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When anyone thinks of Peru, Machu Picchu is what comes to mind. This is totally normal, expected and most definitely a site to see. However, there’s usually so much more to a country than THE thing it’s known for. This is certainly the case for Peru and I was ecstatic to find just how much more there really was to discover. Enter Rainbow Mountain Peru.
Cusco Resources & Recommendations
- Hilton Garden Inn Cusco-My hotel recommendation (where I stayed). Rooms have air conditioning, free wi-fi, refrigerators, and microwaves.
- TripAdvisor-Read reviews for Hilton Garden Inn Cusco (and others).
- Allianz Global Travel Insurance-Get a free quote! Travel insurance to Peru is a MUST!
- Skyscanner-Compare prices for the best deals on flights | best deals on car rentals
- Lonely Planet Peru Travel Guide-the best (and my personal favorite) destination guidebooks out there!
It is one of the few photos that has literally stopped me dead in my tracks. I even remember showing it to my Mom. We were out eating Chinese almost this same week last year and she put down her fork and stared at my phone saying “Oh. My. Gosh.” Yep, it gets that kind of reaction.
It gets this kind of reaction not only because it’s so stunning but because most people have no idea it exists. And what’s sad, a lot of travelers who have visited Peru didn’t know to go see it or didn’t carve out time to see it.
While Rainbow Mountain is starting to get more recognition, it still isn’t quite saturated with tourists and its remote location has a lot to do with this. However, this isn’t the landscape to dismiss or cop-out on!! It might require a bit more planning, but this is the ultimate day trip from Cusco you shouldn’t miss!
The (Road) Trip
It’s a 4-hour one-way drive from Cusco to the parking lot of the trailhead to Rainbow Mountain. We got up around 3:45 am to meet our driver outside the hotel at 4:30 am. Yes, that’s AM, not PM. But at that time, AM basically is PM right, so what’s the difference?
Not too long after we left, we had a flat tire and so we had to wait for another tire to be brought in and for the driver and his brother (who brought the new tire) to change it. Around 45 minutes later, we were back on the road.
It’s a pretty drive up, but there is NOTHING along the way. Zero, zip, nada. Nowhere to grab anything to eat. Nowhere to go to the bathroom…
Until you absolutely have to go to the bathroom. Now what? Well, you hold it as long as possible and then you tell your driver you have to stop somewhere. ‘Cause one way or the other…you know what I mean. 🙂
Driver thinks about it, then turns off the main road and we find ourselves in the tiniest, most remote village I’ve probably ever been to. We are ushered into someone’s backyard (presumably a friend of the driver’s) and then pointed to a shed.
My friend was about to die so I let her go first. She goes in and immediately comes right back out and says “um…” and I look at her and then peek into the shed to find a “squatty potty”. If you don’t know what that is this will explain it.
Thankfully, I had learned how to use one of these when I was in China. So, after a quick lesson, all was good and we got back on the road. Again.
The Road (Again)
The last part of the drive before arriving in the parking lot is winding uphill. I was a bit worried because I get carsick very easily. Interestingly enough, I never got carsick one time in Peru and there were plenty of times I should have.
If you’re quick enough (and clearly I was not this time) you might get a shot of an alpaca that is standing cliff side with not a care in the world that cars are whizzing by it!
Almost there, look at that mountain!
Finally, we arrived in the parking lot around 9:15 am.
We saw several alpacas when we first got there. They are so cute!!
And we saw bathrooms. Well, porta-potties. This one I took advantage of. Remember to bring your own toilet paper because it is usually not provided publicly in Peru.
The (False) Start
We decided to rent a horse which is optional and an additional cost. The cost varies and can be negotiated. I think we wound up paying 70-80 PEN (Peruvian Soles) extra which is roughly $21-$25 USD. Not bad at all and since we were starting this hike at 14,189 feet, we thought this might be a good idea.
We were paired up with guides and horses and started our journey.
Less than five minutes later, we had to get off the horses because we had to go through control and pay the fee to get into Rainbow Mountain. This fee is 10 PEN (3 USD). Once we were through control, back on the horses we went to really begin our journey for the Rainbow Mountain.
This time we stayed on the horses for about 10 more minutes until we had to get off the horses again. Again, really?
There are various reasons we had to get on and off the horses 97 times. I remember asking my guide in Spanish, “otra vez?” which means “again?” He explained that there are several places the horses can’t have riders. Sometimes it was due to the oxygen demands on the horse going uphill and sometimes it was the actual landscape itself.
While this was certainly understandable, I wasn’t aware beforehand of all the mounting and dismounting that would take place. I mean, the steep hills and rough terrain are why you rent the horse to begin with, right? I also was renting one because my twice surgically repaired left ankle had been bothering me after Machu Picchu. And on which side did all the mounting and dismounting take place? The left of course! Oh well, I can at least say I stuck the landing on most of my dismounts. 😉
The scenery on the way up was beautiful and because you are in such a remote location, very peaceful.
After turning a corner, this is what came into view and I remember giving a little gasp. It was the start of the rainbow colors and I was getting excited!
The very last part of the trek requires everyone to hike up. No horses are allowed past a certain point. This is both because of the altitude (which is around 16,400 feet at this point) and the landscape which gets pretty steep and is very slick in places.
But once you get past that, you reach the moment you’ve waited and worked so hard for. And it’s gorgeous!!
Just make sure you “Do Not Enter The Rainbow Mountain”. 😉
Gorgeous, grand, majestic…
beautiful, peaceful, jaw-dropping. I could go on and on and on.
And I will as soon as I snap out of my mesmerizing stare of this unreal site to climb one final incline…
and get THE ultimate view. This is Rainbow Mountain. Speechless is the word.
There was still a little snow on the ground, so leaving one’s mark in the snow is a must, right?
Because of the altitude, every minute you are up there you are breathing less and less oxygen. There are people up there reminding you of this and telling you to hurry and get your photos and start your descent.
This is a good thing because if you aren’t having any problems with the altitude then you just want to stay up there for forever and at 16,400 feet, it can be very dangerous.
Mt McKinley, Alaska, USA
For a little perspective, Mt McKinley (Denali) in Alaska is the highest peak in North America with a summit of 20,320 feet.
And…that point on a flight when you hear the “ding” and the flight attendant comes on the PA and says “Ladies and gentlemen, you can now use your approved electronic devices and wi-fi is now available”?? Yeah, that happens at 10,000 feet. Next time you’re on a flight, if you’re sitting by the window, be sure to look out and notice what 10,000 feet in the air looks like.
It’s up there y’all. We thankfully didn’t have any issues with the altitude except for a tiny headache that went away after we ate a snack so who knows if it was due to the altitude or hunger. We did see some people struggling though. So please be careful!
This was probably the scariest part of the whole trek. It’s a bit steep and with the snow and ice in patches, it was slick. We saw people slide and fall. Not many, but it did happen and most of the time it was the people not taking the situation seriously.
Our guide met us at this point and I held onto the rope and him and made it down fine.
Then not too much farther down, I mounted my sweet caballo (horse) once again. He may not have been very motivated and may not have kept up with my friend’s horse, but can you blame him? Look what he does every day! He was, however, so sweet and patient as was my guide who kept asking me “Está bien (everything okay)?”
The journey back treated us to a whole new canvas. It’s so interesting how the opposite direction can look so different.
The way back down was also very peaceful. There was still a couple of places I had to get off the horse, but not many. It was quite calming to just stare at scenery that just didn’t look real and yet was so real and right in front of me.
When we reached the brook, the horses were thirsty and stopped for a drink.
Even the brook was pretty with its water rushing over a bed of colored pebbles.
We eventually returned to our starting point and I dismounted my horse for the final time and gave him a quick rub whispering “muchas gracias”. I also thanked my guides for a fantastic experience.
It may not have been the easiest place to get to, but isn’t everything great in life worth working hard for? Rainbow Mountain is definitely worth it and was one of those “life-changing” moments for me.
I can most definitely say I’ve had one of those now. Thank you, Rainbow Mountain. Thank you, Peru.
Know Before You Go
- GETTING THERE: Isn’t easy or convenient. Keep in mind your reward and follow that carrot!
- CHOICES: You can book a company in advance that provides English-speaking guides, meals, pickup service, etc. I almost booked one of these companies (for all these reasons) before research from trusted sources revealed tours can be booked much cheaper in Cusco. My deciding factor to book in Cusco was the ability to choose the day I wanted to go. Choosing a fancy company ahead of time locks you into a certain day. Rain (very common) or shine. PROS: Much cheaper tour, choice of day (sunny), hotel pickup, and assurance of adequate acclimatization to the altitude (HIGHLY important). CONS: No meals (brought our own snacks/water)
- BOOKING: Your hotel can help set you up with a reputable tour company for group or private tours with English-speaking guides. They are everywhere in Cusco and there’s a lot of competition which drives down prices.
- ACCLIMATE: Don’t attempt this trek until you’ve acclimated to the altitude in Cusco. This takes at least two days for most people and longer for others.
- WHEN: Go as early as possible. The later in the day you arrive at the summit, the more people there are and the harder it is to get good photos.
- DRIVE TIME: The drive from Cusco to the parking lot of Rainbow Mountain is around 4 hours each way. So factor in 8 hours in driving time alone.
- TREK TIME: The hike up, time on the summit and the hike back down will take around 3-4 hours depending on how fast you (or your horse) are.
- TOTAL TIME: All day. For reference, we left our hotel at 4:30 am and got back to Cusco around 5 or 5:30 pm.
- HORSE RENTALS: Can’t be rented or reserved ahead of time. Another reason to go as early as possible. What is there when you arrive is what is available.
- WHAT TO WEAR: The weather can and does change very fast in this region of Peru. Be prepared for very cold temperatures (especially early on) as well as warmer ones on the way up and back. You are at a high altitude and the sun is stronger than you realize so wear sunscreen. For reference, in late May, I had on a couple of thinner layers plus my raincoat/windbreaker, a beanie, gloves, yoga pants and running shoes and I was fine (for me).
- FOOD: If you elect to go on a tour that doesn’t include meals, bring snacks and bottled water with you. Both are important, but especially bottled water!
- RESTROOMS: There isn’t anywhere to use the restroom driving to/from, so unless you or your driver is willing to get creative 😉 , you’re out of luck until you reach the porta-potties at Rainbow Mountain. Don’t forget to bring your own toilet paper!
- MONEY: Have cash (Peruvian Soles) on you for the horse, the entrance fee (if not on an organized tour that has it included), and to tip your guide.
I wanted to be transparent and paint a realistic picture of what this trip involves, but without a doubt, if you know your limitations and keep these tips in mind, you should have one of the. best. experiences. of. your. life!!!
Have you been to Rainbow Mountain? How was your experience? Do you have anything to add to my list?
‘Til next time…