The year is 2089. The Earth’s population ambles uphill toward what remains of snow capped mountains for clean water. Some entrepreneurial spirits rent horses for money. Others just hike like zombies on foot. This is what climbing Rainbow Mountain is like.
What is it?
Rainbow Mountain is the unofficial name of Vinicunca, a mountain created by different types of soil, giving it the unique appearance of ribbons of color. It was first discovered in 2015, but is now one of the most popular day trips from Cusco.
There are some tour companies online that offer a day trip out there for $100-150 per person. Save yourself at least half that and book in Cusco. We booked it through the guy who picked me up in an Uber from the airport. He gave us quotes for both a group tour and a private car. We ended up going private for 700 soles total which is about $42 per person.
This included lunch, the guide for the hike, and oxygen tanks that we agreed we would pay for if we used them. We didn’t need to. Though the guide was nice enough to offer some to a girl at the top who was having really bad anxiety and altitude sickness. She was also on a group tour but it was a big one so she had no idea where her guide was.
The tour did not include entrance to Vinicunca, which is 10 soles. But hardly any tours do. So bring cash to pay that up front.
The drive is over 3 hours outside of Cusco. Since the end of 2016, they’ve changed the route drivers take in order to make the hike shorter. This is good because I imagine that hiking for 3-4 hours up and 3-4 hours down would actually kill me. The trade off is that the last hour and a half of driving is terrifying. You have to take a barely two-lane dirt road that’s cut into the side of the mountains. It’s full of hairpin turns and poor visibility for cars coming on the other side. And of course, at the edge of the road is a steep ravine that would lead to certain death if the driver misses his mark by inches.
Because of the longer drive, the hike starts around 14,000 feet. It took us two hours to make our way up to the peak of 16,000 feet. Compared to the Machu Picchu mountain hikes, it’s less dangerous. Up until the top, it’s a generally flat uphill path. No steps and no dangerous parts. Towards the top, it becomes very steep and since it’s dirt and loose rocks, it becomes more difficult. Even though it’s not as scary, the hike is at a much higher altitude which affects your body in weird ways.
If you’re not properly acclimated, you might get a headache, feel lightheaded, nauseous or vomit. Even if you are acclimated, you’ll still feel really exhausted. The air is light so breathing is harder and more labored. And your body and everything you’re carrying feels like it weighs a ton. This probably accounts for the zombie gait everyone has going on.
It’s a steady path up to the top and you can see your final destination almost the entire way because some color bleeds over the top of the mountain. You just have to make it over the hump to see the other side.
Coming down can be a little difficult, especially at the top. To prevent slipping on the steep slopes, you should walk with your feet perpendicular to the slope. A walking stick can also make this easier. They also sell these at the entrance, along with gloves, hats, and anything else you may have forgotten.
Getting a horse
Some people rent horses to go up and/or down the hill. Locals are waiting at the entrance to offer you a horse, which costs around 70=90 soles round trip, though you can always haggle. They don’t go up the entire way and you have to get off for some steeper parts of the climb. So you can’t avoid walking at least a little bit, horse or not. Throughout the walk, there will be people offering horse rides to help you finish the hike.
However, seeing those miserable horses bringing people up and down the mountain was really depressing. I wouldn’t recommend doing it if you care at all about animals. They’re hot, tired, and obviously not interested in climbing up to Rainbow Mountain two dozen times a day. If you are interested enough in seeing the mountain for yourself, then make the effort and walk. Don’t make the horses pay for your own stupid whims. Suffer in the altitude like the rest of us.
Preparing for the hike
After Machu Picchu, where we couldn’t get water or food that we didn’t bring inside ourselves, we prepared for this the wrong way.
There are vendors inside and outside the entrance selling water, snacks, coca tea, even beer and soda. So you don’t need to weigh yourself down with 3 or 4 bottles of water or snacks. You can get them at the beginning and at the top of the mountain.
As far as bathrooms go, there are also some near the entrance and a couple somewhere midway up. They’re squat toilets and there is no paper so bring your own. And I guess bring clothes you don’t mind accidentally peeing on.
The weather at Rainbow Mountain can be very extreme. During rainy season, it might be wet and muddy. Later in winter, it might be snowing. And no matter what time of year it is, it’ll be cold at the top. Though we slightly overdressed, the extra layers were necessary for the early morning and for the peak. Check the forecast and come prepared for all kinds of weather.
Most people visit early in the morning to avoid the bad sun. This means leaving Cusco around 4:30 am. We were one of the first people at the top around 10 am. And by the time we came down, it was starting to get really packed, both at the top and en route up. The earlier you go, the colder it will be, but you’ll avoid the crowds and the hot sun.
Plus, the view is a lot nicer without too many people in your way.