When visiting Peru, I didn’t have Rainbow Mountain on my to-do list, but soon felt drawn to visit the mountain. Around Cusco, I started to see numerous tour agencies offering one day tours to the mountain, they had pictures of the color striped landscape on their shop walls, and I felt like I had to go.

Rainbow Mountain is a rare geological feature where different minerals and metals combine with the soil in a striped pattern, creating a rainbow. Each metal in the soil creates a different and distinct color. There are only a few of these in the world, and one of the formations happens to be outside of Cusco, Peru, on a peak at about 16,000 feet.

Before finalizing my tour, I’d spent a few days fretting about doing the hike. Worrying about the elevation, distance, the cold temperatures, and early morning wake-up time. In order to do the hike in a day from Cusco, you have to be on the road by 4:00 a.m. and I couldn’t remember the last time I’d woken up that early.

The hike itself was about a two-hour drive from Cusco, and started at 14,000 feet, then climbed to 16,500 feet over about five miles.

To prepare for the cold I went and bought alpaca gloves, socks, and a beanie. I packed multiple layers in a backpack, the hike would start out cold in the morning, and once the sun came out it would be fairly warm unless you were in the shade, then temperatures would drop again. To battle the high altitude I stocked up on coca leaves, coca candy, and coca gum. The coca plant is what cocaine is derived from, but just consuming the leaves in the pure is in no way like doing cocaine. It would be like eating poppy seeds and expecting the effects of heroin. Coca is about as powerful as caffeine. You might realize that the most popular beverage on the planet used to be made with coca. Coca-Cola used to contain coca extract and caffeine, then was switched to just caffeine. The coca leaves help with supplying oxygen to your brain and body at high altitudes, preventing fatigue, preventing headaches, and shortness of breath. I’d also spent a few days in Cusco which is at 12,000 feet, so I felt like I was adjusted.

I hesitated to book the tour and booked with an agency the night before. I’d rushed into the decision, so didn’t research the tour agencies as much as I should have, but there are at least a dozen in town that operate the day tour to Rainbow Mountain. The tour included transportation to/from the trailhead, breakfast, and lunch, for about $30. Pick up time is early morning, 3:30 a.m., and usually back to town by 7:00 p.m.

Alarm set, alpaca clothes packed, coca stashed in my bag, I was ready. I think I was excited because it wasn’t all that hard to wake up so early, I guess if you have a good reason for an early alarm, it isn’t so bad. My tour van picked me up at my hotel, and a group of us started out in the dark for the two-hour drive through little towns, and along terrifying dirt roads scratched into steep mountain slopes. As we were driving, I realized I’d worried about the wrong things (altitude, cold, etc.) when I should have spent my time worrying about the drive. As we’d careen around blind turns on cliffs with no guard rails, our driver wouldn’t slow down to prepare for possible oncoming traffic, but would just honk to announce our presence to anyone who might be coming just as fast from the other direction. I thought I was lucky to get the front seat in the fifteen passenger van, I soon realized I had a front row seat for a show that I didn’t want to watch.


Ausangate looming over the village where the hike to Rainbow Mountain started. Ausangate stands at over 19,000 feet above sea level.


We all survived the van ride, and our driver quickly kicked us out of the van and went to sleep, no wonder he was in a rush, he was ready for his nap. The trailhead started at a little village in the mountains where they served us a simple breakfast, with extra servings of coca tea. The trail to Rainbow Mountain starts out from this village and quickly climbs, then levels out through a valley filled with more little villages and hundreds of grazing llamas. The views are incredible, and the landscape is other worldly. I was surrounded by part desert, part meadow, and part alpine terrains. For most of the trail, Ausangate looms over you, snow-capped, at above 19,000 feet. Villagers follow with horses in case you’d like to buy a ride and have some small stands set up selling water, packaged snacks, and other drinks. There are also periodically placed primitive bathrooms. They are pits, with a couple of boards over them, and a canvas wrapped around the holed area to provide a little privacy. They were awful, and I did everything I could to avoid them.


Grazing alpacas along the trail to Rainbow Mountain.


After walking through a long valley, you start up a few inclines, with the steepest one being right before the summit. I took it slow and steady, drank a lot of water, and popped my coca candies. It is best to keep moving, and not actually ever stop to rest, and never sit down. Getting going again after sitting down or even just standing takes a lot of effort, and sitting and standing at elevation makes for quite the head rush.  When I felt winded, I’d try to walk as slow as possible, and then gradually pick up speed as I felt rested. The villagers leading the horses were often very old, or women carrying their babies on their backs while they hiked and led a horse with a tourist on it, and every once in a while stopping to nurse, if they could do this, I could do it.

Once you reach the summit, where you have a perpendicular view of the colors of Rainbow Mountain, you can make a final push to a small peak that offers 360-degree views, and a more expansive view of the rainbow formation. Starting the final, steep climb to the summit I saw the peak and thought I’d absolutely not be able to make it. Once I got to the summit, I couldn’t stop, and pushed up to the peak with a smile on my face the entire way. It was exhilarating!

Some ladies I’d met when booking my tour said that they’d heard so much about the mountain, and said that it wasn’t actually a mountain, but a being. They recommend leaving it a small gift because then the mountain being would return gifts to you. They said to leave something small like a tea leaf, coin, or small piece of food. I left a 5 sol coin, and a multi-vitamin; health and wealth.

My gift for the mountain, a vitamin and 5 Sol coin. Heatlh + Weath

I had a hard time leaving the view from the top but eventually headed back down the trail. The trail down felt a lot longer, even though it was the same route. I think without an end goal, and the rush of the peak being over, it was a little harder to walk the five miles back to the trailhead. At the trailhead, we were served lunch, that I had to force myself to eat, for some reason, I wasn’t hungry at all. After lunch, we left to go back to Cusco in the vans. I made sure I was sleeping for the dramatic cliff section of the road.

Arriving back at about 7:00 p.m., I was exhausted and showered and went right to bed. I felt super disappointed in myself that I didn’t want to eat anything for dinner. I travel to eat, and I was surrounded by amazing cuisine and nothing sounded good at all, something was wrong with me! After any other big hike, the meal after is usually the best. Waking up the next morning I was reading a little more about coca and found out it was also an appetite suppressant. Good thing, it wasn’t me, but the coca.