Before we went to Peru on a study abroad, I thought that the altitude wouldn’t affect me. I’ve lived my whole life at 5,800 feet and frequently visited the mountains at 9,800 feet without issue. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Cusco sits at a pleasant 11,000 feet and in our first day we hiked “1,000 stairs” to Cristo Blanco, basically 800 feet vertically. Not the best idea to do on your first day in Cusco. Luckily, it was a warm up for Rainbow Mountain.
The morning we went to Rainbow Mountain, we woke up at 3 a.m. and got on a bus. I quickly fell asleep and stayed asleep until about 5 a.m. when I awoke to the screams of my fellow hikers. I looked out the window to see our bus was driving on a one lane dirt road along the side of a cliff. There were many sharp turns on this cliff and in an effort to avoid a head-on collision, the bus driver would honk his horn before tackling the hairpin turn at high speeds. Let’s just say, this was our first warning that the hike was not for the faint of heart.
Luckily, the trauma was interrupted by a visit to a small Quechuan (the natives of Peru) community. We sat in a hut where we tried to warm each other in the chilly late-fall weather as we waited to be served a traditional Peruvian breakfast of eggs, anise toast and chicha morada. Nothing like purple corn juice to get your blood flowing!
The bus then took us a short jaunt further to the base of the hike. The beginning was muddy and messy. When we reached the top of the muddy hill, Quechuan people dressed in traditional clothing greeted us with a friendly, “Quieres andar a caballo? ¡Soló ochenta soles!” or “Do you want to ride a horse? Only eighty peruvian dollars!” We declined and began our trek through a serene valley dotted with llamas and alpacas. By the way, there is a difference, and if it interests you, you can email me.
My husband Scott and I enjoyed the walk while our fellow SUU students plowed ahead. We thought that the people who were renting horses were silly, but once again we were wrong. We reached the base of the first major hill with enthusiasm that faded as we climbed. I began to understand the warnings and the horses. I was born with flat feet, so hiking has never been my forte, but as my feet began aching, the lack of oxygen only made it worse. However, I was determined. That is, until our guide caught up with us.
He came hiking down the mountain and asked if we were the last people in our group. When we told him we were, he informed us that we weren’t going to make it to the top on schedule and we needed to get horses. Frustrated by this, I pushed myself harder, wanting to complete the hike, but when we reached the hut at the top of the hill, he told us that we were at the halfway point and urged us to rent a horse. Tired of listening to the personal trainer/slave driver, I conceded. I rented two overpriced horses and mounted.
My horses’ guide, Gregoria, a small Quechuan woman, flew up the muddy, snowy mountain in her rubber sandals. Making me feel even more inadequate. She left me at the bottom of a slick slope where I waited for Scott and we took on the last stretch together. The view from the top was breathtaking. Unfortunately, it was slightly snowcapped, but it was still worth it.
McKayla Heaton, a senior human nutrition major from Panguitch, described the beauty of the view.
“Though my oxygen supply was limited, I was enthralled with the natural allure of this place that, two months prior, I had never known existed,” she said.
The way back down was much more enjoyable and filled with views we missed on the way up. All-in-all, it was a trek from 14,000 feet to 16,500 feet in five miles, one way. So, if you’re looking for an intense adventure, I’d definitely recommend it. Be sure to check back next week for our next adventure in Peru: The Sacred Valley.