Hiking Rainbow Mountain (also called Montaña de Colores or Vinicunca) was, without a doubt, the most miserable experience of my life. All of the Instagramable beauty is not worth the overwhelming altitude sickness and fatigue that came with it. With its viewpoint’s peak at 16,502ft/5,030m, if you do not already live well above sea level . . . your hike is going to suck.
Visiting Rainbow Mountain is a relatively new phenomenon and only opened to tourists around 2015. Before that, it was covered by a glacier. You may have seen pictures of it: beautiful, heavily-photoshopped, colorful Andean peaks—sometimes with a relaxed looking girl in an alpaca poncho resting in front. But, do not expect to be able to get that shot on your own visit.
My day started when we left my hotel at 4:00am. I would love to say that I caught up on sleep during the 3 hour drive to the base of Rainbow Mountain, but the less-than-comfortable transport didn’t really allow for it. I know, first world problems. I don’t have any problem with an early morning (in fact, I always get up early on vacation) but it was a rough start to an even rougher day.
When we started the climb I thought, “I just climbed Machu Picchu Mountain, if I can do that, this will be easy!” (Follow up Machu Picchu post coming soon!) Boy, was that misguided. While I am no Edmund Hillary, I am also no stranger to hiking. I routinely hike distances far in excess of the Rainbow Mountain every weekend, but I have never experienced what it is like to hike over 3 miles above sea level. The altitude is crippling.
It was not long into the hike that I realized just how difficult it would be. Despite the fact that I’d already spent 5 days acclimatizing in Cusco and the Sacred Valley, I started feeling the strain within the first 15 minutes. This was amplified by the fact that the first half of the hike is at a steep incline and is the most challenging part of the trek.
I should note here that you can rent horses for the hike, both at the beginning and along the route, that can either carry you or your pack. However, in my mind, that is cheating. If you are going to make your way to the top you need to earn it and walk every step yourself . . . even if it is fueled by pure stubbornness. That said, all of the people riding to the top looked a lot happier than me.
After hiking for what felt like an eternity, and taking countless breaks, I finally made it to the top. Maybe it was the relief of getting there, but the last stretch of the journey was by far the easiest part of the day. I bolted up to the peak, past the hordes of people, to take in the view.
The view was immense. You could see for miles, and every direction was an unique and wonderful sight. Rainbow Mountain is not the only thing to see at the peak. There are mountains, peaks, and glacial ponds as far as the eye can see. Right as I arrived at the top it started to snow. I took this as a blessing from the Apu (mountain spirits) approving of me reaching the summit.
We took pictures for a few minutes, but getting a decent shot was almost impossible. There were hundreds of people there; all of them so focused on their own pictures they were completely oblivious that they may be in the way of someone else’s. I was finally able to get a few good shots after I hung back and waited for the crowds to clear.
The trip down was somehow harder than the trip up. While the walk down was much easier physically (I only needed one break about half way), the altitude sickness was in full swing. Every step I took I wondered if I was going to pass out and I constantly mentally scanned my body trying to determine whether I needed to alert my guide to an issue. She helped me by giving me coca leaves to chew and giving me a forehead massage with some essential oils. But I really didn’t feel any better until after I took an altitude sickness pill and returned to around 11,000ft/3,350m. Everyone in my transport vehicle was equally sick and miserable. And it wasn’t just tourists, my guide, a Cusco native, said she was sick and miserable after her very first visit too.
Altitude sickness is hard to explain when you haven’t experienced it before. When I first arrived in Cusco, I had one mother of a headache. It eventually subsided and I was fine for the rest of the trip . . . until Rainbow Mountain. Altitude sickness can start at about 8,000ft/2,400m, or about 1/2 the height of Rainbow Mountain. It comes with headaches, weakness, dizziness, nausea, and a host of other lovely symptoms. I got them all. Altitude sickness is no joke, and in the most severe cases, can kill.
If you don’t want to take my word for it and skip Rainbow Mountain, or are just as stubborn as me, make sure you prepare for the trip the best way you can:
- Plan the hike for the very end of your trip so you can acclimatize as much as possible. I can’t even imagine how sick I would have been if I made the hike earlier in the week.
- Get altitude pills! I’ve seen over-the-counter varieties, but have your doctor write you a prescription for the real stuff before you leave.
- Do not carry anything with you that is not absolutely necessary. Even the lightest pack will weigh heavily on you.
- Use an experienced, well-reviewed guide who can give you personal attention. I was lucky and had a wonderful private guide who was able to check on me when I really started getting ill at the end of the hike. If you are in a large group or wander off on your own, there may not be someone nearby who can watch for the signs of altitude sickness and get you help you may need.
- Make sure your guide carries oxygen. I did not see anyone receiving oxygen on my hike, but I feel that this is one of the things where you are better safe than sorry.
- Wear warm layers. Depending on the time of year, your hike will start off relatively warm and you will work up a sweat on the ascent. But by the time you reach the top you will need a warm jacket, scarf, hat, and gloves. Don’t start too heavily clothed or end with not enough.
- Bring light snacks. There are a few things for purchase on the trail, but nothing of any real substance.
- Bring toilet paper. Shockingly there are several (relatively clean) restrooms along the hike. However, like many places in Peru, they do not come with any toilet paper. Snatch some from your hotel room. You will thank me.
- Bring sunscreen and reapply.
- Wear good solid hiking or trail shoes.
I don’t mean to come off as a negative Nancy about my experience, but I do want to share an important perspective. If you follow this blog you know that I give almost all of my experiences a glowing review. However, this is not a trip you should take lightly and with all of the amazing things there are to see and do around Cusco, there are much better uses of your time.
I am not the only person who feels this way, John Widmore, of the Roaming Around the World blog, had a similar terrible experience. When I first read his post I thought, “LOL, not me. I am tough and I can do this!” I was an idiot. While my trip was not nearly as miserable as his, he was completely on point about the altitude and crowds. Unless I move to a city above 10,000 feet or invest in an altitude tent, I will never ever attempt to climb Rainbow Mountain again. Heed the warnings.