On our second day in Cusco we decided to split up. Fraser and his mum stayed in the city sightseeing which included a trip around and a making session at the chocolate museum (so I had a yummy treat for when I got back) and I went on a tour to hike Rainbow Mountain.
Vinicunca (Rainbow Mountain) is located in the Ausangate range outside Cusco and the 1 day trek options require an early start. I was picked up from our AirBnB at 0300hours and we set off from there on the tour. The pick-ups actually took longer than they should have done and eventually we were able to get on the road proper. On the drive we stopped at a shelter on the edge of the road to have a breakfast, provided in the cost of the trip, which was extremely basic bread and jam with a hot drink which was needed because it was freezing.
When we finally reached the start point of the trek our guide explained to us in Spanish and English the timings and plans for the hike and after the main ticketing point we were pretty much free to do the whole thing in our own time, the only rules were to do with when we had to head back down to ensure we all got back to the minibus on time.
Rainbow Mountain is not for the light-hearted and although only 12km altogether the trek is tough mainly due to the altitude. The beginning is 4450m above sea level and the top is over 5000metres so the air feels really thin. Also be aware that at this altitude the weather can be unpredictable and completely different to Cusco itself, for example when I went Cusco was hot, blazing sunshine… Rainbow Mountain whilst still sunny had snow on it making the ground extremely slippy, there were so many people covered in mud head to toe from falling over and I was only saved by my walking poles.
The first part of the hike is relatively flat over some fields until you reach the beginning of the climb. This clings to the edge of the hill and gets steep fairly fast. I found a good technique to be to walk for a couple of minutes then have a 30second rest. The idea is to not let you breathing get too ragged or to the point where your heart feels like it’s about to burst from your chest. Even at this point I saw a couple of people lying on the edge of the path clearly already struggling with the altitude.
At about the midpoint of the ascent it flattens out a bit again in fields surrounded by alpaca which are incredibly cute before an even larger gradient in the last push to the top. You do not actually go onto “Rainbow Mountain” itself, instead to the hill opposite. Some people stayed at the bottom viewpoint because they were either too tired or didn’t want to take on the treacherous upper climb but those that did make the effort to get right to the top were well rewarded with a far superior vista. It really is 360 degrees of some of the most stunning scenery I have ever set eyes upon and for many of us it got to the point of asking each other, “how many photos do you think is too many?” Our group set off slightly after many of the others due to how long it took us to pick up people in the morning but this actually worked in our favour because everyone else started heading back down well before us leaving just a couple of us up at the top to get shots with less of a crowd.
We then had to start the descent. If anything I found this harder. I don’t know if I set off too quickly, didn’t take enough breaks or the day was just catching up with me but I found that I did begin to get the tell-tale altitude headache on the way down and we saw people feeling dizzy or being sick at regular intervals.
When we got back to the minibus we went straight back to Cusco with just one stop for food on the way and arrived late evening. Due to the time the bus couldn’t take up to each accommodation separately so we had to stop in the centre and make our own way back home.
I would highly recommend the trek to Rainbow Mountain. It was one of the most spectacular places I have ever been however it should be treated with respect. Some tips to bear in mind are:
- You should have a decent level of fitness, at the very least you should be able to do a 12km hike not at altitude with some ease.
- Take as many precautions as possible for the altitude. Make sure to keep well hydrated, acclimatise at altitude prior to setting off, chew on coca leaves (or drink the tea, have the sweets).
- Look for a company that ensures the guides carry oxygen, we did see people who needed it and it’s just not worth lacking it just to cut cost.
- Take headwear!! There is no shade at all on the hike and I learnt the hard way that lack of a hat can leave you with a horribly burnt scalp… mine blistered, it was agony.
- Following on from that point, use SUNCREAM!
- Layers are your friend. It can be freezing, it may snow, it may be boiling sunshine especially once you’ve started walking, take all the options.
- While in no way obligatory I was beyond happy to have my hiking poles. With the amount of mud on the path they stopped me stacking it on multiple occasions.
- There are horses you can hire to carry you up. They work really hard so try not to take them if possible but by all means if you are so dizzy you can barely step one foot in front of the other like one of our girls on the way down then they are the best option. Also be aware that you will still have to get off and walk the steeper bits so it’s not just a way to get to the top without having to hike at all.
- Make sure your camera is fully charged, you are likely to take hundreds of photos!
Have you done the trek to Rainbow Mountain? What did you make of it? Do you have any other tips to ensure the best hike possible?