind of cold. So make sure you have actual winter gloves and a face/ ears protector. And I cannot stress the layers enough. As you walk, you get hot, but you are going to need those jackets at the top. Know that it can rain or snow at anytime, especially in the rainy season, so water proof everything is good. I was so grateful for my water proof pants and jacket as it started to sleet on the way down.
Finally, take breaks. I am in mediocre shape, but even those in impeccable shape were stopping around me to catch their breath. It is freaking high. And if you are not used to elevation, you are taking twice as many breaths to get the sufficient amount of oxygen. It is not a race. I sang “you’ve got to put one foot in front of the other and put your other stick down, down, down.” The rhythm was a great pace and took my mind off my screaming lungs. I would also take twenty steps and then rest for ten seconds. This is what got me through the last leg. Honestly, it is not the incline, it’s the breathing that is going to slow you down. But the end result is worth every minute.
Now, I did not do the Red Valley because it started to snow and I was too tired after the emotional and physical climb to the Rainbow Mountain, but one person in the group did it and said it was worth it. It is very difficult because you are already tired and the trail is not as pronounced. Remember you will need an extra 20 soles for this trek because it is not included in the tour. One person told me that it was his favorite experience because no one goes the extra hour to Red Valley so it feels more isolating and lonely in a good way. Something to consider.
I didn’t know how I was going to feel on this trek. It was my first in my trip and one of the ones that I was most excited about, but I was not expecting to reach the top and burst into tears. That was a new experience for me. It is beautiful at the top, but that was honestly not why I was crying. Getting to the top was hard. It took a lot of self talk and pushing. And at times I was even wondering if it was worth it. What if I got there and it was white just like the day before?! But reaching the top and seeing the colors brought back all of the overwhelming feelings of my year. This time last year I was in chemo fighting for my life. And every session I needed to self talk and push myself to go, especially at the end. Man, session 11 and 12 I did not want to do it. What if I went through everything only to be told I still had cancer? I was done being sick and scared and tired all of the time. And then I got an all clear and started planning this trip. That mountain. That beautiful and colorful mountain was like a little gift for my uphill battle. It was a reminder of why I travel and why I fought so hard last year. And why I will continue to fight if something ever happens again. Because this world is just amazing. And I will take every moment to experience everything I can, including climbing mountains.
At one point, I just sat down in peace and reflection. One of the people who was on the tour with me captured my picture and sent it to me. It’s one of my favorite photos now. Because when you do climb and reach the top, it is really important that you take some time just for yourself. This is my time. Peru is my trip just for me.