Our friend Flavia, whom we met early on in our travels at a Casa de Ciclistas in Patagonia, wanted to enlist our help in adopting a puppy with whom she had fallen in love a month prior in the small mountain village of Hanchipata. Suggesting a bike ‘n hike trip to dog-friendly Rainbow Mountain, she awaited our arrival – along with two cyclists she had picked up en route – in Pitumarca, the launching point for the fairly popular trek (or Cerro Colorado in Spanish or Cerro de Siete Colores (Mountain of Seven Colors), or Vinicunca, its formal Quechua name).
We however, took a different approach to avoid the masses. Having completed the trek a few weeks prior, Flavia knew a local path starting in Hanchipata, a 500-meter long community consisting of perhaps seven homes, two tiendas that sold the basics (pasta, rice, chips, puffed corn), and a slew of super-friendly dogs and curious children who took to our laps and our food. The mountains towered above, bisected by a turquoise river flowing with luscious glacial water.
Located about 30km from Pitumarca, we ditched two panniers and a whole lot of gear and food, and our international peloton consisting of two Americans, a Brazilian (Flavia), an Aussie (Jesse), a Uruguayan (Renzo), and a dog set off along the quiet mountain roads towards Hanchipata. Mission: Visit Rainbow Mountain and adopt a pup.
We left loud and hurried Pitumarca and, as if traveling through a transporter, almost immediately found ourselves on a peaceful road, pedaling along an aquamarine river alive with rapids, lined with trees for shade. As we ascended the serpentine roads, a deep canyon plunged below, with small bundles of communities of alpaca and llama herders, just dots in the distance.
I have often marveled in both incredulousness and jealously of my fellow cycle travelers who somehow cycle long term with only two panniers and a few items strategically strapped to their bikes. It seems we carry the same amount of gear, yet mine somehow weighs twice as much as theirs and occupies more space. On this particular journey, I sampled a taste of what it’s like to travel über light, and I was hooked.
I sailed over hills that would usually force me off the bike to push, my bike handled the slippery gravel like a pro, and I only threw one tantrum towards the end after having been on the bike for well over an hour past my threshold. As the sky turned the deep cerulean that comes with dusk, we erected our tents and accepted our host, Marcelo’s offer to join him for a bowl of warm semolina soup.
The following morning, we set off in the penetrant sun and channeled our inner llama as we walked steadily along steep and narrow llama terraces, like gymnasts navigating the balance beam. At one particularly precarious row, a woman beckoned us from below and pointed straight above, to a herder walking along a path. At some 4,500 meters (14,764 feet), Flavia and Renzo somehow had sprite in their steps, while the gringos dug our way – literally – to the trail, taking frequent rest breaks to find air. Our Hanchipata street dog friend, Carbón, patiently waited for us as he bounded up the hillside like a mountain goat.
Feeling more secure on a proper path, we ambled along the shadow of glaciated mountains and verdant fields filled with llamas and alpacas munching on grass, as we followed a river carving its path through the ravine below. We saw no other humans other than the llama shepherd until we reached the entry to the park.
In typical Peruvian style, the park entry consisted of a few tables of mamitas with their children milling about, a stand selling water and chips, and several dogs sniffing around in hope of a dropped crumb. Entry costs S/10 per person (about $3USD) and not a word was mentioned about Sora.
Here is where we connected with the tourist train. Groups of foreigners amassed the vertical slopes toward the famed mountain of seven colors. We dodged horses carrying gear and absent-minded selfie stick users as we trudged along towards the 5,020-meter (16,450 feet) peak.
It’s quite the slog to the top. Even with three months of pedaling at altitude, the thin air still robbed us of our breath. I stopped every 100 meters or so to recover, panting like an Iditarod sled dog. We consumed our typical lunch of pan y palta (bread and avocado), sharing bites with the numerous dogs – all clearly from the same genes – and the child of the vendor selling chips and water, with feet so filthy and a face so stained with snot, he appeared to have never seen a bath in his life.
Knowing the rapidness with with darkness approaches in the Andes once the sun dips behind the tall peaks, we rallied for the remaining distance, stopping frequently as we had before lunch (except Flavia and Renzo, who practically skipped to the top), not just to catch our breath, but to marvel in the glory of Mt. Ausangate saluting us from 6,384 meters above (20,944 ft).
The final 100 meters involve walking up a narrow, angled trail with wind so fierce, I had to keep one hand on my hat to keep it from sailing off into the mountain range. I met my friends at the top, as well as a black mountain dog who tagged along after lunch. We sat in silence, staring in awe, not at Rainbow Mountain, but at Ausangate to the northeast. While Rainbow Mountain is certainly an impressive natural beauty, Ausangate steals the show.
With a sinking sun, we began our journey back to Hancipata, the descent far easier than the climb. The tour groups had turned around well before we had, so the trail was ours, save for the occasional horse and porter or dog. Carbón and the second mountain dog nipped at our fingers as we consumed peanuts, wanting in on the snack. We returned along the typical tourist path, with full view of the pink sheen of golden hour casting a glow on Ausangate.
Dusk hit as soon as we reached the road. With the remaining car headed in our direction full with hikers, we continued our walk along the dirt road back to Hanchipata, guided by the Milky Way.
Planning the Trek
Approximate distance: 22km (13 miles). It took us 7 hours with frequent stops for rest and photos.
From the 3S turn into Chacacupe and head towards Pitumarca. Spend the night in Pitumarca (we stayed a Arco Iris Hostal, which if you enjoy 4am awakenings by awful Peruvian music that overuses both the flute and the word corazón, then this is your jam). Ditch some weight and start early towards Hanchipata. Though just 30km, the uphill gravel road makes for a long day. Ask a local to pitch your tent. The town is safe and you can leave your tent pitched and bikes locked.
By Bus or Collectivo
From Cusco, take the bus to Sicuani and get off at Chacacupe, then find a private driver or a camioneta going towards Hanchipata. The tourist vans all head that direction, so it should be fairly easy to hitch a ride if you arrive early enough. The bus to Chacacupe from Cusco costs S/6. Return the same way.
Pitumarca has decent markets to buy essentials, plus a small mercado to buy fruits and veggies. Buy food before leaving because food options in Hanchipata are slim.
These are not going to be exact Google-able directions. There’s no map for the particular hike we did, Google can’t even find Hanchipata. If in doubt, ask a local how to access the trail. They may or may not be helpful. Often the reply comes in Quechua and other times the answer is yes to everything. Do I head this way? Yes. Is it better to go this way? Yes. Which of the two is better? Yes.
Departing directly from Hanchipata, walk to the end of town and across the large field on the left toward the llama terraces. Meander along the terraces for several hundred meters, keeping an eye out for the trail above. Once you spot the trail, climb to the top and follow along until you reach the park entry.
If this sounds a bit adventurous for your taste, plenty of Cusco-based tours bring folks to Rainbow Mountain. My ask, my plea, is that you do your research beforehand to ensure the guides are paid a fair wage and that the horses are not overworked. Nearly every horse we saw walked awkwardly down the mountain, either in pain or due to a lack of horseshoes. It is possible to hire a guide and horse in Hanchipata, just ask around.
What to Bring
Plenty of water. There are some river access points. If you’re like us, and want to avoid diarrhea, bring a filter or Steripen.
Trail running shoes are fine for this trek, though hiking boots are always a plus.
Snacks and lunch
Money for entrance fee
A warm jacket for the top
Taking a Dog
Dogs inside the bus are dependent on the driver and buses depart every 15-20 minutes. Just tell them your dog is well-behaved, won’t get sick, and isn’t dirty. You shouldn’t have a problem. No one said anything about Sora during the hike. Drivers may charge a fare for your pup, though no one did in our case.