I remember the first Instagram photo I saw a photo of Rainbow Mountain, also known as Vinicunca. A woman sat alone on the edge of a slope, back to the camera, looking at a mountain with diagonal stripes in a literal rainbow of colors. It looked otherworldly, tranquil, and utterly magical.
I decided I had to go there.
Little did I know that I had fallen victim to an increasingly large problem: Instagram overpromises.
Rainbow Mountain was at one point only accessible to adventurous travelers who were down for a six-day hike. In fact, the first tourist picture of Rainbow Mountain was in 1992.
But in 2016, Cusco tour companies started offering day tours directly to and from Vinicunca, regardless of weather conditions or hiker experience. And now, it is mobbed.Most people won't admit on Instagram how terrible the Rainbow Mountain hike is. Click To Tweet
Yes, the view and nature is astonishing, and there are hundreds of alpacas, llamas, and vicuñas (or so I’m told). But in short, you’ll have to pay good money, wake up at 2:30 am, drive for hours in a crowded van with little food, and trek for two hours in freezing (and maybe raining or sleeting weather) to the top. You’ll get 30 seconds to take a picture among hundreds of other tourists, before trekking back down and driving back to Cusco. It’s a 16-hour-long ordeal, all in all.
The sudden influx of tourists and their money has had both good and bad implications. The good is that many locals from indigenous groups have been lured back from working in dangerous gold mines in order to help tourists hike up to the top. The bad is there is corruption, and while they’ve built some bathrooms and improved some trails, with the amount of money they make daily, there should be a lot more improvements. There’s a lot of trash, and a lot of sellers. Environmentalists fear that that the combination of up to 1,000 backpackers a day, combined with poor management, could mean Rainbow Mountain is destroyed. Already a local wetland that was popular with migrating birds has been paved over to handle the tourist buses.
I’m not some ditzy tourist. My husband and I had hiked seven hours through a volcanic crater in Hawaii. If we could do that, we could certainly do this, especially since we were pretty well geared up.
But we made two decisions that save our visit to Rainbow Mountain from being a complete disaster:
- We found the best tour company in Cusco: honest, comfortable, and that benefits the local community and environment.
- We visited the ‘other’ Rainbow Mountains, which have way fewer tourists and, well, more mountains! (And more photo opps.)
The Best Cusco Tour Guide to Rainbow Mountain
Best decision ever number one: I partnered up with Lokal Travel*, which helps you find the best tour companies that provide authentic and high quality experiences that benefit the local community. With one of the co-founders being half-Peruvian, and their extensive process for finding and vetting the best local tour agencies, I knew that we would be in good hands.
The local tour company they work with in Cusco is called CBC Tupay, which provides travelers with unique experiences with indigenous communities throughout the Sacred Valley around Cusco. These experiences financially support the local nonprofit Centro Barolomé de las Casas, which is dedicated to studying and supporting the preservation of Andean cultures. So we knew our money was going to a good place. We booked the overnight Rainbow Mountain excursion.
When we landed in Cusco, we were confronted by advertisements for Rainbow Mountain everywhere – in the airport, on every corner. Most of the pictures had been color edited to make it look more fantastic than it is in real life. It was overwhelming! I was so glad we had pre-booked a tour with a reputable operator.
The day before our tour, our guide Carlos came to our hotel to explain the experience to us. Carlos has a degree in tourism, and did his dissertation on Rainbow Mountain. We couldn’t have asked for a better expert to take us there.
Falling in Love With Andina Women
At 9 am the next day, we stored our luggage with our hotel, threw our duffels in the car waiting outside, and drove south out of Cusco, listening to our driver’s collection of local Huayno music. We passed quinoa fields, their maroon tassels drooping heavy with seeds, a sheep herder with his muddy flock, small towns with adobe homes painted with faded political slogans from election years gone past. Alpine slopes rose steeply on either side of us.
We made a quick stop in Checacupe, a town with three bridges over the river – one in the Inca style, one in the colonial style, and a modern metal bridge – and explored the ornate Catholic church with the oldest ornate pulpit in the area of Cusco. I bought chicha de sebada, a fermented barley drink, from a woman seated outside. We were the only tourists in town.
Then we continued on to the Chari community. We pulled up in a tiny hillside village, and after waiting a bit, an Andina woman popped out from behind a stone wall, and after some quick words in Quechua with our guide and driver, led us down a path past some cows and to the door of a home. Several women came out and were suddenly dressing my husband and I in Andean clothing: a poncho for him, a lushly embroidered full skirt and a matching cape for me.
I barely kept it together. I hadn’t been prepared for this. Honestly, I had taken a picture with some Andina women in and an alpaca and baby goat in Cusco, which was exciting enough. I had no idea I would get to actually wear this beautiful clothing.
Formal introductions in the courtyard followed, and we all held hands and danced in a circle, singing a song. We had a wholesome lunch of choclo (fat Peruvian corn on the cob), vegetable quinoa soup, and wild-harvested muña tea, which is sort of like a mint tea, that is good for the stomach.
Then we piled back in the car to visit Machu Picchu Marca, ancient ruins that predate Machu Picchu. The matriarch of the family, Eustaquia, climbed in by my side in the back seat. At first I was shy around her. I had no idea what to expect, or what to say.
But when we got to the ruins, she climbed out of the car, popped her traditional had on her head, spread her arms wide and said, “foto!” with a belly laugh. Then she unwrapped her bundle and passed out some coca leaves for us to chew before we climbed up to the ruins.
But by the end of our two days, I was absolutely enamored of Eustaquia. Eustaquia has been selling artisan products since 2000, but CBC Tupay got involved in 2004 to support her and the other artisans’ work. She’s now the leader of this group of artisans, and CBC Tupay flew her to Mexico for an artisan showcase. I don’t think I can describe her in a way that really does her justice. She’s wise, kind, but also wickedly funny and playful. She was always laughing and teasing, the Quechua language lending a lyrical and bouncy quality to her chatter. When she got on the cell phone to tell the other Chari women we were on our way back, she yelled into the phone in a way that I can only describe as the way a little girl would yell at her dad if he was teasing her, with love and laughter in her voice.
Eustaquia was especially charming, but it’s really all the Andina women that I fell in love with. If you listen to Huayno music (this playlist is hit or miss – skip over the synth-y tracks and go to the more traditional ones), especially in Quechua, you can hear their sense of humor and strong personalities in their musical yelps, and complaints about their drunk men. It’s amazing.
Eustaquia picked herbs – anise, salvia, and muña – for us as we slowly walked across the empty archeological site, and I practiced my simple Spanish with her. We reached the top of the hill and all sat down, taking in the mountains and the translucent moon rising above the shadowed slopes. The afternoon was slipping away, and it was getting chilly. There used to be snow on the mountain tops we were looking at 20 years ago, Carlos told us. Not anymore. I asked if other tourists ever come here. “Never,” Carlos said. “It’s too far away.”
“This is amazing,” I said. “I love that we’re here at this place by ourselves.”
That’s when Carlos casually said something that would change the course of our excursion. There’s another Rainbow Mountain in the same area that they are just starting to bring tourists to. In fact, it has four mountains, instead of just one. He had visited it with his cousins last year.
The Other Rainbow Mountain: Palccoyo
“A lau lau!” Eustaquia said when she felt my hands, which is Quechua for “Wow, so cold!” So we headed back to the car, and back to her house. Our room in the family compound was unexpectedly nice, with two comfy beds covered with heavy blankets and a table covered with a woven fabric.
The women busied themselves in the dirt-floor kitchen with the propane and wood burning stove, talking amongst themselves in Quechua, and peeling potatoes. I wrapped myself in my serape and sat by the stove to warm up. After our big traditional dinner with the Chari women and cow farmer man, I brought up the “other” Rainbow Mountain again. Could we maybe go?
It was possible, Carlos said. It’s actually a shorter hike, one hour instead of two. Oh, and there are only about 50 tourists that go there each day. I felt guilty about not doing the original, longer hike. Would this be a cop-out? I wanted to get a feel for what Palccoyo was like, so Carlos opened his Instagram and I looked up and compared the hashtag #vinicunca to #palccoyo. There are 20,000 #vinicunca posts, and 250 #palccoyo posts. And the 20,000 #vinicunca posts all show the exact same view. But what clinched it for me is when I found a picture that a travel blogger posted of herself running barefoot across the ground in an off-the-shoulder dress. I stared at it, incredulous. Had she packed that dress just so she could get that picture? It was so unethical, her putting this place forth as a warm summer paradise. It is cold up there. It often snows and sleets.
“Let’s go to Palccoyo,” I told Carlos. He made a call to the main office to confirm, and told us that we could even wake up three hours later because the hike is shorter and we wouldn’t have to rush to beat the crowds. Then the group, us, our guide, the driver, the Andina women and the farmer hosting us, passed around coca leaves. The women examined the leaves and peeled away the stems and stuffed large wads of it in their cheeks for chewing, while we all told stories. Then we were off to bed at 9 pm. That’s what happens when you don’t have a TV, a lot of bright lights, or a laptop.
The next morning we woke at 8 am, had more choclo, bread with jam and butter, coffee, and tortillas verduras: delicious pancakes with shaved vegetables baked inside. And we were off. After a half hour, we turned onto a dirt road, and now we only passed Quechua people, colorfully attired with cloth packs on their back filled with alfafa, a man leading an ornery bull, a woman her bonneted baby in a wheelbarrow.
I’ve been an admirer of alpaca as a sustainable alternative to cashmere for years now. So every time I saw a photogenic alpaca, I would squeal and make the driver stop so I could take pictures. Alpacas aren’t just good for the local environment. They are freaking adorable, with funny haircuts and expressions of excitement and curiosity.
At one farm, the farmer put a baby alpaca in my arms while the mother fretted. Further up, vicuñas, the luxurious cousin to alpacas, wandered on the side of the road. Then we came around a corner and found a vast field filled with alpacas. Alpacas were everywhere. Carlos had to tell me to stop taking photos – we were an hour late because of all the alpacas that I wanted to photograph.
Around every corner was another incredible vista, with stepped grassy slopes and tiny streams tumbling down, dramatic rock formations slashed across the hills, herds of alpacas in their stone corrals, red adobe houses with with grass roofs that blended right into the landscape, pink rivers of iron-rich mud carving a course through the gorge. It would have been a beautiful drive even without the promise of candy-striped geological formations ahead.
Up and up we went. A stone said 4,250 meters above sea level. We paid a small fee to the local indigenous people who manage Palccoyo, and kept going. And then there we were. At the other Rainbow Mountains.
At Palccoyo, you don’t need to hike two hours to see anything. The first mountain is right there when you arrive. Then it’s 15 minutes to the first lookout, 15 minutes to the next, and the next, until your reach the end. It was incredible. And tranquil. As we did the easy hike through the otherworldly country, past the Stone Forest formation, we encountered an Andina woman with her baby strapped to her back, her ruddy-cheeked toddler, and five other tourists total. When we got to the end, there was a small group of Germans, who quickly left. We had the whole lookout to ourselves, until a herder’s dog came trotting over the hill.
We couldn’t believe we were there, taking in the view of colorful mountains stretching off into the distance, the mineral-rich sands only lightly touched by the footprints of herders, their alpacas, and a few in-the-know tourists.
Can You Adopt Me?
We were late, so we hiked back to the car in some very light sleet and drove back to Eustaquia’s home for a very late lunch.
Our final activity was learning about Peruvian Quechua weaving at the local artisan cooperative that Eustaquia leads. The women walked me through each step, teaching me how to handspin the wool, use a local sudsy plant called roque to wash the wool, dye the wool with plants, wash it again, roll it into a ball, spin it again to reinforce the strength, and then organize it onto a back strap loom, where they showed me how to weave. At each step they praised me in Quechua, saying I was a quick learner, and I beamed with pride. I wanted to hang out with these women forever!
But, it was the end of the day, and all my alpaca-photo-ing had made us very late. We had to get back to Cusco. So I hugged the ladies goodbye, grateful for such an authentic, nourishing, and utterly unique experience. I asked our driver to put the traditional Huayno music back on in the car. I didn’t want to leave the Andina women behind just yet.
Why You Should Go With CBC Tupay to Palccoyo, or Not at All
I had been so unsure of whether we should go to the original, super-popular Rainbow Mountain, or the “other” one. The decision had really stressed me out. But while researching this article, I found another, even more harrowing and detailed horror story that breaks down all the ways in which visiting Vinicunca, especially if it is raining, could be “the worst trek ever,” even for experienced hikers: dangerous conditions, injuries, bad food, poor quality guides that don’t let you even enjoy the view at the top when you get there, more than six hours in a cramped van, getting up at 2:30 am…yeah, that’s a nightmare. It’s actually a scam which influencers are all to happy to perpetuate, as long as they got their rainbow picture.
But to be clear, I don’t think our experience with CBC Tupay would have been bad if we had gone to Vinicunca, for two reasons. One is that our guide Carlos was amazing, giving us personalized service, taking the time to prepare us for the excursion, and he wouldn’t have taken us if the weather conditions were bad. We would have gotten amazing local food no matter what, and he was intent on getting us there before the crowds came.
But the real reason we would have loved our excursion no matter what was because it was more than just Vinicunca. CBC is clever: they slot the Instagram star in between all the authentic Andean cultural activities, the things that we will actually remember forever.
Beyond that, we had a real adventure, the kind you read about but is hard to find anymore. You don’t get that with a cheap tour. If we hadn’t been hanging out, having a conversation with Carlos where he told us about the other Rainbow Mountains, we never would have known. That is the value from being open to spending time with the locals. Your experience is richer.
But yes, you should absolutely request to visit Palccoyo instead of Vinicunca. And if you can swing it, I recommend you do the overnight. Because on the full-day excursion you get limited time with the Chari women. And as you can tell, they’re my favorite people in the world right now.
I can’t say enough good things about our decision, our experience, and our guide, Carlos. This was one of the most special experiences we’ve had during our entire five months in Latin America.
*Lokal Travel and CBC Tupay provided us with this excursion. As always, EcoCult only works with companies we believe are doing good things, and all the writing, thoughts, and opinions in this post are my own and were not reviewed before publishing by either Lokal or CBC Tupay.