I found out while messing around the town’s main square of Plaza de Armas that just outside of the town boundaries on Ollantaytambo’s south-east side, can be encountered the ruins of an ancient Inca bridge, and that near said bridge lay also the ruins of an Inca pyramid. I hit it off to check those out.
Getting to the Inca Bridge
I started the walk from the south-eastern corner of Plaza de Armas and followed the road due east, passing the small market with incredibly overpriced fruits (Peru is expensive to begin with, but it’s even worse as you get closer to Machu Picchu – Ollantaytambo was second only to Aguas Calientes, which is at the foot of Machu Picchu), and onward down the road, until I reached a T intersection. There I turned left and after a few meters immediately right to carry on due east.
On that road I passed Inka Paradise hotel and some kind of a school, after which there was a narrow pedestrian dirt road through a field. That road leads to the bridge. Except at the end of it, there’s a cliff that needs to be descended so if you didn’t take the stroll in your hiking boots, you will only get to enjoy the bird’s eye view of the bridge, and no pyramid.
An alternative is to go around town by following the road back to Cusco, but that road is narrow with no sidewalks to safely walk on and the drivers don’t pay much respect to pedestrians.
There isn’t a whole lot left of the ancient Inca Bridge. Just the support column erected in the middle of the Vilcanota river still holds the original stones used for its constructions. Nowadays, a newly built suspension bridge connects that banks of the river, still utilizing the remnants of the old Inca structure.
Along the Ollantaytambo side of the river there are railway tracks leading to Aguas Calientes, but no road so tourists don’t have the means to get themselves near Machu Picchu, and are stuck having to use the train for which they are charged more than 100 times the cost of the locals. It is a major and blatantly deliberate rip off which I refused to support.
While I was at the bridge, a train with ripped off tourists returning from Machu Picchu back into Cusco passed bay.
Ollantaytambo Inca Pyramid
On the other side of the tracks from the bridge is the pyramid. It is a cascading stone structure build into the slope. I didn’t come across any reasonable kind of backinfo about the pyramid, except that it’s there, near the bridge next to the tracks.
Te pyramid had a set of protruding stones built into the outer wall, to serve as steps for ascend. Despite dodgy looking purpose, those steps are solid and absolutely safe to walk on, having withstood the test of time – centuries after being built, they are still there in their original form after affording countless people the way up on the pyramid.
Because the way I came to the area involved a descend down a very steep cliff including a near 2 meter jump, going the same way back was not an option, so I walked around town down the paved road from Cusco.
The vast majority of people who come to Ollantaytambo will only visit the fortress – having shelled out some $43 for the entrance to the archeological sites within the Sacred Valley of the Incas. They come on buses as part of organized tours which only take them to the fortress and nowhere else. So whereas the fortress is overrun with hundreds of tourists every single day, the nearby Pinkuylluna Mountain, which is free to visit receives very few visitors, but when it comes to the Inca Bridge and the Pyramid on the opposite side of the river, your chances of spotting another tourist around them are next to none.
While Ruins of Ollantaytambo are the main archeological attraction in the town of Ollantaytambo, I left them out of my itinerary, as I did many other major archeological sites in and around Cusco, because the entrance fee to those is 140 Soles ($42 US). I simply refuse to support the rip off practices of this magnitude, unless it’s something I could not, for the life of me, afford to miss out on.
Good thing about Ollantaytambo is that on the opposite side of the town from the main archeological site, is steeply towering Pinkuylluna Mountain, on which there are multiple smaller ruins of Inca storehouses and access to those is entirely free. The only challenge is that one must climb on foot the steel slopes of Pinkuylluna Hill in order to access them. But that’s an adventure in its own right that would be worth while even if there were no ruins on Pinkuylluna. Hell yes I was up for it.
And I wasted no time. As soon as I checked in the Inka Wasi Hostal, I put on Shea Butter which I use as purely natural sun screen, and headed out to hit the slopes.
Face of Viracocha
One quickly observable feature of the Pinkuylluna Mountain is the Profile of the Inca (Perfil del Inca). Said to represent the face of Viracocha – the supreme god of the Incas, the father of all other Inca gods and the creator of the earth.
I was told by a local that the face on the side of the mountain is not an orographic whim, but it was sculpted in the rock, and it fulfills an astronomical function related to the seasons – the cultivation cycles – illuminating itself in the solstices in a certain way.
Access to Pinkuylluna Mountain
From Plaza de Armas, enter the old town of Ollantaytambo by way of the street the nearest to the hill (rightmost when facing the old town from Plaza de Armas). Follow the narrow, cobblestone street until you come across a gate on the right hand side.
The steep rock steps begin right on the other side of the gate. On the left side of the gate there is a sign informing you that you are at the entrance to the Pinkuylluna Mountain.
Climbing the Pinkuylluna Mountain
The trail up the Pinkuylluna Mountain will get your heart pumping right off the bat. Climbing the hill is basically one major cardio exercise, so by taking the hill on, you’ll get the combination of good heart workout, the best views of the town as well as the main ruins, and the ability to get up close and personal with the storehouse ruins without shelling out a dime.
There were moments during my climb when the gusts of wind were super strong, so not only did I have to hold on to my hat, I had to carefully watch my footing on the narrow rocky trail with deep abyss on its side. If you’re a thrill seeker, you’re gonna love walking the cliff edges of the hill.
The Pinkuylluna storehouses, or mountain granaries, are rectangular structures perched on various parts of the Pinkuylluna Mountain.
Although the placement of these warehouses on top of the hill may seems strange, the fact that at that height the air is cooler and it moves faster, would help in preserving the food and keeping it ventilated. I also tend to doubt the exhausting hike needed in order to reach the storehouses would attract many would be thieves.
Overall, even though challenging, I found the hike up the Pinkuylluna Mountain, and the exploring the storehouses to be a rewarding experience that was totally worth the effort.
Moreover, with the amazing views of the main Inca fortress, I was happy to be on the hill where there were hardly any other people around, and not within the overcrowded main ruins overrun with thousands of tourists.
If you continue all the way to the top, the ever fainter trail will take you around the hill where you will find a small cave. Few people, including locals, even know about the cave.
If you’re easily spooked, or suffer from vertigo, a climb up the Pinkuylluna Mountain may be hazardous, but in every other case I would certainly recommend it as an alternative to the overpriced and overcrowded main ruins of Ollantaytambo.
Here’s a video of bits and pieces I filmed while hiking the Pinkuylluna Mountain. At times the wind gusts were extremely strong:
The Rainbow Mountain, locally known as La Montaña de los Siete Colores (The Mountain of Seven Colors), or by its official name of Vinicunca (sometimes spelled Winicunca), is one of the newest attractions in Peru. The mountain however belongs to the people of Pitumarca, who call it the “Cerro Colorado“.
Up until a few years ago, it was under the permanent layer of snow and ice, and nothing made it special or attractive. But as the snow receded, it uncovered the mountainous formation dyed in various shades, product of the complex combination of minerals.
Despite its local name of the Mountain of Seven Colors, according to the information provided by our tour guide, the scientists identified five colors on the slopes and the summit of the Rainbow Mountain – red, purple, green, yellow, and pink – all deposited the base color of the mountain itself.
Had you visited the Rainbow Mountain prior to 2016, you would likely be the only one hiking the high altitude trail to its 5,200 meter above the sea level summit. However because it is located on the way to the imposing Ausangate – the snow-covered mountain with an elevation of 6,384 metres – adventurers who dared to ascend Ausangate in 2016 took photos of Vinicunca which they then shared on the social media, sparking the interest in the mountain. Since then, the popularity of the Rainbow Mountain exploded and now it receives hundreds, if not thousands of visitors a day, making it one of the most visited places in the Cusco region of Peru – along of course with Machu Picchu.
The road to the Rainbow Mountain is along a canyon with narrow passage carved into the steep cliffs of its sides. You have no choice but to trust your bus driver that he knows what he’s doing, with the understanding that if he messes up, you’re dead, but so is he. In other words – he has as much incentive to drive safe as you have the hope he will.
Through the whole ride there and back, I was telling myself that one day I will remember it as something crazy I have once done, and that I’m glad I did not die there, but while I was at it, I was realizing I was riding on the Grim Reaper’s tail the whole time and at any given time there were mere inches separating me from certain death. One wrong move on the driver’s part, and everyone in the bus is dead.
There was not a person on the bus who was not clenching his or her butt cheeks so tightly, you couldn’t jam a sharpened hair up anyone’s ass crack, but it was the ones sitting on the side of the bus facing the canyon who were breathless the most. The wheels on that side of the bus were gliding on the edge of the cliff, and there was a long way down. It constantly felt like you’re better off not knowing just how close you are to the edge, and just how far down it is.
Before the final ascend with the bus, we crossed the canyon over the shadiest looking wood bridge ever. That would have induced grasps for air if we were to walkover it on foot, yet we drove over it with the bus. Each of us gasped when we did it. Damn!
Shortly after the bridge, we stopped at the toll booth where our guide paid for everybody’s entrance and our vehicle drove to the parking area, from where we commenced the hike. There were several other vans used as tour buses parked up there, suggesting a high number of hikers on the trail.
Locals with horses were offering an option to reach the mountain without straining your heart and lungs, and a number of locals including children were stationed along the trail, selling heavily overprices snacks and beverages, including coca tea for altitude sickness. I asked one horseman how many times he ascends the mountain on an average day, he told me that he does it twice – impressive physical fitness in those people.
The trail offers spectacular views along each step. There are mountain peaks in every direction, some tall enough to be permanently under snow cover. In places you notice the glaciers giving way to mountain lakes, which then trickle down as creeks that carve out the canyon.
A number of domesticated llamas and alpacas are encountered along the trail.
The hike itself is rather strenuous, but no part of it is overly dangerous. It starts easy with there being only a slight incline, but it keeps getting steeper the further up you get. If not for the altitude, the trail itself would likely not be such a challenge. But it was the altitude that made everyone daring the trip work for it.
I myself felt like my muscles definitely had what it takes to get up and down the mountain, but the heart and the lungs were getting a heavy work out. The final approach toward the Rainbow slope was the steepest, so ascending that really tested my respiratory system’s strength and endurance. You could see on everyone’s face how hard of a time they were having taking each step further.
Taking frequent breaks was unavoidable. Everybody was taking them. Only the ones who took the easy way by hiring a horse passed by us with ease, but even for them keeping their breath up was not so easy. But for us who were also under physical strain, for us the challenge was real.
It was for these reasons why once we reached the top, we were giving one another hugs and were celebrating together like we’ve just achieved great victory. Because we all did. We won over ourselves. We faced a personal challenge and we pushed through. The feeling of unbelievable achievement is difficult to describe. It has to be experienced. It’s hard to climb the Rainbow Mountain. It’s really hard, but if you fight through it regardless, and keep going even after your body has told you a million times it wants to quit, you’ll experience the feeling of achieving what you did not think you were capable of, and that feeling is incredible.
The access to the Rainbow Mountain itself is prohibited, apparently with the intent to preserve its delicate surface. From the foot of the Rainbow Mountain, one can continue up to the outcrop from where there are the best views of the mountain colored slopes. The top of the outcrop, named Montana Winikunka, is at the elevation of 5,036 meters above the sea level. That is just a little lower than the Mount Everest base camp.
This was the first time in my life to have climbed to the altitude in excess of 5,000 meters and having achieved that felt amazing.
From the Rainbow Mountain, an option exists to detour to the Red Valley, but this was not included in the tour I took. The combination of the two is usually done as a two day tour with a camping stay overnight on the mountain.
What the future holds for the Rainbow Mountain is anyone’s guess, at this stage. The locals have been milking the living hell out of the high popularity that’s exploded over the past couple of years, but on March 16, 2018, a mining concession was made to the territory where the mountain is located. The Geological, Mining and Metallurgical Institute of Peru handed over mining rights to the Canadian mining company Camino Minerals. I’m glad I got to experience the mountain before heavy machinery rolls in and the are is turned into a mining ground.
With all its ups and downs, he Rainbow Mountain became the best place I visited during my stay in Peru. Unfortunately, it was followed by the worst – the trip to Machu Picchu.
Here’s a short video from the hike and the joys of having reached the top:
Instead of going back to Hostal Margarita where I stayed when I first visited Cusco, I however decided to try out El Viajero Hospedaje, because it was close to the bus terminal. I quickly came to regret the decision.
The room at El Viajero cost 30 Soles, the same as at Hostal Margarita, but to my shock, after an hour of stay, the owner switched off the wifi router, shutting off the internet for me.
When I confronted him about it, he said I’ll only get an hour of internet, and if I want more, I would have to pay for it. I quickly said I’m canceling my stay there and demanded my money back, because before moving in, I had done what I always do with every single place before I pay for a room – I asked whether the rooms come with free wifi internet. Whereas he confirmed I’d get free internet with the room, I agreed to stay there, so now that he was changing the rules after the game has started, I was having none of his crap.
With unshakeable determination I told him I demanded my money back and proceeded to pack up in order to immediately leave. After that, he said he’s gonna turn the internet back on for me, although after a few hours, he turned it off once again.
That sparked another argument from me, until he eventually agreed not to turn it off again.
Booking Tour to Rainbow Mountain
Meanwhile, I went out to find out what it’d cost to book a tour to the Rainbow Mountain. I have never heard of the Rainbow Mountain before (known locally as la Montana de Los Siete Colores – the Mountain of Seven Colors), but it was strongly recommended way back after I had just landed in Peru, and hang out in downtown Lima with Isadora from Brazil.
I went to a few tour operators in Cusco and enquired about the prices for the Rainbow Mountain. While there were some overpriced options, general cost seemed to be in the neighborhood of 60 Soles for the trip, including the 10 Soles entrance fee (Peruvians milk tourists every chance they get, so every time there is a new attraction, they instantly introduce an entrance fee).
Several tour operators advertised what they promoted as a great price for the trip to the Rainbow Mountain at 50 Soles, but that was just a marketing gimmick, because unlike the regular 60 Soles worth tours, the 50 Soles ones did not include the 10 Soles entrance fee so the end cost for the unaware tourist would in the end be the same anyway. It would appear that the deceptive marketing works out well, because in the tour bus I took, all but two people fell for it, thinking they got a better deal.
The Rainbow Mountain tours start early in the mornring. The include pickup from the hotel and I was told to be ready for my pickup at 4:30 am. Whereas the tour would last whole day, what it meant for me was that I would have to leave my room at El Viajero with my backpack, because there was no way I was staying there for another night
I would have preferred to have stayed in a reasonable place where I would have been able to leave my baggage while I’m up on the mountain, but El Viajero simply wasn’t that place, so I had no option but to haul all my crap with me, so I can book me a room elsewhere after I’ve returned from the Rainbow Mountain. Standard check out time in Cusco is ridiculous 10am. The return from the Rainbow Mountain was not expected until 5pm.
As is also pretty standard with tours in Peru, even though I got up at 4am in order to be ready for the pickup at 4:30 as per the instructions I got, the tour bus didn’t show up to pick me up until 6:30am. I would have gotten 2 hours more sleep, had they been up front with me that nobody’s gonna bother picking me up nowhere near on time. After my previous experience booking a tour in Peru, I should have known better.
The Rainbow Mountain tour also included breakfast and lunch. As is almost always the case, each time the tour comes with a meal included, you’d be better off paying less for the tour and not have it included, and either bring your own sustenance with you, or pay for your own food along the way.
The included food is in a restaurant that pays the best commission, and it’s mass produced to maximize profit. I was told it would be a buffet style service, but all there was for the breakfast buffet were a few baked breads with butter and jam, plus a cup of tea. The latter was the only thing I used, as pure carbohydrates with no nutritious value of the rest did not attract me at all. Luckily, as far as the tea was involved, the restaurant did provide coca leaves, which are known for being beneficial when braving high altitude, and give the drinker a bit of an energy boost.
The lunch, which was served in the same restaurant on the way back from the mountain, was not a big win either. A tray of rice, a tray of a bit of chicken, a plate of lettuce and a pot of soup were provided, but there was so little of each, by the time one half of the bus filled up their bowls with soup, there was none left, and likewise, with the exception of rice of which there seemed to be enough, only the first ones at the tray of chicken got a reasonable portion.
Basically, for my breakfast buffet I got a cup of coca tea, and for my lunch buffet I got a scrap of chicken with a small side of veggies and that was it. The jugs of juice that accompanied the lunch were filled with some syrup water loaded with sugar.
Other than that, the trip to the Rainbow Mountain itself was amazing. For me, it counted as the best experience I have had in Peru, mostly because it was the first time I climbed to over 5,000 meters above the sea level and even though it was tough on my body, I pushed myself and battled through the low oxygen environment and did it. The feeling of accomplishment was amazing, as were the views of the spectacular mountainous scenery.
Just as Isadora strongly recommended a trip to the Rainbow Mountain to me, I also strongly recommend it to anyone visiting Peru. It’s a high altitude hike so it’s not a walk through a park, but if you push through and reach the top, the reward will be very much worth it.