Cusco

Palcoyo “Rainbow” mountain

First, it’s important to note that there are two “rainbow mountains” that tourists visit that are within day-trip range from Cusco so let’s start there.

Second, for packing and weather purposes, it is equally important to know that our Palcoyo mountain day trip was on October 4th, 2019 which is the very beginning of spring in South America.

Vinicunca mountain

The first and most popular rainbow mountain is Vinicunca (aka Winikunka). This mountain was discovered (as a tourist attraction) in 2015 when global warming caused the snow on the mountain to melt and reveal its colored layers.

Photos of this mountain show its long, single spine extending off into the distance. Photos also typically show crowds of tourists dotting the lower section of the spine, unless, of course, the photographer has come up with a clever way to hide them like with a pack of alpacas.

Palcoyo mountain

Hundreds of tourists visit Vinicunca daily and that sounded awful to us, so we chose to visit the lesser-known rainbow mountain, Palcoyo. Unlike Vinicunca where there is a single rainbow-colored mountain, Palcoyo is part of a range of rainbow mountains.

The drive to Palcoyo mountain is slightly longer than to Vinicunca but the hike to the “summit” is shorter and, from what I have read, more gradual and less intense than the hike to Vinicunca’s summit.

Vinicunca and Palcoyo both reside at high elevations. Below is a handy comparison chart to help wrap your head around these details.

LocationElevation (ft)Elevation (m)
Whistler Mountain7,1602,182
Mount Rainier14,4114,392
Palcoyo Mountain16,4005,000
Vinicunca Mountain17,1005,200
Everest Base Camp17,6005,380

Putting this into a visual perspective, below is a photograph of Mount Rainier I took not too long ago when flying to Seattle.

As I sit in a coffee shop at sea level writing this post, my mind boggles with the thought that a couple of weeks ago, I was standing on top of a mountain that is one-third of a mile higher than the tippy-top of Mount Rainer!

Tours

There are many tour operators in Cusco that offer day trips to both mountains. I do not recommend booking a tour online because (a) you will pay more online than in a local shop and (b) you will be locked into a specific date and you are screwed if the weather is poor.

Additionally, you do not need, nor should you seek out an actual tour guide when visiting these mountains because a guide is completely unnecessary. All you need is transportation.

After reading reviews online, we learned that it was commonplace for Cusco tour operators to begin picking up tourists at 4am. Due to the absolute shit roads in Cusco and the number of tourists in a busload, the pick-up process can take up to an hour. This means that you must be at your designated pick-up location at 4am and you may be picked up at 4:01am or 4:59am. Regardless if you are picked up first or last, your day trip begins at 4am when you arrive at your pick-up location.

Four o’clock in the morning sounded cruel so I decided we would book a private “tour” which amounted to a driver and a new minivan that my two mates and I could stretch out in. The goal of our private tour was to have a more humane departure time (e.g. 8am) but after some back-and-forth with the tour company and driver, we lost the battle and our departure time was set to 5am to “avoid tourist groups”.

Note: Our driver was the same driver from our guided Sacred Valley tour the day before.

Timeline

ActualDescription
5:00amPick-up from our apartment in Cusco.
6:50amTurned on to a narrow and rocky dirt road.
7:50amArrived at the Palcoyo mountain entrance.
8:10amArrived at the Palcoyo mountain trailhead.
8:15amBegan hiking.
9:36amArrived at the third mirador.
10:30amArrived back at the trailhead.
10:45amDeparted for Cusco.
3:00pmArrived at our apartment in Cusco.

Drive

The drive from Cusco to the Palcoyo mountain trailhead is just over three hours (with no traffic). Anticipate the drive back to Cusco to take about four hours due to traffic.

About an hour into our drive, our driver stopped at a small village to buy coca leaves. I thought, “What a nice gesture! He bought us coca leaves!” I was wrong. He bought himself coca leaves and chewed on them until we reached the car park at the trailhead.

After two hours of driving, we turned off of the main road (paved) and onto a one-lane and very rocky dirt road. The road was narrow and is a natural deterrent for large tour groups because vehicles larger than our minivan cannot make the tight turns of the switchbacks, so no huge coach bus groups at this mountain!

The scenery as we approached Palcoyo village at the entrance to the mountain was stunning. It was the first time that I had seen terraced hillsides. We learned that potatoes were planted on the terraces.

After three hours of driving, we arrived at the Palcoyo mountain entrance where we paid our entrance fees (10 Soles per person) and were handed tiny paper tickets. Palcoyo mountain is open from 8am-3pm and the limited opening hours further explain why tours depart Cusco very early in the morning.

The drive from the entrance to the trailhead is another 20 minutes. There was only one other minivan in the parking lot (6-8 tourists) when we arrived at the trailhead parking lot.

Hike

To my surprise and delight, there was a brand new trailhead building with flushing toilets and sinks with running water but this luxury comes at a price. The toilet usage fee is 1 Sol and with this fee you are handed a small ration of toilet paper – enough to pee but not enough to poo.

The weather on the day of our visit was not ideal but also wasn’t miserable. I have hiked in much, much worse weather. It was windy and cold and every few seconds, I’d see a flurry of snowflakes blow across the windows of the minivan.

I dreaded stepping out of the van because I knew I was not adequately dressed. I had over-dressed and over-prepared on our prior excursions and, for whatever reason, I swung in the opposite direction with our rainbow mountain excursion and under-dressed and under-prepared.

There were three key pieces of gear that I was missing. More on gear at the end of this post.

  • Gloves
  • Thermal pants
  • Hat

After a freezing toilet break, our driver slowly guided us up the first (and most difficult) section of the hike. It was a short and steep section that left me gasping for breath after seven footsteps. I wondered why our driver was hiking with us since he was our driver, not our guide. When we reached the top of the section, I realized that our driver hiked the first section with us to demonstrate the speed at which we should hike and to assess our ability and if he would need to potentially rescue any of us from the mountain.

Protip: On the right-hand side of the steep section are “steps” that can help ease this strenuous section of the hike.

My advice is to hike very slowly. A heart rate of 96 beats per minute may feel like your heart is beating out of your chest. The roundtrip distance of this trail (to the third lookout, not to the actual summit which is slightly further and higher) is 2.13 mi / 3.43 km and has an elevation gain of approximately 430 ft / 131 m. Aside from the first section, the trail is basically flat.

We hiked at a pace of 57 minutes and 12 seconds per mile. This pace includes brief photo stops (1-2 photos taken) but does not include our longer photo stops at the three miradors (lookouts) nor the time at the top when we were waiting for the clouds to clear.

Protip: Temporarily turn off your iPhone “Are you finished with this workout?” reminder setting (iPhone > Watch app > Workout > End Workout Reminder). If you leave this reminder setting on, your slow hiking pace will give your watch a false indication that you are not working out and it will constantly buzz you with the “Are you finished with this workout” notification.

Listen to your body and stop when you begin to feel out of breath. It is much easier to regain your breath when you are slightly out-of-breath than when you totally out of breath and spiraling into a panic attack because you cannot breathe. Take frequent breaks and take small sips of water. I chewed peppermint gum along the way to help prevent headaches and nausea (it worked!).

At the top of the steep section is a flat area with views of the mountains. Our driver provided us with some last-minute advice and handed us a bottle of “Agua de Florida” (Florida Water). He demonstrated how to pour a little bit of the concoction in our palms, rub them together, and then hold our palms to our noses and inhale deeply. We were instructed to do this if we felt a headache coming on.

I did not utilize the Florida Water because I did not experience any headaches but Sara and Jessi swear by it.

Protip: There is a natural remedy store in the San Blas neighborhood of Cusco that sells Florida Water. If memory serves correct, it is located on Calle Carmen near Plaza de San Blas (take a left on Calle Carmen Alto as you walk up that stupidly steep hill toward Plaza de San Blas from Plaza de Armas). Calle Carmen has great boutique shopping so take a couple of hours to stroll down it!

After our Florida Water demo, our driver wished us good luck and nervously watched us walk away. We didn’t know our driver’s name and from that point forward, we referred to him as Dad because, in a blink of an eye, he’d gone from being our driver to assuming the father role, cautiously sending his three grown daughters off into the unknown.

In addition to the dense cloud cover, the mountains were covered in a thin layer of snow. The toilet attendant and our driver both told us that the snow will melt instantly as soon as the clouds clear. Though the clouds never cleared, some of the snow did melt as the temperature gradually increased.

Creative cairns marked the trail.

At one point, we came around a bend in the trail and a man and his alpaca “magically” appeared for an impromptu photo op. As we ascended the mountain, we watched him “magically” appear for the tour group behind us.

The man signaled to get in close and snuggle with Jorgecito (Little Jorge). Sara and I snuggled immediately and told ourselves that we would answer “no” to the US Immigration question “Have you been near livestock?”. Jessi was a bit more timid. We tipped him 3 Soles ($1 USD) and continued on our way.

Shortly thereafter, we met a human trail marker. She directed us to stay on the marked trail and advised us to be careful because the trail was slippery. I wanted to warn her of the dangers of frostbite because the temperatures were below freezing (factoring in the windchill) and she was wearing open-toed sandals!

The second mirador had a nice view of the valley.

Somewhere in between the second and third miradors I stopped and took a panoramic photo of the valley. The wind made this challenging because it was blowing me all over the place making it difficult to keep a steady hand.

It took us about one hour and 20 minutes to reach the third mirador. This mirador is exposed to the elements – the wind was fierce and my hands and legs were frozen. We stayed at this mirador for about 15 minutes, hoping that the clouds were clear but, honestly, there was no chance of that happening.

The elevation of the third mirador is 16,080ft / 4,901m. The summit is slightly further and higher. On a good visibility day, I’d hike to the summit for the view but that was not the case on our day so our ascent ended at the third mirador.

When visibility is good it’s possible to see, Ausangate, the highest mountain in Peru from the third mirador. Visibility was so poor for us that we could barely see the summit of Palcoyo mountain which we referred to as “Dagger Mountain” because it was covered in alien shards of rock that did not exist on any of the other nearby peaks.

Shortly after starting our descent, Sara said she was not feeling well. She had a massive headache (very concerning) and said that the tension of her sunglasses against the side of her skull was unbearable. She ran ahead and ascended as fast as she could. Jessi and walked slower, stopping to take photos because visibility was slightly better than it was when we ascended and some of the snow had melted.

Altitude sickness is not something to play around with and no one knows how your body is going to handle this level of elevation until you go through it. The National Health Service in the UK estimates that 75 percent of people will experience altitude sickness when at an elevation of 4,500m or higher. The only common symptoms we had were (1) shortness of breath with even the slightest exertion or split-second of holding our breath and (2) lightheaded-ness when turning around too quickly.

Here’s a breakdown of how we individual tried to avoid motion and altitude sickness.

Camie: I took Aleve and Dramamine before departing Cusco. I ate an empanada on the drive to the mountain. I chewed peppermint gum during the hike. I took Aleve and Dramamine after the hike. I drank almost no water during the drives and the hike. I drank espresso, water, and a bottle of wine when we got back to Cusco.

Camie’s symptoms: Shortness of breath, lightheadedness when turning too quickly.

Jessi: She took a natural motion sickness medication and ibuprofen before departing Cusco. She ate an empanada on the drive to the mountain. She drank 1.5 liters of water and sucked on coca mints and chewed peppermint gum throughout the drive and the hike. She used Florida Water when necessary during the hike. She took ibuprofen and motion sickness medication after the hike. She drank 1 liter of water on the drive back to Cusco. She drank espresso, water, and a half of a bottle of wine when we got back to Cusco.

Jessi’s symptoms: Shortness of breath, lightheadedness when turning too quickly, mild headache.

Sara: She drank a bottle of water and took a Dramamine before departing Cusco. She ate an empanada on the drive to the mountain. She sucked on coca mints throughout the drive and the hike. She used Florida Water when necessary during the hike. She took an Aleve during the hike.

Sara’s symptoms: Shortness of breath, lightheadedness when turning too quickly, severe tension-like headache, feeling of someone squeezing the back of her head, vomiting, unable to eat or drink, difficulty/not wanting to speak.

Jessi and I were very worried about Sara on the drive back to Cusco but “Dad” assured us that she was OK because she still had color in her skin. Thankfully she was feeling better by the time we got back to Cusco and there was no trip to the private hospital.

Gear

Note: Our day trip to Palcoyo mountain was on October 4th, 2019 which is the very beginning of spring in South America.

  • Motion sickness medication
  • Headache medication (i.e. ibuprofen, naproxen, etc.)
  • Caffeinated drink (if prone to altitude headaches)
  • Tension headache medication (that contains caffeine)
  • Anti-nausea medication
  • Anti-altitude sickness medication (Acetazolamide; only if you are super-duper concerned about getting sick)
  • Vomit bag (Protip: Take the bag(s) from your Cusco flight)
  • Peppermint gum
  • Coca leaves and/or chews
  • Agua de Florida
  • Toilet roll/paper (if you predict you will need to poo)
  • Camera (a proper one since this is a once-in-a-lifetime visit)
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Sunscreen (apply liberally to your nose)
  • 10x 1 Sol coins for the toilet fee and tipping for alpaca photos
  • 10 Soles for the entrance fee
  • Sunglasses
  • Snacks for the drives
  • Headphones/earbuds for the drives
  • Phone charging cords + portable power bank/battery
  • Hat, gloves, scarf
  • Medium-weight jacket with a hood (it’s windy!)
  • Thermal pants + hiking pants
  • Thermal or wool top + light sweatshirt
  • Small day pack with a water bladder (versus a water bottle)
  • Wool hiking socks
  • Hiking shoes (or trainers/tennis shoes if hiking in dry weather)

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