The Rainbow Mountain of Peru: Popular and Imperiled

At first glance, the mountain in the Peruvian Andes, with its bands of soil the color of turquoise, lavender, red-violet and gold, seems Photoshopped.

But the otherworldly sight, standing 16,000 feet above sea level, is real. People living nearby call it Vinicunca, the Rainbow Mountain.

The varicolored mountain, with sediment created from mineral deposits over millions of years, was discovered only about five years ago, locals say. But it has become a must-see attraction for hikers, bringing much-needed cash to the area but also prompting concern about possible damage to the remote landscape.

Guides lead about 1,000 hikers a day to the site — and a wetland was filled in to create a parking lot for their vehicles, according to The Associated Press.

Santos Machacca, 29, a mountain guide in the Cusco region, in southeastern Peru, said that the Rainbow Mountain might have been discovered only recently because of climate change.

“We have asked the elders that live in Pitumarca,” a town near Vinicunca, “and they said that the mountain was under the snow,” Mr. Machacca said in a recent interview. “Global warming has caused the ice to melt, and a colorful mountain appeared from under it.”

Mr. Machacca, a member of the Q’ero community, said the mountain was an appealing destination for trekkers not only because of its beauty, but also because of the climate.

“They love to go because when you are up there, you can feel the pure air and you forget everything and you connect with the Apus of Ausangate,” he said, referring to legends of mountain spirits watching over the Peruvian Andes.

The big crowds have breathed new life into the economy of the remote region around the mountain, creating jobs for people in the area, many of whom have been alpaca herders.

Roughly 500 villagers have now moved back to their ancestral land, according to The Associated Press, in order to act as guides to tourists across the Andes. They charge $3 per person, bringing in around $400,000 a year.

But there may be a high price to pay for the tourism boom.

“From the ecological point of view, they are killing the goose that lays the golden eggs,” Dina Farfan, a Peruvian biologist, told The A.P.

According to Mr. Farfan, a severe impact on the environment is already evident. A swamp that had been a refuge for migrating ducks was turned into a huge parking lot for tourist vans. A 2.5-mile trail has been severely eroded by hikers.

And a Canadian mining company, Camino Minerals Corp., has applied for mining rights in the area.

A local community leader, Gabino Huaman, questioned whether enough had been done to prepare the area for hosting and guiding the influx of tourists.

“We don’t know one word in English,” he was quoted as saying in The Associated Press, “or first aid.”

The high altitude and long distance of the trail can make for a challenging hike, and tourists usually need to acclimate their bodies before beginning the trek to the top of the fluorescent mountain.

To overcome altitude sickness, some people carry small oxygen tanks, while others resort to chewing coca leaves.

John Widmer, an American tourist who visited Vinicunca in April 2017, detailed a “not so colorful experience” in a blog post dripping with irritation.

“It was the bad weather combined with irresponsible guides, unprepared hikers and horrendous trail conditions that made this one of the worst treks we’ve ever been on,” Mr. Widmer wrote.

He lamented the environmental destruction occurring from the large numbers of tourists, adding that “the beautiful and fragile alpine environment is getting completely demolished” by the hordes of eager hikers who journey to the mountain.

“I’m ashamed at the fact that we, too, personally destroyed a bit of the Andes during our trek to Rainbow Mountain.”

Content originally published on https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/03/world/americas/peru-rainbow-mountain.html by ILIANA MAGRA and ANDREA ZARATE