Lost among the ever so popular Machu Picchu are the other seemingly endless array of sights and attractions around Cusco. One of these options, the Rainbow Mountain, located high up in the Andes near the Ausangate, lives up to its name. Literally matching the colors of a rainbow, this mountain has become of the most popular day trips in Cusco.
The Rainbow Mountain, also known as Vinicunca to the local Quechuan speaking people, was actually not accessible to the masses until recently. I’m shocked it’s taken Peru this long to open something like this up to the public but I’m glad they finally did. I had zero idea a place like this existed until I saw a picture of a fiery red mountain range with a multi-colored mountain appear on my friends Instagram feed. I knew I had to go no matter what. I’m SO very glad that I did as the views, pictures, and experience was one of the best things I did in Peru.
Booking The Rainbow Mountain Hike
When I finally arrived in Cusco, there’s no way I couldn’t have known about this place. Every tour agency and their mothers are pimping this tour hard. Posters of the rainbow mountain cover every tour agency I walked past so know that there is no way anyone visiting Cusco can miss the advertisements. There is no reason to book this tour beforehand. In fact, there’s a 99.9% chance that booking this tour from some online tour agency will be far more expensive.
Cost of the Rainbow Mountain Tour
The cost of this tour is around 100-120 soles per person, or about $30-$35. Anything more than this is a rip off. Don’t do it. For example, searching for Rainbow mountain tours on Google will take you to nice websites that might charge you $100! Peru is a cheap place and $100 is a crazy price to pay for a group day tour. Also, feel free to bargain with the travel agents. I met someone that ended up paying 80 soles for the tour.
There are multiple day tours, 2 day tours, and the ever popular day tour which I did. As for the day tour (and likely for the multiple day tours), the itinerary is all the same. Many of the tour agencies like to boast about how their agency does something different or provides something extra, but it’s all for show. All tour agencies pick up their guests around 3am in the morning, provide breakfast and lunch, and of course a guide for the hike to the top.
Dressing for the Rainbow Mountain
Cusco is around 3400m, but the base of Vinicunca is even higher at 4200m. The mornings were brisk and chilly. Wearing layers is key to this hike as the weather is so variable. As the day progresses, it can be pleasantly warm in the sun, and surprisingly cold in the shade. The hike is strenuous enough however, that you’ll likely become warmer regardless.
The wind, especially near the peak, can be crazy strong. While I wanted to enjoy the views of the Rainbow Mountain at the top, the hurricane force winds made the stop short lived.
The Rainbow Mountain Hike
The day began very early. Our alarms went off at 2:45am and although we attempted to go to sleep at 7pm, a dinner and drinks with two travelers we met at Machu Picchu assured that we wouldn’t get to sleep until at least 10pm. Running on 4 hours of sleep, we grabbed our stuff for the day and headed outside to wait for our transportation. The pick up window is 3am to 3:30am. We saw many vans come and go, all likely heading to pick up other Rainbow Mountain day trippers. Ours finally came just after 3:30am.
We picked up a few more travelers until the van was full with about 15 people. As it was early, and everyone was equally as passed out as me, no one said anything for the entire 3 hour drive to the base of Vinicunca.
After attempting to sleep in our way too small van, we finally arrived at the base of the mountain. I hadn’t seen much of the scenery along the way as it was too dark but as as soon as I stepped out, it’s tough to not notice the incredible landscape in front of me. Rolling terraced mountains dotted the landscape, and the grandiose icy mountain of Asangate was looking me in the eye.
We gathered our belongings and headed into a small wooden house where we had our breakfast over a big wooden table. Eggs, fruit, porridge, and coffee were on the menu for the morning. Coffee seemed to give the entire group life as we were all still awaking from our zombie states, and we finally had time to get to know each other
Once breakfast was finished, we finally began our hike around 9am. Our guide gives us a short briefing of what to expect, and then walked 10 minutes to our meeting point where we converged with the other ten vans of people. It’s at this meeting point where those that want to hire a horse for the day can do so. We hired a horse (comes with a guy) for the two of us which was a steal at 70 soles.
I didn’t find the hiking itself to be difficult as the climbs are nowhere near as steep as Machu Picchu Mountain. However, at such high elevation (4500m+), the air is so thin that I was constantly gasping for breath. Near the top, I couldn’t take more than 10 steps without stopping for air.
I would consider myself in shape too, but it didn’t matter as I just wasn’t used to the extreme elevation. If anything, even if you wanted to hike the entire thing, having the option of the horse to fall back on is clutch. Also, it was amazing to have the horse to carry our bags the entire way. That alone was worth the 70 soles to us.
We alternated usage of the horse, mostly using it for climbing. Initially, I felt guilty and untrue to my backpacker ways for renting the horse. I can safely say that backpacker ways be damned, thank God I got one. If you’re in doubt, just do it and thank yourself later!
The scenery is absolutely. breathtaking. We passed through vibrant green valleys with red mountains all around us. Llamas and Alpaca dotted the landscape, grazing on the grass fields of the local villages that owned them. Asangate Mountain, covered in snow and soaring 6000m into the sky, made the scenery that much more dramatic. These amazingly furry and cute sheep dogs followed us the entire way as well.
The hike to the top took around 3 hours. Our guide advised everyone to take it at their own pace and everyone was feeling the effects of the extreme altitude. Getting that horse was the best decision of my life and I couldn’t care less about the mountain beating me. The peak is 5000m! I can live with it. Backpackers can be freaks for punishment, but on this day I did not want any part of it.
When we finally reached the top, it was a huge sigh of relief. That crazy hike was over, and we could finally stop to enjoy the views. It was as amazing as the pictures looked. What the pictures don’t capture is the crazy views of all the surrounding mountains. We stopped here for almost an hour to just admire this stunning piece of nature. The vivid mountains are the result of mineral deposits and red sandstone from over 24 million years ago. Layers formed on top of one another, creating the colorful patterns of rock strata. For example, iron contributes to the red, and copper is the light green.
The wind was crazy strong at the top but that did not stop us from taking our photos. There really is no way to take a bad photo here. Just have your back (or front) pointed towards the mountain and shoot. I wish we could have stayed here all day but the winds got stronger by the minute and we needed to head back so we could make it back to Cusco on time.
We were back at the base camp in two hours (around 3pm at this point). We had lunch in the same wooden house as breakfast. Lunch was actually delicious. They made us a huge spread of lomo saltado, sopa de quinoa, pollo chicharron, and pasta. Great way to end an amazing day.
The beauty of this mountain won’t soon be forgotten. We headed back in our tiny vans, arriving at Plaza de Armas in Cusco around 7pm. Just in time for some pisco sours!
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