Though the sediments that form its rainbow face are eons old, Rainbow Mountain was a recent discovery only made possible by climate change.
Tourists regularly flock to the Andean country to visit the ruins of the Inca citadel Machu Picchu. However, in 2013, a newly uncovered geological wonder became a notable (and colorful) attraction.
Deep in the heart of the Peruvian Andes, there lies a vibrant ridge of mountains unlike any other, with one particularly magnificent mountain. Lined with layers of red, orange, yellow, and turquoise, Rainbow Mountain has become increasingly popular for its photogenic nature.
Also known as Vinicunca, the mountain's elevation is 17,060 feet above sea level and is approximately 62 miles southeast of the city of Cusco. Locals regard Rainbow Mountain as a holy place, and it's considered the symbol of the father and masculinity. It is said to fertilize Pachamama; Mother Earth herself. Tradition considers this mountain to be the spiritual protector of the native people.
Despite its ancient history, the mountain was only discovered in 2013. According to the locals, the area used to be covered entirely in snow. Only recently did climate change melt the mountaintop snow — and reveal a rainbow underneath
The whole region is rich in geology, from granitic cliffs to large valleys eroded by glaciers. Understanding the conditions that formed the rock formations we see today is one of the building blocks of geology. It allows us to understand how our world looked long before humans walked it.
The Rainbow Mountain
What sets the Rainbow Mountain apart from other mountains is, of course, its vibrant array of color. It is part of a volcanic chain that runs along the edges of the South American and Nazca tectonic plates. Therefore, it is rich in rare minerals. The minerals are what cause the rainbow coloration.
In turn, this breathtaking attraction is sometimes called Vinicunca or 'Montaña de Siete Colores' (the mountain of seven colors).
Each of the hues on the mountain comes from a different mineral. The red layers indicate iron oxide rust, while the orange and yellow suggest iron sulfide. The turquoise comes from chlorite, which, interacts with the yellow to form a brilliant turquoise blue.
While the other mountains in the range likely have similar colorations beneath their rocky exteriors, the Rainbow Mountain is different. The exterior has been wiped away. The colors appeared as a result of erosion, making a mountain that looks like it belongs in a Dr. Seuss book.
"We have asked the elders that live in Pitumarca [a nearby town] and they said that the mountain was under the snow," said mountain tour guide Santos Machacca. "Global warming has caused the ice to melt, and a colorful mountain appeared from under it."
Getting To Rainbow Mountain
Just getting to the Vinicunca mountain from the nearby town of Cusco, where most tourists lodge, can be difficult without some assistance. It used to require several days of hiking to reach the peak as it lies deep within the Andes. Recently, Cusco made buses available that can take visitors closer to Rainbow Mountain.
Both the high altitude and the trail's length make for a challenging trek. It's suggested that tourists let their bodies acclimate for a couple of days before hitting the trails. Altitude sickness is very real, and debilitating.
Some people insist that chewing on coca leaves or drinking coca tea helps with altitude sickness, but there's also medication you can buy that prevents it as well as guided tours available.
Being a guide is a lucrative industry because trekking to Rainbow Mountain is a near impossibility without one. As the mountain has only been recently revealed, even experienced hikers can have trouble locating it. In addition, the terrain leading up to the mountain is difficult to navigate — and without a guide, a wrong step is easy to make.
It doesn't help that the weather is very unpredictable, so experts advise bringing several light layers for temperature swings and to protect you from wind, rain, sun, and cooler temps at the top of the mountain.
It's probably worth noting that sometimes the views of Rainbow Mountain can be completely veiled by bad weather. However, if you can catch it in the right conditions it is as breathtakingly beautiful as anything you'll see.
Though the influx of visitors has breathed new life into the community, the booming industry comes at a price. The impact of the tourism trade is evident on the mountain's face. In the few short years since tourists started climbing, hikers have eroded the 2.5 mile-long trail to Vinicunca.
"From the ecological point of view, they are killing the goose that lays the golden eggs," Peruvian biologist Dina Farfan says.
The delicate brush and fauna found trailside shows evidence of humans crushing through it. Special trails will help keep the landscape as natural and untouched as possible.
The guides are hoping to get more training, now that business is booming. Though they relish the industry that Rainbow Mountain provides, these guides are unequipped to handle the sheer amount of tourists. At the time of this writing, there are an estimated 1,000 per day.
Guides rent out horses and mountain bikes for tourists to ride up to Vinicunca and lead group tours while furnishing bits of local culture. Though they only charge $3 per person, they bring in about $400,000 per year combined.
These Spanish-speaking guides often don't understand the tourists' language (whatever it may be) and most tourists don't speak Spanish. Also, most guides aren't formally trained in things like first aid and other basic survival skills. Since tourism increased, Peru added 500 locals to work as guides. As the need increased, villagers who had previously left the land moved back in order to help.
"They love to go because when you are up there, you can feel the pure air and you forget everything," said Machacca. He added that people go to Rainbow Mountain to breathe, to heal, and to connect with the legend of the mountain spirit watching over the Peruvian Andes.