Is Rainbow Mountain Really Worth It?
It depends on a lot of variables. Ask yourself these 5 questions before you go.
The short answer—in my humble opinion—is no. But that answer depends on A LOT of different factors, and if I could have structured my trip differently, I would possibly change my mind and say yes. It is VERY rare that I tell people that they can skip a place—because I think we should all see a place once—but if, for example, you’re short on time or don’t fare well in high altitude, then the answer for you is that you should probably skip it. In order to decide for yourself about whether or not it’s worth it to make the trip—and the trek—to Rainbow Mountain, answer the following questions:
1. Do you have time?
This might not seem important but the amount of time you will have in Cusco is VERY important in analyzing whether or not to go to Rainbow Mountain. That’s because you have to acclimatize to Cusco first—before doing anything really—and especially before you hike Rainbow Mountain. Cusco’s elevation is about 11,100 feet, which is incredibly high for most people.
For reference, Machu Picchu is just under 8,000 feet, Mount Whitney (the highest peak in the contiguous US) is 14,500 feet, and Mauna Kea is 13,800 ft. Breckinridge is the highest ski resort in the U.S. and its elevation is only 9,600. I got pretty bad altitude sickness skiing at Jackson Hole one time, and their elevation is only about 6,300 ft and is actually one of the lowest elevation ski resorts in the Rocky Mountains.
Most people travel to Cusco as an entry point to get to Machu Picchu. It is always advisable to stay in Cusco and get acclimated for at least a couple days. And by “stay and acclimatize” I mean do nothing. Sure, you can explore the city and go on light walks, but travelers are advised to take it easy for the first two days at least. If you only have a couple days in Cusco, DO NOT spend it hiking rainbow mountain. If you have more than a few days, perhaps consider hiking Rainbow Mountain on day 3 or 4–the longer the better.
2. Are susceptible to altitude sickness?
If the answer is “yes” then you might want to skip Rainbow Mountain. And if you don’t know the answer to this question, you might not want to test it out on a trip to Peru. If you’ve never experienced it, altitude sickness can cause headaches, nausea, fatigue and dizziness and can ruin a trip, as it can sometimes last for days. Plus, it’s just not something you should fuck around with, as it can be pretty dangerous. More severe cases of altitude sickness can cause high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) or high altitude cerebral edema (HACE)—both of which require immediate medical attention and can be life threatening. If you are in any way susceptible to getting sick easily, I would avoid this hike.
I drank all the tea, took a ton of altitude sickness pills leading up to the trip and even chewed coca leaves (a local Peruvian remedy). None of it worked. I ended up with dizziness, a screaming headache, nausea and fatigue. It wasn’t fun. Add that to a difficult hike and it makes for a pretty rough day.
3. Are you in poor physical shape?
The trek up to the top of Rainbow Mountain is a doozy. It might not seem like a lot—particularly since it’s only 2.5 miles—but since it is straight up hill, when you couple it with the high altitude, it is a very difficult trek. I was traveling with two girlfriends who are both in great shape: one who runs ultra-distance (100+ mile) marathons and the other who is a triathlete. They both agreed the hike up was very difficult and even checked their blood oxygen levels at the top and found they were alarmingly low.
I consider myself in pretty decent physical shape (I ride my Peloton fairly regularly) and still ended up taking a horse up part of the way because it was so difficult. It is hard to describe unless you’ve been in the situation, but because of the steep incline and the altitude, you literally take 5 steps forward and are out of breath. It’s like nothing I’ve personally ever experienced before, even though I love hiking and tend to hike pretty regularly when the weather is warm.
4. Do you get carsick easily?
This might sound like a silly question, but you have to drive a fair bit to get to the Rainbow Mountain trailhead. You drive for about an hour on a normal Peruvian, paved road and then the other half of the drive is all on a windy dirt road. I do get carsick fairly easily but have always been fine after taking Dramamine. Well, not this time. I took Dramamine before the drive and was very carsick once we got to the trailhead. I am thinking it could have been a combination with the altitude as well, but either way it was no joke.
5. Are you traveling to Cusco during the “right” time of year?
The season matters—especially if you are a fair weather hiker. Instead of winter and summer, Peru has two seasons: the rainy season and the dry season. The dry season runs June to mid-September and is when your odds of having good weather are best. We went during the rainy season (January) and while it certainly did not in any way affect our trip while in Cusco or Machu Picchu (sure, it rained a little, but nothing bad and it actually kept the crowds away), the weather definitely impacted our hike to Rainbow Mountain. During our hike, we experienced sun, rain, hail and snow! The temperatures swung wildly from top to bottom and due to the rain, hail and snow it made the terrain VERY muddy and wet. A tip: be sure to wear comfortable footwear that you also don’t mind ruining.
If you answered “yes” to any of the questions above I would just say please think carefully before booking your trip to Rainbow Mountain. Again, I don’t want to discourage anyone to go, but just want you to have ample information so that you enter into it well informed. I am sure it is amazing when the weather is perfect, you are well-acclimatized and in good physical shape, and don’t get altitude sickness or car sickness like me.
With that said… let me know if you go. And if you loved it and think my suggestions are way out of bounds, please tell me!
Good luck, god speed (LOL).
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