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Rainbow mountain is a day hike based out of Cusco that has only become open to tourists in the last two years, but has become extremely popular in that short time due to its incredible colors! During my visit in May 2018 my tour guide said there was upwards of 500 people on the trail, but during high season that number could be up to 1000!
After leaving Bolivia I headed back to Cusco to meet my friend Nicola from Canada who I would be traveling with the next few weeks. I’d actually be to Cusco on a previous trip but had no problem returning. Cusco is a very special place and I felt the magic of it again as soon as I arrived. I really wanted to hike rainbow mountain during my last visit but hadn’t had the time (or energy!) to do it after hiking the Inca trail, so this was my second chance.
Tours can be booked easily from Cusco and at the time cost me $40 USD, which includes breakfast and lunch! The tours leave Cusco around 4am because it takes about 4 hours to get there. Don’t count on getting more sleep during this time because the drive is through a typical Peruvian bumpy road where you are just praying the bus doesn’t slide off into the thousand meter drops. Yikes!!
Before starting the trek you have breakfast nearby which is included and pretty decent. After breakfast you head to the trailhead and start by about 9am. A guy will be there to give you walking sticks and they basically make you take them, but in my past experience I’ve found walking sticks not overly useful so I sneakingly avoided him. That was the right call, because everyone on my hike was super annoyed with the sticks.
The hike itself is not that long as it’s only 11km round trip, but it is challenging because it starts off at almost 5000m high so you really feel the altitude, and by the end it felt like I was struggling for each breath. The hike starts off relatively easy but near the end the incline picks up and it becomes much more challenging. However the beautiful views all along the way keep you motivated to the very top. We passed through snow capped mountains, fields of llama and colourful valleys.
There is also the option to take a horse up the mountain, or half way up, or even the last km up. Their are literally locals offering horses the entire trail. I had considered it at first but after starting the hike I knew I would feel better finishing it on my own two feet. It became somewhat irritating at the end as we were panting for breath and the locals increasingly offer you the horses. I’M CLEARY KILLING IT ON MY OWN (I was not).
Despite my lungs feeling like they were going to collapse at the very end I eventually made it to top and immediately collapsed to the ground in happiness. You can’t actually see the rainbow colors of the mountain until you reach the summit but once you are it explodes with colour below you. Once at the summit (and you catch your breath) there is an option to climb a little further up to get even better views (but it is VERY windy up there)!
At the summit there are traditional men and woman with their llamas and alpacas for tourist photo ops. As touristy as this is I absolutely love their little faces (the alpacas, not the women) and had to get a photo, mainly just so I could scratch its face.
Where did this colors come from?!
The color of the mountains was created due to weathering and mineralogy. Sediments that are iron rich will change color when exposed to oxygen and water so this, in combination with techtonic plate changes which have tilted the sedimentary layers, creates a very beautiful mountain in the present day. That’s probably a very bad explanation, but basically thousands of years of earth doing crazy shit. Our guide told us that in 50 years the mountain won’t look like this anymore, so that’s pretty neat to be able to hike but a small speck in earths geological timeline.
Hiking rainbow mountain is definitely worth the day trip but I will say that the hoards of tourists do take some of the magic away. It’s a real shame that all the tours go at the same time because it makes the top of the mountain very, very crowded. Unlike the Inca trail there’s no limit to how many people can go each day!
If you have your own way to get to the mountain I think that would be a much better option for visiting as you could avoid the crowds. Tourists or not, rainbow mountain is a unique geological feature and may not be around forever, so it’s definitely worth the trip if you find yourself in Cusco!