Vinicunca, better known as Rainbow Mountain, has exploded with tourism in Peru since it was “discovered” in 2015. The story is actually a sad one for our planet. Climate change contributed to the once snow covered mountain melting away, revealing the ‘Mountain of Seven Colors’.
Naturally, humans have invaded another area in search of the perfect instagram picture. I am guilty of this as well. Given its proximity to Cusco, it has become a go-to destination for visitors flocking to the area to visit Machu Picchu. I took the journey to the top and have laid out 8 things you need to know before hiking Rainbow Mountain.
1. You Can Get Your Tickets Cheap in Cusco
I love doing a ton of research before traveling. When I was investigating my Peru options in the Cusco area, I found a ton of Rainbow Mountain tours online. They were all day trips from Cusco. Many of them were in the $90-$100 USD range. Which, when you consider tour prices around the world, is not terrible. But this is Peru. And you can do better.
After reading a few articles that told me to buy tickets after I arrived in Cusco for cheaper, I decided to take a huge risk for myself and not plan out everything. I was also hiking the Salkantay 5 day trek to Machu Picchu before my free day and wanted to see how I would be feeling. So this made sense for me.
What I found was a myriad of options in Cusco for Rainbow Mountain day tours. I was able to find one the night before for about $27 USD. This included bus transportation, a bag lunch on the hike, a dinner hosted at a local family’s residence on the way back, and a guide that (kind of) spoke English. More on that later.
If you want to save some extra money I would wing it and get your tickets in town. Having said that, it’s always good to do a little recon on google to make sure the company you choose is reputable and not trying to scam you.
The other perk of waiting to buy tickets is to make sure the weather will be manageable for your hike. The weather always changes in the Andes - including rain, wind and even snow - so booking last minute will help make sure your experience isn’t ruined by bad weather. The last thing you want is to go when it’s been snowing and not even see the colors of the mountain.
2. You Get What You Pay For
I was supposed to be picked up from my hotel at 8am. Instead, my tour guide showed up 30 minutes early and was rushing me to come out. I knew something was off. When I was finally ready I followed the skinny, friendly, 30-something-year-old as we started heading down the steep hills of San Blas. We seemed to be in a hurry. I asked him where we were going. The bus. Strange. When I bought my ticket I was told the bus would pick me up from my hotel. We ended up walking nearly 15 minutes all the way down past the Plaza de Armas to a bus. I then waited in the mostly empty bus for 30 more minutes as the guide continued to wrangle up the different guests for the trip, one by one. It was actually kind of impressive. I felt bad for the guy as he seemed new to the job. But this must be what you get for $27 USD.
When we finally took off, it was apparent that nearly everyone on the tour spoke Spanish. There were two other Germans and myself that knew English. Our guide was a gambling man, and he took the odds that we wouldn’t care if he gave his entire presentation in Spanish for the entirety of the bus ride. He was right. I didn’t care.
Although I know enough Spanish to get by, I had done my research and knew what I was getting into. I had no real problem with his approach until he called on me to answer some trivia. After that I popped in my airpods and pretended to laugh when everyone else was laughing at his jokes to avoid another trivia question.
As you’ll read more below this wasn’t the smoothest tour I’ve been on. I knew for such a cheap tour I probably wasn’t going to get a premiere experience and I was ok with that. It all depends on your mindset. I decided I was going to roll with the punches and enjoy the trip.
3. The Trip There (and back) Was an Experience
It’s a long day. The drive takes about 4 hours each way. We made one stop each way to break up the drive. On our first stop, we pulled up to this tiny remote village and were given 15 minutes to stretch, go to the bathroom, or get food. Luckily I befriended a few people on the bus who were around my age. Two of them were Peruvian natives and the other was their cousin who lived in California. They all spoke English perfectly and helped me decide on a credible meal from an old man who was cooking some sort of meat wraps. I definitely took my travelan before that meal.
When I ran out to the bathroom, I walked up to a local and asked “baño baño?”. He instructed me to enter this covered market area. I found the troughs around a corner, pretty open to the market. I had to pay an attendant a very small amount of money to do my business.
After I was finished, I turned around and not even 10 feet from the troughs was a pig being gutted on the floor. The blood was draining to the troughs and I had to carefully walk around the blood streams. The sanitary practices were alarming to say the least. I walked straight back to the bus questioning everything I had just eaten.
The road on the final approach to the mountain is very narrow, unpaved, and winding. It also gains elevation, making it a pretty hairy drive in. Our driver didn’t even sweat making the turns. The scenery and little mountain villages we passed were breathtaking to admire.
On the way back we were making another one of the hairpin turns and a motorcyclist was flying around from the opposite side. Our driver took a sharp turn to avoid hitting him, and instead we hit some massive rocks on the side of the road. The driver pulled over at the first open space.
He got out of the car and exchanged some dialogue with the guide. They seemed upset and perplexed. It became clear that we had a flat tire, although they never told us what was happening. Luckily the driver had a spare tire under the bus. We sat in the bus for around 45 minutes in the middle of nowhere as the sun started to set. The driver worked hard to fix it and we eventually took off.
We were not able to visit the Inca Rope Bridge, which was also part of the tour, because of the time delay. Our last stop on the return was at a local family’s house for dinner. The food was decent and was served buffet style. I enjoyed this part of the experience as it felt authentic.
Although a lot went wrong on this trip, I had a good mindset about it and in a weird way enjoyed going through all of it. Makes for a good travel story anyway!
4. The Altitude is Real
You’re gonna want to make sure you’ve been in Cusco adjusting to the altitude for a few days before trying this hike. It reaches 17,000 feet at the peak! Baby steps people. The terrain is manageable and it’s a pretty steady slow incline. So just take your time. They can’t leave without you, right? Actually based on my tour, I’m not so sure they would’ve noticed if I wasn’t back on the bus.
Although I did not find the hike too challenging, I routinely had to stop to catch my breath. Having said that, I am in my early 30s and in pretty good shape (minus white claw nights here and there). I had also just completed the 5 Day Salkantay Trek two days prior which no doubt helped my hiking shape. And our guide definitely noticed this.
Near the top of the mountain I heard a voice from behind me yelling “Superstar!”. I turned around to see our guide jogging up behind me holding about 6 fully packed brown lunch bags. These were the lunches for the guests that included bananas, sandwiches, juice boxes and water. He handed me mine and I put it in my tiny backpack. He then began shoving other bags into my backpack. Really cramming them in there. He assured me it was fine, and that he needed help carrying them for the other guests. As surprised as I was by his lack of consent, I decided to help the guy out.
I ate my lunch at the peak and found 3 other guests and gave them their lunches. They were as confused as I was that I was the one handing it to them. I ended up with an extra bag and ate the rest on the bus so it worked out in the end.
Back to the altitude, my best advice is to just be prepared, take your time, and acclimate to the altitude before attempting the hike.
5. You Can Take a Horse Up
The alternative to my advice stated above is to take a horse up to the top. This seemed to be a popular option for many people who started struggling with the hike pretty early on. Near the parking lot there is an area where some local Quechua cowboys have horses stationed. Man those outfits. Just look at these superstars.
Anyway, they are more than happy to take your money to escort you up to the top if you want. And if you decline, they may still ask you. And then walk next to you and keep asking you. I believe it cost around 70 soles when I was there. They drop you off near the top but you’ll still have to finish the final ascent by yourself.
I opted not to ride a horse up, but from my experience riding a horse on the Salkantay Trek I will say that if it’s cold out, it’s going to be much colder on that horse. This is because you aren’t moving around and getting your blood pumping.
6. Be Prepared for All Weather
You are in the Andes mountains. You never know what weather to expect on any given day. Some days you can get all four seasons. I booked my trip for mid April with the hopes of there being less tourists with some good weather and for the most part that is what I got.
Generally the higher you get with the altitude the colder it gets. But the sun is also stronger. It’s a tricky equation, so it’s best to be prepared for everything. Rain and wind are also strong possibilities in the Andes mountains, sometimes without much warning. I hiked the Salkantay Trek and went into the Amazon rainforest but this was the only part of my trip I was unprepared for the weather.
I wore my long sleeve under armour hiking shirt, hiking pants, hiking boots, thin gloves, a winter hat and I even brought my northface fleece. I’m glad I brought them all because at the summit it began to snow! We’re just talking little snowflakes. But still!
The irony of the weather was that on the hike up, my body was naturally warming up from the exercise. So I was peeling off layers. The sun felt nice. Never once did I think about getting a sunburn. When I made it to the top I needed to put all my layers back on. Not until later that evening did I realize my entire face was sunburnt. Pretty bad. My lips were super chapped. I looked like a tomato on the only part of my body that was exposed to the sun.
So wear sunscreen. Wear chapstick with SPF for your precious lips. Bring sunglasses. Take a backpack with you. Bring a warm hat and gloves and plenty of layers. You may be peeling them off as you get going, but it’s still better to have the option in case the weather turns.
7. The Surrounding Area is Incredible
Generally the only pictures you see of Rainbow Mountain are of the majestic colored mountains. What you rarely see are the surrounding mountains of the Andes which are just as stunning in their own right.
For a majority of your hike, you will have great views of the Andes mountains. The locals walking their horses on the path parallel to you add to the scenery. As do the alpaca sightings, which are plentiful.
Once you reach the summit (you can do it!) you’ll have a vast panoramic view of the entire area. You can see the other side with even more colored mountains. The jagged Andes are behind you. And all the colored mountains lead your eyes back down the path from whence you just came.
8. It’s As Beautiful As Advertised
Let’s just say, I took some of the greatest photos of my life on this hike. I read a handful of articles that seemed to downplay the experience and beauty of Rainbow Mountain. I had the opposite experience. It just didn’t seem real.
Some people claim that many of the photos online have been heavily edited to bring out the colors more. As any good photographer would, you edit the photos a little bit. Obviously some people go overboard. But I didn’t have to do much to bring out the vibrance of the image. It’s all there and can be seen perfectly with your eyes when you arrive.
If you have the time and the physical capabilities, I would highly suggest hiking up Rainbow Mountain. Buy your tickets in town, make sure you are acclimated to the altitude, and check the weather the day before you leave. It’s a truly unique experience that you are sure to remember.