So we again decided to take advantage of a lull in occupancy [at GringoWasi] and hike to the Rainbow Mountain. We had actually been thinking of doing this hike since reading this blog about 8 or 10 months ago. The funny thing about the Rainbow Mountain hike is that back when I first read about it, no one here in Cusco had a clue about where it was, and you certainly could not get an organized tour to it. We even had a guest ask about doing a hike there when booking their stay; we again asked around but at that point there were still no agencies offering anything. Fast forward to today, and now you can’t look at a tour agency office without seeing an advertisement for a Rainbow Mountain hike.
I’m glad that we decided to book with an agency, as the S/ 140 cost was well worth it for the convenience. Not only did we not have to figure out where to go to start, but meals and transportation were also taken care of. (Normally we like to do things like this ourselves, but this was an exception and I think a good exception.)
Our morning started out early at 3:30 a.m. and, considering the early start, we decided to spend the night before starting the trek in Cusco. We stayed at the Royal Inti Hotel, a nice clean and comfortable hotel that is centrally located. We were picked up at approximately 3:30 a.m. and had a few more hikers to collect before departing Cusco at about 3:40 a.m. In total, we had two vehicles: a larger sprinter type van and a smaller Hyundai H1 van. I believe there was about 18 people in our group. The ride to our breakfast stop was fairly uneventful as not only was it dark outside, but most of the other passengers slept for the roughly three hours it took to get there.
Alpacas heading up the valley (Photo: Lyle Walker)
When we arrived in the small town where we were to have breakfast, we had about 15 minutes to stretch our legs and use the services before breakfast was ready. In case anyone is wondering, the services consisted of a hole in the ground with some wood boards over the top, leaving a hole in the center. The walls were about four feet of plastic sheeting and there was no roof; this was typical for most of the route. Breakfast was fairly simple, but plentiful and consisted of bread, butter, jelly, fried plantains, and scrambled eggs with diced hot-dogs in it. They also had coffee, hot chocolate and an assortment of teas to drink.
After breakfast we drove about another 10 minutes down the road to the parking area where we would start the hike (altitude 4,300 meters). Here we crossed a small valley and met up with horsemen on the other side. You can hire a horse for S/ 40 one way (to the top) or S/60 round trip. The horses looked to be in good condition and well cared for. During certain sections they actually asked the riders to dismount as it was either too steep or to give the horses an occasional break; considering the small size of the local horses, either would make sense.
From the point where we were met with the horses, the trail starts its climb up a valley. The first section is about 2km long and a moderate incline, followed by about another 2km of fairly flat terrain. It was near the end of this stretch where you have to stop and pay a S/ 10 fee. After this there is 5km of moderate incline with the remaining 0.5km being fairly steep. The hike itself was interesting with nice views of the surrounding mountains, including Ausangate which is located to the North West. Along the trail we saw many llamas and alpacas as well as some small local villages. There was also the occasional bird, and a few Mountain Caracaras – unfortunately, no condors on this trip. I have read where people have reported seeing them while doing the Rainbow Mountain hike, although the Mountain Caracara has similar coloring and it is possible they were Caracaras misidentified as condors.
Once we made it to the saddle next to the Rainbow Mountain I took a few moments to rest. At this point you are right next to the Rainbow Mountain. After a short break here I made the last push to the adjacent summit where you get the best view of the mountain (altitude 5,000 meters). While the overall view is fairly impressive, I actually felt a little let down as most of the pictures I had seen seemed to show more vivid colors. As we were there on a nice sunny day around noon, I would have to guess that some of the photos used have been taken with filters or have had a bit of work done on them.
After spending some time at the summit we started our descent down the mountain and back to the vans. By now the hikers had spread out and the trail was mostly empty so I enjoyed the views. Despite the fact that the wife and I are not in the best of shape, we were not the last ones back to the parking lot. After everyone returned to the vans we then drove back to where we had breakfast. Here we had a delicious lunch of chicken strips, pasta with vegetables, fried rice, and mashed potatoes, with assorted hot drinks. After lunch we started the roughly three hour drive back to Cusco which, while more scenic, many people still slept through.
My overall thoughts on this hike are that it is a strenuous and difficult hike due to the elevation, but I think I prefer the hike to Huchuy Qosqo better. If considering doing this hike, keep in mind that the starting elevation is about the same elevation as the highest point on the Inka trail (4,300m), so be sure to have at least two days at altitude (about 3,400m) before doing this hike. This will also be a long day so plan on bringing snacks with you; even if the agency offers breakfast and lunch, you will likely need them. I found trekking poles to be helpful, mainly with the up and down hill sections, and I would recommend just purchasing them once you are here in Cusco. The rate that agencies usually charge to rent them can be almost the same as what you could buy them for in Cusco, which is about S/ 25.
This article is an edited version of the original post from A Gringo’s Life in Cusco.