Rainbow Mountains – Why They Change Peruvian Lives

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It is 3:30 AM. Slowly I am crawling out of bed. As soon as my feet touch the ground, I can feel the excitement rising under my skin. Once only I want to see the rainbow mountains. This has become my one big symbol of travelling over the past years. Getting the chance of a face-to-rock with the marvelous colour layers of those mountains…

And today is the day. But what would await me today would go far beyond fulfilling my personal dream. Today I would gain a new perspective on Peruvian tourism. On a sustainable improvement of living for local communities that live in the rural Andean areas.

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My tour guide Alfredo Franco is ready to take us from Cusco to the Quesiouno community. The drive is rather adventurous, more than all of those Peruvian drives together that I have had the pleasure to be on before. The street is narrow, unpaved, bumpy and winds its way along a steep precipice. The view, however, is breathtaking. A few jumpy seat-embraces later we reach the base camp: Vinicunca – the rainbow mountain. The multilayered colours consist of mineral deposits that emerged over millions of years.

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The air is thin, my steps become more and more heavy. And then I catch sight of the llama herdsmen living in the surrounding areas. Every once in a while I cross paths with some llamas, however, this is not why the herdsmen are here. They are here because of us – the tourists. On bridles they hold horses, saddled and ready to move the heavily breathing tourists up the last part of the track to the top of the rainbow mountain. They exude a certain kind of pride wearing the traditional colours of their particular village. Indeed, they even look light-footed when leading the tourist horses up and down the mountain. A modest voice is asking “Horse?”. An old and colourfully dressed woman is pointing at me and then at her horse. I am shaking my head politely, the woman is smiling back. She speaks Quechua, like many village people here. She has never needed to speak English before.

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While I am crawling up the hill, more and more questions cross my mind. How many people live here? Is there much that has changed for them because of tourism? Or do they fall by the wayside while big international tourist agencies would make a mint of money?

I am turning towards my tour guide Alfredo. He is a 30 years old Cusqueño (a habitant of Cusco). He used to be a hotel receptionist in the city and has been leading those tours for three years now. “Four years ago nobody knew about the rainbow mountains here. They were discovered by chance, by a traveler on his way to Ausangate, the fifth highest mountain in Peru. He was flying over the neighbouring area with his drone and took the first photo of the many colour layers of the rainbow mountain. After that, the first tours have started.”

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The number of tourists soon multiplied. But the way to the top is harsh, the low amount of oxygen causes symptoms of height sickness in some hikers. The offering tours here carry an emergency oxygen bottle with them. Additionally, sniffing at a little high percentage alcohol bottle is recommended to ease breathing. Also, coca leaves are the medicine to go to as they help with the symptoms of height sickness, even the Incas knew that. One cheek filled with coca leaves, I am passing a hyperventilating woman on the ground who is receiving medical treatment. Height sickness is a matter of acclimatization, though. Therefore, if you want to take a trip to the rainbow mountains, please make sure to habituate to the height in Cusco at least two days earlier. The sickness is especially common with people who fly in directly from Lima to Cusco, which lies in 3400 metres altitude, starting their trip the day after up to 5200 metres. That’s when their body doesn’t get the chance to get used to the thin air.

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Another solution to this dilemma are the horses of the villagers. The physical workout in combination with thin air makes it almost impossible for some travelers to climb up onto the top. But how many of those so called “horsemen” do live up here, actually? And how much do they earn with this kind of work?

“There are about 200 horsemen in 2 groups, shifting two every weeks.”, says Alfredo. “About three years ago, one ride cost 10 Soles (~2,50€). Nowadays, the price increased to 60 Soles. One horseman earns up to 100 dollars per day.”

But do they get the money in the end? What is happening with it?

“Herding llamas is often not enough to get along in the mountains. Formerly, old people had to go to Cusco which is a few hours apart. They would work for about 12 hours, as cooks, drivers, builders or they would simply beg for money. The tourism in the mountains really improved their situation. Now, they work from 6 AM to 2 PM, six to seven hours a day.”

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I would like to know how tourism helps to support local communities in the rainbow mountains.

“Everyone here is a farmer. They spend the money from tourism on their house, maybe even a car, but especially on the education of their children. Having money here means being able to send your children to a school in Cusco. So that they can learn English and earn money as a tour guide once they are grown up, for example. In some villages there are schools and the children walk there for three to four hours. But those schools don’t provide sufficient English skills. That’s why every ride and every visit here in the rainbow mountains helps to improve the situation of those people long-term.”

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I am thinking about Alfredo’s words. As a tourist, we are sometimes tempted to have a very simple view on things. I have been prepared for people in pseudo-garbs with llamas that get themselves photographed for money. For obtrusive offers for horse rides that would try to maximize their own benefit while counting on the lack of knowledge of the tourists. For gang like organizations that would only spare the minimum amount with the actual villagers. But instead, what I have found is friendly people. Simple humans that carry an honest smile on their faces. People that do not seem to get rid of their garbs “after work” but that lead a completely different life from mine.

And all of a sudden it is okay. It is beautiful to watch them in their dresses, with their llamas that they brought from back home. It is nice to see that tourists would pay them an appropriate amount of money for their service and that this money would really belong to them afterwards. That their children would have the possibility to learn English in Cusco.

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The view on top of the mountain is incredible. Another thing that got me skeptical right before I started this trip. I thought about photoshop and saturation curves. But what I am seeing now, is definitely worth the trip! I am getting my camera out and am feeling every movement. I am eager to take some photos but have to take some breaks to rest and breathe. I feel a little dizzy here, on 5200 metres.

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The descent is just as beautiful, leading through the so-called red valley. The rocks here contain more iron and result in an enormous contrast to the green landscape of the valley itself.

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The valley and its llamas, alpacas, horses and lonesome cottages every once in a while remind me of a magical hobbit world. I am looking for a coach with a grey old man on it, but there is truly no human being except for us. A stream paves its way through the lush green of the landscape and little visible paths lead further into this little unique world.

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Alfredo says: “The most amazing thing about my work is when tourists take a tour to the rainbow mountains with me, admire this beautiful nature and say: Thank you, pacha mama!” – Thank you, mother earth.

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