Though the mountain and the sediments that form its rainbow face are eons old, Rainbow Mountain was only discovered about five years ago.
Deep in the heart of the Peruvian Andes, there lies a ridge of mountains unlike any other. Along this ridge is one particularly magnificent mountain. Lined with layers of red, orange, yellow, and turquoise, Rainbow Mountain has become an increasingly popular tourist destination for those willing to take the hike.
The Rainbow Mountain
What sets the Rainbow Mountain apart from other mountains is, of course, its vibrant array of color. Due to the mountain’s location as part of a volcanic chain that runs along the edges of the South American and Nazca tectonic plates, it is rich in rare minerals.
The minerals are what cause the rainbow coloration.
Each of the colors 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, though often turns sediment shades of green, 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 specific in that the exterior has been wiped away. Years of weathering and erosion have exposed the colors to the world, resulting in a mountain that looks more like something that belongs in a Dr. Seuss book than in nature.
Despite its ancient history, it’s incredible that the mountain was only discovered just five years ago.
According to the locals, the area used to be covered entirely in snow. Only recently did the snow melt and reveal the rainbow beneath.
“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.”
Ever since then, tourism has been booming, bringing an influx of cash to the region, and giving many of the people who live there hope for the future. As the need for guides increased, villagers who had previously left the land moved back.
Since tourism increased, roughly 500 locals have begun working as guides. They rent horses to tourists for them to ride up the mountain, as well as lead group tours themselves to furnish visitors with a bit of local culture. Though they only charge $3 per person, they bring in about $400,000 per year combined.
Being a guide is a lucrative industry, as trekking to Rainbow Mountain is near impossible without one. As the mountain has only been recently revealed, even experienced hikers sometimes have trouble locating it. Additionally, the terrain leading up to the mountain is difficult to navigate, and without a guide a wrong step is easy to make.
Furthermore, getting to the mountain from the nearby town of Cusco, where most tourists lodge, can be difficult without some assistance.
Impact On The Mountain
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 becoming rapidly evident on the mountain’s face, even in the few short years since tourists started climbing. A 2.5-mile-long trail has been severely eroded by hikers and the delicate brush and fauna trailside shows evidence of humans crashing through it in their quest to reach the rainbow.
While the physical toll of the tourists is evident on the mountainside, it’s nothing compared to the toll on the guides.
Though they relish the industry that Rainbow Mountain provides, the guides are woefully unequipped to handle the sheer amount of tourists (some 1,000 per day) who come through the region. These Spanish-speaking guides don’t speak 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.
However, the guides are adapting, as is the area.
Special trails are being built to help keep the landscape as natural and untouched as possible, and the guides are hoping to get more training now that the business is so big.
“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.