Rainbow Mountain, Peru: Worth the Disastrous Tour?

"This was the worst trek ever."

"I wish I hadn't even gone."

"It wasn't worth it." 

Those were just some of the sentiments shared by our 10-ish person group following our day at Rainbow mountain. We'd tacked it onto our trip post Salkantay hike and 4 day 3 night trek to Machu Picchu because it was supposed to be spectacular. And maybe we were biased following our amazing Machu Picchu trek, but I question whether or not the fiasco that was this day was even worth it!

What Is Rainbow Mountain Peru?

One of the most magnificent geologic features in the world is the Ausangate Mountain of the Peruvian Andes. The mountain is striped with colors ranging from turquoise to lavender to maroon and gold. However, this “painted mountain” is notoriously difficult to find and get to, requiring several days of hiking to reach its peak deep within the Andes by way of Cusco.
— Trevor Nace, Forbes

Original source: https://www.forbes.com/sites/trevornace/2017/01/21/welcome-rainbow-mountains-peru/#4a2dad176f70

Well, this is only half true nowadays. Though Rainbow mountain might still be deemed a magnificent geological feature, it's not necessarily as inaccessible as it once was. This mountain, nestled in the Andes of Peru, consists of stripes of red, orange, red, etc. that were formed as a result of mineral layers that have been exposed over time. Though this place was exceptionally remote as recent as two years, lately it has become a very major tourist destination. Following our trip to Machu Picchu, my group and I made the trek as well and even though we're smiling and our pictures ended up being quite good (Instagramable even!), the experience itself was not the best, leaving many of us to question if it was even worth. 

Yes, we had good weather, but not even an hour into our walk we were frustrated by our irresponsible guides and our tour company that had seemingly scammed us, the extra costs we had not been told of when we booked and the shitty trail conditions. 

I wanted to write this post as a very honest evaluation of our experience at rainbow mountain. Not only the sketchiness of our tour company who frankly put us in danger at multiple turns, but also an honest evaluation of the mountain itself. This combination of things are what lead to the reactions that kicked off this post from the 10 or so people that I traveled to Rainbow mountain with. And, honestly, I still struggle to say that this experience was worth it. For all the anger it engendered in our group, or how scammed we all felt, or the fact that the view was not all it's cracked up to be, all of it. So, here we go. My honest evaluation of Rainbow Mountain. 

The worst tour company I've ever encountered. Ever.

While we were in Cusco, our Air BnB owner had been kind enough to offer to setup a Rainbow Mountain tour for us. This was wonderful and very much appreciated as all of us were working full-time hours in the days leading up to our trek to Machu Picchu. We wouldn't have time to plan or coordinate anything. He made the reservation for our group and relayed pricing information to us over the next few days, including when we all decided that we wanted to take horses instead of hike an additional 10K after the 60 or so we had put in on the Salkantay trail. Now, before I even start laying out the details of our tour-gone-wrong, I would like to say that I don't think it was our Air BnB guys fault. I generally don't think he knew and that he was trying to do us a favor. That being said, this is what happened that day.

The day started off with us leaving at the crack of dawn, but, unlike our Salkantay trek, we were picked up outside of our Air BnB. That was awesome! The biggest hiccup that morning was that we were told to be ready between 4:30 and 4:45am, but the bus showed up around 4-4:15am expecting us to be outside. The majority of us chalked that up to a miscommunication and continued on with the rest of the day. Our tour guide collected our money, 95 soles for hikers and 165 soles for those taking horses.

When we stopped for breakfast, admittedly we were all unimpressed. The breakfast had been included in our fee, but it literally consisted of tea, bread and butter. Not necessarily the makings of a energizing breakfast pre-trekking at altitude. So, we all ate as much bread as we could and hopped back in the bus to complete the 30 some min drive to the trailhead. When we arrived, we paid our additional 10 soles (about $3 USD) to enter the park where we were surprised to find that there were no horses in sight. Many in our group had planned on taking horses and had been "guaranteed" by our tour company that we would have horses. Hell, we paid an additional 70 soles to take horses. What did our tour guide say when we asked him about this? He told us that our "group of Germans" (let me be clear, we have one German in our group) was late (even though we were ready at 4:30-4:45, which is the window that they told us) and that's why there were no horses. We would have to walk the trial until we could find horses to take the rest of the way up. 

We started to climb, but we were admittedly exhausted after so many days of trekking. Frustratingly, all our guides could say was "Come on" and "Let's go", urging is forward at a more rapid pace. Yes, I'm not joking and, admittedly, we did not appreciate it. It was not atypical apparently for guides to rush their tourist groups up the mountain, which in and of itself could be difficult sans altitude if you're not properly conditioned. But it's to the guides benefit to get you down and up as quickly as possible. Fortunately for us, though, we were able to take our time resting and taking pictures. Others were not so lucky, as their guides were apparently barking at them to turn back and telling them they were "too slow". 

As we were really getting to the steeper parts of the climb, my guide finally started doing his job getting me the horse that I had paid for. But, seemingly, the locals and their horses were eager to get all the way back to the bottom. We stopped 2 or 3 horsemen before one finally agreed to take me up to the top. I was lucky. I was one of the first people to snag a horse. For others it would take much longer. That's not all I have to say about the horsemen and the poor horses they drive up and down this shitty trail. I'll get to that later.

Also, our guides? They didn't really "guide" us at all. They simple just let us loose. They told us an approximate time to turn around and start heading back to the bus, but other than that, they didn't guide us at all. It's not a difficult trail to follow by any means, but still. We had a gal in our group who go hit hard by the altitude sickness and was moving very slowly up and down the trail, the last of our group to complete the trek. Did the guides do anything to help her out? Give her Coca leaves? Simple walk with her so that she didn't feel left behind? Nope. None of that happened. Not one bit. And I'm not being needy when I expect these things because this is exactly what our wonderful guides Dorian and Raul did on our Salkantay trek. Considering that this hike was at a substantially higher altitude, I don't think it was too much to ask.

When I got to the top of the mountain, I thanked my horsemen and continued on my way. No money was exchanged because, admittedly, I thought that my guide had paid him up front when he had flagged him down. It was only when I got to the top and started talking to the other people in my group that I realized that the expectation had been that the horsemen were paid by the individual hikers upon dropping them at the top of the mountain. I didn't do that. To this day, I'm not 100% sure if my horsemen got paid and I feel tremendously guilty about it. I looked for him on my way down. But regardless, I had no additional soles to pay him with. My tour company claims that they did pay him, and yet that was not the case for anyone else in my group. For every other person who took a horse that day, they paid for the horse out of their own pocket, despite it being "included" in our tour package. An extra 70 soles that, we assume, our guide just pocketed.

When we got to the top, we asked our tour guide if he would refund the people that end up not taking horses or who had paid for the horses themselves. He said no problem. So, we continued down the mountain. When we got back to the car and asked again, he started quizzing us about who had taken a horse and who hadn't and what they had paid, etc. as if he didn't believe us. The next time we brought it up at lunch, he played dumb. The next time, he said something about having to figure it out at the "office," which wasn't an option for the many of us that were flying out early the next morning. 

But that wasn't even the final straw. As we neared Cusco, we asked him one more time if he would refund our money. He didn't respond. Next thing we knew, we were being told that the bus would not be dropping us off where they had picked us up outside of our Air BnB. Instead, they would be dropped us, almost literally, on the side of the highway. What. the. Fuck.

Now, let me be clear why this pissed me off to the extent it did. Firstly, it was the end of the day when our phone batteries were dying and our ability to order an Uber or provide maps to our secluded Air BnB to taxi drivers was limited. Secondly, none of us had any idea where we were or where to go to get back to our Air BnB. Lastly, and most importantly, earlier in the trip we had gotten a little lost in our taxi trying to find our way back to where we were staying. It was a simple missed turn, ultimately, but when we offered to get out and just walk from there, our taxi driver was adamant. In broken English, he had said "No. Too dangerous. No police in this area." And yet, these assholes had literally just dropped us on some miscellaneous side street, laughing at us as they did.

At that point, we were all fed up. Nobody said another word about the money they had been scammed out of or the horsemen that these men had likely ripped off by not paying them. Nothing. Honestly, we just wanted to go home, go to sleep and get away from these assholes.

It was by far the worst tour experience I have ever had in my life. And was the view even worth it? I'll get to that.

Have Realistic Expectations About Rainbow Mountain.

First, before you trek to Rainbow mountain, you need to understand that seeing Rainbow Mountain in person is NOT like the tourism brochures or the Instagram image you've seen before. Hell it's not even like the images that come up on Google. That shit is called photoshop. In these photos, admittedly the mountain looks amazing. But understand, that that's not real-life. In the same way that your favorite celebrity is digitally altered and edited to make them look better, photos of Rainbow mountain have been altered in the same manner, making the colors much more vibrant than they appear in person. For example, take these two pictures of me that I have compared below. 

The original, unedited photo I took at Rainbow mountain. 

The original, unedited photo I took at Rainbow mountain. 

Here is the photo after being editted and enhanced using Photoshop. 

Here is the photo after being editted and enhanced using Photoshop. 


As you can tell, the unedited Rainbow Mountain isn't quite as spectacular as the pictures make it out. We had good weather too, and there are definitely tourist photos that have been taken that have much more dulled colors than this due to their snowy, windy, and/or overcast conditions. I'll be the first to admit that the edited photo is the one that got posted on my Instagram. Guilty as charged. Why? Cuz it's a more impressive photo. But will I lie to you and tell you that that edited photo is exactly what I saw? Not a chance in hell. And I made a point of saying that in my caption on Instagram. This photo is edited, over-saturated, highlighted, contrasted, etc. I'm not a professional photo editor. But with my limited skills, look at how much more I was able to make the colors of the mountain pop out?

I'm telling you this because I want you to go into this experience with clear eyes and realistic expectations. The mountain will likely not look like what you've seen online in real life. And you need to be mentally prepared for that.

Expect Hoards of People

There are a shit ton of people that climb this mountain daily to get their photo-op. It might even number the hundreds to thousands daily. And it definitely feels like that. The trails are crowded, but more than that, the viewpoints are crowded. You're fighting over photo spots with other people and you basically need to resign yourself that there will be other hikers in the background of your photos. To quote a fellow blogger and Rainbow mountain reviewer: "You may end up with a rainbow of people in colorful outfits in your shot, rather than a rainbow mountain." Haha. It's not inaccurate at all. 

Original source:  https://exploorperu.com/blogs/exploor-peru-travel-blog/discover-the-best-route-to-the-famous-rainbow-mountains-of-peru

Original source: https://exploorperu.com/blogs/exploor-peru-travel-blog/discover-the-best-route-to-the-famous-rainbow-mountains-of-peru

Don't take  the altitude or the potential for altitude sickness lightly.

When you get to the top of Rainbow Mountain, you will be at an elevation of 5000 meters! This is much higher than any mountain in my very mountainous home state of Washington, higher than any mountain in the Continental US (Mount Whitney is 4,421 meters), any mountain in the Alps (Mount Blanc, 4,810 meters), and is nearly as high as Everest Base Camp (5,389 meters).

That's no fricken joke my friends. We had a gal on our trek to Machu Picchu who, at 4600m was already having substantial issues breathing, seeing, vomiting, etc. The only thing that helped her were the Oxygen Shots that she'd brought with her from Cusco. Altitude sickness is legit, and considering that it can start at 2400 meters, it's a substantial possibility at Rainbow Mountain. Don't take it lightly.

Even if you don't experience full-blown altitude sickness, you will more than likely have trouble breathing. The air is thin at this elevation. The key will be to hike as slow as you need and that you are comfortable with. Admittedly though, this is a challenge with your guides pushing you to walk faster than your willing or able as I mentioned above. Ignore them. Tell them to "Fuck off" if you must. Because if the difference between you going at your pace and you going at their is that you don't have to deal with the potentially dangerous consequences of altitude sickness, then trust me, my friends, it's worth it.

Those poor horses.

I am not going to lie, after taking my horse up to the top of Rainbow Mountain, I felt really bad. The horse wasn't unhealthy. But I couldn't begin guess how many times that horse had been forced to walk up and run down the mountain that day. And they do, legitimately, make the horses run down the mountain. The horsemen are in a business and the more trips they take, the more money they make. So, after asking these horses to haul a human and all their junk about uphill to a viewpoint and then asking them to run back to pick up the next human, these poor animals were exhausted. My horse was sweating like crazy. And when I saw how desperate he was for a drink when we finally stopped at a nice fresh water stream, I admittedly felt very bad. Couple that with the conditions that both the horses and the horsemen have to walk through to traverse that trail, oh my gosh. I can't even describe it. Ankle deep mud mixed with horse shit would be the most apt description. It wasn't pretty.

I should have walked it. I should have endured the altitude and exhaustion that my body was feeling. Anything than to put those poor horses through what they have to go through. In hindsight, I would have approached my trek very differently and I was adamant about walking down even though my horsemen said he could talk me. No thanks, man. You and your horse have worked hard enough for the day.

So, Should You actually Go To Rainbow Mountain?

Are the dangers worth it? It's not just a strenuous hike at altitude, but it's dangerous. And now, I'm not just talking the altitude itself. The road to the trailhead itself is dangerous, one of the most dangerous roads in all of Peru. There were people on our tour who, after seeing the road and the precarious driving conditions just to get to the trailhead were adamant that if they had known this would be the driving conditions, they wouldn't have come. Buses falling off cliffs in Peru is a thing that is not uncommon. So consider that. Plus, if you come in unprepared and unaware, the altitude sickness is a legit threat if you haven't been properly acclimated. You should give yourself at least a few days in Cusco before attempting this trek to get properly acclimated. Or, if possible, do a trek at altitude like we did. Those of us that had down the trek didn't suffer the effects of altitude sickness like those that hadn't done the trek.

Are the photos worth it? While the instagram-worthy shots may be beautiful, if you're coming off a Machu Picchu hike or have any sort of a seemingly sketchy tour company, you might leave a bit unimpressed. Everything about our Salkantay trek was mind-blowing in terms of the scenery and the experience. This hike? It just was not quite what any of us expected. The views are just okay. The colors of the mountain are just okay. It's none of the mind-blowing geographical spectacle that you anticipate or even read about on travel websites. It's just not. And I don't want to sound like a downer, but it's true. 

Are the sketchy tour company experiences worth it? I think I belabored this one enough already, but just for emphasis, I'm going to give this an emphatic fuck no.

So, what about it is worth it? If you're motivated by checking something off your travel bucket list, then by all means visit Rainbow Mountain. If you're a geology enthusiastic and find the notion of the layers of different colored minerals fascinating, then by all means visit Rainbow Mountain. If you're motivated by the challenge of the hike at altitude, don't plan on taking a horse, want to push your body to climb to this altitude (after being properly trained and acclimated of course) and frankly don't give a shit about how colorful or spectacular the view is at the top, then by all means. Visit Rainbow Mountain. Basically, it might be worth it to you if you're motivated by something other than the photo-op or you're SO go with the flow that you don't think any of the other things will bother you. If that's you, then yes, visit Rainbow Mountain.

I will admit, I'm still intrigued by the other "rainbow mountains" that are around the globe. Are they better? More spectacular? There are ones in China. Are they even more spectacular and worth seeing? I'm still intrigued. And I won't say that this experience has me put off such geological attractions for the rest of my life. But for now, I'll be arranging and heavily researching my own tours and attractions from now on. Because this day was bar-none the worst day of touring and exploring I've had yet on Remote Year and I will do anything in my power to avoid repeating it. 

Tips If You Do Go To Rainbow Mountain

  • Go with a legit guide who doesn't scam you. Seriously, if you skipped the section where I talked about our tour, go back and read it. We got scammed and completely mistreated by our tour company and it was utter bullshit. Do yourself a favor do some research on your tour company before you go. 
  • Pack Some Snacks: The breakfast isn’t much and lunchtime isn’t until late. 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. That's exactly what we did. You may also consider getting altitude pills, bringing coca leaves or coca candies, etc.
  • The Coca Is Your Friend: Another way to help with altitude is the tried and true Inca remedy of coca leaves. In Cusco, they not only sell coca leaves so that you can make tea, but they also sell honey coca candies and chocolates in most stores. Stock up. It really does help a lot.
  • Wear Hiking Boots or Trail Running Shoes: Even in good weather conditions, the trail is muddy and full of horse shit. So, wearing shoes that you're comfortable tromping around in said conditions in is a good idea. Also, trail trunning shoes and/or hiking boots will give you better traction.
  • Use Sunscreen: Something many people underestimate is the intensity of the sun at altitude., even if it’s cloudy. Protect yourself skin and don’t forget a hat, sunglasses, and lip balm either.
  • Bring the right clothes. I layered up for our hike and I'm glad I did. In the sunshine, the temperature can very quickly swing from pleasantly warm to way to cold as the sun ducks behind the clouds or as the wind picks up. Between all my layers, I was able to add and remove clothes as necessary. So, I definitely suggest you plan for all sorts of crazy weather swings. As we were leaving, even though the whole day had been sunny, we got caught in hail. Two days before, a friend of ours was snowed on as she hiked up. Just be prepared.