How Climbing the Rainbow Mountains in Perù Really Is

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How Climbing the Rainbow Mountains in Perù Really Is

Perù? Cusco? Well, the Rainbow Mountains are a must-see. Pictures from friends and advertisements completely sold me and I wanted to try them out. But how climbing the Rainbow Mountains in Perù really is? Some people say it’s easy, others don’t even get to the top… As a result, I was pretty uncertain of what I was going to do. Here’s my experience. 

The Rainbow Mountains, also known as Vinicunca or Montaña de Siete Colores, has an altitude of 5200 m above sea level and it is one of the main attractions, together with Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley, in the Cusco region. The mountain itself is only accessible on foot or horses. The colors are conferred by different sediments, which over millennia stratified to form this surreal landscape, which in the last few years attracted thousands of visitors.

The easy way to visit is joining one of the tens of tours that every single day leaves Cusco early in the morning driving you to the foot of the mountain. There is also the chance to do it on your own, but I think the organization is pretty difficult – public transport to the site is a mystery, there are no shelters and the weather at these altitudes is unpredictable.

The quest for the agency offering the best price was probably the most tiring part of this DAY trip – at the end of the day, I found one for just 70 soles (roughly 23$) with the entrance included (10 soles) besides breakfast and lunch. Of course, they promised their groups were always the first to arrive.

The minivan came to pick me up at 3.30 a.m., as previously established, and we arrived at 7 a.m. In a shed with some tables and benches, we had an incredibly untasty breakfast with jam, butter, rancid bread and that brownish dishwater that they call coffee. Everything in very small portion: I felt bad, but I grabbed most of the jam and greedily spread it on my two-days-old slice of bread. As backpackers, we usually don’t care, but I swear this was at the boundaries of indignity.

Even though I was still pretty tired, I kept my smile on talking with some Swedes and a Spanish family. They all seemed out of shape for what it is regarded as a difficult hike. That’s a common problem: so many people do it every day that the common thought is that it must be easy. It’s not.

After a short briefing both in Spanish and English, we left the shed and started walking. I have never, ever walked in such a muddy path. Along with us, arrieros and their horses were strolling without too much enthusiasm. Theirs must be a boring routine, furthermore dealing every day with pretentious western tourists.

I walked up a slope not realizing that the hill was muddier than the first stretch. A few seconds after I slipped – 15 meters sliding in the mud. I actually came back on the trail and a guy stopped me lifting me up – you can imagine how I felt like a right berk, as the arrieros were screaming ‘take a caballo!’, loudly clapping their hands. I went directly to a little stream close by in the attempt to clean my trekking trousers (spoil: I would not have them dry again till the end of the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu, 8 days later). Result: I wetted them and they were still dirty. Nevertheless, I continued walking till we reached the checkpoint where to pay the entrance.

Nevertheless, I continued walking till we reached the checkpoint where to pay the entrance. The ‘guide’, a 20 and something years old dude, was shouting the names of whom had the entrance fee already paid. It came out a lot of agencies didn’t pay – I was happy not to be among them because my wallet was completely empty. We had to wait till the last members of the group, the Spanish family, with the two children. They were already KO; their shortness of breath was more than evident. Meanwhile, herds of hiking were overcoming the checkpoint.

At last, we moved on. I started to feel the altitude. Eventually, I had a green plastic bag of dried coca leaves with me – I took a whole handful out and put it into my mouth, then started chewing. A German guy in my group, with his sister riding a horse, flanked me and we started talking. We had to stop one, two, three times – we were getting higher and higher. 

Estimates from the checkpoint to the top said two hours: we were at the foot of the last uphill stretch just one hour after the entrance to the site. But, wow, what an intense hike…I thought that was surely the toughest I had done in my life (second spoil: I have been denied just a few days afterward. The trekking to Choquequirao is much more strenuous).

When we reached the top, after the last ten minutes of hiking, we sat down a short rock wall. The mountain was actually covered in snow and the view I saw and have been dreaming of in the badly photoshopped, still impressive pictures, was just a mirage. Furthermore, it was freezing cold.

No-filter Rainbow Mountains

No-filter picture with a Canon 750D

I climbed up the last few meters and asked a couple of guys to take some pictures of me. It’s fine, I told myself, I’m here and the only thing I can do is enjoying the moment. Just enjoy it. I was tired, hungry and a bit angry with the agency that didn’t tell me – of course! – that March is not the best period to come up here. Suddenly I realized I had never been so high – I proudly set my personal record, 5200 meters above sea level. Certainly not an everyday achievement.

The downhill was probably more difficult than the uphill; my knees were under stress for more than two hours, trying not to slip again over the sludgy terrain. Trousers still wet. I dropped my mouth when I saw that one of the women that were selling snacks and mate de coca on the top was coming down at top speed in sandals. Yes, in sandals. You know those sandals that Incas were wearing? Same style.

Luckily, I reached the starting point without taking any shit more. Turning around, I saw the Spanish family already sleeping in the minivan; they couldn’t make it to the top. Same for two of the three Swedes I shared breakfast with. The ride back to Cusco was quite long, but anyway I managed to sleep.

Lessons learned:

  • Don’t take anything for granted – what might be easy for a person, can be difficult for you;
  • Altitude on Rainbow Mountains is not a joke even if you have acclimatized in Cusco. Bring with you coca leaves or altitude sickness pills;
  • The best period is from May to September – in this way you have no risk to encounter snow on the top, which makes the view much worse;
  • Bring snacks with you, as the breakfast is anything close to filling your belly;
  • Be sure that your agency communicated your name to the alleged guides.

Hopefully, this gave you and idea of how climbing the Rainbow Mountains in Perù really is. That was my experience anyway – I’m sure in summer you get much better hiking! 🙂


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How Climbing the Rainbow Mountains in Perù Really Is