Perú is full of unbelievable landscapes. Cusco – the city of the Incas – is surrounded by fantastic hikes and amazing viewpoints. One of our favourite locations is Mt Winicunca, but you probably know it as the Rainbow Mountain (or Montaña de Siete Colores). We hiked up to see this mountain of seven colours, and boy was it an eventful day.
AN EARLY START
You might think that having no work responsibilities while travelling, we probably don’t get up every day until late morning. Well, in South America we have had plenty of early starts. Today’s ungodly hour was 4am. We booked a tour with Loki Travel to visit the infamous Rainbow Mountain. There is a three day option which includes a trek around the Ausangate mountains. However, because of time and budget restrictions, we chose to go just for the day.
We waited outside our hotel in the Santiago district for our Servicio Turismo coach. It was supposed to arrive a time 4.30am, but natural Peruvian timekeeping meant that I think arrived at 5.15am. Sufficiently cold and frustratedly, the bus was a welcome sight. We climbed aboard and promptly fell asleep.
During the brief moments we were woken by some mental Peruvian driving, we saw glimpses of how beautiful the land is. Everywhere you look, there is something that makes you think ‘this cannot be a real place’. The dusty plains close to the road are populated with short trees which morph into mountains towards the horizon. Although it’s cold, the sun has got his hat on and shines brightly.
DANGER DANGER HIGH ALTITUDE
After a short breakfast stop, we arrived at the entrance to the Rainbow Mountain. It was 6.30am and we were excited to have finally arrived at this amazing place. The second we stepped out of the van, the altitude hit us. It was immediately harder to breathe, and every step a chore.
The base of the Rainbow Mountain is over 4000m above sea level. We had kind of acclimatised during our time in Quito and Cusco, but apparently our bodies were not prepared for this. Altitude sickness can be horrific. If you are severely affected by the symptoms and don’t go back down to a lower altitude, you can develop some serious health issues.
Within about 10 minutes, we both had headaches and were struggling to breathe. These however are not serious symptoms and we knew we’d be okay if we carried on drinking water. Besides, our guide had an oxygen tank and we were walking with two medical students (this came in handy later!).
REIN IT IN
We had done a fair bit of trekking since arriving in Cusco, so we’d consoled ourselves that we’d go up this mountain by horse. It would be much easier on our bodies – altitude-wise – and probably more enjoyable. We’ve been horse-riding together a couple of times before so we thought we’d be okay.
The horses are available for hire about 20 minutes into the trek. This meant walking the first part, which we didn’t mind, but it showed to us how tough it would be to climb at this altitude. We eventually found a couple of sorry-looking horses and negotiated their hire down from 80 Soles to 50 Soles each.
Katherine is an experienced, confident rider and climbed aboard hers with ease. Her guide began to lead her and her horse and everything was great. When my turn came, I grasped the saddle, put my left foot in the stirrup and hopped on. This is where things started to go wrong… very quickly.
Before I could even get my right foot into the second stirrup, my horse had had enough and bolted off down the mountain… with me attached. The guide was running alongside naively holding onto the guide rope. But have you ever seen a man outrun a horse?
The horse carried me down the Rainbow Mountain for what felt like miles without showing any intention of slowing down. It was only then that I realised that the horse had no bridle or reins and the saddle wasn’t even secure. I obviously couldn’t pull him up, and the guide had given up ages ago. I was in trouble.
I didn’t want to bucked off, or fall off onto rocks – I don’t think my insurance would be happy. I had to make a quick decision/accept my fate. That being said, time wasn’t really on my side and the saddle was becoming less secure by the second. I half rolled/half was thrown from the wonky saddle. Bracing for impact, I was thinking ‘I can’t believe I am about to fall off a horse in Perú? Mum will kill…’
Thankfully, the horse wasn’t very tall and the ground was marshy with heather. I escaped with minor cuts and bruises, no broken bones, and I didn’t hit my head. It could’ve been so much worse.
If you’re planning to climb the Rainbow Mountain, I would recommend thinking very seriously about whether to take a horse or not. There are no safety precautions; the horses probably aren’t fit for carrying human weight; and, even if you’re a confident rider, there is no way of stopping the horse from bolting if it does.
ABANDONMENT, AND REACHING THE SUMMIT
Katherine was still on her horse. Hers obviously had a better temperament (plus she’s way lighter than I am). A language barrier meant that she couldn’t get her guide to stop and wait for me. He carried on up the mountain undeterred by the spectacle and I had to walk up alone.
Doing anything at this altitude is difficult. The altitude rose by 200m for every 1km we walked. Breathing was hard. Walking was hard. Doing both whilst drinking water was impossible. Every ten steps resulted in hyperventilation and having to sit down. The tour guides (not the horse guides) were compassionate and kept offering me oxygen.
Eventually I made it. Katherine was already there and came running towards me when she saw me. It made me feel a lot better to know she was okay, but I also wanted comfort and sympathy after falling off a horse! This reunion was rewarding enough in itself, but I was very proud to have made it to the top when I could have stopped at any point along the way.
It is beautiful. It was just as we imagined. We were so pleased as we’d heard stores that it’s actually very dull. But it isn’t, it truly is a rainbow mountain. The sun was shining gloriously and the colours seemed effervescent in its glow. We took our photos and marvelled for a while. ‘How can somewhere be so breathtaking all the time?’ That’s just Perú.
THINGS TO REMEMBER
- Sun protection: Hat, Sunglasses, Sunblock.
- Warm clothes.
- A scarf to cover your face because it can very windy and dusty.
- Water x 20000.
- Some snacks – cereal bars are great.
- Hiking shoes.
- Don’t go on the horses.
Have you been to Rainbow Mountain? What was your experience?
Latest posts by Sam Elliott-Wood (see all)
- The Rainbow Mountain (Or The Time Sam Fell Off A Horse) - October 14, 2017
- WhenTwoWander… Take Surfing Lessons in Byron Bay - February 6, 2017
- 2016: A Wonder Year for WhenTwoWander - January 10, 2017