The main reason for visiting Cusco was its location as the gateway to Machu Picchu, but we’d also heard there was a great trek up to Rainbow Mountain, known as Vinicunca in the Quechua language, and having ogled the relevant Instagram hashtag, four of us decided it was definitely worth doing. I’m not quite sure how or why we reached that conclusion given the following:
* The day trek requires a 0400 wake up call for a 0430 departure, and we’d return to the city at 1930;
* The hike would take us to 5,200 metres above sea level, by far the highest we’d been on the trip so far, and altitude sickness isn’t fun;
* We would be doing the 4-day Classic Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu after Rainbow Mountain, with only one rest day in between.
Like I said, I’m not sure how we decided it would be a good idea, but nonetheless we paid the fees and off we went. It took three hours by minibus to reach the start of the hike which is located at 4,700m above sea level (Cusco is 3,600m). On the way we stopped for a very hearty breakfast, but as those close to me already know, I can’t eat anything before ten in the morning. I managed to swallow a few bites of a bread roll while my fellow hikers scoffed cereals and panqueques, a far more sensible preparation for what was to come.
The first couple of kilometres were relatively flat so we declined offers of ascending on horseback – something I came to regret later – and we set off purposefully, the rhythmic clack clack of our walking sticks the only sound to be heard. The inclines got steeper after the third kilometre and it became a real struggle, especially as we had to reach the summit by a certain time in order to be able to descend in daylight and return to the city by early evening. There were horses available at various spots on the mountain and Ian came up with the mantra of ‘every horse you pass is a victory Gazza’ which really helped by appealing to my competitive nature. However, by the time we got to the fourth kilometre, that competitive streak which has served me so well throughout my life decided to desert me when I needed it the most, and I finally gave in to the idea of completing the trek on horseback. The only snag, however, is that horses were forbidden from going any further from where I currently stood. I stopped and wondered what I’d done to deserve such a cruel fate.
The final two inclines were only another 400m or so, but were undoubtedly the hardest physical activity I’d ever asked my body to undertake. To give you some perspective, the summit of Rainbow Mountain is only 125m lower than that of Mount Everest Base Camp. Thankfully, on this final descent the level of camaraderie really swelled and there were lots of encouraging ‘you can do its’ and ‘you’re almost theres’ from not only the group, but complete strangers who knew exactly how I was feeling. They definitely brought on an extra spurt of energy and the sense of elation on reaching the summit was like nothing else I’d ever experienced. I think Ian and Matt were a little taken aback by the bearhugs they were subsequently treated to.
The view from atop the summit was something unique to me. So many different coloured soils were exposed, hence the name Rainbow Mountain. It was amazing to look back from where we had come and the realisation hit of what we’d achieved. After 45 minutes of celebratory back slaps and selfies (including one sitting on our guide’s shoulders, at his insistence!) we began the descent back to the start. The downhill terrain was much appreciated and we were making good time when I started to feel a bit ‘iffy’. It began with a splitting headache, and was soon followed by an upset stomach. Matt (who thankfully I’d shared rooms with already on this trip) and I sped up once I told him that I needed to reach the dreaded drop-toilet that we could see in the distance asap. We arrived just in time, however, upon squatting into position I realised that not only did the rickety door not lock, it did not even close shut. Poor Matt stood guard as my stomach fell out of me at quite a rate of knots, no doubt wondering what he’d done to deserve such a fate. I could see the hiking boots of fellow trekkers trudge by, and their footsteps increased in speed once their ears and noses were assaulted by indescribable sounds and smells. As I exited the shack, rather sheepishly I have to admit, Matt asked me if I felt better for the experience at least. I don’t think he was expecting my response to be in the form of projectile vomiting near his feet, and to be honest, neither was I. The combination of no breakfast and drinking lots of water meant that a constant stream of bright yellow liquid landed on the mountain for the next five minutes. Unlike in the drop-toilet, this time I could see the sympathetic faces of my fellow trekkers. It didn’t make me feel any better.
Matt, ever the gentlemen, accompanied me for the entire descent and I’d never been more glad to see a minibus in my entire life. Ian tried to make me feel better by telling me that another guy in our group had also puked, but I was too busy wallowing in my exhaustion to pay much attention. The drive back to the city was the best medicine and for every kilometre we descended I felt much improved. So much so that upon arrival in Cusco, I felt like I did at the start of the day. We treated ourselves to a carbtastic dinner and red wine before collapsing into bed, telling ourselves that it was good prep before Machu Picchu the day after tomorrow. My body was not convinced.