Upon arriving in Cusco, every tour operator seemed to have unabashedly photoshopped images of rainbow mountain. We interviewed a few of the tour operators brandishing these oversaturated photos. They told us that each tour van could take between 15 and 19 people, which seemed like a lot to us at the time. They failed to mention that each tour van joins six other equally full buses, making one unfortunately large group. You’ll likely be starting the hike with 90 of your best friends.
If you can accept the crowd factor, it’s a beautiful albeit challenging day hike. You’ll get to walk right through troupes of alpaca, guanaco, and sheep, grazing in front of snow-capped mountains.
Rainbow Mountain weather
The hike climbs to an altitude of 17,060 feet, meaning weather conditions can change within minutes. The top is windy and chilly, since it’s super exposed. Make sure to layer up right when you summit, since you’ll likely be standing around for a while.
You’ll have the best chance of getting sunny weather from May to September. We went during the peak of the rainy season, which lasts from January to March. Although it snowed a little at the peak, we were still able to see the colors and take photos. I recommend summiting as early as possible, so you can wait it out if the weather is bad.
Since it was crowded during the rainy season, I’d imagine the crowds during the high season get pretty gnarly.
Rainbow mountain length and difficulty
Hiking Time. 2.5 – 3.5 hours to the summit, where you’ll see views of the rainbow mountain.
Starting Altitude. 14,160 feet
Ending Altitude. 17,060 feet
Length. 7 km to the summit, 7 km back on the same path.
Difficulty. Medium Rare
Hiking Rainbow Mountain in one day, a schedule
Pick up, 3 A.M. – 4 A.M.
After visiting a few tour operators, we ultimately selected the group that departed the earliest, hoping we could beat the crowd. The bus picked us up at our hostel a little after 3 in the morning. The bus was empty when we got on, but we had to stop at 3 other hostels to pick up the rest of our group. Spirits were high as we left Cusco and got to know our ragtag, multinational gang of travelers.
The drive, 4 A.M. – 7 A.M.
We drove about 3 hours outside of Cusco and into the mountains. In typical latin american colectivero fashion, our driver valued speedy arrival over human life.
Breakfast, 7 A.M. – 8 A.M.
Upon arriving at a small Quechua village in the Pitumarca district, our 6-van convoy stopped and about 90 people filled a cafeteria style room for a breakfast of coffee and pan con marmelada. Summer camp vibes abounded. Note that this is the best time to hit the baño before the hike begins. Eventually, the head guide gave us a 15-minute rundown of the route and requested that we not be assholes i.e., don’t litter and respect the locals.
Drive to trailhead, 8 A.M. – 8:30 A.M.
After eating, we drove 20 minutes further to the drop off point.
Hiking to the park entrance, 8:30 A.M. – 9 A.M.
Our eager horde stood around until the head honcho, Fabianco, waved his flag, leading the march upwards.
At the start, Fabianco lead our 90-person mob, waving his flag and attempting to keep the eager beavers from going too fast. From the van drop off point, you’ll hike about 30 minutes before arriving at an area de control. There’s no point in racing to be first at the control as you’ll have to wait for your driver to check you in with the rest of your specific van crew.
The ascent, 9 A.M. – 10:30 A.M.
After getting your ticket and handing it to the park employee, you’re free to summit the mountain at your desired pace. The trail is well-marked, and there will almost undoubtedly be other hikers ahead of you. We left our group behind and ascended quickly to reach the mirador before it got too crowded.
After 45 minutes of hiking uphill at a steady clip, we got to a series of lakes with a small hut. From this point, it took us about an hour to reach the summit. The altitude gain is rapid, so unless you’re Quechua, this last stretch will make you huff and puff.
The summit, 10:30 A.M – 11 A.M.
Once we reached the busy mirador, it took us a moment to realize that we were actually standing right next to the rainbow mountain. It was windy and snowing, the hard stinging type, but we decided to ascend another 150 meters to the peak above the mirador. As we climbed, the sun came out and we were granted an absolutely mental panoramic view of the colorful mineral deposits. The weather, especially this high up, changes rapidly this time of year, so we could only handle about 30 minutes on the frigid peak.
The descent, 11 A.M. – 2 P.M.
After conquering the ascent, the thought of descending is a bit daunting. However, it was actually our favorite part of the journey. We took our time heading down and were able to enjoy the incredible scenery because we weren’t just focused on putting one foot in front of the other.
Lunch, 3:30 P.M. – 4 P.M.
After waiting about an hour for the rest of our van group, we headed back to the cafeteria for a late lunch of chicken with rice and veggies. It tasted pretty damn good after the hike, but we were still looking forward to dinner.
Drive home, 4 P.M. – 7 P.M.
Mid way through the 3 hour ride home, we were thinking that there was no way we’d make it back to Cusco by 7 pm. By way of his driving style, our guy let us know that he’d rather we all perish than arrive late. We were back in Cusco’s Plaza de Armas at 6:45 pm.
Tips for Choosing a Rainbow Mountain Tour
Make sure your tour includes entrance to the Rainbow Mountain park. If you don’t have this included, you’ll have to stand in a long line to buy one on the trail. The cost for the park entrance is 10 soles.
Summit as quickly as possible, take your time on the way down. The weather seemed to change every 2 minutes at this altitude. To increase your chances of getting a patch of sun, summit early and spend some time resting. Even if it’s snowing or raining when you get up there, the weather should pass pretty quickly.
Ask what time the van will pick you up at your hostel. We chose the tour operator that would pick us up the earliest to (try to) beat the crowd. Some tours don’t leave until 4 or 5 in the morning.
Don’t book online. Online prices are 5 times the prices offered in Cusco. In Cusco, the run of the mill tour will cost you about 80 soles, including entrance to the park. If you’re paying more, make sure your group sizes are smaller or you’re departing earlier.
Where to book the rainbow mountain tour
Friends of Nature.
We unknowingly booked Friends of Nature through one of the many affiliate agencies near the Plaza de Armas in Cuzco. The “tour operators” in Cusco are really just affiliate agencies who have relationships with the actual tour operators. When you ask around, ask which company will be providing the services. In all honesty, it doesn’t seem to matter that much. All the companies do pretty much the same thing.
Cost. 80 soles per person, including entrance to the park, breakfast and lunch.
Things to bring on the Rainbow Mountain Tour
Toilet paper and a plastic bag. Although there are a few makeshift porta-potties on the way, you’ll have to bring your own TP in and out if nature calls.
Snacks. Breakfast was small and lunch was late. We didn’t eat lunch until half past three since our van had to wait for a few stragglers before we could return to the village for lunch.
Coca leaves for the altitude. The buzz from the coca leaves can help you when the air gets thin. A Quechua man named Maximo showed us the proper way to eat them: take about 3 leaves, chew them in your mouth and roll the chewed ball of leaves to the side. Leave in your gums for 30 – 45 minutes then spit it out. Tastes faintly of cocaine, but not in a gross way.
Things to bring during the rainy season
Gloves. At the summit, you won’t be able to take photos if your fingers freeze. We bought woven gloves for about $2.50 USD the day before. It was worth it.
Rain protection. If you’re summiting during the rainy season, you’ll need either a poncho or a rain coat.
Hiking Rainbow Mountain without a guide
We think this may be possible. We assumed that we’d need a guide since the hike was at such a high altitude. It would be near impossible to get lost on this route given the number of other people you’ll see on the trail.
If you want to try it, you’d need to drive or take a taxi to the trailhead. The GPS coordinates are here. From there, you’d hike to the park entrance and pay the fee. To avoid being denied entry, you can claim you’re with the nearest tour group but didn’t receive your ticket. Although it didn’t seem like the park rangers were checking to see if every person had a guide. The scene was pretty chaotic; they’re usually struggling to accommodate all the people lined up.
Let us know if you do it.