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Hike Rainbow Mountain
Rainbow mountain is a day hike based out of Cusco that has only become open to tourists in recent years, but has become extremely popular in that short time due to its incredible colors.
Booking the Rainbow Mountain tour from Cusco
While it is possible to do the hike on your own, it’s very difficult to reach the trailhead unless you have your own car. Therefore, most people opt to join a tour from Cusco, which includes transportation and a guide.
Tours can be booked easily from hostels or tour operators in Cusco. I booked mine through Wild Rover and at the time cost me $40 USD, which includes breakfast and lunch.
The tours leave Cusco around 4 am because it takes about 4 hours to get there. Don’t count on getting more sleep during this time because the drive is through a typical Peruvian bumpy road where you are just praying the bus doesn’t slide off into the thousand-meter drops. Yikes!!
The Rainbow Mountain Hike
Before starting the trek, you have breakfast nearby which is included and pretty decent. After breakfast, you head to the trailhead and start by about 9 am.
The hike itself is relatively short at 7km round-trip, but what makes it difficult is the altitude. The trail starts at under 5,000m and goes up to 5,200m. By the end of it I felt like I was struggling for each breath.
However, the beautiful views all along the way keep you motivated to the very top. We passed through snow-capped mountains, fields of llamas, and colorful valleys.
There is also the option to take a horse up the mountain, halfway up, or even the last km up. There are literally locals offering horses the entire trail.
Despite my lungs feeling like they were going to collapse at the very end, I eventually made it to the top and immediately collapsed to the ground in happiness.
You can’t actually see the rainbow colors of the mountain until you reach the summit, but once you are it explodes with color below you. Once at the summit (and you catch your breath) there is an option to climb a little further up to get even better views (but it is VERY windy up there)!
At the summit, there are Peruvian woman posing with their llamas and alpacas for photo ops. As touristy as this is, I absolutely love their little faces and had to get a photo, mainly just so I could scratch its face.
The color of the mountains was created due to weathering and mineralogy. Sediments that are iron-rich will change color when exposed to oxygen and water, so this, in combination with tectonic plate changes which have tilted the sedimentary layers, creates a very beautiful mountain in the present day.
That’s probably a very bad explanation, but basically thousands of years of the earth doing crazy shit. Our guide told us that in 50 years the mountain won’t look like this anymore, so that’s pretty neat to be able to hike but a small speck in earth’s geological timeline.
Hiking rainbow mountain is definitely worth the day trip, but I will say that the hoards of tourists do take some of the magic away. It’s a real shame that all the tours go at the same time because it makes the top of the mountain very, very crowded.
Unlike the Inca trail, there’s no limit to how many people can go each day! During my visit in May 2018, my tour guide said there are upwards of 500 people on the trail, but during high season that number could be up to 1000!
If you have your own way of getting to the mountain, I think that would be a much better option for visiting as you could avoid the crowds.
Tourists or not, rainbow mountain is a unique geological feature and may not be around forever, so it’s definitely worth the trip if you find yourself in Cusco!
San Pedro de Atacama Desert, Chile
Set on the arid high plateau of Northern Chile, San Pedro de Atacama is surrounded by dramatic landscapes including geysers, deserts, hot springs, salt flats, and volcanoes. It also happens to be one of the best places in the world to go stargazing!
The landscape surrounding San Pedro de Atacama is so unique and different from anything I’ve seen while backpacking South America.
The Atacama desert only gets about 30m of rain a year, but that’s enough to create these small lagoons of water you can swim in. Due to the high concentration of salt flats around the lagoons, the water is extremely salty, which means you will float in it without any effort. Similar to the dead sea in Jordan.
This is something I have always wanted to experience, and it did not disappoint. The sensation is so unique to experience, and the water is nice to cool off from the heat of the desert.
The only downside is that afterward you come out extremely salty which is pretty uncomfortable, so leave time for a shower which they have near the lagoons!
Moon valley is another area worth visiting. It’s just 15 minutes outside of San Pedro town, but feels like you have left earth
There is a cave that you can crawl through and desert dunes that you can climb up nearby.
Moon valley is also one of the cheapest tours you can do from San Pedro town and is definitely worth an afternoon!
The desert is one of the clearest stargazing spots in the world and every night you can see billions of stars infinitely around you. I did a tour called Una Noche con las Estrellas which was amazing.
You go to an astronomer’s house nearby town and they will give you a crash course in astronomy, then you get to view the night sky through his giant telescopes. We saw Neptunes, Jupiter, and twin stars! I
You can also see the stars from town but if you head about 10 minutes out you will get an even clearer sky.
Every night they have a party in the desert just outside of town which is pretty fun because of the amazing night sky above you. There is a fire in the middle, music, and they sell drinks there.
The landscape around San Pedro is so interesting, with the salt flats, high lagoons, and surrounding mountains reflecting in them.
You can do several full-day tours which will take you to most interesting viewpoints.
The concept of wildlife and the desolate desert doesn’t exactly go hand in hand, but I was pleasantly surprised to see many animals.
Vicuñas are related to Alpacas and Llamas but aren’t domesticated. We found several of them throughout the region.
I didn’t even this species existed before this trip, but we saw it hiding in the rocks. They are a rodent native to South America and look most like rabbits. Pretty cute!
In the surrounding lagoons, you can find three different species of Flamingos living in huge packs.
Desert between Chile and Bolivia
The salt flats of Bolivia are one of backpackers’ favourite stops in South America
I did 3-day tour on a 4×4 from San Pedro to Uyuni through the salt flats. I’m so glad that I ended up going this way because it’s been one of my favorite tours on this trip.
The tour can easily be booked from San Pedro town; I booked mine through Hostel Rural for 115,000 Chilean Pesos. Overall, I was really happy with the service of my tour on all aspects and would recommend it to anyone going from Chile to Bolivia.
Within an hour of leaving San Pedro town we crossed the border into Bolivia and were immediately greeted by Foxes and Guanacos!
We saw huge reserves of Flamingos in the lagoons. It was incredible to see them all standing around in the water, reflecting!
We saw many Llamas as we drove through the landscape, even adorable baby ones!
I couldn’t begin to tell you how many viewpoints we stopped at and each one was more magical than the next! The combination of reflecting mountains in the lake made for endless photo ops.
We stopped at the Salvador Dali Desert, which is named so because the artist had painted an extremely similar painting to the desert without ever having been there. It was super fun driving the 4×4 over this landscape and exploring the surrounding desert.
Shortly after the Bolivia border we stopped at these natural hot spring pools with a beautiful landscape behind us!
I never knew Bolivia had geysers, and these ones were really incredible (admittedly a little dangerous) because their were no barrier between you and them; you were free to walk at your own risk as close as you wanted.
Yellowstone and Iceland may have some impressive geysers, but you’re definitely not getting as close as you can in Bolivia!
I know rocks don’t sound like the most exciting attraction but the ones along the tour are actually pretty interesting, like this one below that looks like a tree.
The first night we stayed at a very basic hostel but given that it was hardly a town and had no electricity it was more than we needed, and they managed to make a really nice meal with a bottle of wine! The second night we stayed at a really nice hotel made of salt,.
The tour was definitely jam-packed with stops but each one was well worth it, and it was crazy how much the landscape changed during the first two days.
Bolivia Salt Flats
Taking a Bolivia Salt Flat tour was one of the top highlights of my six-month backpacking journey through South America.
The Bolivia Salt Flats, also known as the “Salar de Unuyi”, are the largest salt flats on the planet. They are so enormous, you can see them from space!
Salar de Unuyi are the remains of what was once a giant prehistoric lake. Thousands of years ago the water dried up, leaving what we now know as the Bolivia Salt Flats.
Nowadays, salt is mined and harvested from the flats for consumption, and as a building material. And of course, tourism is becoming increasingly popular in the area!
Choosing your Salar de Unuyi Tour
Choosing where to start your Salar de Unuyi tour depends entirely on where you are coming from.
- From Bolivia, the easiest place to start a tour is in the town of Unuyi, as this the town closest to the flats. However, if you are in the city of La Paz, it is possible to book a tour that leaves from there. This may be an easier option, instead of arranging for your own transport from La Paz to Unuyi.
- From Argentina, it makes sense to start your tour from Tupiza, Bolivia as Tupiza is within easy reach of the Bolivia-Argentina border.
- From Chile, it makes sense to start the tour from San Pedro de Atacama. This is what I did.
While it is possible to do a single day Bolivia Salt Flats tour, I highly recommend taking one of the 3-day tours which start/end in either Unuyi or San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.
This is because of the incredible landscapes you see on the other two days. It completely blew my mind, I had no idea Bolivia had such wild beauty.
If you take the 3-day tour from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile you will visit the salt flats on the third day. If you take the tour the other way coming from Unuyi, you will visit the salt flats on the first day.
There are also 4-day tours where you either return to San Pedro de Atacama or Unuyi, but if you are backpacking through South America, taking this tour one-way as a transportation option makes sense.
Sunrise on the Salt Flats
The night before we arrived at Salar de Unuyi our tour guide gave us the option to wake up at 4 am to see the sunrise on the salt flats. No one likes waking up that early, but we knew the sunrise would be spectacular and all agreed to get up.
After about an hour of driving, we arrived at a very wet area, and all the drivers stopped to talk with each other. I think there was concern that the cars would get stuck, as the water levels were still quite high in some spots. After some debate, we ended up continuing the drive and the little 4×4 powered through!
We parked the car and all got out to watch the sun appear over the flats which were just as beautiful as I could have dreamed. As it was in the wet area, it created an incredible reflection in the ground of the sky above.
After the sunrise, we drove to the next stop which was Fish Island, named for it’s shape. It was quite stange to suddenly encounter a hill in the middle of the flats, which are as you might have guessed, flat. The area was formed by petrified coral, and now has huge cacti growing on it.
While the area is interesting to walk around, it does have an extra fee of 150 Bolivianos. It was a cool spot and the views are nice on top, but I just don’t think it’s worth that much for the 20-minute hike up. The hike also felt quite challenging, as the elevation is above 3000m so you feel it in your lungs.
There are some incredible photography opportunities on Bolivia Salt Flat Tours. The landscape of the salt flats creates a photo effect in which you can easily look larger/smaller than nearby objects/people which makes for incredible perspective photos. Or if you are there during the wet season, reflection photos. Either way, you’ll be sure to get a gram-worthy photo.
Plan ahead. You only have about an hour stop to take photos, so make sure you think ahead of what you want to do beforehand. The key to taking great photos at the salt flats is all about perspective so the composition needs to be spot on. Check Instagram for some inspiration beforehand.
Location, Location, Location. The best way to capture perspective photos is to have one subject as close to the camera as possible. The other subject(s) need to be further in the distance so that they may appear that they are on top of/to the side/or descending into the distance.
This is how you are going to create depth that deceives people’s perspectives. The more subjects you are using, the trickier this will be. The photographer needs to be as close to the first subject as possible without cropping it out in any way. Don’t be afraid to lay down on the salt! If you lay down, it creates the optimal level that sets the shot. Yes, you will get salt on your clothes, but it’s worth it.
Bring props! Because of the flatness of the area, you can create fun perspective photos in which smaller objects look much bigger than you. Note that small toys are actually very hard to shoot perspective photos.
Since the toy will be the object in the forefront of the picture to create the desired ‘perspective’ effect, it must be a decent size. Our guide brought a small dinosaur toy with him which was perfect. Other good objects you can pick up along the way are soft drink cans and Pringle canisters.
Use your guide! The guides do this tour on a regular basis and have a great knowledge of how to get the best photos. Ours was willing to take a bunch of photos and got the right perspective much quicker than us, as it does take some practice.
Make sure your lenses are clean. Due to the bright white space and blue sky, any smudges of dirt will become very clear when you upload your photos. Bring some lens cleaner/cloth and make sure it’s clean before snapping a shot.
Be creative. There are so many fun angles to take on the salt flats. If you didn’t bring any props get creative with what you have in the car, you might be surprised with how well they turn out.
Yes, that’s right, a place where rail carts come to die. It was started in the 1940s when Bolivia mining industry collapsed. Old steamers began to pile up just outside of this trading post town, where they still remain today. Nowadays, it makes for a bizarre tourist attraction.
At the end you get dropped off at the tour office in Uyuni unless you are on a return trip. The town of Uyuni doesn’t have much to offer, but the tour ends around 3 pm, which leaves plenty of time to catch an evening bus onwards.
I went straight to Sucre on an overnight bus which takes about 8 hours.
The best time of year to visit the salt flats depends on your preference of what you want to see. Most people say that the best time to go is from May to November, as this is when the weather is mild and during this time the salt flats will be dry. It ensures that the 4×4 can access all the areas of the flats and gives ample space for illusion photos.
On the other hand, if you go during the wet season which runs from January to April, you get the beautiful reflection in the water. This creates incredible images.
I went during the middle of April which ended up being a really good time to go because the rainy season was just ending, which meant some of the salt flats were still wet while other parts were dry. So we ended up getting the best of both worlds.
What to bring
- Layers are your best friend on this trip! Bring hats, gloves, pants, a sweater, and a rain/wind jacket. If you don’t have warm clothes, you can pick up very affordable and cute hand-made sweaters, scarfs, and gloves all throughout Bolivia. If you go during the rainy season (even at the tail-end), you will want something on your feet that protects against the wet. I had my hiking boots which were perfect.
- By the end of the day, I was only wearing a t-shirt and pants as it became much hotter once the sun was out. The elevation is above 3000m, so it’s strong. Don’t forget sunscreen for the parts that are exposed!
- I didn’t take altitude pills for this part of the trip nor did anyone in my group. No one was sick from the elevation, but there is a noticeable effect when walking, especially uphill. Take it slow!
- Camera equipment! Bring your favorite camera because this place is a photographers dream. I used my Sony a6000, which is a remarkable travel camera. I also saw people using their drones there which looked like a great spot to fly. Unfortunately, at the time, my Mavic Pro was out of commission.
- Extra Batteries. Make sure all your photography equipment is fully charged and that you have extra batteries. If you do the 4×4 tour there won’t be a lot of access to charge your equipment. At the accommodations, there is a generator but it’s quite busy at night with everyone’s stuff plugged in. Bring a portable battery charger with you to make sure you can charge up!
- Bottled Water – There is some water provided during the meals but otherwise, you need to bring your own. There are some opportunities to buy water along the way, but it’s double the price what you would pay elsewhere in Bolivia. Stock up before you go. Bring 1.5L for each day of the tour.
- Toilet Papers – Some of the toilet stops along the way are BYO-TP, so make you have some.
Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
The Galápagos Islands are a volcanic archipelago in the Pacific Ocean, about 600 miles off the coast of mainland Ecuador. The Galapagos Islands are among the most interesting places I’ve ever visited because of the unique natural landscape and wildlife. Due to the lack of human presence on the islands until recent years the wildlife does not have any fear, so you can get up close and personal with the local residents.
Galapagos is also home to some of the best dive sites on the planet. Diving Gordon Reefs off the coast of Santa Cruz was my top dive this year, we swam with dozens of Hammerhead sharks and sea turtles bigger then you could ever imagine. The Galapagos offers so many incredible tours offering visitors a chance to see the unique wildlife. If you are a wildlife lover, Galapagos is the best place to travel in 2019 for up-close wildlife encounters.
[…] Rainbow Mountain is one of the best day hikes in Peru. Also known as the Vinicunca or La Montaña de Siete Colores (Mountain of Seven Colors), Rainbow Mountain was only discovered in 2015 but has become very popular since then due to the mountain’s unique colors. […]
I have never been to the rainbow mountain something definitely deserves the spot on my list…
It’s an amazing place!