How to Climb Rainbow Mountain - And Why it's So Out of This World
Like everything, travel has its fads. One year Los Cabos is all the rage and the next every boho girl you know is headed to Tulum. (Cough. That's where I'm off to next.)
Further south, Peru’s Rainbow Mountain is the latest destination to capture travellers' imaginations on the South American Gringo Trail. Once notoriously difficult to reach - with the exception of the Ausangate trek - this natural wonder has become a backpacker hotspot due to more accessible tours and the power of viral travel photos. And though I hate it admit it (largely because places this beautiful should be kept secret forever) this gem of a place truly deserves all the attention that’s come its way. It's simply stunning, even without the Instagram filters. The trek is tough but when your eyes land on that magical multi-coloured mountain, you’ll forget you’ve been panting for breathe for the last several hours in order to enjoy those views.
So if you’re planning a trip to Peru and are prepared to trek more than Machu Picchu (what's one more mountain, anyway?), here’s everything you need to know to add Rainbow Mountain to your travel itinerary and to savour every moment of your hike.
So, first things first, what is Rainbow Mountain? And why is it so colourful?
Rainbow Mountain is officially known as Vinicunca Mountain but it’s touted as La Montaña de Siete Colores in Spanish (The Mountain of Seven Colours) and Rainbow Mountain in English by all the Cusco tourist agencies. These nicknames stem from the mountain's brilliant rainbow-like colours, created by local mineral deposits and weather conditions. Most of the region's Ausangate mountain range is rather colourful but Vinicunca is the real stand out. It's also rather steep; 4,000 metres at the base and peaking at 5,200 metres.
How do I get to Rainbow Mountain and is it affordable for backpackers?
Rainbow Mountain is approximately three hours from Cusco so if you’re spending some downtime there (I highly recommend it) then you're probably best off planning your trip when you arrive in town. You can book a day trip or an overnight trek with one of the reputable Cusco tourist agencies. If you've got more time and are up for a challenge, then there's also the option of a five or six day Ausangate trek that will take across this entire region of the Andes.
I opted for a day trip with Medina Expeditions and Adventures - a relatively new agency - for approximately 70 soles (the equivalent of $20), a very reasonable price for a formal tour. This included pickup at 3 a.m. and drop-off at 7 p.m. (it's a long day), plus breakfast and lunch, a group tour guide and a hiking pole for the trek itself. I spoke to a few agencies before booking with Medina. There are now quite a few Cusco agencies that offer Rainbow Mountain tours, so shop around and get the best price with an agency that feels right for you. You can also negotiate if you book a last minute slot as agencies prefer to fill each tour bus. You can always book in advance too, but you'll pay a little more to do so.
When should I visit and how long should I stay?
It’s worth noting that a trip to Rainbow Mountain can be very hit or miss. Because of the altitude, there’s always a chance of snow. Sometimes there's sunshine every step of the way; others you'll reach the top only to find that the mountain is blanketed in white. Consider visiting during the warmer months, but take the risk and go regardless of when you visit.
As I mentioned, agencies offer overnight treks to hike to the top at dawn and have more time to soak it in. However, if like me, you take on Rainbow Mountain after multiple treks, a day trip might suffice. You'll just have to bear the time constraints because your guides will hold you to a strict timetable.
How do I prepare for my trek?
First and foremost, make sure your body can handle both the two-hour (largely uphill) trek and the 4,000+ metre altitude. If you’ve already taken on Machu Picchu or the Inca Trail, you’ll certainly be fit enough to tackle Rainbow Mountain too. But don’t take these on back to back. A few solid days rest in between is essential. Even with a break, my energy reserves were still rather depleted for Rainbow Mountain.
If you're hitting Rainbow Mountain first, give yourself enough time to adapt to the altitude. It's higher than Machu Picchu and you’ll start to feel short of breath early into your hike. It’s the only South American trek where the altitude hit me hard despite already having spent weeks in the Andes. Thankfully my guide saved the day with a bit of Florida water and an oxygen tank.
But don't panic too much, you also have the option to hire horses along the path should you need to. Horses cost around 40 soles at the bottom but the price drops as you get closer to the top. You'll find them perched all along the mountain, so even if you can’t tackle the last stretch, you can still jump on a horse nearer the top. You’ll eventually hit a barrier where they can't pass, but it’s only about 50 metres from there to the peak.
As for gear, wrap up warm. I wore thermal leggings, a thermal vest top, a long-sleeved top, my Patagonia down jacket, a wooly hat and gloves, SmartWool socks and hiking boots and kept everything on the entire trek. I also brought along a daypack containing: an extra thermal, two large bottles of water, hearty snacks and my vlogging camera. I was also very grateful for the hiking pole provided by Medina Tours.
But what’s it really like? And is it worth all that effort?
Here's the truth: Rainbow Mountain has been the hardest trek of my backpacking adventures thus far. The altitude seriously kicked my a$$. Near the top, I had to stop every minute (or less) to catch my breathe. And because I refused to hire a horse (what can I say, I’m a stubborn little Aries), I had very little time to linger and admire the views once I finally reached the peak. As soon as I arrived, my tour guide was shouting orders to head back down. I ignored him (obviously) and found myself a little perch to catch my breathe and soak in the mountain’s majesty instead. This was finally it - my pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Except this time, I was standing on the top of the rainbow. And sweating and panting for breathe, looking onto that fairytale of a mountain, I was reminded why I travel in the first place.
So as Kerouac says, go and climb that goddamn mountain! It's most certainly worth it.
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