What to expect on the Rainbow Mountain trail: the Cusco day-trip that will leave you breathless
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Breath-taking not just in the sense of its beauty – the 5200m altitude of the Rainbow Mountain trail will quite literally have you gasping for oxygen. Don’t worry though, it’s totally worth all the effort to get there. You’ll need a couple of days in Cusco before you tackle the Rainbow Mountain trail to get used to the 3400m altitude there before attempting to go higher on this tour. If you’re still experiencing altitude sickness the evening before your tour, you’re going to need to postpone or unfortunately cancel if there are no signs of improvement.
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We always encourage people to book in person rather than online. That way, you can not only negotiate, but the starting price will be way cheaper from the off. Be aware though that lots of the Rainbow Mountain tour agencies are just middlemen, so you can’t always guarantee the quality of tour by judging the quality of the agency office.
You’ll need to arrange a tour from one of the may tour operators in Cusco (we recommend Deep House or Francisco’s for their great prices and chirpy staff. They are both situated on the hill between Wild Rover and Loki hostel). We paid 35 soles each (around £7) for our Rainbow Mountain tour, but we’ve seen hostels charge a lot more than that from their own tour desks. We actually ended up on the same Rainbow Mountain tour as people who booked through the Wild Rover, and paid double for exactly the same experience.
Note that there is a newly-discovered second Rainbow Mountain trail, which takes you to see a different mountain in the same valley. The views look just as epic from what we’ve seen, but the reality is that this route is likely to become just as busy with tourists over time as it gets touted as the less touristy option. Speak to people who have taken this particular Rainbow Mountain trail and compare pricing to decide which to go to.
What to expect from a Rainbow Mountain tour
Most Rainbow Mountain tours will leave Cusco at silly o’clock – around 4am – and you’ll hopefully be able to sleep on the bus before arriving at a small village for a spot of home-cooked breakfast. This is basic, but still fairly great. You’ll probably go to the same place for lunch afterwards. Different tours will stop by different houses in this mountainside village (or just queue up outside for the same one), but the standard of meal will be the same, so don’t fall for any marketing that promises higher quality food with different companies.
The most important thing is that you find the Rainbow Mountain tour operator who leaves the earliest. This will get you through breakfast first, and therefore up onto the Rainbow Mountain trail before the majority of the crowds.
After breakfast, once you get to the base of the mountain via bus, there is then a long Rainbow Mountain trail up to the landmark itself. The altitude is hard (starting at 4000 and hiking up to 5200m) and you will struggle to catch your breath when talking, let alone walking. We saw a few people at death’s door on the side of the Rainbow Mountain trail (literally; they needed oxygen tanks), but most people seemed to be able to truck along fine – slowly, but fine.
We heard mixed opinions on how far the hike is; some say 4km, others say as much as 7km, so we’ll just say that it took fairly-athletic Andy 2.5 hours to trek up to the top. Some parts are really quite steep, especially the last 100m. Any rain or snow can greatly hinder your progress.
Your guide does the walk to the top of the Rainbow Mountain trail, but as the altitude affects everyone differently there’s no attempt for the group to walk up together. Instead, your guide will give you a time by which you need to be back at the bus, so make sure you’re tracking your time throughout the day.
Getting to the top is an amazing feeling, with 360-degree views of the valley (if you can see past the crowds). It does get pretty cold up there – in fact, when we first got to the top we didn’t realise we’d already walked past Rainbow Mountain because it was covered in snow that later melted – and when it rains things can get a little dangerous as the mud is so slippery (we stacked it plenty of times).
The views of the valley itself, both from the peak and whilst on the Rainbow Mountain trail, probably top the epicness of Rainbow Mountain itself, which is sort of disappointing and amazing at the same time. If you love hiking, insane natural landscapes and collecting iconic photos, we’d say this is the Rainbow Mountain trail is the hike for you. However, if any of those things don’t appeal, we wouldn’t scold you for missing it.
Hiring a horse on the Rainbow Mountain trail
For those unable to hike this far at such crazy-high altitude, there is the option to take horses for 90 soles there and back (you can pick a horse up at multiple points in the Rainbow Mountain trail, but it will probably cost you the same as they know you’re desperate by then).
However, be aware that you will still have to get off and walk the steepest bits of the trail as the horses cannot manage certain terrain with you on their back. They will also drop you off 200m away from the top of the mountain itself, so you have to walk the last stretch of the Rainbow Mountain trail.
I took the horse option, and was really pleased with my decision on the way up the Rainbow Mountain trail (the altitude was so bad that I even struggled to lift myself back onto the horse using the stirrups after getting off for steep areas), but on the way back I was horrified to notice the horse had begun to limp.
The horse’s guide shrugged it off as ‘just the way horses walk’, but it should be a lesson that you should always check your horse looks fit and healthy before agreeing to get on. If not, however pushy the guide may be, insist on choosing another. I unfortunately can’t take back the ride that I feel absolutely awful about, but I can at least encourage others to be more vigilant.
Most of the horses looked healthy and strong enough, and they are acclimatised to the altitude, but any sign of injury should be taken very seriously by tourists since it would seem they won’t be taken seriously by the guides.
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