Discovered just over a couple of years ago due to melting of the glaciers, today visiting Rainbow Mountain is nothing, but the pinnacle of the hiking tourism around the area of Cusco.
Up above at 5100m over sea level, the seven different colours in display are an incredible sight for all those looking to see a natural wonder.
Even though you might not believe at the over-saturated images found in the internet, you’ll be amazed by how gorgeous the coloured landscapes will be. Honestly, some people say the northern lights, the Grand Canyon etc… but it won’t be that long before Rainbow Mountain gets included in the “must-visit” places in someone’s lifetime.
In town, pretty much every tour agency offers the hike to the Rainbow Mountain and even though prices, times and such can differ a lot, the service is usually exactly the SAME. Imagine hundreds of people all heading up Rainbow mountain at the same time… not that appealing uh.
So is it really worth and feasible to go on your own?
Rainbow Mountain - A Short Overview: Tours or Do It Yourself
The typical tour will cost you anything between 50-100 Soles (15-30$/pp) and will usually start with a big van picking you up in the early morning. More expensive companies will usually pick you up at 2.30-3am, will include a small breakfast, a guide, potentially oxygen tanks and/or coca leaves for altitude sickness and usually “small” groups (15 people).
Less expensive companies will usually pick you up at 3-4am, will include a guide, small breakfast, no sickness remedies and mostly put you in groups of 30 people. Oh, did we mention that if you go with tours you’re allowed 20min max at the top?
The easiest way to do this on your own is to rent a car, but you should be considering doing this, if you’re at least 2 people. Even though it might sounds taunting at first, if you’ve got some experience in driving and are ready for an adventure this is the way to go.
In Cusco there are many car rentals (like Hertz, Europcar and Sixt), but we suggest going to Cusco Rent a Car, which for just 40$/day gives you a decent car with insurance included. The great thing about this is, that you can get there at pretty much whatever time you want but more than that, you won’t have to wait for anybody on the hike.
No prepping, no unnecessary breaks: its gonna be you and the mountain on a race to endure the longer.
WARNING: In any circumstance, make sure that the day you’re planning to go, whether on a tour or by yourself, the weather forecast must predict a sunny day. If it’s forecasted a cloudy, foggy or rainy day, don’t even start thinking about Rainbow Mountain. Even if you have limited time in Cusco, trust us, don’t make the mistake of being ok with whatever the weather is. You won’t enjoy it at all and are going to have an awful experience!
Driving to Rainbow Mountain
The drive to Rainbow Mountain to Cusco is a long 3h15min, something like 2h on asphalt and 1h15min on mountain dirt roads, where having a map app like maps.me is a must. In order to avoid crows and enjoying the fullest we suggest you leave Cusco at 2.30am.
The first step is to get to Checacupe, a decently sized town that is conveniently located at the turn with the dirt road. After finding the right dirt road (maps will be the only way to find it), you’ll pass a big town (Pitumarca), several small villages (Huito, Llaulliri, C. Karwi, Labraco, Ocefina, Japura) and just after the last one (Hanchipacha) there’s gonna be the second and last turn off that will lead you up to the entrance and parking lot of Rainbow Mountain.
If everything goes as planned, you should be getting at the trailhead (starting from the parking lot) to Rainbow Mountain by 5.45am, which is roughly when the first rays of sunrise should start to light up the valley. Just after a small break we started hiking and the only people we could see in front of us was another couple with about 30min advantage on us. Needless to say that the landscapes, views and everything else was something unique.
Hiking to the top of Rainbow Mountain
To give you a short summary of the hike, in the first section you’ll be walking in a valley. Then you’ll start to hike up a slope, then a small flat and then the final push on a very very steep slope to get you to the mirador of the mountain.
In the first part is where, should you have any, you’re going to start feeling the strength of the altitude having effect on your body. As said above, if you’re going with the tour they will provide you with oxygen tanks or coca leaves to chew on but if you bring along some coca-chocolate that should make the trick.
In total the hike up took us 2h30min, but could also take you up to 4h, it all depends to how used you are to walk at high altitude. Usually the hardest part is toward the end where the last push of 200m altitude kills your lungs! Don’t forget that you’ll be hiking between 4400m and 5100m so oxygen in the air will be much less than what your body would expect.
If you’re not feeling good or are not willing to walk, you can also opt to take a horse (60 soles), but even in this circumstance you’ll still be dropped down at 4900m and have to walk the last hard bit by yourself. In the past horses were allowed to get to the top, but lately they decided to stop that because of the constant flow of tourism.
A couple of months ago, it was discovered another way to get to Rainbow Mountain which, on many guides opinion, is supposed to be easier in terms of steepness, faster with just 2h of hiking instead of 3-4h and start in the opposite direction of the “official” path. Currently, the majority of tour companies seem to be preferring that route over the old one so to allow tourists more time on the top but individuals travellers (especially locals) prefer using the old route because of its beauty.
Rainbow Mountain - Expectation vs. Reality
Overall, doing this hike and having a chance to see Rainbow Mountain was one of the best hikes we’ve ever done so far in our trip to South America. The desolated landscapes full of llamas, the snowy peaks and the incredible colours were just something you don’t see every day. Even though the hike up top was much harder than expected, it’s impossible to say it wasn't worth!
In terms of how enjoyable staying at the top was, well that is a different chapter. By doing this trek yourself, you can obviously expect to see other tourists on the top even before you start planning the hike. Thankfully, by knowing this, the view at the top shouldn’t be spoiled that much.
That said, if you like us are planning to get at the top by 8.30am then you’re in for a surprise. In fact, at that time we were sharing the views only with some other 20-30 people in total, which was much better than anything we’ve ever expected. But don’t relax too long cause at around 9.30am its when all the tours and masses of tourist will start to invade the place and your moments enjoying nature will be long gone. People screaming, group guides yelling the do’s and dont’s… in other words you feel like you’re back in the main plaza of Cusco.
Not pleasant at all!
The funny thing was that during the whole time we were at the top it was sunny and not a single cloud in the sky (ok maybe literally 2), but as soon as the first group arrived and we start walking down, the sky started to become very very cloudy. And as you can imagine, at 5100m if you’re chilling by the sun the temperature is OK but as soon as the sun goes away there’s a huge temperature drop and it become freezing. Especially when you take into consideration the horrible sidewind coming up from the valley below!
Looking back, there wouldn’t be a single thing I’d suggest you to change, if you were to plan the same self-guided hike to Rainbow Mountain like we did it by ourselves. Leave at 2.30am from your hostel/hotel in Cusco, get at the parking lot & entrance of the park at 5.45am, start hiking the trail at 6am, get to the top by 8.30am, enjoy the views for an hour and then head back down when the majority of the people are heading up.
If you’re really thinking about being the only one hiking and getting to the top before anybody else’s does, than we suggest you to leave Cusco at 1.30am. Though, consider that whoever will be driving for the whole trip might end up pretty tired for the hike (Max drove there & back and was shattered by the end). So take that into consideration before planning the trip.
We couldn’t repeat that enough times, but hiking to the top is a killer even for experienced hikers!
Travel tip shared by Connected Horizons