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27 jan201827

Rainbow mountain, alpacas, and spirits of the mountains

Vinicunca, Canchis Province, PeruVinicunca, Canchis Province, Peru
Vinicunca, as that's how Rainbow Mountain is called in Quechua, is one of the most popular hiking destination in Cusco (despite having been opened to tourists for just three years). The main reason is of course to see the magical spectacle of colours of the mountain and the whole valley caused by many different layers of rock formations. I wish I knew the chemical and physical magic behind the colours. But that's not only reason. The changing difficulty of the trek is a good way of testing yourself before some more difficult treks. I personally didn't know if I'd make it. After another stretch of few weeks filled with health problems, hospitals, and having been bound to my chair at home, I was at first sceptical about going. Then I thought it has been two weeks of feeling not only better but much better, stronger, and eating for three people at least. This led me to make a decision to go and test myself and the bonus was that I would be accompanied by friends Eli and Cristian.

La Montaña de Siete Colores stands at 5200m above the sea level, which makes it almost as high as South Everest Base Camp. Of course the main difference is that Rainbow Mountain trek starts at around 4500m so the actual elevation is 700m that spans across 5 km (3 miles).

The only downside? You HAVE TO wake up ar 03:30, because it takes about 2.5h to get to the start of the trek. At around 6:30 we arrived at a small secluded restaurant in Pitumarca, had breakfast, and emarked on the last hour of the drive.
The view outside of the restaurant

We started hiking about 08:15 and the weather could not be better..
The Kondor Team (as this was the name of our group) had untill 11:00 to make it to the top, then 45 minutes at the top to take pictures, or to sit down and listen to the wind, look at the sights, and think about "What are men compared to rocks and trees?" (Guess which one I did?)

With such beautiful sky you could not help but be amazed by the picturesquesness of the land of Incas. Every time I walk through a city, park, or any street, I imagine what it looked like a hundred, five hundred, or five thousand years ago. The best thing about this trek was that you don't have to imagine, because you're looking at exactly the same valley, same mountains, and same sky. While talking to my friends I also found out that the whole trek and site does not belong to the government and everything is taken care of by the local community. Security, little shops with drinks and snacks, and even ability to ride a horse on the way to the mountain are all provided by the people of the valley. 
It was more than sure that I would go crazy once I would see alpacas grazing on the grass and the result was a half an hour sneak-up photo session of the alpacas. One little alpaca was particularly fond of the camera and I have tried to do my best to capture its innocence and curiosity in an alien race.
Many people are confusing alpacas and llamas so let's list few crucial differences betwen the two:
  • Llamas have longer banana-shaped ears, alpacas have shorter pointy ears
  • Alpacas faces are also shorter, which gives them a bit squashy look, llamas have longer faces
  • Llamas haven't got as much fur as alpacas, which fur is much finer
  • Alpacas are herd animals and like to keep with the company, whereas llamas are way more independent
Another thing that made me scream "woow" was to find the wild cusco mushrooms. I've been waiting for setas to appear on local markets for more than 4 months but only when the rain, thunder, and lightning came then I my "prayers" were finally listened to. More expensive than the regular mushroom they're worth their price. 
After about half of the trek on the right side you we could see snow-covered mountain Ausangate, fifth peak in Peru, standing tall at 6372m. The mountain, valley, different formations of rocks, colours, animals - everything makes very unique scenery and after an hour of walking you begin to understand why so many people want to see it. As usual I have heard Polish language while walking, and especially original phrase "ja jebie, ale tu wysoko!" when we were almost at the top. 

At one point I had a moment of weakness, thinking my body wasn't ready for such exertion but then I realised that it was just my brain trying to make an excuse and the pain in my thighs is as normal as it used to be. The last time I climbed anything was the mountain in Canada with Lua & Faran, and then a hike in Kamloops with Geri & Joe - two memories I cherish for many reasons. After 60-second break I pushed and pushed until I reached the top at 10:30, where I took few photos and then just sat on the side of the mountain and look at Ausengate, the valley and the path filled with people looking like little ants. 

I have to say seeing Rainbow Mountain from close up is worth the 5km of burning feeling in your legs and the combination of heat and cold along the way. We were lucky as half an hour after I reached the top the clouds came, temperature dropped sudenly, and we even got a bit of hail! You can look at lots of pictures but it's always a different feeling to see it "live" with your own eyes.. .
There isn't a lot of information on the internet about what kind of rock formations it's made of, hopefully I'll find an expert to explain this to me - Mei? Mateusz? Any takers?

Not only at the top of the mountain but in main plazas in Cusco and different cities there are always indigenous people walking around with an alpaca or llama and offer taking pictures with them. Normally I wouldn't do it but I kind of broke my rules just this once and decided to hug a llama. Honestly? I thought it would spit at me within seconds but it seemed quite unmoved. Can you recognise which one is alpaca and which one is llama? 
After another 2 hours of hiking down we made it back to the camp. While at the top of the mountain it started hailing and everybody rushed to take some pictures and started walking down. I wished I could stay there for hours, ideally with no more than a handful of people and a book to read. Wishful thinking though!

It was also a perfect place to take some panoramics to capture the snow, the green, the red rocks. This is the west side of the valley taken from the top of the mountain..

Another interesting thing I've noticed were the "sculptures" made of rocks, left on the side of the trek. Those are meant for Apus - spirits of the mountains. One of the meaning of the word Apu is "Lord", which comes from Quechua. The incas used this to refer to a mountain that has a spirit that is alive.  In Cusco we have 12 of them: {"type":"www", "url":"","date":"29 January 2018","title":"Apu (god)","author":"Wikipedia"}
  • Ausangate,
  • Salkantay,
  • Mama Simona,
  • Pillku Urqu,
  • Manuel Pinta,
  • Wanakawri,
  • Pachatusan,
  • Pikchu,
  • Saksaywaman,
  • Viraqochan,
  • Pukin,
  • Sinqa.
They are usually considered to be male spirits, apart from few aberrant females like Mama Simona in Cusco, or Veronica in Sacred Valley.  {"type":"www", "url":"","date":"29 January 2018","title":"Inca Shamanic Glossary - A","author":"Patt O'Neil"}      

This is an example of Apacheta (thanks Cristian for reminding me what it was called!)
It has been built to appease Pachamama (Mother Earth, Gaia) and a place where sometimes travellers would stop and pray for strength. They were originally used as mountain shrines and energetic nodes of the ceke system (ceke - sacred energy lines that connect places, people and things. As a humble thank you I left one rock on one of the apachetas - you can't make the spirits angry!

Those deatils are what make treks like this something more than just a walk through a valley to the top of the mountain. Observing alpacas in their natural habitat, learning about the history of those places and beliefs that have been much older (and more probable) than all gods people tend to worship these days. 

I haven't done a lot of trekking or hiking here in Cusco, due to many reasons, actually only two, working too much and health but I'm glad I've done this trek and if I leave Cusco I will be happy that this was my only one. For S./ 85 (~19GBP) it is a perfect day out and if you happen to get a good weather (thanks to Pachamama and other spirits) you will appreciate it even more! If you're ever in Cusco you can book such trek way in advance, I happen to be friends with people who own two great responsible travel agencies:


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Mandatory selfie of course with Eli and Crisitian!
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People's voice...
29th January 2018
I am glad that we shared this trek with you. Life is about making friends while ascending mountains. Espero encontrarnos otra vez en el futuro.
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