Updated September 16th, 2019.
One of the first things that I noticed upon my arrival to Cusco was the huge amount of tour operators. There is honestly a different tour company on every corner, all appearing to sell the same thing. I felt completely overwhelmed, which wasn’t helped by the fact that every time I stopped to look, someone came over to pressure me into buying something.
One trip I desperately wanted to do was the famous Vinicuna Rainbow Mountain. Luckily for me, everyone was offering tours there. However, after speaking to several of my fellow travellers, I had been a little put-off.
Since Vinicuna Rainbow Mountain became an Instagrammers paradise, visitor numbers rocketed and thus the entire experience has changed. What used to be picturesque and off the beaten track now attracts multiple busloads of people every day.
Whilst getting a new profile picture wasn’t my motivation for visiting the mountain, I still didn’t want the experience to be marred by hundreds of other tourists. Sure, I wanted to visit but I couldn’t help but ask myself if it would even be worth it if it was as oversaturated as everybody warned me.
Cue, Palccoyo, the Alternative Rainbow Mountain.
Palccoyo (or Palcoyo, depending who you ask) Rainbow Mountain is relatively unheard of by travellers, with pretty much all of the tours offering the standard trip to the Vinicunca Mountain. Where Palccoyo is located there is actually an entire mountain range, littered with different rainbow mountains.
Looking for a more off the beaten track experience whilst still not wanting to miss one of Peru’s must-see attractions, Palccoyo instantly sparked my interest.
Our tour to Palccoyo Rainbow Mountain was organised by Rainbow Mountain Expeditions. They are located in Cusco but ran by a man local to the Rainbow Mountain range. Owner Roger was going to be our guide and expert for the day.
A Bright and Early Start
The trip to Palccoyo began early and we met our driver shortly after 4 am. After we picked up the other members of our group, we were introduced to our guides. Our group comprised six guests, the driver and two guides, Roger and an assistant.
One of the best things about booking a tour with Rainbow Mountain Expeditions is the small group sizes. For each trip, there is a maximum of ten visitors which allows everyone to really get to know each other. It also helps to create a less crowded and more personal experience.
After two hours of driving (where we all fell into the land of nod under our fluffy blankets supplied by Rainbow Mountain Expeditions), we arrived at our breakfast stop.
Roger had pulled out all of the stops and we feasted on caramel pancakes, fruit salad, bread and jam. There was a variety of hot drinks including coca tea to prepare us all for the altitude.
After getting some energy for the day ahead, we drove for another hour until we reached the village of Palccoyo. Here we paid our entrance fee for the Rainbow Mountain range (10 soles per person, not included) and headed along the windy roads.
That was until we met a traffic jam. This was not the kind of congestion that you would expect from London however, our passing had been thwarted by a heard of llamas. Everyone in the minivan cooed at the animals and Roger invited us out to take a proper look.
As the animals scampered into the fields, they were herded up by a local boy. Roger chatted to him briefly, before presenting him with a giant loaf of bread. His face cracked into a huge smile and he hurried off to tend to his llamas.
Roger was fantastic throughout the trip and invited us to stop the minivan at any point so that we were able to take photos. As a result, Tim and I got some cracking shots from the day!
The Hike Begins
After we arrived at the point from which we would begin our trek, which was right next to the first Rainbow Mountain we would see that day. Roger explained that he had an oxygen tank on hand should anyone need it. He encouraged us to walk slowly, taking regular breaks when required and also reminding us to drink water.
I crammed coca leaves into my mouth, hoping to offset the effects of the altitude. Others who had come less prepared tucked into Roger’s personal stash which he was more than willing to donate to the cause.
Despite the fact that I needed to stop for breaks every five minutes or so, Roger never made me feel like an inconvenience and was really patient with the group. This was a relief considering what I had heard about some of the other Rainbow Mountain Guides.
We trekked through the stunning mountain range, taking in the array of colours. I couldn’t believe how beautiful the surrounding red peaks, it felt like another world! In the distance, it was even possible to see the Ausangate glacier in the distance. The scenery really was spectacular.
After around an hour, we arrived at one of the most impressive Rainbow Mountains. The first thing that shocked me was just how bright the colours were. I had worried that photoshop had given me unrealistic expectations! The second was the number of people we were sharing it with: there was no-one else there.
The six of us, plus the two tour guides and that was it. We had the whole mountain to ourselves. Naturally, we began snapping shots of each other, making the most of our own private mountain experience.
After a while, Tim and I decided to hike to a nearby viewpoint for a better look. The vistas were mind-blowing and colourful mountains stretched as far as the eye could see. We had been galavanting around for 45 minutes by this point and it was only now that the first other group turned up.
We headed back to meet Roger who announced we would be having a break and some much-needed coca tea. As we sat recovering from our walk and photo taking, Roger explained a little about the mountain communities in this area.
He also went into detail about the ancient beliefs surrounding Pachamama (Mother Earth) and the importance of paying respect to the mountains. It was very interesting to learn about these traditions and legends.
As we ate our snacks, Roger policed the mountain, making sure that guests from the other groups were not trampling the rainbow. Sadly, this blatant rule breaking is all too common but it was wonderful to see Roger’s passion and commitment to preserving and respecting this beautiful place first hand.
After we had all recovered, Roger asked us whether we wanted to hike up to the stone forest. We all agreed and began the hard ascent up to the top. Even though this trek was tiring, I was so glad we made the effort to get there.
The views were incredible and I couldn’t stop clicking my camera. From up high, you could see all three of the nearby Rainbow Mountains, as well as the glacier in the background.
Slowly, we headed back to the minibus completely without any pressure regarding time. Once we all made it back, we piled in the bus and headed to our lunch stop.
Lunch was an extensive buffet catering to all different dietary requirements. The food was mouthwatering and just what we all needed after such a physically demanding morning. We ate with gusto until we couldn’t cram in anything else.
We then began the long journey back to Cusco, arriving at around half five.
My top tips for surviving (and loving) your trip to Rainbow Mountain
- Layer up! The alternative Rainbow Mountain trail will see you ascend up to 5000 m. Believe me, when I say, that is very high! As a result, you should expect the weather to change quickly.
- Rain ponchos are key. Owing to the ever-changing weather, you should prepare for the worst and bring something to keep you dry.
- A bag of coca leaves never goes amiss. Chewing coca leaves has been proven to help with the effects of altitude sickness as well as giving your body a small energy boost. Grab a bag for as little as one sole in Cusco’s San Pedro market.
- Suncream is a must. At this altitude it is very easy to become sunburnt.
- Walking shoes are helpful. Even though this particular Rainbow Mountain trek involves much less trekking than the standard, the trails are still rough and rocky. Make sure you wear decent walking shoes to protect your feet.
- Bring water. Although the trek is not long, the altitude can make the path challenging. Staying hydrated is hugely important for a successful hike and keeping altitude sickness at bay.
- Make sure you acclimatise first! You will want to spend at least a few days in Cusco before attempting a visit to Rainbow Mountain. This is because it takes a little while for the body to acclimatise. Trekking at this kind of altitude is a big challenge and you can get really sick if you attempt it before you are ready.
Can I Reach Rainbow Mountain Independently?
Although I have read that it is possible to reach Rainbow Mountain independently, locals have advised me there is little point.
Independent transport requires three changes from Cusco and fails to get you to Rainbow Mountain before the tour buses arrive. Therefore, even if you make it there independently, you will still have to contend with the crowds of the organised trips.
There is some danger with visiting Rainbow Mountain in the afternoons as this is when storms are more likely. Just a month prior to my visit, a traveller was struck by lightning because he was caught in a storm on the hike to Rainbow Mountain.
Always make sure you visit in the morning when the weather is better to ensure your safety.
Locals also told me that independent transport is also quite costly, which usually means you will spend much more than you would if you had organised a day tour.
A Path Up and Above The Rest
After hearing so many horror stories from other travellers about Rainbow Mountain, I thanked my lucky stars that I found Roger and Rainbow Mountain Expeditions. Our tour to Palccoyo Rainbow Mountain was everything we dreamed of. We got the perfect photos and shared the mountain with very few other people.
Roger was an incredibly attentive guide who allowed all of the group members to trek at their own pace and enjoy the day in the way they wanted.
I was also hugely impressed by his commitment to responsible travel, through supporting the local communities (of which he was previously a member) and helping to keep the alternative Rainbow Mountain pristine and beautiful.
I think it is fair to say we definitely need more guides like Roger.
All in all, the trip was a big success and I got so much more from the day than I ever expected. If you are looking to cross Rainbow Mountain off of your bucket list, don’t settle for a cheap, overcrowded tourist trap. See the Rainbow Mountains the way that nature intended and book your trip to Palccoyo. I promise you won’t regret it!