Hiking Peru’s Rainbow Mountain
· 8 min. read
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Peru's Rainbow Mountain is becoming more and more famous with each passing year, but its very existence is a sign of the times. Of course, the mountain goes back millions of years, but the reason it's so popular now is because until recently, it wasn't accessible nor visible. Prior to around 2010 or so, the mountain and the surrounding mountains were encased in a giant glacier. Due to climate change, however, that glacier has retreated and revealed the stunning rainbow-coloured landscape.
Because of this, although tourism brings in a lot of people, the infrastructure to handle the throngs of travellers hasn't been developed. The road to the mountain is long and bumpy, winding up, up and up into the mountains. Once you arrive at the area, the bathrooms have no running water, no heat, and no lights. There's no toilet paper either, so you can buy four squares of paper for 1 soles, which is about 25 cents. Cash only.
It is about a 4-hour drive from Cusco, but you can stop in places to get if you need. The landscape is stunning and you'll see scores of llamas and alpacas dotting the mountain tops as you drive up the slopes. There are some at Rainbow Mountain too, but you have to charge if you want to take a photo of them. The cost of the photo depends on how much money you have on you. The owners of the llamas have a similar salesman mentality as the shoe cleaners in Cusco. The first shoe costs 2 soles to clean, but the second shoe costs 40.
If you're visiting the Rainbow Mountain, you're most likely coming from Cusco, in which case you've prepared somewhat with the altitude. The hike from the parking lot to the mountain isn't very long, and the incline is manageable, but the issue is the altitude. If you are going with a guide, they will most likely be going with an oxygen tank. You will be around the same altitude as Mount Everest Base Camp, and the air is very thin. Even a few days of wandering around Cusco and its steep cobblestone streets won't prepare you for this hike.
Don't be discouraged after walking up the first few stairs and feeling the world spin beneath you. It's perfectly normal, and everybody is feeling it too. Your ailment is not isolated, and that's evident by the myriad of rock piles that dot the area. These apacheta are similar to the inushuks of the Inuit people of Canada. However, while the inushuks point the way of the travellers, the apacheta marks the beginning of their journey. You, and your fellow hikers, will make a small pile of rocks and make a prayer to Pachamama -- Mother Earth -- for a safe journey. Pachamama brought you to this place and will guide you safely through it.
There are three parts to the hike, each very similar but separated by lookouts. You can't see the first lookout from the starting spot, but you can see the second lookout from the first one, and there is no third lookout since that's the final destination. All along the path are places to stop and rest and take in the beauty of the Andes.
When I arrived at Rainbow Mountain, it was in late August at around 10:30 in the morning. We left Cusco late around 4:30 AM, so we were actually behind schedule when we got to the peak of the mountain. Not many people were there on a Sunday morning, but the air was crisp and clear. Some hikers have bad, foggy, cloudy weather, but ours was perfect. Some people were cold, but the cold up isn't cold for a Canadian.
I was a little disappointed by the vibrancy of the rainbow. I expected it to pop more. The sunlight was perfect so we couldn't blame it on the weather being overcast or anything like that. I suppose the mountains had a rainbowesque colour to them, but Instagram made me think they were going to look more like Lifesavers and less like, well, coloured rocks.
Further up the path were some rock formations. I believe these were called the Rock Gardens. I flew my drone over to them (which is 50 soles to do, and they won't hesitate to find you in a crowd to make you pay for it) but I chose not to hike to them. About two-thirds of the group chose to hike to them, but the rest of us were too tired. We had been hiking all weekend and this hike was the hardest -- even though we were guided by the protection and strength of Pachamama.
I enjoyed the hike down more, partly because it was easier, but also because I could enjoy the landscape more. On the way up I struggled to catch my breath, and once got a rather vicious nosebleed. Five months later, I'm still finding blood on my camera. Going down was easier on the lungs, and on the pride.
The ride back was long, and we got to Cusco in the dark. The next day I did nothing. Cusco was a beautiful city and after getting over COVID, all I wanted to do was spend time outside and explore. Instead, I sat on a park bench for the majority of the day, and just watched people. The hike to Rainbow Mountain required a day to recover from, and I wasn't the only one who needed a rest day.
Was the hike worth it? I am not sure. It was a beautiful hike and the altitude was unlike anything else I've ever experienced. But the drive was long -- an eight-hour round trip -- and it left me exhausted. It might have been better if it was a two-day trip, with a day to rest before coming back to Cusco.
If I could go back in time, I'd still do the hike. But if I find myself in Cusco again, I'll probably pass. It was the hike of a lifetime, but it's a hike I'd only like to do once.
Thank you for coming along with me on my journey through Peru. This will be my final article on it. We've explored everything from jungles to deserts to mountains. Now it's time to start a new adventure. To where though, who knows.
Have you ever hiked Rainbow Mountain? Where is your next adventure going? Let me know in the comments below.
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Categories: Hiking, Peru, Remote Year, Travel Tips