Tasting the Rainbow | Vinicunca

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Vinicunca, better known as Rainbow Mountain at 5200m above sea level is the highest altitude I've been. Given this I knew that, the trek and subsequent altitude sickness I would feel would be no walk in the park. Setting off at 3am we drove for several hours to a small town near the mountains trail head where we had a measly yet what's seems to be traditional South American breakfast of pancakes and coca tea. Continuing through a windy but breathtaking canyon the famed Ausangate mountain came into view, I had chosen to do a one day trek to Vinicunca, the alternate is a 2 or 4 day trek known as The Ausangate, named after the mountain that towers over the area. Whilst the multidays help you acclimatise to the high altitude a little better, I and many others felt one day at such height was enough and didn't fancy the notoriously difficult multiday trek to Vinicunca.

Shortly after the start point to the trail there is the option to hire a Horse and guide to walk you the 5 miles and 600m ascent to the viewpoints. Determined to make it on my own two feet I declined the offer of a horse and continued the steady climb to the end of the valley. The scenery the entire way up was breathtaking and amongst some of the most picturesque trekking I have done on this trip. As the trail winds its way slowly ascending the valley you pass small farm settlements and locals in traditional dress selling inka cola, water and of course coca leaves. Having tried coca in Bolivia I was sceptical of its benefits but all the same found myself chewing or rather sucking a ball of it most of the way up. I don't doubt that it helps, but I think to feel the affects you have to be chewing a whole lot more than the average 'gringo' can tolerate in their mouths. Locals both here and in Bolivia often looked like hamsters with one side of their cheek stuffed with a soggy ball of the leaves. My chewing gum size amount hardly measured up, hence the doubt.

The actual trail to Vinicunca is relatively easy, a gentle ascent mixed with the odd 20m of steeper trail, at sea level it would have been a breeze, however, around 4800m up, breathing starts to become a chore. Every ten steps makes you breathless and distances that would usually take seconds take minutes as you slow to allow your body to recover. Eventually a striped ridge starts to come into view and despite the fact the paths incline has increased your body finds new strength from somewhere within and propels you forwards, forgetting momentarily, the lack of oxygen in the atmosphere. It was at this point I started to feel lightheaded and a little wobbly from the altitude. A passing Sherpa offered me a horse for 5soles (£1.50) and my willpower to do the whole thing on foot evaporated into the thin air. Climbing onto the small horse I felt guilty to be adding to its level of exertion but could only hope that it was better acclimatised given it makes the trek at least once a day. The difference between riding and walking the trail was insane, my breathing returned to normal and I was able to take as deep a breath as my lungs could manage and enjoy the spectacular scenery as my mount carried me the remaining 200m. Dropping me at the bottom of the final ascent I found I had a whole new lease of energy to make it to the top and the views were even more special than I could have previously imagined.

Although a busy view, all day tours to Vinicunca set off at the same time which means most people arrive around the same time to the top, it was possibly one of the busier hikes I've done for this reason nothing took away from reaching the top. In fact, if anything as we'd all been through the same journey there was a great comradery at the top, people taking pictures of each other and sharing snacks. I spent about an hour up top, and I had planned to paint the view whilst I was up there but with wind and altitude adding to the chill factor I decided this would be something I could do retrospectively once back in Cusco. The walk down offered a reverse view to the way up and while the rainbow was behind us, the views were still just as breathtaking. The walk down was of course much easier than the way up and at times I almost felt like running I had so much oxygen in my lungs! Finally 6hours after setting off I reached the bottom and piled into my tour groups minibus to await everyone else's descent. This took a fair bit of time and with a pounding headache from the altitude, I tried to get some nap time in before returning to where we'd had breakfast for lunch and then back to Cusco.


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