Rainbow Mountain and the Red Valley (Cusipata Trail), an area of natural beauty and spectacle. Rainbow Mountain is the canvas mother nature used when she painted a rainbow. The Red Valley like the surface of Mars, a rich deep red looks artificial intertwined with speckles of green. Here the environment is stark and varied, a colour pallete so rich it looks exaggerated.
Black mountains topped with shimmering glaring snow that hurt your eyes when you stare for too long. Jagged rocks like a predator’s teeth run along the peaks of the mountains. Dusty thick sand that with every step you sink ankle deep and slide half a step back. Coarse gravel and stone like crushed rock scattered about as if a glacier had once moved through this land. Hills looking soft to the touch as if covered in blankets of velvet. Carpeted moss like valleys with thin twisting streams of frigid water. Hundreds of little ponds creating a collage as they reflect the ever-changing sky. This is a unique area like no other I had seen before.
It took two failed attempts to arrange my trip to Rainbow Mountain, Coco (El Tuco) making the arrangements; nothing to do with Coco’s organising, he was using a third party. Normally group trips are organised, with the first two dates too many people dropped out making it financially nonviable. Finally, another boarder at El Tuco, a Swiss guy, and I made arrangements for just the two of us (Coco still making the arrangements). As it was only us two going the cost was higher, I can’t remember the exact price, I recall around US$150 each – I might be mistaken. This would include everything: our driver would also be our guide.
I’ll see how things pan out as I write about this trip, but to be honest, I think it will (…maybe even should) be more about the pictures. That’s not me implying I’m a great photographer, far from it…here nature does all the talking. One caveat I must regrettably include, I’ve not doctored my pictures. The light (a.k.a sun ?) and weather at Rainbow Mountain varied constantly. From very hot to icy cold, then from blizzard wind to silence where you can only hear your heart and breathing. That being said, I don’t have any special photo editing software like Photoshop etc. I use basic MS Photo to adjust the light on some of my pictures. I saw so many over-edited pictures of Rainbow Mountain making the area look as ridiculous as a clown. There is no need to do so, this area is stunning and more beautiful without exaggeration…actually, these doctored pictures make the place look ugly. The Mona Lisa doesn’t need a colour filter to make the painting more special now does it!?
NB – I’ll be adding a lot more photos to my Batnomad Facebook page
Over the cusp of the snow-capped Mount Ausangate/Auzangate, which is visible from Cusco (see pictures from my post on Golden Temple and Saqsaywaman) lies Rainbow Mountain; also called Vinicunca (official name), Winikunka, Montaña de Siete Colores or Montaña de Colores. Here visually two polar opposite worlds meet; one, the Andes Mountains that look like black volcanic rock topped with snow. Two, something more reminiscent of desert terrain; powder looking hills and valleys like dunes that are frozen in time.
Rainbow Mountain’s colours come from a variety of minerals, most prominent are:
- Pink – red clay/ultisols (almost devoid of all minerals)
- White – calcium carbonate
- Red – iron
- Green – ferromagnesian (iron and magnesium)
- Earthy brown – magnesium
- Mustard yellow – sulphur
Getting to Rainbow Mountain
Whichever route you take, Rainbow Mountain is around 140km from Cusco. This is a new site, earthly wise millions of years old and undoubtedly known to the locals for hundreds/thousands of years. New, meaning Rainbow Mountain has only been a tourist site since about 2015. I don’t know if things have/are changing but you need to arrange for a trip, I don’t know how confident I’d be in hiring a car and driving myself there. There are two routes people take (see below), a shorter drive with a longer hike, a longer drive and shorter hike.
Very off topic I know. Driving to Rainbow Mountain is just like the rest of Peru, ever changing diverse scenery, the drive is a journey worth taking in itself. Something else I remember about the drive there! Dozens of people along the way standing on the side of the road holding yellow plastic bags mainly filled with pineapple. Sometimes filled with other fruit, but mainly pineapple. I hadn’t seen this before in the region, and not just one of two occasions too many to count. Random I know.
Having only used the one route I’ll only elaborate on mine. Like I said, it’s 140km from Cusco and takes anything from 2-3.5 hours. That seems like a long time only to travel 140km and it is. For most part the journey and road is good, but the very last is on very rural roads…more like crushed rock roads.
The Two Trails
This is the route used for groups, large groups often arriving in buses. The hike is easier and flatter though longer with wide path like roads to follow. It takes up to 3 hours to hike up and 2.5 back down.
The Cusipata Trail is far less busy and because of the access road cannot accommodate large vehicles. Heading from Cusco the road pretty much follows the Urubamba River, once in the Cusipata District you turn left and head up the mountain. Here is where the road becomes “interesting” and dare say treacherous during/after heavy rain or snow. Windy up the mountain around many blind corners, each time our driver hooting the horn before every corner as a way of warning any potential oncoming traffic – everyone does this and glad they do! It’s not a busy road, but not much wider than a single car. Every so often it widens allowing a vehicle to move aside creating enough space for a passing car.
Once you’ve wound up the mountain you cross a wood plank bridge, yes, a wood plank bridge! This is why the Cusipata Trail cannot facilitate large vehicles. After the bridge the road doesn’t get much better, however you are on the home straight; the parking lot is only a few minutes away. Here the scenery starts to prepare you for what’s to come. One thing that isn’t in doubt is just how remote you are. How rural people can live and farm here is bewildering and inspiring.
The actual Cusipata Trail hike
It is the shorter of the two trails, but more difficult; a combination of terrain and how steep it is, especially towards the end where the sand is soft and it’s very steep. From the parking to the peak of Rainbow Mountain is about 3.75km, then around 1.25km to Red Valley and another 2.5km back to the parking lot. Those I would say are maximum distances, you could shorten it if you do less exploring. The first two thirds of the hike are easy with good terrain, gradually getting steeper. It reminded me of my time in Wadi Rum climbing some of the dunes; with each step your foot goes ankle deep and you slide down half a step too.
Not forgetting the altitude, the hike starts somewhere around 4500m and peaks at a maximum of 5200m (if you climb to the top of the ridge opposite Rainbow Mountain; on the peak facing Rainbow Mountain the ridge behind you – hope that makes sense). Every step feels like such an effort and even with the effort it is very slow going. The Swiss guy I went with started off like a bolt, I ended up passing him before the peak. My strategy: walk at a pace comfortable enough that I can keep doing for a whole day. As always, I had a protein bar and banana in my bag eating them whilst heading up. I didn’t have a big breakfast, we left at 6:00as so they really helped keep my energy up.
As for the hike, there isn’t much else to say. Challenging yes, short yes, worth it…definitely!
I know it’s not the best of videos, my hands were frozen! Hopefully it gives a reasonable panoramic view of the whole area – Rainbow Mountain, Peru
Whilst in the valley before the final steep section the weather was consistent. It was cold though the exercise kept me warm; unzipping my jacket and fleece and took off my beanie, my hands were cold. As we ascended the weather became more unpredictable and changed constantly – from arctic type winds, sleet, then sun. The last third and at the peak then through to Red Valley was freezing. Without gloves I hikes with my hands in my pockets, a little awkward to hike that way but more comfortable with warm hands. It got so cold I pulled my fleece hood over my beanie! I was wearing a long-sleeved shirt, fleece and jacket. So my tip, prepare for 4 seasons in one day!
Many of the tours stop over for breakfast on the way to Rainbow Mountain, we didn’t. We stopped in the Cusipata village for lunch on the way back. I’d highly recommend you eat properly before you go, or at the very least have something to snack on whilst hiking (especially if you do the Pitumarca Trail about 3 hours hike)
There are no water stop overs along the way, I didn’t see anyone selling any either, so take water. The wind and altitude seem to make me very thirsty, I always travel with water and brought extra for this hike.
My Swiss companion seemed to be in a rush to get the hike done as quickly as possible, taking no time to appreciate the area (that is my perception). He got to Rainbow Mountain, then almost immediately wanted to head to the Red Valley, then almost immediately wanted to head back to the car. Me on the other hand, I cast my eyes everywhere to best appreciate what a spectacular area this is. In all likelihood I will not go back (not out of not wanting too, but that is the reality) so where ever I go I try, not always successfully, to live in the now and take the time is enjoy where I am and what I am seeing. My tip, enjoy it and take as long as you like. Don’t only look down as you tread along, look up and around you.
There are guided horses you can hire taking you up the first two-thirds. From there you need to hike the final stretch. The horses don’t go all the way up I’m guessing because of the sand and also to preserve the area.
NB – I’d be cautious about doing the hike (my route) following heavy rain/snow – needless to say, I don’t think I’d do it during heavy rain/snow.
Around 1km for Rainbow Mountain is the Red Valley. Facing Rainbow Mountain there is a path leading off to the right below the ridge. Why most people don’t carry on to the Red Valley I have no idea! It’s so close and other worldly with spectacular views spanning out as far as the eye can see. Still bloody freezing, the only negative I have about the whole trip is that I didn’t have gloves. Oh yes, and I wished I had spent more time there and not worrying about my rushed companion (I think he only took 3 pictures…strange)
The Red Valley could be an attraction all on its own merit. This could be on another planet, or a scene from a movie where you would assume the backdrop was done with CGI. Chilling wind gusts and thick red clay dust is what I remember hiking to the main viewpoint. Red, green, white out to the horizon cut horizontally with the blue of the sky above. Now this is where I would have liked to spend a few days hiking around! No sooner had we arrived we were heading back….GRRRR! One thing I have forgotten to mention was our drive/guide. I didn’t write his name down! Great guy, friendly and prepared (even had an oxygen tank in the car). He really didn’t have to hike all the way with us, it’s not like you could get lost. What a job, hiking at this altitude in this terrain (especially at the end) can’t be much fun done repetitively!!! Even though I have forgotten his name – thank you.
Rainbow Mountain and the Red Valley
Considering the hike, it wasn’t that difficult. I’d done much more difficult routes/hikes many times, but the altitude adds an extra dimension. The thick sand with the altitude is the challenge; almost made me irritated that I was going so slowly. In the end I just had to laugh it became comical; one big breath, one small step forward…then slide half a step back. Nothing I could do about it except laugh and enjoy this new experience! If I get the opportunity to go again I would – except I’d spend a few days in the area. This area has so much more to offer than just Rainbow Mountain and the Red Valley.
Little villages along the way
Heading back the same way we arrived I took even more time scanning the areas we passed through. This is a tough part of the country/world to live in! Here I am spending money on leisure activities and people live here to make a living. Sure tourism has helped, there are 5 or 6 restaurants in the tiny village of Cusipata alone. There are others that still farm here in this extremely tough and unforgiving environment. Small herds of alpaca and llamas grazing the farmland, they are the staple income for so many people here. Quite amazing how these animals and locals have been here for hundreds of years and live what must be harmoniously with nature. Often leaving such places I cannot help reflecting on my own life and other parts of the world.
I hope you enjoy the photos and they do Rainbow Mountain and the Red Valley “natural” justice ?