Most tourists head to Peru for the famous UNESCO site, Machu Picchu. But there’s a new mountain that’s gaining popularity fast! If you want to see a different but equally stunning side of Peru, you have to visit Rainbow Mountain!
In February, I began a series with the Mint blog where I documented my financial planning journey to Peru. In an effort to save money (and try something offbeat), I looked to Instagram and Pinterest for secret Peruvian gems. And while it may not be a secret, this lead me to discover the beautiful Rainbow Mountain.
What Is Rainbow Mountain?
Rainbow Mountain is a colorful mountainside near Ausangate Mountain located within the Andes of Peru, sitting at an altitude of 17,060 feet (over half the height of Mt. Everest!). Locals consider Ausangate Mountain to be one of the holiest lands in Peru and is still believed to be the deity of Cusco. To this day, Ausangate Mountain is a site of daily worship and offerings by local citizens.
The same beautiful colors that have made Rainbow Mountain famous on Instagram were formed by sedimentary mineral layers that had been exposed by erosion. These colors include maroon, gold, royal purple, turquoise and forest green! It truly is a vision. If you’re into nature and hiking, this spectacle cannot be missed during your visit to Peru!
According to our guide, this trek has only been open to the public for 1-2 years, but you’d think it has been open much longer considering its popularity!
How Do You Get There?
Rainbow Mountain is located in Ausangate Mountain, one of the most magnificent geologic features in the world! Rainbow Mountain is only 50 miles away from Cusco. However, the terrain between these two points is what makes it so hard to get to!
Rainbow Mountain is only accessibly by automobile and takes 2.5-3 hours to get there. Most tour operators include the roundtrip transportation in the price of their tour.
When Is the Best Time to Go?
There are two seasons when visiting Peru in general: the wet season and the dry season. Obviously, the dry season will be a much more pleasant experience when you visit Rainbow Mountain.
The dry season takes place between March to November, but the best time to visit is June-August. The skies will be blue, the temperature is comfortable and the terrain is perfect. Just know it’s also the most crowded time of year! This is also Peru’s winter season, but it’s very similar to California’s winter.
What Should You Wear?
When you first arrive at Rainbow Mountain, regardless of the time of year, you will be freezing. The altitude paired with the lack of sun will make you bury your face in the nearest alpaca. For this trek, I recommend the following gear:
Boots or hiking shoes
Hiking pants or workout pants
Shirt or tank top
Hiking Jacket (preferably waterproof)
Mittens or Gloves
As you can see, this is a lot of layers. But layers are your best friend! Even though we traveled during the winter, the temperature became progressively hotter. About 1 hour into the hike, I ended up shedding my jacket and almost took off my sweatshirt. When we finally reached the top, the wind had me put back on my jacket.
Sometimes there is snow, but if you’re bringing enough thermals/layers, you should be prepared. The only thing you might need from December to February is rain gear. A poncho, shell for your backpack, rainproof clothing and an umbrella should suffice!
How Long Is The Hike/Excursion?
This answer depends on two things: your hiking abilities and your travel itinerary.
If you’re simply taking a day trip from Cusco, your day will start between 3 and 4 am. You will drive 2.5 hours to the summit (14,189 ft high) and hike to the top. Locals are able to hike this in about an hour to two hours. However, it took us beginners about 3-4 hours to get to the top. From there, you will chill and take pictures at the top for about an hour. Getting down is obviously a lot easier and will take 1-2 hours. Another 2 hour drive + lunch and we got back around 5:30 pm. A total of 13-14 hours.
This time can also vary depending on your hiking ability. Note: altitude sickness effects everyone differently. You may be super fit, but still struggle with the lack of oxygen. Our guide told us that once, a super fit rugby player needed to stop every 5 minutes to catch his breath during the hike. Meanwhile, we saw one incredibly ambitious show off who went up and down the mountain 2 or 3 times in the time it took us to make one full trek. My point is, your trek experience will vary based on your adjustment to the altitude.
(I didn’t suffer altitude sickness as badly as my husband because of the remedies I used here.)
If you have more time in your schedule, I suggest you make this a multi-day trip. Not only will you hike at your own pace, but you’ll be able to reach Rainbow Mountain before all of the crowds (thus a better picture and more time with “pachamama” or Mother Earth). This will ultimately take 24-36 hours of your time.
Do You Need a Guide?
Yes. Yes, you should get a guide. Of course you could hike this trail without one. We saw quite a few people trekking alone or in small groups without a guide. However most of these hikers ranged from intermediate to advanced. (Even as an advanced hiker, you will find this trek to be very intense!)
If you’re a beginner, like us, I highly suggest you get a guide. A good guide will provide you with some information about the hike, provide tools in case of an emergency (like their “magic potion”), help translate (and ultimately haggle on your behalf).
Our guide during our visit to Rainbow Mountain was Salkantay Trekking. For $80 you get a roundtrip car ride from your hotel to the summit, breakfast and lunch at a family-run restaurant, snacks and water, oxygen and an emergency kit and a private, English-speaking tour.
This price was pretty steep compared to other companies, however as novice hikers, we wanted to be prepared with the best of the best. And we have no regrets!
(This price does not include tip for the guide or driver.)
What Is the Trail Like?
The trail starts with a level-footed trek that takes approximately 20-40 minutes to hike. During this flat part of the trek, you’ll first see a sea of horses and their owners. In case you cannot handle the altitude, you can rent a horse here to go up Rainbow Mountain and back.
The owners try to tell you it will cost 120 soles roundtrip (approximately $40 USD) however our guide managed to haggle it down to 90 soles (approximately $30 USD). We opted to hike instead, but in hindsight, we should have taken the deal.
After you enter the ticketing area, your incline will start to begin.
This is where you will begin your 3-hour struggle. On the way up, you will be surrounded by large, snow-capped mountains. Hundreds of alpacas and sheep will create a soothing lull of bleats. And you can’t help but notice the people riding the horses pass you, making you think “Dammit, I should have paid for that horse in the beginning.”
Halfway up, there is a snack and restroom stop. Run by a Peruvian family, you will find candy, quinoa bars, coca leaf remedies and water. You will also find port-a-potties that are simply holes in the ground (a poop-filled hole where I ALMOST dropped my camera lens.)
The second half of the trek is much worse. The incline is steeper, the terrain more difficult and you’re now resting every 5 minutes instead of every 15. Even if you take a horse up, the last 20 minutes (the final incline up Rainbow Mountain) is so steep, you must hike alone. This is where we saw people throwing up, crying or shaking from the altitude. TAKE YOUR TIME HERE, LADIES AND GENTS!
But when you finally reach the surface, it will all have been worth it. (Or not, according to my husband.)
How Much Does This All Cost?
Once again, this answer depends if you’re taking a tour or not.
Let’s assume that you’re not going with a guide to save money. The cost is broken down into the following:
Roundtrip transportation (340 soles)
Entrance ticket (10 soles)
Roundtrip horse (90 soles-less if you don’t use the horse all the way)
Water and snacks (10-20 soles)
If you have data or internet on your phone, I recommend taking an Uber. This will give you the best price without having to negotiate for a price. Just make sure that the Uber will stay/come back for your return trip (this might cost an additional fee).
Most tours provide breakfast and lunch at a nearby home that provides Peruvian food for tourists passing through. If you’re going alone, you’ll probably skip this part. Make sure you bring plenty of food so that you have fuel for the hike. Just be careful not to eat too much in case your body can’t handle the altitude!