A returning visitor’s perspective
It was 2016 and I had been living in Cusco, Peru, for about a year. Passing by tourist agencies with attractive posters selling tours to Machu Picchu, Titicaca Lake, Salkantay Trek and Tambopata Natural Reserve-among others- was basically daily routine. But one day something changed. It took a while until I actually noticed, but finally, I did: a new, spectacular attraction was now promoted on every street in the center of Cusco. It was the Rainbow Mountain or Vinicunca.
Was there a “new” mountain in the area? How come nobody knew about it before? I mean, it is a gigantic, colorful mountain! The answer to these questions is not clear. Some state that it emerged from permanent snows back in 2013, due to the rise of average temperatures in the area- as an effect of climate change. Others are not convinced: they believe snow had not been covering the mountain completely for some decades and the colors were already visible in the ‘90s.
In any case, everyone agrees on the fact that it is was social media –Facebook and Instagram– that converted Vinicunca into a “must” for every traveler’s bucket list. The first visitors would be only brave trekkers, passing by the mountain on their way to the Ausangate Trek, a stunning, breath-taking experience that takes you only one step away from one of the highest peaks in Peru. But once the potential of the Rainbow Mountain as a touristic attraction was recognized, things changed quickly.
In 2016, the road passing by Pitumarca was improved so that agencies’ cars and minivans could drop tourists just 2 hours walk away from the top of Vinicunca. The people of Pitumarca were enthusiastic about the opportunity offered to their remote community, where alpaca breeding was almost the only livelihood. It has been reported that 500 people who had left the area moved back to become tourist guides.
As many others, I was also seduced by Vinicunca and quickly got on a one day tour from Cusco to explore it. We left as early as 3:30 am in order to get there around 8 and have a quick breakfast before the ascension. Locals were offering horse rides to those that could not make it at almost 5.000 m. above sea level. They also charged us 10 soles, a fee collected by the community to keep path and basic facilities (toilets and a small shop) clean and efficient.
I have wonderful memories from my first visit to Vinicunca. The whole area -not only the Rainbow Mountain- was beautiful and I could not stop taking pictures! Once on top, I remember complaining about the number of people which was making it impossible for me to take a good picture, but that, believe me, was nothing.
I went back to the Rainbow Mountain in early August 2018 and the scenario had completely changed. This time, I tried to be a “brave trekker” as well and decided to travel to Vinicunca taking the fantastic Ausangate Trek! I spent 3 days in close contact with Apu Ausangate, one of the main spiritual influences for the locals: it was just me, my 5 fellow travelers and the majestic beauty of the glacier with all of its inhabitants (vicuñas, vizcachas, condors, and others). We had decided to end our little adventure on the Vinicunca because some of us had never had the chance to see it.
As soon as I was able to see the Rainbow Mountain’s viewpoint from the distance, I noticed that something curios: like many little ants, visitors were covering the surface of the hill. When we finally got closer, we were able to appreciate how crowded the place really was: there were people everywhere, locals dressed in their traditional clothes calling out for a picture, guides shouting to get their group to go back to the busses. It felt like a market.
On our way down, we took the same path I used 2 years ago to climb up the mountain. This, too, was changed. As if crushed under a heavyweight, the central part of the path had collapsed, and an uninterrupted line of people and horses moved up and down the slope. Exhausted animals would pass by our side all the time, looking miserable under the weight of their passenger. On both sides, carts would sell drinks and food. The whole area has been disfigured by massification.
To my surprise, the way from Vinicunca to the car park was shorter than I remembered. In fact, the car park has been moved up a few kilometers and now covers a former piece of wetland, once home to different kinds of birds. I initially thought this was only to make it easier for tourists to go up the mountain, but the truth is that a new car park became necessary when the first beautiful part of the path to the mountain literally collapsed!
What was once a remote, inaccessible natural wonder visited by a few tens of people per day, has now become a massified touristic attraction with as many as 1.000 visitors every day and tens of horses working until exhaustion to help them reach the mountaintop. The sustainability of the beautiful Rainbow Mountain is at risk.
But, if it hadn’t been for its worldwide popularity, its features on National Geographic and the undeniable economic benefits for Cusco and the country, would the Peruvian President have stepped in to defend it from the claims of Camino Minerals? In Spring 2018, in fact, this Canadian mining company had obtained mining rights for a huge area, comprising the Rainbow Mountain.
In mid-June, public pressure from all over the world and local political pressure forced the mining company to step back, but the Rainbow Mountain is not safe yet. Sustainable strategies, capacity building for the locals and ecological facilities and infrastructures are necessary if we want to keep on enjoying this natural masterpiece.
I hope that, on my next visit to Vinicunca, I will be able to tell a different story.