Rainbow Mountain in Peru has been on my bucket list for a LONG time. Before arriving, I did some research and read some really mixed- mostly negative – blog reviews online. For me, my experience of Rainbow Mountain was entirely positive, and I really recommend doing it! Perhaps tour companies had taken time to establish themselves, because it was still a relatively new ‘tourist attraction’… up until 2015, the mountain was actually covered in snow and ice, but due to the rising temperatures of global warming, this ice melted and the mountain was revealed. I booked my tour with the company Rainbow Mountain Travels, because having done some research, they left at the earliest time in the morning. I paid for my ticket and spent the rest of the day preparing myself for high altitude, which personally I struggled with it alot in South America! (I have included some tips for dealing with it at the end of this article).
The day began very early! My alarm went off at 2:30am, as I was due to be picked up between 3:00 and 3.30am. When the minibus arrived, the friendly guide said we should try and sleep, as we would be driving for a couple of hours. Easier said than done – the bus was very cramped and the mountain roads extremely bumpy! At around 5am, we stopped for breakfast in a big room in the middle of nowhere that was actually a restaurant (classic South America). Despite feeling too early for breakfast, it was actually really nice; there was a buffet with pancakes, fruit, syrup and jam, and to drink, there was hot chocolate milk – all sweet things because apparently sugar helps with altitude!! We were also given coca leaves to make tea with. I felt pretty sick, not sure if it was the altitude or just anxiety about the altitude (very classic me), but I forced myself to eat and drink all the sugar, and then took some coca leaves for the journey. After breakfast, we drove for one more hour, along some VERY steep winding roads (literally mountain edge) until we arrived at the starting point of the trek, at about 4500m.
When we arrived, we were one of the first two minivans there, which definitely made the early start worth it! After a quick stop at some squat loos (aka a hole in the ground) and a pep talk from the guide, we set off walking. The guide stayed with the back of the group, so we were free to walk off ahead at our own pace. It was really cold as it was only 6am and snowing, but as we started walking we got warmer. The walk itself was mostly flat, and took about an hour – but you could feel the affects of the altitude immediately! Even after a couple of steps, we were all very short of breath.
There was an option to take a horse if you didn’t think you could cope with the walk or the altitude, but I was shocked by the amount of young, fit-looking people choosing the horse option without even making an attempt to walk a step! Not to mention larger tourists, who just looked they were completely squashing the small horses. I would advise at least attempting the walk – and then if you feel ill, or are struggling with the altitude, then take a horse back to the start. Otherwise, it is unnecessary, lazy and cruel. The locals are desperate for money so as soon as the horse drops the passenger off, they make the horse run all the way back to pick up the next, in thick mud. It was crazy.
You cannot climb the Rainbow mountain itself (proper name Vinicunca), you actually climb the adjacent slightly taller mountain, all the way up to 5200m and then look down on the rainbows of Vinicunca.
As we reached the mountain, the walk began to get quite steep and it also started to snow quite hard. It was freezing and quite difficult to see. As we walked higher, the snowstorm stopped, and revealed the view – the colours were absolutely amazing.
We were not given much time up the mountain – we took a few photos, and shortly after we were rushed down the mountain by our guide to walk to the Red Valley. This was amazing too, it was entirely red but because of the time of year (rainy season), there was green algae growing everywhere. So a very bright valley of red and green! It genuinely looked like we were standing on another planet.
We started walking back down the mountain to the minivan just as most people were beginning their walk, which made us very smug and grateful for getting there first! A few in the group were pretty badly affected by the altitude and were being sick etc. One girl had only landed in Cusco the day before – she should have spent at least three days adjusting and acclimitising. The extreme cases were given oxygen and then we set off driving, taking everyone back down to a more manageable altitude. We drove back to the place we had breakfast in, and were given lunch. It was nowhere near as sweet as breakfast but still very nice, a big buffet with lots of salad bits. I slept most of the journey back (which passed the time nicely) and we got back to Cusco around 3pm.
I would however bear two things in mind when looking into this trip.
- The first most important thing, is acclimatisation to altitude. I would really suggest you do not attempting Rainbow Mountain unless you have acclimatised properly in Cusco for three days or so, resting, drinking water and adjusting to the altitude. Several people on my tour became ill, and it can very serious very quickly.
- To prepare I would generally drink 5 or 6 litres of water (or as much as you can), buy some coca teabags (which I generally put in my water bottles), coca sweets and coca leaves. Coca leaves are the absolute best thing to help you deal with altitude, as the natural substance. People generally chew them or boil them to make tea – chewing them takes some getting used to but I found it helped alot.
- My next tip would be to check the weather conditions/ safety aspects if going up in winter/ rainy season. Due to the high altitude, this trek can be very cold all year round, so particularly consider this if you’re thinking of heading there in the winter months of May to August. I went end of March and we trekked in a light snowstorm. Besides being freezing, this snowstorm also hindered our visibility of the mountain for some time – just something to bear in mind!
- I really recommend going with a company that gets there as early as possible; the company I went with ‘Rainbow Mountain Travels’, were very organised, the guide was lovely and it made such a difference getting there early, with hardly anyone else there.
- Saying that, I also recommend going with a legit looking company. If you end up being affected by the altitude badly – you will want a guide that knows what they are doing, to help and advise you… for there to be a supply of oxygen in the minibus and for your well-being taken seriously.