Hiking to Peru's Rainbow Mountain
There are thousands and thousands of images of Peru's Rainbow Mountain on the internet. As you walk through Cusco, pictures of varied saturation are thrust at you by tour operators trying to book their buses. In less than ten years the Rainbow Mountain has gone from being unknown to receiving 1,000 - 1,500 visitors a day (in peak season). What feels like a tourist staple today, was covered in snow and ice until climate change revealed it in 2015 (some say 2013). But the beauty of the mountain and its proximity to Cusco has quickly made the mountain a world-famous attraction.
ABOUT THE MOUNTAIN
Vinicunca Mountain is located in the Andes Mountains near Cusco, Peru. It stands 5,200 metres above sea-level.
The mountain famously boasts seven striped colours. Dozens of rocks and minerals create the colours, including iron oxide rust mixtures, chlorite, iron sulphide, and goethite. There's fascinating information on the composition of the mountain here and here, that will do it much more justice than I can.
The easiest way to get to the mountain is to book a tour — and tours are incredibly easy to find. The tourist areas of Cusco are lined with people offering transportation to the Rainbow Mountain (many leaving right now!). We booked ours through our hostel and paid $30 USD per person for almost a full day and a breakfast.
We went with Rainbow Mountain Travels — they were everywhere and straightforward to book. They picked us up at the hostel at about 2 am. We drove for three hours before we stopped for a quick breakfast. Not all tours start this early, but the Rainbow Mountain can receive a massive amount of visitors each day, so to enjoy a less crowded experience it’s recommended to get an early start.
Even with our 2 am launch there were at least a dozen other buses there when we arrived at the parking lot. Right away, we were hit with our first dose of elevation reality. Daniel and I had arrived in Cusco two days earlier, we took the bus from Arequipa, and thought we pushed through our elevation sickness and conquered it.
The Rainbow Mountain is 5,200 metres above sea level, where Cusco is 3,400 metres. Just the simple walk across the parking lot was an acclamation slap in the face. It turns out, our life at sea-level and two days in Cusco did not adequately prepare us for 5,200 metres.
The trail itself is not difficult. The terrain is flat and even, and the incline is very gradual (until the very last bit — more on that later). It's seven kilometres to the classic Rainbow Mountain lookout, and at our guide's suggestion, we took it slow and steady. After we got over the shock of the altitude (sea-level chumps), we were able to absorb the incredible scenery of the Andes.
It was cold, bright, barren, and vast. From red to blue to black and snowcapped, everywhere we looked, the mountains were incredible and different. The air is crisp and thin, and it made us exhausted and wide awake at the same time.
Our guide carried an oxygen tank and jogged along the path checking in on her litter of tourists. We'd give her a breathy thumbs-up, and she'd laugh at us and our weak lungs. Also jogging along the trail are local Peruvians with horses for hire. They spend their day jogging back and forth from the mountain to the parking lot with tourists astride their horses. Many people hire the horses to take them 90% of the way; however, the horses cannot climb the final and most challenging ascent to the lookout (so everyone has to slog it out together). Born in the mountains, with superhero lungs, local kids also run around playing on the trail.
The final stretch of the hike is a steep grind to the viewing area. Our guide took out a portable Bluetooth speaker and blasted 'Eye of the Tiger' as she ran up the slope. We followed her to the top about 30 minutes later and felt a bit ridiculous when she congratulated us for making it. Like dragging ourselves up the hill was some great accomplishment after she ran it, laughing.
The Mountain is the Mountain. It's spectacular; it looks like a less saturated version of the pictures you see all over the streets in Cusco. We shared the experience with a hundred other visitors and a dozen different languages. People come from all over the world to visit this mountain, to see if it is as good as the pictures, to breathe in the thin mountain air, or to do whatever it is they came to Peru to do.
For us, it was beyond expectations. I've read that on cloudy days people have been disappointed, but I find that hard to believe. Being up there, on the ridge mirroring the mountain, you can see the Red Valley and across the Andes. It's treeless and barren and yet bright and fresh. It's the opposite of the temperate coastal rainforest that I'm from. The mountains are smooth, and you're a just speck, and you can feel it. If you're disappointed by the brightness of this place, that's a reflection of you. Whoa. (Also, we went on a cloudless day in May, and it was great).
TIPS FOR HIKING TO THE RAINBOW MOUNTAIN
Recognize that most images you’ve seen have jacked saturation (like the one above).
Start early, it's packed and popular.
If you're not from the mountains, spend a couple of days in Cusco before you visit.
Wear layers, it's chilly in the morning, but as you get your heart rate up, you'll want to shed.
Bring sunscreen and SPF lip balm.
Pack lots of water and some snacks.
Take only pictures, leave only footprints.
Take your time.