Discover Rainbow Mountain, Peru?
After researching and viewing the magnificent pictures of Rainbow Mountain, Peru, Scott and I knew we had to see it with our own eyes.
We had just arrived in Cusco, which is the hub for all outdoor activities in the area. At the SAS tour office, we signed up for a day trip to hike Rainbow Mountain and were told we would be picked up at our hotel the next morning at 3:30 a.m. Dang, everything starts early in Peru, which we were quickly discovering.
The History of Rainbow Mountain
Rainbow Mountain also known as Vinicunca, was rediscovered in 2015 after climate change led to snow melt at the top of the mountain. Previously, it had always been covered with snow, and so the colorful sediment was left behind for all to see. The first guided tours began in January of 2016.
Scott and I were really motivated to see this rainbow of sediment. Time will only tell if the snow will arrive again and cover up this unique feature.
Every excursion in Peru seemed to leave in the early morning hours, and this was no different. We stood in front of our hotel at 3:30 a.m. waiting for our pick-up. We were staying on the side of the hill in Cusco in the Bohemian district with tricky, narrow roads. So, we weren’t surprised to see a man jogging up the road instead of a bus.
He said “Jennifer.” I shook my head no and he looked at his phone, “Jennifer B., he asked?” Oh no, I thought, Jennifer is my friend who would be arriving the next day. There must have been some confusion with booking since we were using SAS Travel for our next trek with our friends in a few days.
So, I said “Yes” and I was Jennifer for the rest of the day.
We walked with our guide a few blocks to a waiting bus, full of people. After settling in, the bus sat for another half hour waiting for a few more people. Finally, 30 minutes after that, we were still waiting. Waiting for what? We weren’t sure. Soon we pulled out of Cusco and and began our drive toward Rainbow Mountain.
After two hours, we stopped in a remote village in the mountains. We went into a small room and about 20 of us squished around a long table and sat on plastic stools to drink tea. It was a basic breakfast of bread, jam and coca tea. Everyone was quiet and we were anxious to be on our way.
Thirty minutes later, after driving through a steep, winding canyon with a raging river at the bottom, we arrived at the starting point of our hike.
The beginning of the Rainbow Mountain hike is at an elevation of approximately 14,000 feet/4267 meters. The hike takes an average person six hours walking (round trip) and the elevation tops at 17,060 feet/5199 meters.
Right away we felt the high altitude, which required us to take smaller steps than usual just to not get out of breath. Our guide explained we would be hiking on our own and he would meet us at the end of the day at the bus. We were glad to know we could hike on our own and not need to stay with the group.
The trail was overused, had a thick layer of mud, and it was very crowded with people. Luckily, the scenery was absolutely stunning. We were in complete awe with each direction we looked. The hills were green and dotted with alpaca.
After thirty minutes of walking and sliding in the mud, we came upon a narrow valley with horses and guides just waiting to be hired. We decided to ride horses because the terrain was miserably muddy and it would take us all day at the rate we were going.
In the beginning, it was fun riding and our horses and our guides seemed friendly as they led the way in their traditional dress of black knee length pants, shirt and colorful sash belts. They wore basic sandals and were covered in mud from the knees down.
The weather was beautiful at first, but later clouds began to arrive. Scott’s guide seemed to be in a hurry so they were way ahead of us. Communication was non existent because our guides spoke the indigenous language of Quechua and we only spoke English and a small amount of Spanish.
Many other people chose to ride horses as well. Rainbow Mountain was a very popular trail, with no regulation or consideration for damage or overuse of the terrain.
Nearing the Summit
An hour and a half later, it began snowing like crazy. We were dressed for the cold with jackets and gloves, but Scott was way ahead of me and had my rain poncho, as well as all of our food and water in his daypack.
Eventually, I was completely soaked and my gloved fingers were frozen to the reins of my horse. I was completely miserable.
To make matters worse, each time the guide made me get off the horse to hike a steep section, he was a little bit too helpful putting me back on the horse with his roaming hands. I had to tell him “No, No, No, Más” so I could get on the horse untouched by the creepy guide.
Finally, we reached the place where we were supposed to get off the horse and hike the last 500 meter section to the view of Rainbow Mountain. Scott was there with his guide so I got my poncho from him and we had a brief discussion about if we were going to continue or not. It went something like this:
Scott: “The guide says there is too much snow. We won’t see Rainbow Mountain. We should go back.”
Jaynie: “I’m freezing to death give me my poncho. Why did you leave me?”
Scott: “My guide wouldn’t stop. I tried to tell him I wanted to be with my wife. I didn’t mean to leave you.”
Jaynie: “Let’s go back or the horses will all be taken and we will have to hike back in the mud.”
So, back down the mountain we went, frozen and grouchy.
We slowly made our way back down the mountain, passing throngs of people, struggling in the mud. It was hard enough to breathe at that elevation on the horse, and I couldn’t imagine hiking the entire way.
Finally, after being on the horses for three hours, we returned to the valley where we had met our horses and guides. We were both tired and muddy. Because my feet were frozen and numb, not two minutes after leaving my horse, I slipped and fell in the mud cutting my finger on a rock.
Thirty minutes later, we finished our hike and were ready to leave. There were about 15 busses, so first we needed to find our bus. Several people were already inside waiting and our guide told us we wouldn’t be leaving for about two more hours.
Scott and I got more water and took our snacks and sat on the side of a hill. We relaxed while watching llamas and alpacas parade by. Unfortunately, we were both disappointed in how the day went, as we had really wanted to see Rainbow Mountain.
Two hours later, our bus was full of tired people, only two had made it all the way to view Rainbow Mountain. Some people were suffering from elevation sickness due to the high altitude.
Next, we drove through the canyon back to the small room/restaurant for dinner. I ate the vegetable soup, but wasn’t up for the rest of the meal. It was possibly due to exhaustion or altitude sickness, who knows?
Our ride back to Cusco in the bus took four hours, due to heavy traffic and rain.
Our recommendation would be to hire a private driver in Cusco, even if it costs more than the tour. It will be worth saving the time, waiting for other hikers and needing to leave so early. It would be a much shorter day and you will be able to set your own schedule.
Another lesson I learned was to carry my own day pack (which I bought the very next day) so I would always have my own water, snacks and rain poncho at hand.
Overall, we had an interesting experience. Pictures cannot do justice to the beauty of the mountains we experienced. The scenery was well worth the effort and long day, but doing it with a tour group made it a much longer day than it needed to be. Just keep in mind, you may only see Rainbow Mountain weather permitting.
To read about our other experiences in Peru, please click here.