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High in the Andes, at an altitude of 5200 meters (15,600 feet) lies the mysterious and well-hidden Vinicunca Mountain, commonly referred to in the traveler world as Rainbow Mountain. There is little online about how to get to this amazing natural wonder, except reading that there is little online about it. How to get there, food, preparation, why you should go, what to expect, are not things that have been covered extensively online about visiting this crazy place just a 3-hour bus ride from Cusco, so I’m going to give you the lowdown- the good, the bad, and the ugly.
If you haven’t already and want to, check out my blog on Machu Picchu as well, there’s plenty of great advice there for you to prepare on seeing one of the 7 modern world wonders!
If you don’t want to read about my experience and just about how to get there/costs/preparation, go ahead and skip to the bottom…. but I promise the story is a good one and involves a bus catching on fire.
I’m just going to give you guys the ~shortened~ version of my experience with Rainbow Mountain, and then give you pointers, because I feel like if I share my experience with you then you’ll be even more prepared than if I just gave you a list of ways to prepare- so here goes.
We booked our Rainbow Mountain tour through our hostel, Pariwana, in Cusco. The hostel is very reputable, and the cost for the trip was only 100 soles (about $35 USD), so we had assumed they had vetted the tour company, considering plenty of people booked through the hostel daily for this excursion. At the time of booking, we asked if we could go ahead and purchase horses for the trek, and the lady at the desk responded that we could purchase a horse when we got to the trail, and it would cost around 70 soles ($25 USD) per horse. A little wary, we took her word and assumed it would all be fine.
We were set to be downstairs ready to go on our adventure just before 3:30 AM, as that was when the bus would take off. This is not how the day started. The bus took off from our hostel around 3:15 AM leaving us behind- so I walked up to the reception guy to ask why it had left early and what was going on. One of our friends was on the bus, his name had been called and was messaging me the entire time. The reception man assured me the bus would be back. I still don’t understand why they needed to make two pit stops at our hostel, but alas, I will just blame that on Peru, there’s probably no good reason. The bus finally picked us up around 3:45 AM, and we then wandered around Cusco for another good hour and a quarter, stopping at several hostels (some of them twice) and picking up more people.
We finally left Cusco around 5 am after picking up the tour guide from a gas station on the outskirts of town (super weird), and we all attempted to fall asleep on the bus with no heat while the driver played “Despacitos” on the stereo.
We eventually arrived at our breakfast point, which also was an opportunity for us to use the restroom (aka holes in the ground, which we expected, but for some reason smelled like horse poop). At this point, we were running about 45 minutes behind schedule from when we were due to arrive at breakfast. ‘Breakfast’ consisted of 2 pieces of bread, not enough jam, and instant coffee or tea. Let’s just say it was not enough to sustain anyone for a 16-kilometer trek, and when we later found out that other tour groups got EGGS with their breakfast, we were not happy campers.
Anyhow, we ate our toast, fighting for the scraps of jelly (literally), and hopped back on the bus to drive another 45 minutes to the start of the trail. We later found out that the location we started was NOT the normal starting point. The location we started at was an extra hour of walking to the normal drop off point, but the road to get to there was closed off that morning. This new point they dropped us off at was a town with a lean-to and two tents (not a joke).
Our gas station guide then gave us our “hiking prep”. This “hiking prep” was essentially telling us that we had to hike for 20 minutes over a hill, then we would be able to rent our horses. Cool. We can make that. He also explained briefly what Vinicunca means, and that the hike would take 3 hours to the peak and three hours back (still not sure if this was supposed to include the extra hour of walking time from our new location). The English version of our “hike prep” was about 10 minutes shorter than the Spanish version, so I’m not sure we got all the information we needed. Oh also “chicos, friends, chicos” was this man’s favorite catchphrase.
YAY, WE FINALLY STARTED THE TREK!! 20 minutes of hiking and we could get horses so that our asses could breathe, instead of struggling for 6 the entire hours. We get over the hill and there were no horses to be seen. Not a single horse. We asked our guide where they were. We were promised horses.
“Oh…. chicos…. the horses are on strike because of Mother’s Day.” Excuse me?
My friend, Hezi, who was hiking with us assumed the guide was joking mentioned that Mother’s Day was yesterday. He then continued to ask where the horses really were because we wanted to get one as soon as possible.
“No amigos, no horses today, they are on strike.”
HOW CAN HORSES EVEN GO ON STRIKE?!?! We later found out that he told my other friend, Caitlin, who was behind us, the horses weren’t going to be carrying people today because they were mating (!?!?) …. anyways there were no horses for whatever reason, whether it be mating/Mother’s Day/ unforeseen circumstances. At this point, we were left with one of two choices, carry on, or turn back. So, we trucked on.
The hike there wasn’t horrible, the worst part is the fact that you can’t breathe because of the altitude. Had I been at a sea level, it would have been a very easy hike, but when you are that high up in the air unless you’ve been adjusted to it for WEEKS, you are going to struggle somewhat.
While we were hiking, we learned that Mt. Kilimanjaro is an elevation of 6000 meters, only 800 more than the peak we would be reaching today. People who hike Mt. Kilimanjaro are REQUIRED to do an 8-day trek leading up to the peak to adjust themselves to the altitude. At Rainbow Mountain, you are given 6 hours.
The entire time we were trekking (especially since we started hiking over an hour later than the other groups), felt rushed. I can’t recall a time the guides weren’t yelling at people “Vamos chicos! Vamos!” or “groups of friends, vamos!! Vamos chicos!”. One guide even told my friend Caitlin “You are young and healthy, you should not be walking so slow! Walk faster! Vamos chica!” When it comes to hiking something like this it’s not a matter of how in-shape you are, it’s a matter of how you adapt to the altitude. Some people can hang, and others cannot. It’s literally a matter of natural selection, survival of the fittest, whatever you want to call it, but it’s not pretty.
The last 50 meters of the hike is the most challenging. The mountain goes to a 45-degree incline (if not more) and the air is the thinnest it’s been the whole trek. When you get to the altitude marker, you’re out of breath, and you finally able to catch your first glimpse of the mountain, 7 stunning colors, layer after layer, stacked against one another like a big huge cake- or onion, depending on what kind of mood you’re in. You then have another 25 meters before you reach the peak with the best views and the spot for your ever-craved Instagram Photo.
When I finally reached the top I immediately fell to the ground, reaching for some water as it started to snow. Lacking breath and composure, I started to cry. The day had been exhausting, and as I sat there with snow (and hail) flinging at me on the windy mountaintop, I realized why it was so important for me to make this pilgrimage. My body was pushed to limits, and while I might be a little sore the next day, the mental exhaustion was enough to wear me out for weeks to come. Maybe I’m dramatic (I am) but the importance and significance of seeing that mountain after everything that day, that month, that year, hit me like a wrecking ball.
The longer we stood up there the colder it became and the more it started to snow. We snapped a few of our pictures to prove we had made the ascent, I put on 3 more jackets that I had brought and we started the race back down.
Here’s where things got even crazier.
While we were at a higher altitude the snow remained snow, but as we descended, naturally that snow turned into rain.
Over half the people on the trail were unprepared for this to happen. The temperature dropped to below freezing. We were half running back down the mountain to get out of the cold and rain. When we finally got to the bus loop (the location we should have been dropped off at that morning) we were informed by ~people~ that our bus wasn’t there, that we were going to have to go back the way we originally came and walk that EXTRA HOUR in the rain because our bus wasn’t going to come here. Frustrated, we made a run for it.
Trucking through snow, rain, and mud, I caught up with a group of Israeli boys who had been in my group the entire day and I had eaten breakfast with, and we discussed our struggles that we had been having that day. Then one of their friends who was suffering from altitude sickness passed out, and they had to carry him the rest of the way back to the “town”. They gave him some food, and frustrated at the lack of guide around to help us, we all continued to the shanty town.
At points on this way back, the trail was unclear because it had been washed away by the mud, and there was not a soul in sight. None of our guides were to be seen or heard of, so we just kept walking. At one point, I fell because I didn’t have a walking stick (I thought I was going to be on a horse) and my hands and body got a nice thick coat of mud on them.
Eventually, when we got to the “town” around 2:15 PM there were about 20 other people hiding in the lean-to, trying to stay out of the rain. Our bus was supposed to depart at 3:00 PM but was nowhere in sight. People were standing in the below freezing temperatures, exhausted, soaking wet, with nowhere to go, and not a tour guide or bus in sight.
At this time, the Israeli boys and I went and we pieced together their broken Spanish and my Italian to talk to a local to see if they could give us a ride to anywhere. The local pretended he didn’t really know what we were saying and mentioned that he had to wait for a truck to come, so sorry, but all of the 25 people standing in the rain were pretty much SOL.
Eventually, I found my friend Hezi, who was in a car with a random Peruvian man trying to keep warm, so I hopped in and explained what had happened. Nobody could make any phone calls because there was zero reception, and we had already confirmed that our bus wasn’t at the first bus loop, so why wasn’t it here? Where could it be? Frustrations were growing, and nobody knew what the answer was.
FINALLY, after 45 minutes of everyone standing in the freezing rain, our bus rolled on up. My friends Caitlin and Trevor still hadn’t shown up at the location and weren’t on the bus. Even after I yelled at the bus driver to not leave, that the bus wasn’t full and that people had been left behind I was told “We will come back for them” and we took off. I guess the phrase “Never leave a man behind” isn’t a thing in Peru.
They dropped us off at the food place again for lunch and MIRACULOUSLY Caitlin and Trevor were there. Somehow everyone I had come with was back in the same place, and that was all that was important. They had managed to sneak their way onto another bus at the first bus loop and get dropped off at the food location, and miraculously we had found each other. #Fate.
We ate the food, which took forever to come out and wasn’t even enough for everyone who was there. The food then proceeded to give me and Caitlin both food poisoning for the following week.
After the bus picked up the other stragglers (how they found them is a mystery to me), we got back on the no-heat bus to head home, soaking wet. I jokingly said to Caitlin “The only thing that could make this day more exciting is if the bus were to break down.” Apparently, I spoke too soon.
At 4:45 PM, ten minutes down the road from where we just were, we all started to smell a burning noise. We then heard a pop, and the guide says something about a fire. The bus stopped. It appears the bus has caught on fire. We guess It’s OK though…nobody has to get off. Two Spanish girls who were on the trek with us get off the bus and hail down a produce truck that is driving by. They bargain for a minute, then hop in the back and are off.
Finally, after using a plastic bag, a blanket, and a pocket knife to fix whatever the fire problem was, we are back on the road. At some point, we pick up 3 random Peruvians and they catch rides with us. The headlight isn’t working and night is descending upon us as we are winding on narrow mountain passes. The headlight breaks again.
The guy fixes it (again) there is a lot of arguing with me and my friends against the tour guide since we have no idea what is going on and we are supposed to be back in Cusco in an hour and are still most likely more than 3 hours away.
We dropped off one of the Peruvian women in her village and I hopped out to pee on the side of the road (because who can hold it and these guys aren’t stopping unless there’s a fire) The entire time being yelled at by the guide while peeing. It seems we are finally able to get a straight path home.
When we finally arrive back in Cusco the driver tells us that he is not going to be dropping us off at our hostels as we had thought, but that they will be dropping us off in Plaza de Armas. We didn’t know this when we signed up for the tour, and would have been OK had we not returned to Cusco 3 hours late. It then turns out we aren’t even dropped off in Plaza de Armas, but in the middle of the road a couple of blocks away.
We finally made it back to our hostel, mentally and physically exhausted, took a lukewarm shower and passed out within 15 minutes.
The following day, a woman from the hostel knocked on our door around 9 am…” Yes…uhm, Ms. Julia….we have a refund for you and Ms. Caitlin downstairs for your troubles yesterday.”
And like that, I have a great story, and was reimbursed for the struggles, but also given the view of a lifetime. I’ll take it as a win.
It’s cold in the morning, hot on the hike up, and in my case, snowing on the way back down. PACK LAYERS
Okay so here is pretty much the shortened condensed version of my tale, if everything had gone according to plan. Here you can find the main takeaways for an excursion to Rainbow Mountain.