Let's talk about this little hike, shall we. So admittedly, going into this outing I was unaware of the gravity of what exactly I was signing us up for, so I am hoping to write a sobering summary of our experience so those of you reading this can make an educated decision.
We booked this trip through Viator who then set up the tour with local operators Condetravel. Being from NYC and having some hiking experience, my boyfriend and I were naive to how difficult the rainbow mountain trek really is. We're both fit 30 year olds, my bf works out everyday and competes in strong man, so we thought, eh we got this...Boy were we wrong. To preface the journey I'm about to take you on let me say while I wouldn't do this hike again knowing what I know now, I by no means regret making the actual hike. The mountain and scenery are exquisite, but you know that- you've seen the pictures and that's why you're here reading this now. Also as a note- our guides were fantastic, knowledgeable, caring, helped tremendously with the fatigue and cold by providing medicine/clothing, and also stayed with us as we dragged severely behind the group.
My first comment for this trek is rent a horse. My second, third, and forth comments are also RENT A FRIGGIN' HORSE! It is the only thing that saved us here, and even the champion hikers on our trek said they wished they'd gotten one. Those who make the hike on foot solely are gods among men and we should erect statues in their honor, bc seriously this is one of the hardest things any of us have ever done. Let's start with the fact that you will be picked up on your hike day at 3am. Yes, that means getting up at 2:30am at the latest to be somewhat presentable for pics. You are then put into a van with next to nothing leg room and your backpack on your lap. I'm talking maybe 6 inches, no lie, and this ride alone takes 3 hours.
When we got to the area, we received a breakfast of eggs, sweet bread and jam, with coffee, and that's it. It's served in a little structure with 1 room and a kitchen; no heat and mind you it's freezing out (to emphasize how cold, again we live in NYC and were shivering). There are also only outhouses here and along the way so bring wipes as toilet paper is non existent in these parts. From here, you proceed to the hike.
Our guide explained the hike to us as a climb, flat terrain, a climb, flat terrain, and one last climb- which was spot on. The climbs are a little steep, but they are also full of rocks and running water (and mushy horse poop filled dirt). Plus the altitude... like take the difficulty level in your mind for this and times it by twenty thousand. I’d like to note that we had been diligent about acclimating and didn’t just jump into this hike, we’d been in the country for 8 days by this point, 4 of which were in Cusco. We literally had to stop every 10 steps or so, even the Strongman I had with me, and almost gave up 10 mins in (again, this is not an exaggeration) but I talked my group into at least getting on a horse.
The horses go pretty much all the way, but you have to get off intermittently to do the climbs which are all excruciating. The horse sounds so nice right? And it was at 1st-- no out of breath feeling, taking lots of pics, able to relax and see the landscape at our leisure. I’d like to note my bf and I paid extra for our horses given our size, he's 6'2" and I'm 5'7"; but only 80 soles each which is still a Flippin bargain! (we also gave tips of 20 soles after since these handlers worked their behinds off). You're on these bad boys for nearly 6 hours, intense for even seasoned riders, and there are no reigns or bull horn to hold. So in addition to the bones in your legs and behind getting insanely sore, your upper body is also strained trying to balance yourself from falling. Also, the stirrups for your feet are clearly made for native Peruvians (under 5") and wrecked our knees since they were far too short for us. On a scale from 1 to 10 on the pain meter, the ride down the hike was a solid 8.5. This still though was better then huffing it on foot. The view at top of the mountain is breathtaking (pun intended) and the entire hike is 3 hours up the mountain and 1.5 to 2.5 hours back down, even with horses.
After we got back to the car, feeling victorious and exhausted, we then had to wait over an hour for the rest of the people to come back... in the tiny car bc it was still freezing at the bottom of the mountain. By this time we all also had blinding headaches from over exertion in the altitude (acute altitude sickness) and were starving, it had been 6 hours since our tiny breakfast at this point. When we finally got to lunch it was at the same place and pretty good; quinoa soup and alpaca or chicken. Then another 3 hour ride back to Cusco in our cramped van. We unfortunately had a car accident in our van where our vehicle was hit by a man on a galloping horse, which delayed our return by over an hour and we had to get a new van; thankfully no one was severely hurt (horse included).
In summary- We would not do this hike again mainly due to the debilitating impact of the altitude, the extremely long van rides to and from the mountain, the 3am pickup time coupled with the tiny meals (adding to our exhaustion and alt. sickness), and having to wait for the group to return— all of this sullied the overall experience; we could have handled the pain of the actual hike without the aforementioned parts. We all wished we had taken a walking tour of Cusco instead since the city is stunning and has so much history we never got to explore. Hopefully this play by play helps a few of you in your decision! Best of luck and happy travels.