I’ve never been so challenged in my life! This trip has really helped me see past my self-imposed limits and know that we truly have no limits. I was terrified about climbing Rainbow Mountain, but this trip is all about facing my fears. So we went for it!
We had a 3am wake up call for the trip and a three hour ride to the entrance to the park. Our group of ten slept heavy on the ride out of Cusco. We piled on bread and eggs for breakfast in a nearby village, then drove to the entrance to Rainbow Mountain.
Our guide, Julian, a spunky Peruvian who kept referring to us as “mis amigos or my friends,” told us our team was named the Pumas. He said he expected us to make it to the top in 2 hours and then we would have a half hour for pictures before descending into Red Valley. He handed out heavy wooden walking sticks painted half orange and half yellow. Then we headed for the start.
The parking lot sat at 4,477 meters and the top of Rainbow Mountain would reach 5,200 meters. Though we experienced high altitude in Bolivia, this would be the highest we had ever gone. We purchased a bag of coca leaves at the entrance and immediately stuffed our cheeks with a handful of dried leaves to prevent altitude sickness. I enjoyed the familiar taste of herbal saliva as I pulled on the round of coca in my cheek.
The first part of the trek felt easy and flat. Then the incline began. My stride shrunk to a shuffle, as the increasing altitude shortened my breath and tightened my lungs. My nose was congested, so I was forced to breathe solely through my mouth. This left it constantly dry and parched. The orange and yellow stick did its job to hold me up.
Native Quechua people led horses along the path and hollered at us “Cavallo’s para subir. Horses to take you up!” We shook our heads and continued, determined to not give up. Though the scenery around us dazzled the senses with cascading red mountains blanked in bright white snow, I couldn’t be bothered with snapping pictures. I had a goal to reach and distractions only made it harder.
Whenever we fell behind the group to take a drink of water or use the basic toilets on the trail, it seemed Julian was always there to tell us we better hurry up. He threatened that rain would ruin our view if we didn’t make it to the top in an hour. His threats masked as encouragement only increased my anxieties.
People passed on horseback, smug with their ability to reach the top without effort, but looking defeated for giving up. I pushed on, dragging my bags of bricks, I called feet. By 9:30am, I could see the top. The path carried on over a hill then straightened to a verticals climb. Each step felt laborious and air caught in my throat with each breath leaving my lungs yearning for more. Every few feet, I stopped to lean on my stick and catch my breath. Ethan encouraged me with affirmations of my strength and beauty.
Finally, I reached the last climb. I stopped at the base, staring up and feeling light-headed, and full of fatigue. I couldn’t give up now though. So I dragged on heavy foot in front of the other, stopping every few to breathe. Eventually, what felt like an eternity ended with one last step to the top. I made it!!
I collapsed like sack of potatoes on to the stone benches unable to move. Next to me, scrawled in chalk on the stone wall was the numbers 5,200 meters. I made it to the highest point in my life. Ethan didn’t receive enough punishment from the climb, so he darted up to the next highest mirador at 5,400 meters. I stayed put.
When I recovered an ounce of energy, I shakily stood up to actually see the rewarding view of the Rainbow Mountains. In either direction I could see the rolling dunes of maroon, pale yellow, white snow, and green moss on the mountains. It was unreal! It looked like a painting by a child unaware of the true colors of mountains. As a result, these tie dye masterpieces stood tall around us.
A lone brown horse stood tethered to the top of the hill, looking disinterested in the beauty before him. Glistening icebergs sat in the webs between the fingers of the black mountains to his right. Behind me, the path we climbed unraveled around the valley speckled with black dots of people still attempting the climb. Clouds obscured an even taller white peak to the right of the mountains. I sat back down and ate a Milky Way bar, as I congratulated each person the reached the top.
Julian gathered the group and we continued on to the Red Valley. We crossed the Rainbow Mountains on a precarious path along the loose dirt. Once we reached the other side, we could see the deep valley within the rich red mountains. Neon green moss blanketed the mountains, making it look more like Christmas Valley than Red Valley. Julian explained that the colors of the Rainbow Mountains and Red Valley were due to iron, sulfur, and copper deposits in the soil.
Then he lead us down the steep hill. Our feet sink into the red soil like fluffy snow, forcing us to ski down the mountain like we would on powder snow. We didn’t realize this walk through the Red Valley would be 13 miles long and feel never ending. At the beginning, we felt energized by the true magnificence of these cascading red mountains and the scenery before us of bright green moss, a snaking river, and grazing llamas and alpacas.
At first, we stopped every few feet to snap a picture of this spectacular landscape straight out of a fairytale. Stone houses sat in the valley with grass thatched roofs and perfectly engineered stone fences and bridges. Native women in bright colored wool skirts, silk blouses and stylish wool hats tended to their children and livestock. Fluffy brown, white, and black llamas and alpacas grazed all along the green terraced hills. Some even stopped to stare right at us. We couldn’t get enough of it until it was too much and we needed a break from walking.
A steep jagged ridge grew above our heads slicing through the puffy clouds in the sky. Enormous black boulders sat at its base where they’d tumbled from the top. The river picked up momentum and carried on past us blubbering as it went by. We carried on and on and on this path, seeing no end in sight. The red mountains carried on forever.
We stopped to snap pictures of the purple and pink wildflowers and the bright yellow flowers blooming out of the prickly silver cactus. Ethan greeted the grinning alpacas with an “hola!” Just when we thought we’d reached the end, Julian informed us we had 2.5 hours more to go. We had t eaten since 7am and our stomachs were grumbling.
Pellets of ice started falling from the sky in a hale storm. The ice stung our exposed skin and soaked our clothes for the next hour. When the hale stopped, we crossed the river to find the ground saturated and muddy. My boot sunk into the mud and Ethan slipped soaking his entire back. This led to an unpleasant last hour hiking through the never ending valley. Each time we squatted for a better picture, standing up left us light-headed and woozy. We were ready to leave the valley and appease our growling stomachs.
Luckily, the scenes pouring out before us kept us entertained on our long trod home. We loved the picturesque world before us of red mountains, neon green moss, blue-green river, and cheerful llamas and alpacas. We just felt hungry and exhausted and wet.
Finally, we turned a corner to reveal a road, where the pleasant sight of our white van sat before us. We rushed to its doors and collapsed into our seats. We all cheered at our accomplishment of reaching 5,200 meters and hiking 17k in one day. Our buffet lunch of heavy carbs felt well deserved and we piled it on heavy, before passing out on the 3 hour drive home. I’ll never do that hike again, but I’m sure glad I did it!