How to get to Rainbow Mountain!
Through the mist…..there it was.
After seven miles of trekking above 14,000 feet, high up in the Peruvian Andes: there was the mountain I had longed to see for myself: Rainbow Mountain.
I’m sure that Rainbow Mountain was exactly what he had in mind when he wrote that book. 100% sure.
In this post, I’ll take you inside the journey to Rainbow Mountain: the place I was compelled to see, before I left Peru, no matter what. A photo I’d seen on Instagram turned into an absolute obsession: and I knew I had to see this place for myself.
So come along inside the trek to Rainbow Mountain, where we’ll have Dr. Seuss as our tour guide to this magical, real, live place that exists in the mountains of Peru. In many ways, Rainbow Mountain is just as spectacular as Machu Picchu – because there is nowhere in the world quite like it. It is that unique. And spellbinding. And simply one more reason to visit Peru.
It’s time to go! What are you waiting for?!
First things first: we’ve got to set our alarm clock for 2:30AM. 2:30AM??!! Really??! Yup – if you’re taking the one-day tour to Rainbow Mountain (Vinicunca), you’ve got a 3-hour drive ahead of you, then a 17-mile, round-trip hike, at altitudes above 14,000 feet. And, as the weather tends to get worse as the day goes on (afternoon showers are not uncommon), getting an early start is imperative.
So, alarm clocks set! We’ve already packed our stuff the night before: 2 liters of water, nuts and snacks (breakfast will be served on the trail, but lunch won’t be until 4PM), extra layers, gloves, fleece beanie, hat, sunblock, and of course: a camera. Out tour guide, Abel, is picking us up at 3:15AM, in front of my friend’s house. With adrenaline kicking in, I’m all ready to go!
As I hop in the van, I notice the backseat’s already taken by a young guy in his 20’s – I met him last night at the tour office, where Abel prepped us for the hike, and made last-minute adjustments due to changes in the weather.
GWTW Tip: Don’t skip out on the pre-meeting with your tour guide! I almost did, and if so, I would have missed the tour entirely – because he needed us to leave an hour earlier than the original email suggested, and without my phone number, he would’ve been unable to let me know about this change. He also gave valuable packing advice since the weather was turning colder – so don’t skip this meeting!
I took my seat in the van, got comfy, then fell back asleep as our guides picked up the rest of our group – six people total. We all slept as the van drove out of Cusco in the early morning hours, making its way towards Mt. Ausangate, three hours to the south-east of Cusco.
I woke up a couple hours into the drive: we had started to climb, and you could tell the roads were getting narrower. The first light of morning was coming over the mountains, and as I woke up, I scratched my eyes in disbelief, looking out at the scene before me.
I was wide awake then, completely invigorated by the scenery outside my window. I put my headphones on, and looked out with wonder at the deep canyons, rivers, and small, Andean villages we passed through on our way to Rainbow Mountain.
About an hour later – an hour of driving on mainly dirt roads, the van came to a stop next to an empty, green field. There were no houses; nothing around. But apparently, this was where our journey began. We all climbed out of the van, and Abel started whipping up our breakfast on a little make-shift table. While he set up breakfast, I found that I needed to relieve myself in the worst way, and wandered down the reddish dirt road, away from the group, to find a good spot to do my business. I took a few shots on the wander back, and this was the view from my portable Peruvian latrine.
The mountain in the distance, snow-capped and peeking through the clouds, is known as Ausangate, or Auzangate. It’s part of the Willkanuta Mountain Range, and stands at over 20,000 feet tall. As you can see, especially in the last picture, Ausangate itself begins to show these “rainbows” in mountains, with patches of red and green at the base of the mountain. These rainbow-type colors would be echoed along the entire journey to Rainbow Mountain.
I wandered back, we ate a quick breakfast, drank some coffee, then Abel and the other guides quickly packed up, and said we needed to get moving in case the weather turned (which it most definitely would). And so, we set off.
We crossed a bridge over a river, then set out towards a waterfall, which we would need to climb up and around. Things got steep pretty quick, and at an altitude of over 14,000 feet, it felt like someone was pressing down on my chest. My legs felt fine and strong – but my chest felt the pain. I had been in Cusco for over a month at this point, and was well-acclimated to the altitude – but the difference even between 11,000 feet (Cusco) and where we were now (over 14,000), was noticeable. But I carried on, and managed to stay fairly close to Abel, who appeared to be not even remotely winded by the hike.
Others in the group had a more difficult time though, particularly if they had just arrived in Cusco, and were not used to the altitude; one girl threw up just after we finished climbing the waterfall, and needed a few minutes to collect herself before continuing.
GWTW Tip: If you plan on hiking to Rainbow Mountain, make sure you’ve been in Cusco or the surrounding area for at least a week, but preferably longer. I’d recommend visiting Machu Picchu first, as it’s nowhere near as high in elevation as Rainbow Mountain. Otherwise, it will be a painful hike.
It will be mainly flat for quite a few miles – which is a huge relief for your lungs. The sun was out along this part of our hike, I took some layers off and got down to a tank top, and thoroughly enjoying the sun, the scenery, and the alpacas and Peruvian farmers we encountered along the route.
A few miles in, it becomes necessary to climb again. It’s pretty steep, and it’s pretty rocky, so good-soled shoes are a must. This section lasts much longer than the initial steep climb, and alternates between being very steep versus a steady climb. It is challenging, and stopping for breaks along the way is a must.
The goal you are trying to reach, way off in the distance, is a “V” shape in the mountain range. Abel pointed towards, and said, “Go that way!” To me, this was the most difficult part of the hike. And the very last bit, the steep, sandy slog to get up to the “V” itself was the absolute hardest part. My legs felt like molasses in the sand, and my lungs felt so much pressure I wanted to die.
BUT – then you’re at the top of Rainbow Mountain!!! And this is what I expected to see, the original picture that had inspired me:
Miles upon miles of rainbow.
Instead? I saw nothing but fog.
The weather had changed, and the thickest, most dense layer of fog I’d ever seen had rolled in. To be honest, I didn’t even realize that, where I was standing was Rainbow Mountain. I thought there was still further to go.
But Abel came up and said that no, this was it – if only the fog would clear, we would see the rainbow.
And so we waited. And waited. And it started to get colder and colder. And then it began to hail.
The rest of the group started to trickle up the steep embankment, reaching the top of the “V” – but we still hadn’t seen anything close to a rainbow. Only grey. And fog. So we waited some more, and climbed up to the right part of the “V,” hoping that, even for a moment, the fog would clear and we’d get our view.
GWTW Tip: Bring extra layers, a very warm hat, and good gloves! I had to borrow an extra pair of Abel’s gloves because mine weren’t sufficient, and I was still freezing. (We were there in early February). Also, if you’re waiting at the top for awhile during bad weather, keep moving around – even do some jumping jacks. I can’t tell you how cold it gets up there, with no shelter. You gotta bring the warmth!
Finally, after probably 30-45 minutes of waiting – for one, TINY sliver-of-a-moment: the fog semi-lifted, and I got ONE shot of this place. You cannot see the entire range, but frankly, I was happy to see anything!
And then I was ready to leave! I was so bone-cold by then, I couldn’t wait to get moving. The rest of the group wanted to stay longer and see if the fog lifted again, so one of the guides (we had two with us) took off with me, back down the mountain. It felt amazing to get moving and get some warmth back in my cold bones.
Which we most definitely needed, because it hailed like HELL on us.
And then it hailed some more.
But the scenery was spectacular and compelling, in spite of the cold. Some vistas I saw made me feel like Khaleesi from “Game of Thrones” – I half-expected one of my dragons to come flying over the mountainside at any moment…that’s how otherworldly it felt to be in this place, with so few people. So unlike Machu Picchu, where you cannot escape people.
And that is one of my concerns for Rainbow Mountain going forward: as more and more people begin to discover this place, via Instagram (I seem to see pictures of it almost every day now, whereas before I had to scour the Internet to find it) and posts like this one, it creates a double-edged sword: of course, I want people to see this amazing place. But, as more and more people do, I also hope that it does not overly impact the land, and the farmers who’ve settled in that area, whose farms you must walk past and through in order to get to Rainbow Mountain.
Hopefully, Rainbow Mountain will remain somewhat of a mystery, and not become overrun with tourists, like Machu Picchu. The fact that it is so remote, and such a long, difficult hike, will no doubt keep the masses from finding it.
But still, I’d suggest: go now. Go sooner than later. Because I only see this wondrous place becoming more and more popular – not less.