Rainbow mountain is a day hike based out of Cusco that has only become open to tourists in recent years, but has become extremely popular in that short time due to its incredible colors! It’s one of the best adventures in Peru.
After leaving the wildlife sanctuary in Bolivia I headed back to Cusco to meet my friend Nicola from Canada. I’ve been to Cusco on a previous trip but had no problem returning. It’s 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.
Booking the Rainbow Mountain tour from Cusco
While it is possible to do the hike on your own, it’s very difficult to reach the trailhead unless you have your own car. Therefore, most people opt to join a tour from Cusco which includes a transportation and a guide.
Tours can be booked easily from hostels or tour operators in Cusco. I booked mine through Wild Rover and at the time cost me $40 USD, which includes breakfast and lunch.
The tours leave Cusco around 4 am 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!!
The Rainbow Mountain Hike
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 which 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 relatively short at 7km round-trip, but what makes it difficult is the altitude. The trail starts at under 5,000m and goes up to 5,200m. By the end of it I felt like I was struggling for each breath.
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 colorful valleys.
There is also the option to take a horse up the mountain, or halfway up, or even the last km up. There are literally locals offering horses the entire trail. I 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 color 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 colours 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 tectonic 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 the 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 earth’s 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! During my visit in May 2018, my tour guide said there are upwards of 500 people on the trail, but during high season that number could be up to 1000!
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!