Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock with no WiFi for the last 2 years, then you must have noticed the pictures of Rainbow Mountain in Peru taking over your Instagram feed by now.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that these colourful pyramids had been photo-shopped to create that surreal effect… but, believe it or not, this place is for real.
Vinicunca (or Rainbow Mountain, as it’s become affectionately known) was only discovered in 2015 and officially opened to tourism in 2016.
Now, can we all just pause for a second to appreciate how mind-blowing that fact is?! That means that until 3 years ago, no one even knew this magical place existed! Just one of the many ways in which Rainbow Mountain will leave you speechless.
But now the secret’s out, Peru’s mysterious mountain is fast becoming one of South America’s most popular attractions and tour companies are taking more than 1000 hikers up a day to witness its multi-coloured peaks.
First things, first…
If you’ve already started researching a trip to Rainbow Mountain, then you may be slightly baffled by the mixed bag of reviews out there.
This is one attraction that seems to have the “Marmite effect” – travellers either proclaim that this is the best hike they’ve ever done, even giving the famous Inca Trail a run for its money.
Or they will insist that this was the worst day of their lives: that the hike is physically unbearable and the finale completely underwhelming.
This striking split in opinion was nearly enough to convince us to bypass Rainbow Mountain altogether and opt for another of Peru’s spectacular hikes (they’re hardly in short supply in this part of the world!)
But when it came down to it, we just knew we had to see this natural phenomenon for ourselves. And thank goodness we trusted our guts, as this turned out to be the #1 highlight of our South American travels.
I’d even go as far as to say that Rainbow Mountain might just be the most spectacular place in the world I’ve ever seen. A big claim, I know, but seriously… look at it!
How to make the best of your experience:
That said, your personal experience of Rainbow Mountain will likely depend on the following factors:
Many travellers who have had a poor experience of Rainbow Mountain have had their views obstructed and spirits dampened (quite literally!) by the elements – rain, cloud and even snow is not uncommon in these parts. Adverse weather conditions can dull out the colours of the mountain and make for a pretty gruelling hike. December to February is generally wet season in Peru but the weather can be unpredictable at any time of year.
Your reaction to the altitude:
Rainbow Mountain is a tough hike – seriously tough. I average 4-5 miles of walking every day at home through the hilly streets of Bristol, and have taken on some pretty mammoth treks all over the world.
But the altitude in Peru is not something you can prepare for. And even though I was lucky not to suffer from altitude sickness anywhere else in South America, hiking up-hill at an elevation of 6000+ metres will push just about anyone to their limits. I’m talking breathlessness, dizziness, head-aches and nausea – all whilst trying to climb a mountain.
I had to be given oxygen on my way up and thought at several points that I’d never make it to the top!
But if you come prepared with altitude sickness tablets and pick a good tour company (see my next point), you should have everything you need to get yourself safely to the summit.
And if the hike really does get too much, there are locals making their way up and down the mountain with horses, which you can hire for a small fee.
Your tour company:
Although you can’t control the first two points, this is one area that you can choose to ensure you get the best out of your hike. We used premium, local company, FlashpackerConnect, and couldn’t have wished for a better experience.
The early bird catches the worm, as they say, and the eye-wateringly early pick-up time (2:15am from Cusco – don’t worry they provide blankets, so you can sleep on the minibus!) means that your group will be one of the first to reach the top and will benefit from unobstructed views and photo opportunities.
It also means that you’re hiking earlier in the day, when it’s cooler. As we were hiking back down, we saw people only just setting off in tour groups, already struggling with the mid-morning heat.
FlashpackerConnect only take a maximum of 8 guests in any group tour, which makes for a much more personalised experience. It also means that their expert guides can hang back as long as you need, to ensure that everyone is getting up the mountain safely. They also carry oxygen tanks and first aid kids, in case anyone is struggling with the hike.
The only real downside is the price – FlashpackerConnect are the most expensive tour company in town, at $150 a pop. And because of their reputation and popularity, they book up about 3 months in advance.
If your travel plans aren’t so set in stone, there are plenty of tour operators in Cusco offering hiking experiences to Rainbow Mountain at cheaper rates with the added bonus of flexibility. But my advice is do your research, as you do tend to get what you pay for in South America.
What you need to know about the hike itself:
Rainbow Mountain is located about 3.5 hours from Cusco, in the heart of the Peruvian Andes. It sits at an elevation of 6,300 metres (or 15,000 feet) above sea level and the best way to reach it is with a guided tour.
The last hour of the journey is unpaved, mountainous roads and not something you’ll want to attempt in a rental car! In fact, it’s a pretty bumpy, stomach-churning ride in the mini-bus so prepare yourself!
One-day treks from Cusco are the most popular option but multi-day treks and customised tours around the Ausangate region are also available and a great way to explore this beautiful area, if you have more time.
The hike itself is only a distance of 3.1 miles each way but it takes about 4-5 hours to complete because of the altitude – be prepared to stop every few steps to catch your breath. It’s recommended that you do some training hikes before you arrive. We had hiked Machu Picchu Mountain just 3 days earlier and our legs were still a bit battered from climbing all those giant Incan steps, so try not to overdo it beforehand!!
The 360 degree viewpoint from the top is the obvious selling point of the tour and your Instagrammable “golden ticket”, but the trek up itself is just as breath-taking. You’ll pass through beautiful valleys, dotted with hundreds of friendly alpacas, past snow-capped mountains and even giant glaciers, before you start to see the colours of the rocks transform before your eyes.
An unexpected treat (for all you fellow canine-lovers out there) was spotting the local dogs who hang out at the top of the mountain and just love to photo-bomb everyone’s pictures!
You’ll return back down the mountain the same way, which means you can enjoy the scenery this time with a little less huffing and puffing.
Once you’re back at base camp, most tour companies provide a freshly cooked, local lunch for you to enjoy before making the scenic trip back to Cusco.
Rainbow Mountain was without a doubt the most challenging and rewarding hike we’ve ever done and one of the best experiences of our lives! There’s nowhere else in the world quite like this and it simply has to be seen to be believed. Yes, it’s a mission to the top but it only serves to make the reward that much sweeter!