A year or so ago, it wasn’t easy to reach this technicolored mountain, officially known as Vinicunca. The options included a six day trek, using your own transport or somehow negotiating local transport via small farming villages along the way (a feat I’m not even sure is possible). Now it’s all changed, and in my opinion for the worse. Local tourist agencies saw a lucrative opportunity in offering one-day trips from Cusco. Having seen photos of these incredible mountains and wanting to experience them for ourselves, we saw no harm in booking a tour. At 80 soles, plus 10 Soles entry fee, including breakfast and lunch, it was a bargain (perhaps too much so).
We were picked up at 4am, with a breakfast stop at 6am followed by a further 1.5 hours of driving through tiny villages and luscious mountains. An enjoyable journey apart from the narrow windy dirt road which for several kilometres takes a narrow pass up a mountain, teetering on the edge of a several hundred metre precipice with no barriers. It was at the highest point that we almost collided with a large truck on a hairpin bend. Our bus was too large to be navigating these roads and if it hasn’t happened already, I am certain a bus will fall off these cliffs at some point. It’s South America, there are mountains everywhere! You can’t circumvent every risk, but if you do this tour try to book with a company that uses one of the smaller mini-vans.
We arrived at the base of a valley to start our hike which we were told by the guides would take two hours each way. This is true for people of moderate to high fitness who are acclimatised to the altitude. At the top you reach a height of 5,020 metres. If you’ve done any of the Macchu Picchu treks you shouldn’t have any problems. We did Rainbow Mountain after the Inca Trail. Apart from the altitude it is not a difficult hike, most of the incline is gentle. There are horses available to carry people (for I think 50 soles). I was surprised at the number of young, healthy looking people being shuttled on horseback. At about halfway up we reached the checkpoint where you buy the 10 sole ticket, as we continued the air was moist and threatened rain but thankfully it held off. We reached the top and to be honest, rainbow mountain is not as stunning as all those (enhanced) photos would have you believe. The entire valley, collectively is more striking. On a clear day you can see the top of Ausangate, although covered in cloud, occasionally we would see a glimpse of it’s snowy surface.
About half way through our decent, angry clouds let their hail loose on us and the already muddy track became difficult to traverse. Many people slipped and fell and those behind us were caught in the bad weather for longer, causing them to move even slower. We waited an hour and a half for the last of our group to make it back to the bus.
We returned to the place where we ate breakfast. A simple lunch of soup, chicken and rice was served just after 4:00pm. The food on this tour is very basic, breakfast is bread and if you’re lucky one pancake plus weak black coffee and tea. It was 10 hours between meals so it’s a good idea to take snacks (though locals sell snacks and drinks all along the way, even on the mountain!). We returned to Cusco at 7:30pm.
If I had this day over, I’m not sure that I would choose this trip. Rainbow mountain is incredible, but I have concerns about the environmental impact on this mountain, that is sacred to the Inca people. There were possibly two hundred people hiking. In low-season! Due to the mud we were often forced to hike off the path. The hooves of horses are further destroying the track. Horses are really not necessary, it’s an easy hike. Currently the area is not protected, although our guide told us there are plans to turn it into a national park and place restrictions on daily numbers. This will improve the landscape, although no doubt it will make the entry fees more expensive and possibly take money away from local people.
The Ausangate trek is a great way to see Rainbow Mountain, although it’s not recommended in the wet season. It is one of more difficult hikes and reaches the highest altitude of any of the treks. Some companies include extensions to Macchu Picchu. The bonus is you will see the mountain long before the day hikers get there. Another option could be to stay in a village or camp close-by and arrange early transport with a local and start your hike before the day trippers get there (before 8am). It would require a lot of time spent off the beaten track and adequate Spanish levels to figure out how to do this. Sadly the secret of Rainbow Mountain is now not-so-secret and is only set to become more popular. There is so much to see and do around Cusco that I’d rather spend more time visiting a few more lesser known Inca sites rather than compete for space on this mountain. Also there are other places to see such spectacular mountains. In 2015 we visited Iran and some of the mountains we saw on our bus journey from Tabriz were even more stunning. There are also Rainbow Mountains in China’s Zhangye Danxia National Geologic Park.