Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Carson. Carson Wonders, “What is Geology?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Carson!
Have you ever climbed a mountain? If you live near the Rocky Mountains or in Appalachia, you may have gone hiking to a peak high above the clouds. If you've ever hiked a long-distance trail, like the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail, then you've been up and down multiple mountains.
What would you expect to find at the top of a tall mountain? If you've ever seen pictures of the top of Mt. Everest, you know mountaintops can be cold, lonely places with nothing more than cold, gray rock covered in ice and snow.
Sometimes, though, nature can surprise you. What if, instead, you hiked all day to reach a point high in the mountains where you could look out over long ridge lines covered in colors like the rainbow?
That's the very sight that draws thousands of people to Peru every year. A little over 60 miles southeast of the major city of Cusco, you'll find Ausangate Mountain deep in the Peruvian Andes.
Known around the world as Rainbow Mountain and locally as Vinicunca, the steep slopes and ridges of the peaks in this remote area are striped with beautiful colors, including gold, maroon, green, lavender, and turquoise. In addition to being a geological marvel, the area is also considered a holy site by local indigenous peoples.
In the past, Rainbow Mountain could only be reached by hiking for several days. Today, however, you can hire a tour guide in Cusco for about $30.
You will be picked up around 3 a.m. and driven by bus for about three hours to a small village where you will find the Rainbow Mountain trailhead. After a strenuous hike of several hours, you will finally reach the top of Rainbow Mountain, which sits at about 17,000 feet in elevation.
At the top, you'll have less than an hour to enjoy the sight of the beautifully-colored ridge lines before it's time to hike back down. You'll also have to share the view with hundreds of other visitors on most days, since Rainbow Mountain has become quite a popular tourist destination.
Scientists point to the unique mineralogy and environmental conditions of the area to explain the exotic colors seen on Rainbow Mountain. As layers of sediment have eroded over time, their unique mineral composition has given them a variety of colors. For example, red tones likely come from iron oxide, while other colors come from other minerals: goethite and oxidized limonite (brown), iron sulphide (yellow), chlorite (green), etc.
Before you make plans to head to Peru, realize that the hike to Rainbow Mountain can be difficult, given the significant elevation and potential for bad weather. Although the trek can be gorgeous, passing stone villages, mountain streams, and herd of llamas and alpacas, you can also be faced with blazing sunlight and frigid winds throughout the trip.
Most people who make the trek enjoy the views, although some believe the area is being damaged by too much tourism. Others note that the spectacular colors you may see in highly-edited photos online are much more muted in person, although they're still beautiful and a geological marvel all the same.