Rainbow Mountain is fast becoming one of the most popular tourist destinations in Peru. Here we discuss whether it deserves the hype – is Rainbow Mountain worth a visit? We would say yes, but only if you combine it with a trip to the Red Valley! Read on to find out how.
In the last couple of years, tourism to Vinicunca, often referred to as Rainbow Mountain, has exploded. The mountain got its nickname due to its mineral composition which creates seven different colours; for example the red is iron and the yellow is sulphur.
As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog, our plans for Cusco didn’t go quite as they were meant to. I had to spend an evening in hospital, and we struggled a lot more with the city’s altitude of 3400m than we had expected. Although we’ve spent a lot of our trip high in the Andes, our previous stop had been Mancora, at sea level, and our bodies were feeling the sudden lack of oxygen.
At its peak, Rainbow Mountain is over 5000m and we knew we needed to be in full fitness if we were going to make the most of it. We delayed booking the tour until we knew we we were ready.
Booking a tour to Rainbow Mountain and the Red Valley
All the tour operators across Cusco sell tours for around the same price, 70-75 soles (around £17-19). This is for a full day excursion, including breakfast and lunch, so it’s a pretty affordable option. It can be overwhelming trying to choose a company to go with, as they all seem to look the same, and offer the same.
As we wanted something quite specific, our options were narrowed down significantly. Most of the tours take you up to the summit of Rainbow Mountain, give you time to enjoy the view, and then return the same way. We wanted to do a loop, visiting Rainbow Mountain before walking back through the nearby Red Valley.
There really aren’t very many tour operators who go this way. After some research we finally found a company called Inka Time. For just 25 soles (around £5) more than the usual tours, we would get to see so much more. We went into their shop and signed up for the next day!
An early start
Our alarm woke us at 2.45am, giving us plenty of time to pack our day bags and have a warm cup of coca tea in preparation for the altitude.
Despite a relaxed, if not extremely early, start, our morning quickly turned into chaos. We were told that our tour would be with an Inka Time staff member, yet we were picked up (30 minutes late) by a third party on foot. The bus that was meant to pick us up was nowhere in sight, and we had to chase the staff member through the rain, along the slippy cobblestone roads. When we arrived in the centre of town, he told us to wait for a white Sprinter van, before running off without an explanation.
There were lots of tourist vehicles lined up along the street, but after enquiring with each one, none were for us. Becoming increasingly irate as the rain soaked us through, we rang the number that we had for Inka Time. They didn’t seem to know what was going on either, and told us to stay where we were.
We stood on the street for a good 20 minutes, totally confused. What should we do? Was he ever coming back? Had the van been and gone without us?
The journey to Rainbow Mountain
Eventually, a white Sprinter van full of people pulled up, and the guy we’d chased through the streets, reappeared. It was past 5am by this point, and we were understandably unimpressed. To make matters worse, there seemed to be some confusion over whether or not everyone was there. The staff member, who it turned out would be our guide for the day, spent a long time looking over his list of names and calling various ones out looking confused. No one else came, and eventually we set off.
Thankfully, the drive and our stop for breakfast went by without another hitch and we were at the entrance of Rainbow Mountain by about 9.30am.
Walking to Rainbow Mountain
The bus dropped us off in the car park, which sits at a height of 4480m. Although the path gently inclines for most of the way, the altitude makes what should be a fairly easy walk surprisingly tough.
Every now and again we would stop and look around us as we caught our breath. The scenery, filled with crazy mountains and herds of alpacas, would be beautiful if it wasn’t for the line of tourists snaking their way past.
We are in good fitness, and had acclimatised well in Cusco before the hike. It took us around two hours to make our way up to the summit and we were there for 11.30am. Others in our group were slower, some faster. Ultimately, it isn’t a race and you have to be really careful of altitude sickness when you are hiking so high. We saw people of all ages struggling, and several didn’t get far before turning back to their buses.
As we walked we saw lots of horses for hire. Most of them were in terrible condition and if you visit we would strongly advise you not to use their services. By giving them money you are endorsing the cruelty of these animals.
Closing in on the summit, I nearly stopped climbing all together. I was metres away from the end, but my lungs were rasping and it was becoming harder to walk. By the end of the climb, I was pretty sure that I must have collected stones in my shoes on the way up, as my feet felt like dead-weights at the ends of my legs. Phil had to give me a mental push to not give up!
If you ignore the hundreds of other tourists, the view from the summit is amazing. Unfortunately, Vinicunca itself is pretty disappointing. We could just about make out four of the seven colours that are meant to be there. We fast realised that the photos we had previously seen of the mountain had been highly filtered – naturally the colours aren’t that vivid. If it hadn’t been for the crowd of people with their selfie sticks, we might have missed it completely.
Finally, we made our way over the ridge to the edge of the Red Valley. Regardless of whether you are walking through the valley or not, there is a 5 soles fee for access to the viewpoint, which is also the start of the next part of the walk. There were a couple of guys waiting on the path to take our money.
When we got there, the scenery took away what little breath we had left. It was almost like looking down upon Mars. The wild red mountains in front of us was so much more vibrant than the colours of the famous Rainbow Mountain.
The Red Valley
While we waited at the viewpoint, where the next part of our hike would begin, the clouds were rolling in thick and fast. By the time our guide and group had assembled, we were being assaulted by hail. There were eight in our group, the others from our bus were all returning the way they had come on the standard tour. At this point, I think several of us were seriously considering joining them.
The first part of the walk came in equal parts of awesome and terrifying. There was no path, just a red downward slope in from of us. Due to the red clay, which is almost like sand, there was nowhere to get a grip with your feet. Using the wooden walking stick (provided by our guide) as a steer, we each slide quickly down into the valley.
From this point, the hike was relatively easy going. Due to our initial descent, we weren’t plagued as much by the altitude. Surprisingly, the clouds parted around forty minutes later, allowing the sun to shine into the valley.
During the three hour hike, we only came across one other tour group, which was in vast contrast to the first part of our day. At times it felt like we were true adventurers, the first to discover the land since the time of the Incas.
Along the route we saw lots of agricultural terraces, which had been built into the mountainside by the Incas. Many are still maintained and are used for growing potatoes. We even saw one father and son combo working to plant new crops.
Through the centre of the valley snakes a stream which runs red from the clay. In places the stream is filtered by rocks and forms wonderful blue pools of water, their colour contrasts violently with the red of the clay mountains and the vibrant green grass and moss. The vegetation is high in nutrients, and farmers graze their alpaca and llama herds here.
Sadly, by 3.30pm our walk had come to an end. We finished at the point where we’d had breakfast just a few hours before, and where we were to have lunch with the rest of our bus. The place was nothing fancy, a single room with long tables, attached to someone’s tiny home. The building belongs to a small village, made up of around ten or fifteen different houses, several of which cater to the tourist groups.
After we had all eaten, we got back on the bus and headed for Cusco. After the early start and intense exercise, most of us were asleep within minutes.
So, is Rainbow Mountain worth it?
Honestly, we would say … no! Here’s why:
- The whole walk and the summit were crawling with people. When we got to the top we were wading through the crowds, and it was next to impossible to stand still long enough for a photo without someone trying to push you out of the way.
- If you search for Rainbow Mountain, you will see a vast array of brightly coloured photos. Sadly, most of them have been filtered so much that they are beyond recognition when you see the real thing.
- If you are travelling through the Andes you will see many brightly coloured mountains due to the insane amount of volcanoes in this part of the world. It’s their ancient (and not so ancient) activity that has caused the high density of minerals to occur. Most of them will be sighted through the window of your bus, without a breath-stealing hike necessary.
- We got the impression that most of the tour companies running trips to Rainbow Mountain are pretty pants. It’s just not worth the hassle of dealing with them.
HOWEVER! Having said this, it IS worth going to Rainbow Mountain on your way to the Red Valley. It is worth the trek up to 5000m to descend through such incredible beauty.
Would we recommend Inka Time?
Usually, after such a bad experience, we would say avoid Inka Time, the tour operator that we used. Unfortunately, as I’ve mentioned, there aren’t that many tour operators who currently go to the Red Valley. Shop around and see what other companies are running this tour, and be prepared to go with Inka Time if necessary. After talking to other travellers, we have a sneaking suspicion that they are all as bad as each other.
Let’s recap why they were terrible:
- We were picked up later than scheduled, with no apology.
- We had to walk to the pick up point, after being told when we booked that the bus would come to us.
- Once our guide had come to pick us up, we were left in the rain in central Cusco. Our guide had run off into the darkness of the early morning and our vehicle was nowhere to be scene.
- We had been told our tour would be with an Inka Time staff member. Our group was made up of customers from a range of tour operators, and I’m not sure what company our guide was working for, but it wasn’t Inka Time.
- The guide was completely disinterested in our group. He just came across as really annoyed for having to walk the extra miles through the Red Valley.
- Despite the high altitude we weren’t given a safety briefing about what to do if we began to feel ill on the hike. Oxygen was meant to be available if required, but I wouldn’t have known what to do or where to go for it.
- During the Red Valley part of the hike, the guide often rushed off ahead, refusing to wait for the slower members of the group.
In summary we would say that isn’t worth dealing with a rubbish company purely for Rainbow Mountain, but it is to be able to experience the Red Valley! We can’t recommend this experience enough.
Are you travelling to Machu Picchu next? Check out our posts Machu Picchu – A visit to The Lost City of the Incas and How to plan a DIY trip to Machu Picchu for inspiration and guidance. You can also take a look at all of our Peru blog posts if you aren’t sure what to do next.