Ever since Peru’s famous Rainbow Mountain was discovered roughly five years ago, pictures of it have been appearing on Instagram feeds everywhere, astonishing people with its vibrant colours and rainbow-like stripes. And as there are only 2 places in the world where such mountains exist (Peru and China), Peru has seen a sudden spike in tourism in the area. However, with floods of tourists making the challenging hike to see it every year, questions have been raised about the safety of the hike – which at an altitude of over 5000m and ever-changing weather conditions, is an important consideration. Having recently taken a trip around Peru (of which there are plenty of blog posts to come following my slight uni-related hiatus from blogging!), Gareth and I decided that rainbow mountain was something that we didn’t want to miss. Luckily, we were offered the trip as an optional add-on at the end of our Contiki tour, and trusting the tour guide who would be taking us (having previously done the one-day Inca Trail hike with him), we decided to go for it – despite the 3am start it included! So grab a cup of tea, as this is going to be a long one, covering everything from our day itinerary, to top tips and how to book!
In order to beat the rush of tourists at the top of Rainbow Mountain, our tour left our hotel in Cusco at 3 in the morning, which, while worth it when we reached the top, felt horrendous when our 2:30am alarm woke us up! However, as we had a 3 hour coach journey to the breakfast spot, it was a really good opportunity to get some extra sleep. Although, be warned, that at that time in the morning, it was absolutely freezing, so make sure to layer up! Despite our guide, (Joel, who was absolutely brilliant), warning us that breakfast was a very simple affair, breakfast actually ended up being one of the best we’d had on the entire trip. We stopped in a tiny village high up in the mountains, where we were cooked breakfast by the local people, and while it was simple (bread, scrambled eggs and sausages), it was absolutely delicious and just what was needed for the day. Joel also warned us not to eat too much, as journeying to high altitudes later in the day could cause upset stomachs, so he didn’t want us to overdo it!
It was then only a 20 minute journey to the starting point of the hike itself (albeit on some of the most narrow and tiny roads I’ve ever seen, so if you’re afraid of heights, maybe don’t look out of the window!) Before starting, the hike itself was what I was most concerned about, as while it isn’t too technically difficult, it starts at about 4300m and ascends to 5200m, so the altitude really can hit. The start of the hike wasn’t too challenging, there was a lot of incline, but it wasn’t too steep, so eased us into the hike gradually. In fact, the hike isn’t too physically challenging until the very end, where it’s a very steep incline until the top. However, the altitude can make it feel much harder, so make sure to come prepared with altitude tablets (you can buy them in any pharmacy in Cusco – and most other cities in Peru), cocoa sweets/leaves and plenty of water. And make sure to really pace yourself, as while it’s easy at first, it quickly gets hard and is much easier to take a slow but constant pace, rather than shoot off and then have to stop every 5 minutes! And the buses won’t leave anyone behind, so don’t feel pressured to go quickly if other people are.
Moreover, while the main draw of the hike is the rainbow mountain itself, the views going both up and down are stunning, so make sure to have your camera at the ready, as they really are not to be missed! Once we got to the bottom, we had snacks and lunch waiting, before we headed back into the coach for the long drive home. Unfortunately, we were back onto the absolutely terrifying roads, but now the day had cleared, we really got to appreciate the view from the top – so there’s a plus side to everything!
One of the big concerns about the Rainbow Mountain one day hike is the weather – particularly the trails once rain hits. While I can’t really comment on this, as we got extremely lucky with the weather, with blue skies all day, Joel warned us that they can experience the four seasons in an hour up in the Andes. So while we were lucky to not get any rain, it can easily happen, so you should definitely invest in good walking shoes if you are considering the hike. Especially since, even though it was dry, some of the steps near the end of the trail aren’t properly maintained yet, so we had to go carefully. Therefore, my recommendation would be to go for the hike if you’re visiting Peru during it’s dry season (May-September), as rain is much less likely, and if it does hit, it isn’t likely to be for long. However, if you’re visiting during the rainy season, while I have no experience of hiking Rainbow Mountain in this weather, I would suggest to think carefully about booking! It is also worth noting that, despite having blue skies and sun, it was still extremely cold and windy at the top (so much so that while wearing fingerless gloves, the tips of my fingers swelled up with the cold). As well as this, it is extremely cold in the morning, so you need to bring lots of layers, that you can put on and take off as the weather changes.
If you are to struggle with altitude sickness while hiking Rainbow Mountain, there are locals who offer horse rides for about 40 soles (about £10). It is worth bearing in mind, however, that the horses are unable to take you directly to the top. Moreover, Joel advised us to only use a horse if absolutely necessary, as unfortunately, they are taken out of their natural habitat, and there is little grass for them to eat high in the mountains, causing many of them to become extremely malnourished. However, one of the members of our group became ill on the trail, resulting in her getting on a horse, as altitude sickness can become dangerous. So if you are feeling ill on the trail, advise your guide of it, as they know the best course of action to take! In fact, Joel told us, that he usually has to send at least one person back as a result of altitude sickness, and not wanting to risk their health.
How to Book a Rainbow Mountain Tour:
There are tonnes of tour providers in Cusco offering the Rainbow Mountain one-day hike, and many will offer it for around 60 soles (only £15!). While I can completely understand budget travellers choosing this option, I would advise doing your research and choosing a slightly more expensive tour in order to guarantee your safety. While I don’t have experience of other providers, I have heard stories of people being dropped at the bottom and being left to tackle the hike alone. Thankfully, there are doctors on the trail, but with many people tackling it daily, they can be stretched for work! On our tour, we had two guides with us, with one carrying oxygen in case of emergency, which was reassuring, particularly when people began feeling ill! I was fortunate to not experience any altitude sickness until about 4900m, so was only dizzy for the last stretch of the hike (which Gareth had to practically drag me up!), but many others are not, so it’s worth paying a bit more to guarantee safety and a good experience!
While Rainbow Mountain is undoubtably beautiful, it is also a stark reminder of the impact climate change is having on the planet. Until a few years ago, the rock formation was entirely covered in snow, meaning that it was completely unknown. However, as a result of global warming, the glacier covering the mountain has melted. Therefore, even though Rainbow Mountain has had a positive impact on the economy of the area, our guide warned us that climate change is hitting the small villages in Peru the highest – particularly at high altitudes. So, while Rainbow Mountain is a stunning natural phenomenon, it must be remembered why people are able to enjoy it, and the severe impact climate change is having on the planet.
A few last things to help you prepare for the hike:
- Bring sunscreen! Even when it’s not hot, at that altitude, the UV rays are really strong.
- Take your time. Everyone will get to experience the same stunning view anyway!
- Remember that a lot of the Instagram posts of Rainbow Mountain are heavily edited – while the colours are not as bright as pictures may suggest, it is still absolutely amazing.
- Bring snacks – especially sugary ones.
- Tell your guide if you aren’t feeling well.
- If you have knee problems, remember to bring a support. It might also be worth investing in a walking stick – I didn’t, and my knees were in agony the next day.
- DON’T do the Rainbow Mountain hike until you are properly acclimatised. If you try to do it on one of your first days in the country, you will get ill! Even though I’d been at a high altitude for just over a week, the dizziness still hit me.
- Remember altitude sickness tablets/sweets/cocoa leaves.
- Invest in a good rain jacket/poncho.
- Enjoy it! Even though it’s a challenging hike, it is well worth it and the views are absolutely stunning.