Most of the people in our group were still shaking as others were wiping tears from their eyes. No one spoke a single word during the 20-minute van ride from from the Rainbow Mountain trailhead to our lunch stop. All you could hear was the chattering of teeth. We sat in silence for minutes waiting for something warm. That’s when someone finally said something.
This was the worst trek ever.”
He was right. The supposedly magical Rainbow Mountain was the worst trek we’ve ever sought out on. Everyone in our day trip group had agreed.
Rainbow Mountain Peru turned out not to be the beautiful natural wonder that you see on the tourism posters in Cusco. It was quite the opposite. But we’ve made it back in one piece to now provide a warning to other travelers considering a Rainbow Mountain day tour.
What Is Rainbow Mountain Peru?
Rainbow Mountain is a colorful mountainside in the Andes of Peru. In short, the colors you see were formed by sedimentary mineral layers in the mountain that have been exposed by erosion. The Rainbow Mountain trailhead is located a 3-hour drive from Cusco, where day trips have recently grown quite popular.
Peru’s Rainbow Mountain, also known as Vinicunca, has quickly risen to become a major touristic attraction for the country after being discovered for tourism only two years ago. What was simply a tranquil mountain in the Andes, is now inundated with hundreds (thousands?) of tourists who all ascend in droves from Cusco to get their Instagramable shot of the colorful mountain. We joined the masses on a quest to reach Rainbow Mountain and the experience was NOT pretty like the pictures.
Instead, it was more like a war zone. Never have I been on a trek where so many people were returning not only shivering and covered in mud, but crying, limping, and bleeding! We had journeyed to Rainbow Mountain in the pouring rain, which transitioned to sleet and then snow, the higher we climbed. But it wasn’t just the weather conditions that made it such a horrible hike. It was the bad weather combined with irresponsible guides, unprepared hikers, and horrendous trail conditions that made this one of the worst treks we’ve ever been on.
While Rainbow Mountain may look beautiful in the photos, we recommend NOT to pursue this hike if it’s been raining and/or until trail improvements are made. It’s not just a strenuous trek. It can be downright dangerous, as evidence by the many people we witnessed hobbling back to their tourist shuttle.
Not only that, but the beautiful and fragile alpine environment is getting completely demolished by the hoards of eager hikers who make the journey to Rainbow Mountain. I’m ashamed at the fact that we too personally destroyed a bit of the Andes during our trek to Rainbow Mountain, while attempting to not become the mountain’s latest casualty.
We wrote this post in an effort to expose the less glamorous side of Rainbow Mountain Peru and to give caution to anyone considering trekking there in the rain. In our opinion, a rainy or snowy trek to Rainbow Mountain is absolutely not worth pursuing.
Have Realistic Expectations About Rainbow Mountain
First, you must understand that seeing Rainbow Mountain in person is NOT like the tourism brochures handed out in Cusco. Those are blatant lies.
Rainbow Mountain Peru may look amazing on those tourism posters, but you must realize the pictures have been photoshopped so heavily to enhance the colors that they have become completely unrealistic. Here’s a good one we picked up in Cusco.
This brochure not only enhanced the colors, but it also misleads you with a photoshopped van onto the mountain. In reality, there is (thankfully) no way for vehicles to reach Rainbow Mountain. The van only goes to a trailhead, where you then hike up. So don’t expect vehicles to take you to the top as this picture infers.
Meanwhile many of the Rainbow Mountain pictures you see posted on Instagram have likewise been heavily filtered, saturated, and greatly manipulated. Yes, there is most definitely some color to these mountains when you visit them in person. There’s no denying that. And many visitors do find it to be an amazing sight under good weather conditions. But you should just have realistic expectations that the colors may be more subdued than what you see in most photos. Don’t expect a cartoon-like mountain bursting with color. That simply does not exist.
You can actually play a fun game on Instagram by searching the hashtag #RainbowMountain to find those who have done the most ridiculous editing to their photos. Some pics are downright laughable. This is one of the better ones I saw posted today.
Rainbow mountain in Cusco, Peru. ▪ Not for the faint of heart, this journey is a dangerous and treacherous day trip – Are you up for the challenge? After driving through one of the world's deadliest roads, you will arrive at the beginning of your trek. Good hiking gear and adjusting to the climate before the hike is a good start! ▪ ℹ Turn Notifications ON & Follow us for more ✔ ▪ #TravelWagon | @Travel.Wagon | Follow Us 📍 @earthofficial @beautifuldestinations @earthfocus @earth_wanderers @natgeotravel @natgeo
But the above image and many of the pics out there are a complete lie that we want to expose! (Correction: Apparently the above picture is not only over-photoshopped, but that’s not even Rainbow Mountain Peru. The above scene is in China and the Instagram curator has mislabeled it.)
We can honestly tell you that this is the Rainbow Mountain we encountered, without editing:
Not so special, huh? Now, someone could argue that the colors were dulled during our visit due to the snowy and overcast conditions. But our guide claimed that such grey conditions actually make for better photos since the colors of Rainbow Mountain aren’t as pronounced on a bright sunny day. I’m not so sure that’s true. We weren’t able to get the iconic wide shot because snow most certainly did obscure the view.
But check out how some creative editing can enhance the photo, even during the snowy conditions. I paid a photoshop expert $5 on fiverr to demonstrate how these photos are manipulated. Below is the exact same photo as posted above, only this time with professional editing to enhance the colors.
The above edited photo is a complete lie that we’re only showing to prove a point. That is not the Rainbow Mountain we saw with our own eyes. So many people are photoshopping images of Rainbow Mountain to make it look like this colorful wonderland. While the mountain may indeed be more vibrant on a clear day, many of these images are misrepresentations. Instead, below is the Rainbow Mountain we encountered, which in our opinion is not worth pursuing under such rainy and snowy conditions.
Whatever You Do, Don’t Go To Rainbow Mountain In the Rain or Snow
The thought of seeing a Rainbow Mountain may sound like something imaginable only in a dream. But trekking to Rainbow Mountain in the rain was a nightmare!
We’re experienced hikers and have done lots of trekking through most of the major mountain ranges across six continents. We’ve got caught in torrential downpours and snowstorms on numerous occasions. It happens and you just gotta take the good with the bad. Sure, trekking in cold rain anywhere in the world is never fun, but Rainbow Mountain is different.
Why? Because you run the risk of severe injury due to a combination of horrible trail conditions, piss poor guides, hundreds of unprepared tourists, and the 5,200-meter altitude.
When it rains on Rainbow Mountain, the trail transforms into a river. Even worse, the trail and the surrounding areas turn into one big slippery mud pit. It becomes nearly impossible to walk on. Even the most surefooted hiker will ultimately fall at some point.
Ending up on your ass in mud is virtually unavoidable on Rainbow Mountain during and after heavy rains. We witnessed almost everyone who was trekking under the bad weather conditions fall many, many times. And actually going up was much easier. It was going down Rainbow Mountain that we each slipped at least 10 times.
This leaves you covered in mud from head to toe. But of greater concern are the rocks under the mud that you land on. Thankfully, we left Rainbow Mountain with only a few bruises.
Others weren’t so lucky. We saw numerous trekkers limping off the trail with what looked like some pretty serious injuries. There were a few people that ended their day in the hospital. Their tour groups headed directly back to Cusco to get them to the hospital. There are no ambulances way out here.
The tour agencies and guides don’t care either. They just want to get paid. If a trip is canceled due to bad weather, the agencies won’t get paid. As a result, departures occur rain or shine. Agencies won’t mention the horrors of attempting this trek in the rain because they want your money. Simple.
In our case, it was raining so hard in Cusco that the sewers were all overflowing and the city was even starting to flood a little. We thought for sure our trip was being canceled. But instead they took the irresponsible approach of loading everyone up in the tourist vans for the treacherous trek.
We questioned the guide, asking about the conditions. He assured us that it would be fine and hurried us into the van. Naively, we took his word and figured how bad could it be. Even if the mountain wasn’t shining bright colors, we wanted to check it out and figured it would make for a challenging hike.
We actually found the short hike itself to only be moderately challenging. But it was the conditions that made this trip very risky to pursue.
Being wet from the rain, you are susceptible to hypothermia in the temperatures that hover around freezing. Many day trippers were only prepared with a thin poncho and a long sleeve shirt. That’s not going to cut it. They were absolutely drenched and completely freezing. To be soaking wet in sub-zero temperatures is not just miserable, it’s dangerous! Not to mention the risk of injury when inevitably falling down the steep mud slicks.
The Rainbow Mountain Trail Badly Needs Repair
During our Rainbow Mountain trek the trail was a complete mess. When hundreds of hikers scramble up this terrain each day, combined with the natural elements, it’s bound to be destroyed. And it’s only getting worse each day.
The pristine alpine environment leading up to Rainbow Mountain is getting demolished. It’s sad.
Parts of the “trail” have been eroded to what seemed like at least twenty meters wide. But during or after rain, it’s difficult to walk in the wide trail area since it is either a “river” or slippery mud.
You must choose to either get injured in the slippery mud or trample on the safer tundra on the outskirts of what’s left of the trail. Doing the latter destroys the fragile tundra and makes the trail an even wider muddy mess.
If this issue is not remedied, we can easily foresee the side of Rainbow Mountain becoming one big mud slick within a few years.
During the month of February, the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is closed every year for repairs. Why hasn’t anyone thought to do this with the Rainbow Mountain? It seems necessary in order to preserve the mountains.
There is a separate 10 sole (~$3) entrance fee you’re required to pay to access Rainbow Mountain, so that adds up to thousands of dollars each day. That money should be spent on trail repairs or else there may no longer be a way to reach Rainbow Mountain a few years from now.
Don’t Underestimate The Altitude
Hiking up Rainbow Mountain brings you to an elevation of 5,200 meters! (That’s 3.2 miles in altitude.)
For perspective, this is higher than any mountain in the Continental US (Mount Whitney is 4,421 meters). It’s higher than any mountain in the Alps (the highest being Mount Blanc, 4,810 meters), and is nearly as high as Everest Base Camp (5,389 meters).
Table: Rainbow Mountain Altitude Comparison for Perspective
A trek at 5,200 meters is no joke. People begin to feel symptoms of altitude sickness at about 2,400 meters. Rainbow Mountain is more than double that! Severe altitude sickness can become a likely reality here. Severe headaches and nausea are both possibilities. Some passengers began vomiting just on the drive up to the trailhead.
At the very least, breathing and walking will be difficult as the air is thin at this elevation. It’s important to go at a pace you’re comfortable with. So this makes for a fun time when the guides try and rush you in an effort to speed up the whole ordeal. Yes, they do that.
The Rainbow Mountain Guides
All guides to Rainbow Mountain are different and I’m sure there are some great guides out there. But our guide to Rainbow Mountain was the worst guide we had in Peru and actually during the entire half year we traveled throughout South America. And he didn’t seem much different than the other guides leading victims up Rainbow Mountain.
You are rushed up the slippery mountainside, which can be difficult on its own during this high altitude trek. The guide has a long 15 hour+ day, so it’s in his personal interest to get you up and down that mountain as quickly as possible. You’re given three hours to complete the 15-kilometer round-trip trek. That breaks down to about 2-hours going up and 1 hour coming down.
We were proud to have completed the trek up in less time than we were allocated. After about an hour and forty minutes, we had reached the colorful mountaintop ready to take some memorable pictures. But our guide chastised us and said we were “too slow.” He barked at us to turn back immediately after snapping a quick picture of us grouped together with some random strangers. Then he demanded we go down right away.
We saw other guides giving similar messages to their victims. The guides are cold and wet up here. They don’t want to be up on this high altitude mountain peak in the snow and rain. So they try to rush you back down the mountain instead of giving you time to enjoy the view.
And they don’t really “guide” you at all. You’re let loose to hike the trail on your own, which could be fine. It’s not a difficult trail to find your way. Just follow the giant mud slick!
But under horrendous weather conditions where people are being injured, a proper guide may be nice to have nearby. As the main trail becomes a muddy river, several false trails are formed. Some of these side trails eventually lead off in other directions, which is the wrong way.
As visibility turned poor, we saw some trekkers who incorrectly followed a horse trail up an adjacent hill. Once they had realized their mistake and not wanting to backtrack through the bad weather, they attempted to make their way down the steep terrain back to the correct trail. Instead, they were sent on a scary trajectory tumbling down the mountain side. Sure, perhaps it was a careless move on their part. But a guide may have been nice to prevent what turned into a serious injury and a trip to the hospital.
Expect Hoards of People
Tackling Rainbow Mountain is becoming somewhat of a cluster. This tourist attraction has shot to popularity very quickly and hoards of people flock there every day. Even under our treacherous conditions, there were several hundred people attempting the hike.
On a nice day, you may find thousands. There seems to be no shortage of tours heading there from Cusco. And to our knowledge, they do not cap the number of people hiking up Rainbow Mountain each day.
Good luck getting that awesome shot at the Rainbow Mountain viewpoint. You may find hundreds of people in the background trying to do the same thing. You may end up with a rainbow of people in colorful outfits in your shot, rather than a rainbow mountain.
The Day Even Begins On A Bad Note
When attempting a harrowing trek, it’s nice to be well rested.
But for Rainbow Mountain, you must awake around 2:30 in the morning for your 3:00 am departure. Then you get to have the pleasure of sitting in a van for the next 3+ hours. The mountain roads eventually become pretty twisty and bumpy, making any sleeping while in transit even more difficult to accomplish than the trek itself.
There are a few tour groups that depart Cusco closer to 5:00 am, but those tend you rush you through the experience at an even more accelerated pace.
During the drive, as daylight begins to peek, you then realize the awful road conditions you’re on. After enough rain, the rough dirt road on the side of a cliff is bound to give way one day sending a tourist van flying down.
Before the hike begins, you’re treated to a breakfast to fuel yourself for the challenge ahead. This consists of as many hard and stale bread rolls as you’re able to stomach. You also get a single pancake, which was actually delicious, but the small size only acts as big tease to your appetite.
Your day ends with a mediocre cold lunch and another three hours sitting in a van with no heat as you try to shake off your lingering hypothermic conditions. In total, you’ll spend three hours trekking if your lucky, and 6-7 hours sitting in a van.
You Can Get Scammed With the Price of Rainbow Mountain
If you Google “Rainbow Mountain Tour,” you’ll come across companies offering the 1-day Rainbow Mountain tour for $200 and up. In Cusco, just about every agency currently sells the 1-day tour for 70 soles (~$21.50 USD) plus the 10 sole (~$3) entrance fee. It’s actually a fantastic value for the money, if for nothing else, the lengthy journey it takes to get there and back.
Yet we spoke to many people on our exact same tour who paid upwards of $100 per person for this miserable experience. Don’t get scammed. Know the price and book it in Cusco if you still decided to go.
Those Poor Horses
There are many locals at the trailhead offering to walk you up the mountain on a horse. Many inexperienced hikers and those suffering from altitude sickness use the horses so they can get their Instagram pic of the colorful hills. But you may want to think twice about doing that.
Some of the horses did look fairly healthy, while others didn’t seem to be in the best condition. You may not want to contribute to their demise.
To use a horse, you pay an additional 80 soles. That’s as much as the cost of the entire Rainbow Mountain tour itself.
Many people paid the hefty charge in an effort to avoid the mud, and make the horse do the hard work instead. But the horses’ handlers had the passengers dismount the horse to walk up the steepest parts of the trail. While this is great for the horse’s wellbeing, those who paid their 80 soles may have been irritated by the fact that they ended up falling in mud anyways even though they paid to take a horse.
Bottom Line: Should You Go To Rainbow Mountain?
Yes, we had a horrible experience but that doesn’t necessarily mean you will. Under good weather conditions, it’s likely a nice yet challenging trek to see some pastel colors on a mountainside. If you want to wake up early to spend 6-7 hours in a van to see that, we say go for it. We know many people who have done the Rainbow Mountain trek under better conditions who had a great experience and recommend it. We can’t disagree with that.
You can find tons of articles out there raving about how amazing Rainbow Mountain is. It is possible to have a good experience here. We don’t argue with that. We simply want this to serve as a different look at this tourist attraction that’s suddenly been thrusted into popularity.
We absolutely do NOT recommend going if it is raining, or even if it has been raining during the past few days. You almost certainly will not have an enjoyable experience. Under rainy conditions, it is simply not worth it in our opinion. And we would strongly disagree with any tour operator (or anyone) who claims otherwise.
But if the weather is decent, you’re acclimatized, and in good physical condition, then do go ahead and consider this trek. If you have realistic expectations about how colorful the mountain actually is, perhaps you’ll be pleasantly surprised when you arrive to the viewpoint. So don’t necessarily let our dismal tale dissuade you from pursuing this hike under good weather conditions. After all, you may not have a chance to see Rainbow Mountain in the future if the trail leading there continues to undergo so much damage.
Tips If You Do Go To Rainbow Mountain
- Do not go in the rain.
- Do not go in the rain.
- Seriously, don’t go in the rain! (We can’t overstate that enough.)
- When To Go: The wet season is roughly November through March and should be generally avoided. But do know that rain can and does happen outside these months too. Meanwhile, it may be possible to have a sunny stretch during the rainy season.
- Pack Some Snacks: The breakfast isn’t much and lunchtime isn’t until way later in the afternoon. Bring some high-energy snacks to help fuel you up Rainbow Mountain.
- Acclimatize First: It’s a very good idea to have been in Cusco (or other high altitude locations) for at least a few days before you attempt this trek. You’ve likely come to the area primarily to go to Machu Picchu, so consider Rainbow Mountain after that to give your body a chance to adjust to the elevation better. You may also want to consider bringing this natural altitude medication that seems to be well worth it from all the great reviews.
- The Coca Is Your Friend: Another way to help with altitude is the tried and true Inca remedy of coca leaves. In Cusco, they sell coca candies and cookies in most stores. Stock up. We’ve found it really does help. If you didn’t prepare, you may also find a guy atop Rainbow Mountain selling warm coca tea.
- Try Not To Damage The Trail: If you go during good weather conditions try to use the trail as much as you safely can, so that you do not further damage the fragile alpine environment that surrounds it.
- Wear Hiking Boots or Trail Running Shoes: It is best to tackle Rainbow Mountain in proper hiking boots but you may be able to get away with wearing sneakers that have great traction in good weather conditions.
- Use Sunscreen: The sun can be intense at this altitude, even if it’s cloudy. Protect your skin and don’t forget a hat, sunglasses, and lip balm either.
- Be Sure To Have Travel Insurance: Don’t consider this trek without having travel insurance. We use World Nomads as we find it to have the best coverage and price combination. Let them cover your Peruvian hospital bill if anything bad happens. Some travel insurances don’t let you start a policy if you’re in the middle of your trip, but World Nomads does. So even if you’re reading this from Peru, get a quick quote here (takes 1 minute), and you can have a policy starting tomorrow. Easy as that. Get covered.
Where To Next?
Yeah, yeah… we realize this article is a bit of a bummer. So we want to leave you on a more positive note. There are plenty of adventures in Peru and around that we absolutely loved. So lets close this post with a more optimistic tone. Check out these awesome experiences, in the places you may be roaming around on your way to/from Cusco:
🌎 Making the Trek to Machu Picchu? We absolutely loved the Inca Jungle Trek and found it to be the most adventure-packed way to reach Machu Picchu!
🌎 Heading to Lima? Check out where you can go swimming with wild sea lions! So much fun!
🌎 Going South to Lake Titicaca? Our highlight of the famed lake was chilling out on an overnight trip to Isla del Sol.