Ever since I booked my flight to Peru, I can’t stop thinking about hiking Machu Picchu. However, like many travelers, I also included a side trip to Rainbow Mountain, with not as much preparation.
Little did I know that it is just as breathtaking as Machu Picchu, but Rainbow Mountain altitude is no joke. I found myself pausing every half kilometer, gasping for breath, and pushing my limits to finish the hike.
It was worth every breath (or lack of) but looking back, there are a few things I wish I’d known. I’ve compiled them below (consider it a gift), so you’ll be able to concentrate on the remarkable views and make the tough Rainbow Mountain altitude more manageable.
Where is the Rainbow Mountain?
Rainbow Mountain, also known as Vinicunca or Montaña de Siete Colores (Mountain of Seven Colors), is located in the Andes mountain range near Pitumarca in the Cusco region of Peru. It’s situated to the south of Cusco, near the famous Ausangate mountain.
What is the story of the Rainbow Mountain?
Rainbow Mountain was a secret until 2015 when the ice that had always covered the mountain melted away and the colors beneath were finally discovered. But its formation began a million years ago.
The collision of the Nazca plate and the South American plate started the rise of the Andes mountain range. This collision led to the geological wonder that includes the stunning Rainbow Mountain.
As these plates converged, they triggered significant volcanic activity, shaping the landscape and introducing several minerals to the region.
Layers of sedimentary rocks, such as sandstone, halite, gravel, clay, and various minerals, are gradually stacked one upon the other. These layers held a unique blend of minerals with different chemical compositions, forming the foundation of the mountain’s vibrant colors.
Over time, the relentless movement of tectonic plates created new mountains, each bringing its own mineral deposits and colors. The elements, including snow, wind, and water, also played a crucial role in transforming the hues of these sedimentary layers.
The colors of Rainbow Mountain are a testament to the complex interplay of geological forces and the ever-changing canvas of nature.
Rainbow Mountain Altitude
Rainbow Mountain is a short day trek that reaches a high elevation of about 5,200 meters (17,060 ft).
It is a common one-day tour from Cusco. Depending on the tour you choose, you will either travel in a van or bus, and you will ascend to high altitude rapidly. The ride itself can be challenging and may occasionally lead to altitude sickness.
How to prepare for Rainbow Mountain altitude
The hike to Rainbow Mountain can be quite challenging due to the altitude. However, if you acclimate and make all these preparations, you will have a more enjoyable day tour.
1. Acclimatize Gradually
Rainbow Mountain altitude can pose a risk of altitude sickness due to the lower oxygen levels. To mitigate this risk, acclimate yourself to the altitude.
Acclimatization is the process of allowing your body to adjust gradually to the reduced oxygen at higher altitudes. Here are some tips to help you acclimate to Rainbow Mountain altitude:
- Arrive in Cusco or another high-altitude location a few days (at least 2 days) before your Rainbow Mountain trek. I recommend doing your hike to Rainbow Mountain on your last days in Cusco.
- Get enough rest to help your body adjust to the altitude.
- Refrain from consuming alcohol and cigarettes as they can have adverse effects on your acclimatization process.
2. Fuel with Proper Nutrition
A balanced diet helps your body adapt to the altitude more effectively.
- Upon arriving in Cusco, consume light meals to help with your digestion.
- A day prior to the hike and on the hike itself consume whole grains, proteins fruits, and vegetables to provide the energy your body needs.
- Bring some trail snacks like fruits, nuts, and energy bars for your actual hike.
3. Stay Hydrated
Staying hydrated at high altitudes is very important as the air is drier and you may not feel as thirsty, which can lead to dehydration.
- Drink 6 to 8 liters of water daily throughout your stay in Cusco.
- Drink plenty of water throughout your hike. Carry a reusable water bottle and take regular sips to ensure you’re hydrated. You will have a lunch stop prior to your hike where you can refill your water.
4. Condition your Body
Improved physical fitness can help your body cope with the difficulty of Rainbow Mountain altitude.
- Walk around the Cusco town or take less difficult activities like visiting Sacred Valley or Humantay Lake prior to hiking Rainbow Mountain.
- Prior to arriving in Cusco, incorporating regular cardiovascular exercise and strength training exercises into your routine can help build your physical stamina.
5. Consult your doctor.
Although Rainbow Mountain is a moderately difficult hike, the altitude makes the hike really challenging. If you have a specific physical condition, consult your doctor before your trip.
In some cases, your healthcare provider may prescribe altitude sickness medication, such as acetazolamide, to help prevent or alleviate symptoms.
6. Have an emergency contact, medical kit, and travel insurance.
Be prepared for medical emergencies. Carry essential medical supplies, such as a basic first-aid kit and headache or cough medicine. There are several pharmacies in Cusco.
Have emergency contact information for local authorities and your tour operator. Make sure that you also have travel insurance when traveling in Peru.
7. Appropriate Clothing and Gear
The weather in high-altitude regions can be unpredictable, so being well-prepared with suitable clothing and gear is vital.
Pack layers of clothing to adjust to changing temperatures. Invest in good quality, waterproof hiking boots with ankle support, and consider trekking poles for added stability on uneven terrain.
8. Take It Slow.
When trekking at high altitudes, pace yourself to avoid overexertion and altitude sickness.
Walk at a comfortable, moderate pace, and take regular breaks. Listen to your body, and if you experience symptoms like headaches or nausea, stop and rest. You can also take a horse or skip the summit.
I would consider myself active, hiking several mountains a year. Yet, I also faced difficulty with the altitude. It’s possible to take a horse midway to the summit. I pushed myself, but with only a few meters left, I couldn’t continue on foot, so I decided to finish the journey on horseback.
Rainbow Mountain is equally enchanting and challenging (perhaps all good things are!). However, with the right preparation, acclimatization, and respect for the mountain and its people, your hike to Rainbow Mountain will truly be the experience of a lifetime. Are you ready to conquer the Rainbow Mountain altitude?