Fascinated by Vinicunca, the Rainbow Mountain of Peru? You’re not alone – get ready for a deep dive into this beautiful natural wonder.
The Rainbow Mountains of Peru, known locally as Vinicunca, offer more than just an excellent hike or adventure. This multi-coloured mountain range is a feast for the eyes and food for the soul.
Situated in the Andes Mountains, about 100 km from the former capital city of the ancient Incan Empire, Cusco, you’ll find the collection of mountain peaks that form Rainbow Mountain. And, boy, are they worth exploring.
At first glance, their stunning beauty and the rising number of tourists visiting Peru’s Rainbow Mountains might seem like a run-of-the-mill tourist destination.
But, you would be a fool to write them off – the Rainbow Mountains of Peru will surprise you more than you know. Although they appear in thousands of Instagram stories every single day, the mountains we know today looked a lot different only a few short years ago.
Roughly ten years ago, the mountains ‘shed their skin’ so to speak, when an immense amount of ice and snow, which covered the mountain range, disappeared.
I say “disappeared” loosely, as rises in temperature (most likely the cause of global climate change) melted the ice covering the mountains. This snow and ice kept the picturesque Rainbow Mountain hidden for ages. A terrible, terrible event with a beautiful outcome.
I had plenty of questions before I visited. Mainly, how were these kaleidoscopic beauties formed? And, how tricky is the hike to the top? I’m guessing you do too.
Don’t fret, I’ve put together this practical guide on everything you need to know when planning your trip to the mesmerising Vinicunca Mountains. Let’s explore.
Rainbow Mountain Hike
The Rainbow Mountain hike itself is many things: adventurous, thrilling, rewarding, and challenging. There’s no beating around the bush here; hiking the trail on Rainbow Mountain is not easy for newbies.
But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do it. One of the most endearing aspects of Rainbow Mountain is the immense sense of accomplishment upon completing this world-famous trek.
What makes hiking the Rainbow Mountain of Peru a challenge isn’t the actual hike as much as the environmental elements you’ll need to be aware of. As the hike is relatively short at a roughly 7 km round-trip, it only takes around three and a half hours to complete.
The fast increase in altitude while hiking makes it a challenge, where your fitness will be tested. Due to this altitude, the hike is not recommended for those with heart conditions.
Don’t be put off though – for those in full health, the hike is more than manageable with very little training needed.
[Top Tip: The fast increase in altitude makes this a tough day hike – it’s not recommended for those with heart conditions.]
Starting Your Rainbow Mountain Hike
Getting to the start of the trail is a slightly more lengthy process seeing as most tours to Rainbow Mountain start at the break of dawn.
Expect tour buses to pick you up anytime from 4 am, with some ending pickup times at around 6 am. From your pick-up point, the bus trip to a breakfast stop is approximately two hours, depending on where the planned quick visit is.
A further hour and a half bus drive once you’re finished with breakfast is on the agenda, dropping you at the car park of Rainbow Mountain.
What to Expect
If you’re going at high season, prepare to share the trail with around 3,000 to 4,000 people. Going in low season (for example December or January) will see around 500 people daily making the climb, but the unfortunate truth is that Rainbow Mountain has gone from being nowhere on the tourist radar a decade ago to now suffering from overpopulation.
That said, the hike to the summit is perfectly manageable for most people, clocking in at 7 kilometres. You’ll follow a dirt path trail that is about 75% flat, with 15% a gradual scent and the final 10% or so a much steeper incline. This will be about 200 to 300 metres.
Even the fittest of you will feel more than a little breathless as you’ll be more than 5,000 metres above sea level. Help yourselves acclimatise to the altitude by spending a couple of days in Cuches (4,000m above sea level), and so long as you’re in reasonable fitness you’ll be able to achieve the climb at a steady pace.
The hike to the top takes between 1 hour 45 mins to 2 hours with a few breaks to catch your breath, take a drink, or grab some photos along the way, but the way back is much quicker as you take advantage of the old saying “what goes up, must come down.”
Although the hike isn’t particularly long, the altitude means that you should spend a couple of days at high altitude (preferably over 4,000 metres) before tackling it to prevent altitude sickness.
Once you’re ready to go, the trail begins through a small valley before continuing with a gradual and continuous ascent. Beyond the first ridge is where you’ll notice the rockface beginning to change colours.
As you continue, the trail turns west leading up to the final ascent of the hike. I’d recommend taking your time with this part because taking in the immaculate scenery is necessary (as well as snapping copious amounts of shots). You’ll view the Andes in all their glory and the snow-capped peak of Ausangate Mountain in the distance.
The final ascent is a zig-zag uphill hike. During this part, the altitude of Rainbow Mountain comes heavily into play. Pushing through this will bring you right up to the summit.
At the Summit
Once you arrive at the peak of the mountain, don’t be surprised if you need to catch your breath. You will be 5,200 metres above sea level, which is around four times higher than Britain’s highest peak, Ben Nevis in Scotland.
Take your time to recover and then soak in the incredible views, not only of Rainbow Mountain, but across the Andes as well. Here, you can really see the rainbow effect of the mountain, with the mineral sediments bursting with colours of maroon, turquoise and the gold bands.
If you have clear blue skies providing the backdrop, so much the better.
Once you have eventually finished taking in the views of the panoramic lookout point, it’s a backtrack to the car park. The drive back is a two-part journey, with a lunch stop after about an hour and a half. The trip concludes with your drop-off in Cusco.
Should You Rent a Horse?
At base camp, you’ll find that the local Pampachiri indigenous community offer horse rides to take you along the trail and up for a fee of around 60 soles.
I’m a big supporter of doing all we can to support the local economy yet we all know from experience that where animals are involved in tourism, particularly at a large-scale attraction such as Rainbow Mountain, certain negative animal welfare practices can creep in that result in negative outcomes for the animals themselves.
Meanwhile, I’m aware that by urging you not to contribute to the potential maltreatment of the animals, the local economy suffers.
Therefore, we suggest that you only use a horse as a last resort if you’re really suffering on foot. There are plenty of offers along the way as you walk.
Look out for a horse that looks in good health and that is well-treated but be aware that it won’t take you to the summit. You’ll be dropped off around 300 metres below meaning that you have the most challenging part of the hike to undertake on foot.
Group Trip or Solo?
Okay, you’re sold, I know. But, how exactly do you go about visiting this idyllic mountainscape?
There are a few options available to you, so get your hiking boots ready and let’s dive in.
Going in Solo
First up is the option of making an independent trip to the mountain. While this is a valid and rather exciting option, visiting the mountains solo can be challenging if you’re an inexperienced hiker or uninformed about the region.
However, if you’re a seasoned hiker, go ahead. In all honesty, it’s not a very tricky mountain to ascend, and requires very basic gear – more on what you need to pack later.
Take it from me – if you want to experience the best that Vinciunca has to offer, choose a guided tour.
Group or private tours deliver guaranteed fun and exciting adventures; there are even tours done on mountain bikes if you fancy an extra challenge (I’ll stick to my feet for this one, thanks).
Which tours are worth your hard-earned cash? Let’s delve in…
One-day Tours from Cusco
These tours are ideal for spending the day immersed in Peruvian culture and memorable moments at the site. Tours can range from 10 to 17 hours and include pickup from your accommodation in Cusco.
Check out these full-day trips:
Multi-day Trips from Cusco
For a more extensive and indulgent trip to Peru and the Andes, multi-day trips are exactly what you’re looking for.
These trips often include visits to numerous different sites, including a trip or hike to Rainbow Mountain. If you’ve got time to spare in your itinerary (though, I recommend making time), these are some brilliant options:
Practical Tips for Planning Your Visit
Here are some practical tips to help you prepare for your visit to Rainbow Mountain.
Best Time to Visit
The weather surrounding Rainbow Mountain can be unpredictable. Ideally, plan your trip to fall outside of the rainy season, from November to April.
Although the hikes and tours continue even during rainy weather, hiking the trail is unpleasant and muddy. So my best tip would be to keep careful watch on the weather forecast.
The months of September, October, and May are your best bet.
Need to Know Before Your Trip
Sitting at over 5,200 meters above sea level, the elevation of Rainbow Mountain in Peru is not your best friend.
Acclimatise by spending at least a few days in Cusco before your planned trip, as the city sits at about 4,000 metres above sea level. With plenty of unmissable things to do in Cusco, a few days in the city are perfect for your trip.
There is a good chance that you will feel some symptoms of altitude sickness as you hike, the locals suggest chewing on coca leaves, or eating coca-chocolate to help alleviate the worst of the feelings.
What to Pack
These are five absolute must-haves for any tour to Rainbow Mountain:
- Polarised sunglasses – it gets mighty bright on sunny days as you trek.
- Sunscreen – even though the temperature can drop, the sun remains lethal.
- Sun hat – the last thing you want at altitude is sunstroke, so protect your head
- Walking boots – while the paths on Rainbow Mountain are relatively even, comfortable and supportive walking boots are essential
- Rain gear – when it rains on Rainbow Mountain, it really rains! Make sure you have waterproof clothing packed, just in case.
Rainbow Mountain Peru: Map
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