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Climbing to the Rainbow Mountain

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When you stay in Cuzco, you’ll see offers of a day trip to Rainbow Mountain everywhere in the streets. The pictures that the desks show all seem fake, as if someone has been working with Photoshop. However, in reality, Rainbow Mountain really looks like a rainbow, with all different colours. The mountain range is millions of years old and the various rocks and minerals have created beautiful colour differences. It is magical to see with one’s own eyes but you have to have a big climb of about three hours to get there!

Up with the lark

The earlier you leave Cuzco, the better it is. You can then get a little ahead of the hustle and bustle because many people visit the mountain every day. At 3 o’clock in the morning we were ready to leave for a bus ride of about 3.5 hours. You arrive at a small village, where you get a simple breakfast. For those with a big appetite: take enough snacks with you because the climb takes a lot of energy. That’s why we always have energy gels in our daypack.

After you’ve warmed up by the wood fire (it can be very cold on the mountain), the climb starts. You start from an altitude of about 4,200 metres. The path slowly winds up and the landscape changes very quickly. On the way, you see llamas, alpacas and vicunas grazing everywhere. During the 5 km long hike, you climb over 800 metres in altitude. Because of the altitude (this is our highest point we ever reached) the air is thin and it is wise to take a breath after every 10 minutes’ walking. Altitude sickness is something to take seriously into account. Most people take about 3 hours for the climb. It is important that you listen to your body and do not try to go too fast. You can also rent a donkey or horse that is regularly offered to you on the way by the locals.

We walked the whole way ourselves and after about 2 hours were up at Rainbow Mountain, or Cerro Vinicunca, as the mountain is officially called. You have plenty of time there to take many pictures and climb a bit further to a beautiful vantage point. As it had snowed that night, almost the whole mountain was white. Because of the bright sun, part of the mountain thawed very quickly. The other side remained snowy longer, providing a very special aspect. When we started the descent, the whole mountain was almost snow-free. After about two hours, you start the descent, which is on the same route. When everyone is back at the bus, you drive back to Cuzco and you get lunch somewhere in the meantime.

Some tips for enjoying the Rainbow Mountain to the fullest

  • Find a tour that leaves as early as possible, to avoid the crowds. Also check if it has a good English-speaking guide.
  • Preferably book a tour that includes breakfast and lunch, otherwise you’ll have to take everything with you. The lighter your daypack, the easier you walk during the climb.
  • Make sure you have enough warm clothing. You leave early and at this altitude it can be treacherously cold. Gloves and a hat are not an unnecessary luxury. Good walking shoes are essential and walking sticks are very practical.
  • Bring enough water and sunscreen. It feels cold but, at this altitude the sun has an enormous power. That’s why you really need to wear sunglasses.
  • You need to be in fairly good shape to make the whole climb. The path is not particularly difficult but the thin air makes it hard. So, make sure you are well acclimatised before starting out on this trip. If you are offered coca tea, take it. It is a drink to prevent altitude sickness. In any case, avoid alcohol before and during the trip. This will dry you out and increase the chance of altitude sickness.