This guide to booking and hiking Rainbow Mountain (near Cusco) provides information on the semi-difficult hike taking you from 4,300m up to a (cold) peak of just over 5,000m. It certainly is an interesting adventure, and one where you will need to catch your breath more than a few times.
Rainbow Mountain is not the first thing that you think of when heading to Cusco in Peru, that would be of course Machu Picchu! However, there are plenty of other treks within the area all vying for your attention, and one of the fairly newcomers is this one-day trip out to where the Winicunca people live in order to see what they’ve been hiding – a spectacular mountain of many colours. Of course for casual trekkers such as us, the prospect of going up to 5,000 meters in one day caused our brains to consider exploding, with thoughts of altitude sickness and slow moving body parts. However, we wanted to give the hike a go, and certainly did not want to pass up the opportunity of getting in another adventure before leaving the Cusco region. But of course, the first thing we had to do was find out information on, and book, the tour! This entailed:
Information on the 1-Day Rainbow Mountain Tour
Every tour agency that you visit will give you a run-down on what the tour entails, and the details really do not change all that much. They are as follows:
- You will be collected from your accommodation between 3:00-3:30pm (for us it was 3:45, but we are on South American time after all!)
- The drive towards the start of the hike will take a grueling 3 hours, and if your agency is anything like ours they will include blankets and neck pillows on the van (it is definitely worth it to ask as it is COLD on these vans)
- After just under 3 hours, and around 15 minutes drive from the start of the trek, you will stop for an included breakfast which will include tea/coffee, bread, jam, and maybe eggs if you’re lucky (we were lucky!)
- After another 15 minutes you will reach the start of the hike and get your cold limbs moving
- You have around 3 hours to complete the 7km hike up, which will include crossing the ‘toll booth’ of paying 10 soles to the local people to access their land (this may be included in your tour costs – be sure to check)
- Once reaching the top, you will get 30 minutes to 1 hour (depending on how fast you were) to take pictures, catch your breath, buy a beer (seriously), or do whatever else you like
- You now have 3 hours to head back to the vans, at which point you will be driven the 15 minutes back to the same place for an included lunch of soup with a second course of chicken, potato, and rice (or similar)
- Once completing lunch you will drive all the way back to Cusco (just under 3 hours) and arrive back anytime between 5:30-7:30pm depending on how quick your group was in hiking. You WILL NOT be dropped back off at your hostel, but instead at near Plaza de Armas (central Cusco)
Booking the 1-Day Rainbow Mountain Tour
Of course, every man and his dog has a tour on offer for Rainbow Mountain, but we have put in the hard yards for you in attempting to find a bargain in amongst all of the overpriced disasters in this town. In our hostel (Kokopelli) for example, the cost of the Rainbow Mountain tour was 100 soles (around $30US) which we initially thought was not too bad until we had a look around town.
In the end, we found the Wonderful Machupicchu Agency, located at Calle Triunfo no. 374. They are actually located within a hallway like market, though their sign advertising Rainbow Mountain is prominently displayed out the front. Now the sign states that the tour is 60 soles, which is pretty good. However, we were able to knock another 5 soles off of this price to get 55 soles, and if you end up booking other tours with them you can get it even cheaper (one couple got it for 50). We highly recommend this tour agency, they treated us well and even showed some great videos of the tour before booking to try and entice us. They even stated that oxygen would be included if required (though we never really saw this available along the way).
Based on the above instructions supplied by all of the agencies we visited, we felt that it should be pretty easy right – up and down in 6 hours no worries! Well we were obviously wrong! Despite being in the Cusco region at 3,300m for around the past week (and in Machu Picchu during this time), the muscles did not want to react to a regular walking speed, and the breathing started to become laboured mid-way through the walk. We were actually thankful to have to stop at the toll point just to catch our breath and take a break! Also, the constant taunting of the horses available for rent started to get to us psychologically, especially with the ease of the locals walking up and guiding the horses!
The scenery around us was stunning though, with constant glimpses of snow-capped peaks from snow a few days previous, alongside llamas and alpacas roaming the highlands freely. Eventually we did find our stride, though perhaps we were too busy taking in the sights to notice the lack of oxygen at this height!
At the midpoint of the hike, our guide pointed out Rainbow Mountain off in the distance, which really did not look that far away to us. But of course, we were only at the midpoint, which meant another 1 and a half hours of hiking before we truly conquered the peak, and reached… dozens of market stalls selling water, soda, and beer of course! What a spectacle, though being at 5,000m actually gave us some extra energy which remained as we climbed up to the mirador (now above 5,000m thank you very much) and took as many photos as we could before my camera decided to turn off and our hands began to freeze!
At this point we headed back down with our guide yelling it was time to go (all in good time mate), and started what would become a quite difficult hike back down to the van. Yep, the altitude decided to hit us hard but only when we were descending go figure, and we really struggled to not hire a horse to blissfully take us to the original starting point. And after what seemed like 5 hours had passed, we finally caught sight of the dozens of waiting vans and the many tents of locals selling food to exhausted tourists. It really only took us 2 and a half hours to return in the end, and we were very thankful to find our van, drop off our gear, and have a sit in the sun whilst we waited for our other tour members to arrive!
The rest of the tour is a bit of a blur of eating and sleeping, though we can confirm that we eventually arrived back to Cusco exhausted at 7:30pm, and proceeded to make our way almost directly to bed (after some very hot showers – thank you Kokopelli Hostel).
Our experience on this hike has been mirrored many times by friends of ours who state that it was really quite a difficult hike, but probably only because it is at such a high altitude. We completely agree with this, but what everyone else also says is that they would recommend it to anyone. The colours of Rainbow Mountain are truly spectacular, and even get better the higher you get (up at the mirador provides the greatest view of all). So make sure when you visit Cusco you do not just stick to the main tourist grab of Machu Picchu – try something else new and really experience the local area.