The recently discovered Rainbow Mountain in Peru has rapidly become a dream destination for travelers and locals alike. It’s not hard to see why as the cascading and radiant colors of the mountain make it hard to believe that it is even a part of this world. Although the magnificent mountain and the scenic trail leading up to it are well worth the trip, many people neglect the difficulty and potentially dangerous process of getting to the top.
I made many mistakes on my visit to Rainbow Mountain and almost gave up within the first hour due to how much the altitude affected me. Although I’m not a hardcore trekker or much of a mountain enthusiast, I have done my fair share of treks and have taken on a number of dangerous hikes. None of them made me struggle more than Rainbow Mountain did.
As a travel-obsessed Instagrammer, I see Rainbow Mountain pop up on my feed almost every day. Just a few hours from Cusco, trekkers taking on Machu Picchu almost feel compelled to take on Rainbow Mountain as well. That was my mindset, and I decided to attempt the hike just two days into my time in Cusco and two days before taking on a 5-day trek to Machu Picchu.
I made quite a few big mistakes, and I’m sure I can’t have been the only one. Here’s a few things you need to know so you aren’t as hopelessly unprepared as I was.
First Off, How Are You Going To Get There?
Most likely, your entry point into Peru will be through Lima. You can fly from Lima to Cusco, which is the sensible decision if you’re on a strict schedule, but if you want to save money and see more of Peru along the way, Peru Hop is an option that you absolutely need to look into. Bus travel is going to be an inevitable part of any South American backpacking trip, but Peru Hop takes out a lot of the stress of getting from place to place. One of their more popular passes takes you from Lima to Cusco, taking you to Paracas (home to Islas Ballestas), the desert oasis of Huacachina, the Nazca Lines, Arequipa (Colca Canyon), and Puno (Lake Titicaca) for just $199. If you’ve got the time, I absolutely recommend using Peru Hop to make your journey to Cusco easier, safer, and a lot more fun.
Once you’ve made it to Cusco…
Let’s Get One Thing Straight. Altitude Sickness Is Real
After one full day in Cusco without suffering any ill-effects, I decided that I got away with what many people warned me about. I was already doubtful about if altitude sickness was a real thing, so I didn’t really prepare. I knew I got out of breath quicker when I was hiking in the Rocky Mountains as opposed to hiking in Portland, but I never got dizzy or got headaches or anything.
Before even starting the several hour long trek to Rainbow Mountain, I started feeling terrible. The several hour long ride through the winding roads along the Peruvian cliff-sides made me feel nauseous. Getting out of the cramped van and feeling the crisp mountain air did not do much to ease my lightheadedness.
Within thirty minutes of starting the hike, my entire hiking group was struggling. We took our first break before we even got to the trailhead and the entire team crashed. Out of about 14 of us, 10 got horses right after that first break. My two friends and I decided to push on and I quickly fell behind. My friend got altitude sickness the day prior, and her words accurately described how I felt. It felt like being drunk and hungover at the same time, and it felt like my eyes and brain were just jiggling around in my head. My head was pounding. Even though there was minimal incline for the first couple of hours, I was out of breath every ten or fifteen steps.
I struggled horribly until the first stop about two hours in where I thankfully got a horse and a guide to help me for part of the trail. Even with a horse, the altitude sickness was destroying me and I legitimately do not remember the majority of the way up there. I took some pictures that I do not even remember taking and my facial expressions explain it all.
The horse can’t take you all the way to the end, and you’ll have to hike for parts of it even if you pay for a horse. I passed my friends a bit later and the one who had altitude sickness the day earlier was doing completely fine. She was prepared and took every precaution and medication to try and combat altitude sickness. The other friend started getting affected by the altitude and got a horse shortly after.
Altitude sickness is not a joke and can completely ruin your day or week. Thankfully Rainbow Mountain shocked my body into acclimatizing to the altitude which made my 5 day Machu Picchu trek almost a breeze. I did spend my rest day medicating and resting, which helped a bit. So how can you fight altitude sickness?
Don’t be dumb and just take a few days to get used to the altitude. That’s the most useful way. If you want to take some shortcuts if you’re short on time, there are some medications. Just go to the pharmacy (there are plenty in Cusco) and ask for medication for the altitude. People also say that coca tea and coca leaves help, but a girl I talked to on Tinder said that was a myth and they just make you horny. In my personal opinion, even if they serve as a placebo, they are worth a shot. Most of the people I’ve talked to have said it helps, and I honestly just enjoyed using them in general. After Rainbow Mountain, I stocked up on Coca leaves, Coca candy, Coca toffee and whatever else you can imagine to prepare for Machu Picchu. Although Rainbow Mountain did leave me sick for a week (due to other reasons I’ll discuss later), I struggled significantly less with altitude sickness for Machu Picchu.
The Weather Is Literally Insane
Never have I encountered a hailstorm and a snowstorm and gotten a sunburn in the same hour. Rainbow Mountain is a several hour long hike and the weather conditions can change dramatically throughout those few hours. It started off freezing when we arrived in the early morning, but by the afternoon I was stripping down to my bottom layers. Towards the end, I was taking clothes off and putting them back on almost every few minutes. The top of Rainbow Mountain can be absolutely freezing or it can be so hot you burn within a few minutes. On my way down, we were hit by a hailstorm and a snowstorm. The ground was muddy which made for awful hiking conditions.
Like I said earlier, I got sick for a week following the Rainbow Mountain hike. My throat just literally did not work for the longest time. I couldn’t speak or swallow solids. I would just suck on candy or eat soup, which was not ideal when you needed to consume as many calories as possible for the Machu Picchu trek. I got a cold, a little bit of a burn, and like I said earlier, a bad bout of altitude sickness. I know I sound like a whiny little bitch right now but be thankful that I’m being a whiny little bitch so you don’t have to be.
Don’t Drink The Night Before
If you’re a backpacker staying in Cusco, odds are, you’re staying at a party hostel. It’s pretty easy to get dragged in by loud music and people having fun, but please stay away if you’re doing Rainbow Mountain the next day. I had to wake up at 3 AM in order to have breakfast and arrive at the Rainbow Mountain trailhead right at around 7:30 AM. You’re going to struggle enough with a full night’s rest. Don’t make things even more difficult by staying up or pulling an all nighter.
Drinking in such high altitudes can also make things extremely difficult. If you haven’t spent enough time acclimatizing to the altitude, you shouldn’t even drink at all. I had a large beer my first night in Cusco and promptly felt terrible and passed out in my bed at 9PM. I made a lot of mistakes. Don’t be me.
You’re going to want Rainbow Mountain to be as memorable and dreamlike as possible, and unfortunately, you aren’t going to accomplish that by being hungover.
Rainbow Mountain Was Discovered Recently Due To Climate Change
I know this is a bummer but it is pretty hard for me to just ignore this aspect of Rainbow Mountain. For thousands of years, Rainbow Mountain was covered by layers of snow and ice until that recently melted, revealing the incredible colors lying underneath.
I encourage visiting Rainbow Mountain and the Vinicunca Region, but also encourage increased awareness to how climate change is changing things that have stayed the same for thousands of years. For every beautiful thing that climate change might reveal, there are thousands of other things that it destroys. From towering glaciers to animal habitats and populations, climate change is becoming impossible to ignore, and I implore you to at least keep its effects in mind when visiting Rainbow Mountain.
To end on a higher note…
Rainbow Mountain is one of the most breathtaking (literally) and magnificent sights I have ever seen. It is also one of the most difficult hikes I have ever completed. To sum it up, the altitude and weather conditions can really take its toll on you, but if you push through (even if you get a horse), it will be worth it in the end. Reaching the peak and being able to get a 360 degree view of one of the most amazing regions South America has to offer is an otherworldly experience.
Let me know if you have any other questions in the comments! Thanks for reading, and have an unbelievable time at Vinicunca!