Cusco day trip: Is hiking the Rainbow Mountain worth it?

Early bird catches the Rainbow Mountain

We wake up at 3am for the van to pick us up from Sunset House Hostel at 3:30am. We wait in the dark and get picked up at 4:30am because our tour group is running late.

We drive from Cusco (3,300m altitude) to the base of Rainbow Mountain (4,000m altitude) within a few hours. The van chaotically winds along narrow roads to get there.

Here's a llama, there's a llama. And another little llama.

When we get off the bus we are walking beside hundreds of other travellers on a very narrow path. I sniff the mountain air, and get a waft of donkey sh*t. We’re taking long, laboured breaths as we step closer and closer to 5,000m above sea level.

The path to the top of Rainbow Mountain.
The path up to Rainbow Mountain.

We reach the top of Rainbow Mountain to see a dull smattering of colours – maroon, mustard yellow, dirty green and brown. In the distance I see snow-covered mountains, feeling gypped I didn’t go hiking there instead.

There’s an enormous line to hike even higher to where everyone takes their magical photos. I decide I’ve gone high enough and stop to take some photos.

Photos of Rainbow Mountain before and after editing

Before/After major saturation
Milly enjoying the views of Rainbow Mountain.

A storm rolls in at Rainbow Mountain

Loud thunder rumbles overhead. Lightning strikes the ground a few hundred metres from where we’re walking. We all begin running down the slope back to the mini-vans.

A man wearing weatherproof gear hiking down from Rainbow Mountain
Mark has his wet weather gear on as we descend down the mountain in a lightning storm.

A hike that took two hours to reach the top only takes 45 minutes because we’re all in a hurry.

With my raincoat covering my head, I see flashes of lightning around me, hoping it strikes a selfie-stick or umbrella instead of my head. Click here to see a video of the storm in my Instagram Stories (warning: bad language).

Snow falls as we descend rainbow mountain.
Snowfall and heavy rain on the descent.

Feeling exhausted and a little underwhelmed, we get back to our hostel at 5pm. I sift through photos and realise no filter is going to match what I’d seen on Instagram. It’s going to take some serious saturation to look even remotely similar.

Is Rainbow Mountain overtouristed?

Ever since the path to the top of Rainbow Mountain opened in 2015, backpackers have been flocking to the trail to see it for themselves. The trail is now well-worn, and people are going in droves.

Check to make sure you’re going with a reliable tour operator who genuinely cares about your wellbeing at high altitudes. Ours admittedly did not give a heck about our hiking group of 19 people. The guide pushed Mark and another woman to reach the top despite them both experiencing “the worst headache ever”, and pushed others in our group to the top despite some being in tears.

I’m glad we went. But would I do it again? Probably not.

Risk vs reward on Rainbow Mountain

If any of the following dot points concern or apply to you, I’d reconsider this hike for your own safety and to save you the disappointment:

  • Have experienced serious altitude sickness before.
  • Have weak knees or like to walk slowly (most tour groups were rushing people up the mountain, resulting in headaches all round).
  • Have been experiencing altitude sickness in Cusco already – 5,000m is a lot higher than 3,300m.
  • If you are in poor physical shape, this is not the hike for you.
  • If you are susceptible to car sickness. There are lots of winding roads to get there, and back again. It’s a long drive.
  • Are you in Cusco during winter? The mountain may be covered in snow and you won’t see the rainbow effect.

February 7, 2024

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