The lesser known way up to Rainbow Mountain

Sunday 21st July, 2019, 05:30am

Good morning Rainbow Mountain base camp.

the andes base camp flashpack

I blearily drank my coca tea, cuddled up in my sleeping bag at the opening of my tent. Staring up at the snowy mountain and contemplating how tired I felt; wishing I had some coffee. 

I’m almost glad it wasn’t a beautiful sunrise, because I wouldn’t have had time to capture it. Coca tea drank, I rushed around for ten minutes, packing, checking my sleeping bag for rogue batteries, and making sure I had everything, before we set off in the van to the start of our hike, excited to finally be on our way to the summit of Rainbow Mountain.

The frost glittered on the ground and the sky cloudless – a cold but beautiful morning. Our route up to Rainbow Mountain was a completely different route than what people usually take.

Most people take a one day tour from Cusco, leaving early in the morning, traveling by bus for several hours, and then hiking up the ‘tourist route’ for a few hours to the summit.

We came up the other side. 

Because we had stayed at the base camp, and split our hiking into two days instead of one, our journey to the summit of Rainbow Mountain was quiet, relaxed, perfect. I know for a fact if (when) I come back here, I’ll be doing exactly the same thing. It also meant that we didn’t have issues with altitude because we’d been acclimatising these past few days ever since we arrived in Cusco. 

rainbow mountain hike flashpack alternate peaks

I did my running back and forth for photos, and then sent the group ahead. I unpacked the drone, my DJI Mavic Pro 2, excited for the views from above. I had been dying to get the drone up ever since getting into these mountains, and it was finally time.

I sent it up, up. Over the group, towards Rainbow Mountain – to see the famous view on my screen before I saw it in real life. I walked as I flew.

Walking and flying isn’t something I usually do, as the drone usually flies itself back to it’s ‘home’ point (where it set off) You can update the home point to where you are, but I’ve issues with this in the past so I usually stay put.

I didn’t this time, though. I knew I couldn’t get too far behind the group so I multi-tasked – flying and hiking up at the same time. 

The views. Woah.

It was still early. Not quite the right time of day for drone shots – the angle of the low sun meant that the mountains cast shadows in the wrong places. But, nonetheless, the views from above were are-inspiring. 

But then, the drone lost connection. The app went dark.

Over the far mountains, I lost it. It just stopped transmitting. I didn’t know where it was, the screen was just dark. My heart was in my mouth. 

Then it was back, fuzzy – but I could see the view. Worried, I began flying it back to me, updating the home-point as I hiked and flew.

‘the home point can not be updated’

GPS was too weak. Low on battery, now, the Mavic flew itself back down the mountainside – all the way back down to where we’d started hiking. it started blinking it’s low battery warning, and began to land itself somewhere back at the bottom. Within 20 or so meters of where I took off. Which is actually a pretty large area to search. Especially as I wasn’t exactly sure of where I took off.

Oh fuck.

I ran. I ran all the way back down. 

Since my ankle injury I don’t really run anymore, and that’s at sea-level. So it’s pretty safe to say that running at over 5,000 meters wasn’t really something I was hugely equipped for. 

But, I ran anyway. Darting about the hillside, thinking every rectangular grey rock was the drone. The drone had barely any battery left – enough to transmit a weak map signal and view, not enough to take off and hover so I could see where it was. 

As the others continued up, I continued searching. It was insured. I could replace it. I started making my peace with not finding it, sad I’d be losing this footage and using the drone for the rest of the trip. My panic started to switch to acceptance.

And then, there it was.

Sat there, unharmed. It had managed to land on a flat area and was totally fine. Battery light blinking in annoyance.

It was serendipitous.

I started running back up. My coat came off, my jumper came off. The cold, crisp day turned warm as I made my way back up to rejoin the others.

I ran, slowed to a jog, slowed to a walk. One of the guides had stuck behind to help me and so we made our way back up together. They offered me a ride on the horse. My pride, and vegan ethics, said no and we continued up. 

And just as we took a breather, one of my favourite moments of the whole trip happened. 

I don’t need to say, anything really.

It was just so special, that this beautiful animal would just curiously come and say hello before continuing its way up the mountain. Leaving me just sat there, catching my breath and smiling to myself. 

rainbow mountain llama peru travel

My guide was a little tired so I left him behind and caught up with the others. The group had split in two – it was so good to get to the top with Nirav, Kate, and Eric. There was a few people already at the top of Rainbow Mountain but largely it was quiet. We had gotten up early and up to the top early in the morning, still. 

All together at the top. Because it was so quiet up at the viewpoint, we were able to spend time up there. 

(I’d missed Phil getting naked, which I was kind of okay with, seeing as I think I might have been in trouble with Flashpack if I’d have photographed a naked customer atop Rainbow Mountain).

It was cold. I think I spent more time staring at the glacier than I did Rainbow Mountain. There was something about that far away, snowy place that fascinated me. I added it to the to-research list in my head: alpine treks, Peru.


As we made our way back down, the other’s got their passports stamped (I forgot mine!), and we all sheltered in the shadow of the summit on our side to grab a snack. I couldn’t fly my drone from the summit, because the rangers get a bit funny about drones – so, when I was in the safety of the valley, a little lower, I put in a new battery pack and sent it up for one last look from above.

I was so much more cautious this time. I didn’t fly it as far away, and I stayed sat where I was. It came back to me, unscathed. 

The way down was easier than the way up. I turned back and looked at where we had just been, and saw the summit crawling with people, like an army of ants. I couldn’t believe that it was so busy up there. We’d only been up there 15 minutes before; I realised how lucky we were to have been there so early before the crowds descended. 

rainbow mountain busy crowds

On a high from the views, the experience, the beauty of the mountains, we skipped down. I was excited for a warm, cosy bed back at the Inkaterra, and our lazy morning tomorrow before we headed out to Machu Picchu. It was definitely needed.

We said a very thankful goodbye to our summit guides and hopped onto our bus. Ready for ‘home’. 

Back through the valleys.

We all dozed a little as we wound back down through the valleys from the mountains. I dozed, unable to keep my eyes closed for too long because all I wanted to do was look out at the views.

I began planning my next trip to Peru. I’d hire a car and drive around these valleys, taking my time to get the shots I wanted. It’s a bit of a dream but, you never know?

On the way back we passed back by the photogenic rope bridge that we had promised ourselves to stop at on the way here. Everybody was too tired to get out of the bus. I almost didn’t, but in the end I dragged myself out; Phil and I played around on the bridge, got some photos, and headed back to doze in the bus again.

flashpack peru tour

A few hours later.

I walked into my own private cabana, my suitcase already there to greet me. Dusk set in the Sacred Valley and everything was a bit of a blur as we ate lunch, drank some cocktails, and settled down to bed. Ready for a bit of a lie in before getting the train to Machu Picchu tomorrow afternoon.

Next stop: Machu Picchu –>

travel photographer tour

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