Many of you have already seen the photos – that perfectly formed ridge comprised of colourful bands of minerals that look a little too unreal to be real.
This is Rainbow Mountain in the Peruvian Andes, also known as Vinicunca, and it can be reached in a couple of ways.
The intrepid would look at doing the Ausangate Trek, which involves hiking for 6 days through high altitude wilderness and either camping or staying in local houses.
Then there’s the day trip, which can be easily booked through one of the numerous tour agencies in Cusco. It includes transport, breakfast and lunch, and you could be back in Cusco in time for dinner – depending on your tour and the speed of other hikers in your group.
It may be a deterrent to some, but a 3am hotel pick-up is the only way your day will begin. It’s a three hour drive to where the trek begins, plus a brief stop for breakfast in a town called Pitumarca not too far from the trail.
The food is simple and typically Peruvian, so if a couple of pieces of flatbread, coca tea and a pancake isn’t enough, then packing some fruit and granola bars is advisable.
The starting altitude of the trek is 4,326 m / 14,189 ft, so if you haven’t got used to being in altitude in Cusco already, you need to take it really easy. There’s very little air up there and you’re reminded of that as soon as you begin walking.
An initial incline though a rocky stream and gully leads into an expansive valley that’s nothing short of spectacular. Bright green grass as far as the eyes can see, small stone villages, warped and folded layers of rock and mountains painted in reds and purples.
Surprisingly, there are a few enclosed squat toilets along the trail as well as the occasional person selling drinks and snacks. Who would have thought?
Along the way you’re bound to see herds of alpacas, each of them branded with colourful tassels on their ears. Such a beautiful sight when they’re backdropped with snowcapped mountains.
You know that you’re nearing the Rainbow Mountain when the trail begins to incline, and incline and incline. It seems never-ending, especially when your legs and lungs are burning, you’re sweating and you’re panting and gulping for air in the high altitude.
The trail straightens out for a while and you think you’ve done the hardest part, but then the uphill starts again and doesn’t stop until you get to those colourful bands on Rainbow Mountain. The last bit is an absolute killer, and each tiny step seems like it gets you nowhere.
But then you make it.
Your legs are jelly, your lungs may be on fire and you’re drenched in sweat, standing at 5,023 m / 16,479 ft looking at this.
As I mentioned at the start of this post, there are many tour operators in Cusco that handle trips to Rainbow Mountain. Yes, you can book online, but for the best price, simply shop around in Cusco by chatting to various tour operators.
We booked our tour through Macchupicchu Trail, located at Calle Hathunrumiyoq 478. They speak English, they’re very friendly and helpful and the tour cost 80 soles per person.
Pick-up is at 3am from your hotel or hostel, but if it’s unreachable by van, they’ll let you know where to meet them.
It gets pretty cold early in the morning in Cusco, as well as at Rainbow Mountain, so warm clothing is needed; plus a daypack to bring along. All the usuals like sunscreen, a hat, sun glasses, hiking shoes are needed, maybe even a rain poncho if the weather decides to turn. Anything can happen up there, including snow, so it’s best to be prepared. Water and snacks are advisable, especially the water.
You can rent a horse to take you part of the way for 40 soles, or if you’re feeling a little lazier or simply refuse to hike, 70-80 soles will buy you a horse most of the way. No horses take you up the final incline, so a little personal effort is required.
Walking back to the starting point is by far easier than going up. It’s quicker too. We had a late lunch stop back at the same restaurant in Pitumarca before returning to Cusco around 5pm.