Hiking Rainbow Mountain

Hello again everyone! I am in Puno now and about to go and visit the floating islands plus prepare for an island homestay. I can’t believe how my time in Peru has flown by! I have now completed the Inca Trail but have had limited internet access as well as having had to buy a new phone (mine broke on the Trail) so just bear with me while I catch up on posts! I’ll start with my other major trek here in Peru – Rainbow Mountain.

I only had 2 days in Cusco before heading off to Ollantaytambo to start the Trail, so it was a big decision whether to head to Rainbow Mountain or not on that second day. A four hour drive away and with optimum conditions early in the morning (especially since it is still technically the tail end of rainy season), it would require a 4am start at least and would take a day out of our time in Cusco. Some of us decided to go for it though and I think it’s fair to say the decision paid off!! 

For those not familiar with it, Rainbow Mountain is the now common term for Vinicunca Mountain, which locals have referred to as the Mountain of Colours far longer than the trek has been popularised. Our guide Marco told me that only within the last 2 years has the trek become well-known among tourists. If I had to speculate I’d say that this is probably thanks to a snowballing effect of sharing the magical natural stripes on platforms like Instagram, which of course is all about the aesthetic; and I can confirm that the summit is extremely aesthetically pleasing! The area is rich in minerals and it is apparently predominantly the copper and iron in the rocks that gives those iconic colours. From what I understood there are apparently natural sedimentary layers which have been tectonically forced upwards and rendered visible. Amazing!

I’ll be honest: the Inca Trail is so famous and is also a 4 day hike, so I have to say that it probably takes the crown as my proudest achievement yet. However, completing Rainbow is most definitely a close second, and arguably a lot more intensively physically challenging. Reaching 5100m above sea level, and roughly 18km to the top and back again, this trek is no joke! Most people rent horses for the journey to see the colours and back, which is a great way to save some energy and enjoy the stunning scenery as well as generating income for the locals. I personally decided to hike and am extremely proud of myself for completing it (especially as only one other person in our group did so too!). Nevertheless, if anyone was looking for recommendations, I would still say to seriously consider getting a horse if you can’t factor in some time to recover! I had a massage for my sore muscles the day after as I was starting the Inca Trail the following day, and yet still (in my opinion) struggled more with day 1 of the Trail much more than I would have if I’d ridden.

My main issue was that the altitude completely drained me. Altitude sickness is well known for being quite random and diverse – the fittest person might struggle with their breathing while an overweight person might be fine, and it can also make you sick in other ways (for example there’s a chance my tummy problems from earlier in the trip could have been linked to altitude!). The higher I got, the more my heart felt like it was going into overdrive and I had to sit or do some yoga breathing (in through the nose, hold, out through the mouth)! The last kilometre of the hike is also basically vertical and at the highest I’d been (and probably will be on this trip) it was definitely a challenge – the hike up to the top took me around 3.5 hours and I’m sure an hour of that was on the last stretch!! So many times I was offered a horse and seriously considered it, but by the time I was done considering I’d caught my breath again and decided to grind on – some might say stubborn?! 

That’s not to say I regret it though. The hike is absolutely stunning and as a rule was quite gentle until the last section. The whole area is so dramatic and colourful, with exposed red rock cradling streams and bright green marshland type spongy ground. Some passages were extremely muddy (hiking boots a must) but overall the trail was in very nice condition.

There also was a great atmosphere of support between the hikers and of course from the guides. For example, on the said last stretch I kept overtaking and then being overtaken by a group of French guys. As I effectively crawled up that last jutting rock for the view of the stripes, they cheered me on and high-fived me when I made it. When your head is spinning and teeth are gritting from the effort that kind of support from strangers means really a lot! I also felt extremely lucky that our guide Marco accompanied me a lot and kept an eye on me. He lent me a walking stick, helped me learn how to incorporate the yoga breathing into my strides and provided some strong kind of coca-alcohol smelling salts when I needed a last burst of energy. Once again I think going with G Adventures we did pay over the odds, but once again it comes down to ‘you get what you pay for’ and I was glad to have him there as back-up, plus the stick was an infinite help.

The way back down was a lot easier, as we were not only descending into more reasonable altitude, but I also felt such an adrenaline rush at having walked up that I think it helped carry me back down! As it was that bit less strenuous I was also able to appreciate the scenery in a different way – what an experience to trek down a red and green streaked passage where it’s only you and hundreds of grazing llamas and alpacas!

Overall for me visiting Rainbow is a must even if you are based in Cusco – don’t let the long drive put you off (we did break the journey up both ways with a stop at a village for breakfast and late lunch but it was nothing worth writing home about so I won’t bother!). I can’t personally vouch for the horse ride but everyone in my group seemed to love their experience. Once again – before I recommend hiking I’d ensure sufficient time to rest and I’d also say to be prepared to struggle, but I did love it!  Even just thinking about it now I can’t believe the colours I saw and the sense of achievement for making it. So as I said – a very very close second after the Inca Trail!! 


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