In recent years, Rainbow Mountain has become an almost “must do” activity in the Cusco region. Thousands each week hike several hours up and down the mountains to view the mountains, but most folks don’t realize there is a much easier way to see the same brilliant colors (created by exposed minerals) with very few people.
By visiting what has been called the “Alternative Rainbow Mountain” experience, you get to travel up into the colored mountains themselves and hike with very little vertical climb to get spectacular views of multiple rainbow-colored mountains in addition to breathtaking views of Mount Ausangate (the second highest mountain in Peru at over 20,000′) and the surrounding range of peaks.
I’ve been to Palccoyo three times and each time has been different and progressively better, but part of that has been due to weather and the agency I used. (More on that later.) It is easily one of the most spectacular tours that you can take if you have the time in Cusco.
As always, please click on each individual photo thumbnail to see the larger version. The majestic scenery deserves full-size pics!
The Trip to Palccoyo
Most your leave early in the morning, though the few good ones will leave even earlier during certain times of the year to avoid storms which often pop up and can put people’s lives in danger. (Trust me, I went through that on my first trip with a small tour consolidator.)
Leaving early isn’t so bad because you can sleep along the way as the drive isn’t all that scenic until you turn off the highway after a quick stop for breakfast and start the climb up into the mountains.
(Note: If you’re worried about driving on mountain roads, this one is for you because the high drive is in the “altiplano” which is basically along wide plains between the mountain peaks without steep, deep drop-offs.)
As you climb up the dirt road, towards to village of Palccoyo, you are rewarded with incredible views of wide glacial valleys dotted with hundreds of llamas and alpacas. There is an fee required at the Palccoyo entrance of 10 soles ($3 USD) so make sure your tour makes it clear who pays for this before you leave. (Some fees are built into your tour cost while others require that you pay.)
The Rainbow Mountains!
Once you arrive at the parking area, you will find yourself already surrounded by the colorful mountains with an easy trail along a mountainside ahead of you.
I recommend using the restroom before leaving (1 sol) because there aren’t too many places for privacy once you set out as you are way above the tree line at nearly 5000m (16,000′) in altitude!
The trail is in much better shape than the first time I went so you shouldn’t have any problems enjoying the beautiful scenery. Admittedly, the colors will be more brighter if the sun is shining, but the same weather requirement also applies to the more popular Rainbow Mountain.
Keep in mind that the views are basically the same, but instead of having to hike a long way and sharing the mountain with hundreds and possibly even thousands of people, you’re with perhaps less than 100 people along the entire trail that anyone can easily hike.
The Stone Forest
You do have the option of climbing up to the rock formation known as The Stone Forest at the highest point in the trip. It is a tough climb at very, very high altitude, but if you can make it, the views are more than worth it. (You can’t miss it when you step out of the van and prepare for the hike.)
You can climb up to the Stone Forest from either of two different directions. I went with a group of young Germans at near the start of the hike and I doubt I will do that again! The climb up is very long and very steep, but I wasn’t going to let these young people show me up so I forged up with hill right along side. If you go that way, you’re probably better off taking your time and not going quite as fast as we did!
Enjoy the Hike!
Probably the most important piece of advice I can give is to take your time and enjoy the hike. Stop frequently, catch your breath, and take in the views all around you.
As with all mountain hiking, dress warm and in layers that you can add and remove. The mountain may be kind and provide clear weather and calm winds or, as it did on my first trip, be windy and drop a mix of snow and sleep throughout your hike.
I always take a heavy coat, a warm wool cap, a long sleeve shirt, gloves, and a heavyweight layer under my pants, too. You can always take things off, but if the weather is cool — as it likely will be — you’ll be glad you’ve dressed warmly.
My First Trip to Palccoyo
On my first trip to Palccoyo, I signed up with an company who combined its customers with others in a single group from several agencies.
Most of the trip was wonderful, but the conditions once we arrived were very poor to the point of being unsafe. Quite simply, the tour should have been cancelled and — as I found out the next day — many agencies actually did cancel their trips because of the dangerous conditions.
There was a good bit of slushy snow on the mountain making walking extremely difficult in highly muddy conditions over the well-used trail. People were slipping and sliding all over the mountainside. Several people fell in the mud and we all were very concerned about sliding down the mountainside in the mud.
I can’t recommend enough checking with multiple agencies to get an idea of the weather conditions on the mountain as it could be very different from conditions in Cusco.
Fortunately, the Palccoyo community has done a good job of using stones to “pave” much of the trail which becomes questionable when wet and you shouldn’t let the threat of a wet trail deter you.
Also, keep an eye out for thunderstorms on the mountain. One man was hit by lightning last year. Apparently he was with a tour that didn’t leave early and his group was on the mountain too late. Early morning weather conditions are generally good so look for a company that leaves very early to get you up and down safely.
My Last Trips to Palccoyo
On my next two trips to Palccoyo I went with Rainbow Mountain Expeditions and found what a professional, safe trip is supposed to be like.
Let me make this clear — agency owner Roger Mamani and his family have become my friends, but I’d say the same things about his agency even if I didn’t know him. He’s never asked me to say anything and, in fact, he doesn’t even know I’m writing this.
First of all, Roger makes sure that he leaves early when the weather is bad. He lets his customers know as their safety is the most important thing. We’ve talked about this topic too many times and I understand that safety is so important to him.
Second, he grew up in the area himself and know it well along with the language of the local people, Quechua. With years of experience, he leads his groups himself and provides unparalleled knowledge.
Yeah, I’m partial to my friend’s agency, but I’d recommend Rainbow Mountain Expeditions even if I didn’t know Roger.
Hopefully the photos and video accompanying this post will convince you that Palccoyo is worth making time for on your trip to Cusco. I promise that it’s even more beautiful when you are there!
While the first two hours and the last two hours on the highway are pretty boring — take that time to sleep! — the hours spent in between will be among the highlights of your time in Peru.
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