So you are thinking of going up Rainbow Mountain. Those vibrant, colourful, Peruvian slopes you have seen so many times on Insta feeds and aspirational travel boards on Pinterest.
Also known as Vinicunca or The Mountain of Seven Colours (Montaña de Siete Colores), the site has emerged as a tourist destination only in 2015, when layers of snow and ice covering it melted away (aka global warming). But is it worth visiting? And what should you know before going? Read on!
Know Before You Go
You need to know that Rainbow Mountain is no walk in the park. With an altitude of 5,200 meters at the viewing point, it is higher than what you will experience in Cusco (3,399 m) or at any point during the Inca Trail with Machu Picchu at 2,430 m and Dead Woman’s Pass at 4,215 m. Think Everest base camp. But if you’re willing to take on the challenge this experience will feel very rewarding. Not to mention getting some fabulous pictures in the can.
On the subject of photos. The thing is that the mineral deposits in the ground that contribute to the magnificent colours look a lot more vibrant in the sunshine. To really experience the full glory and get the snaps you will want to go on a good-weather day. If you’re feeling adventurous, instead of going on a daytrip you might want to consider a 2 day trek. There are plenty of those and they usually include Rainbow Mountain and Ausangate, which has some pretty lagoons and landscapes. This way you have the option to go on the second day, if the weather turns out bad on the first.
Getting Ready for the Trek
You’re adamant and you’re going off on the rainbow trail. Good for you. The altitude will be no easy feat even for fit trekkers. You may experience headaches, shortness of breath or even vomiting. It is advised that after arriving in Cusco you take at least a few days to acclimatise. Let your body tell you when you are ready for adventure.
If you’re unsure about how your body will take a climbing attitude, come prepared and medicated. Chewing coca leaves is part of the local tradition and can help your bloodstream in absorbing oxygen. Your guide will most certainly have them, but you can also buy them pretty much anywhere in Cusco. There are also pills like Alti Vital containing natural ingredients like coca leaf power and caffeine. Another option is Sorojchi Pills with aspirin and acetaminosalol. Pop these before you even set off.
A great piece of advice – take a hat, sunglasses and high SPF factor sunscreen. I hear you, you’re superhuman and sunburns don’t apply to you, but trust me when I say this – the sun in Peru is vicious. Even when it’s overcast and cloudy it may seem like you’re ok, but no. Your skin is still getting scorched. Also hiking poles, not a must, but can be helpful.
This may seem obvious, but the last piece of advice is DRINK WATER!
How to Get There
The easiest way is to jump on an organised day trip from Cusco. It will include the transport to and from the Rainbow Mountain base camp / parking area. Usually the pick-up happens very early around 4:00 in the morning and the total driving time is 6 hours. Just because it’s such a long drive it makes sense to do the previously mentioned 2 day trek, have a more relaxed itinerary and see a little more of the area.
There isn’t really an easy way to get there independently, unless you have a car or motorcycle.
What to Expect During the Trek
The hike itself is neither that long nor difficult, what makes it harder is mainly the altitude. A roundtrip will take about 3.5 hours. At base camp you have an option to ride a horse ⅔ of the way up to the mountain base. It’s the last bit, which everyone has to do on foot, that is the steepest.
Luckily there is a charming Peruvian man about halfway up the incline dispensing coca tea in metal mugs from his makeshift cafe (kudos for the environmentalism). Here you can also stock up on water and snacks.
Alpaca photo ops with their owners in traditional Peruvian clothing will be plenty. But if you made it this far, the biggest photo op is the spectacular view over the whole valley. Let’s be real though, the colours you have seen on all those promo pictures won’t be nearly as vibrant, but take a moment to revel in your accomplishment of making it to the top and just enjoy the views!
The Alien Landscape of Red Valley
It is no secret that Rainbow Mountain has become a major attraction in recent years and you can expect the site to be quite busy, unless you take one of the rare tours that depart even earlier.
Many tours don’t include this, but if you still have it in you and have 2.5 extra hours to spare you can ask your guide to take you to the Red Valley. A lot fewer people make it all the way up here and the scenic landscape is breathtaking (literally). The vibrant red soil of this alien landscape would make an exquisite set for any space film. You might be crawling on your hands and knees by the end of it but the views will be well worth it. It is a beautiful, beautiful place!