The Rainbow Mountain in Peru
Peru has many famous sights: the mighty Machu Picchu, the Inca Trail, the Sacred Valley, the alpacas – but there is one place that hasn’t quite hit the tourist radar yet: The Rainbow Mountain, officially called Vinicunca.
The Rainbow Mountain is one of the most beautiful, and beautifully hidden, treasures of Peru.
Located in the Willkanuta Mountain Range, nestled in the greater Andes Mountains, it is just 3 hours away from Cusco.
And even tough it is not far away from Peru’s main tourist hub, the Rainbow Mountain was only discovered for tourism in 2015.
The first guided tours were available in January 2016, but by now most of the agencies in Cusco offer multi-day and one-day trips and the place is on its way to becoming a major tourist attraction.
What makes the Rainbow Mountain so special?
Well, the name already reveals it. The mountains are partly formed of colorful minerals, which give the site a unique and surreal look. If you see photos of the painted mountains, you will first think that it must be a result of Photoshop.
But, they are real!
If you decide to visit the Rainbow Mountain (and I really think you should), you have the option to either join a multi-day or a one-day tour. The mountain itself can only be accessed by foot or horse.
Normally I try to avoid organized tours by all means, but in the case of the Rainbow Mountain, a tour is the best choice. I opted in for a one-day tour.
Often travelers prefer to pre-book all excursions in advance, and while it’s totally understandable to be organized, this isn’t the best option when it comes to Rainbow Mountain.
First of all, you will get way overcharged. By booking it directly in Cusco, you will only pay around 75 soles plus the 10 Soles entrance fee (to be paid onsite).
Second, not booking in advance gives you the flexibility to change your date last minute, if needed.
Bad weather conditions or unforeseen sickness (altitude illness in particular), could potentially force you to move your trip to another date. And this is easier if you have made your booking in Cusco, in person rather than online.
The tours are pretty much standardized. Prices usually include transportation to and from Cusco, (often with pick up and drop off at your accommodation), a basic breakfast and lunch and a guide.
When planning your trip to the Rainbow Mountain, make sure that you have already acclimatized for a high altitude and ideally have already been in Cusco for a few days. I cannot stress this enough.
The hike to the top is no joke. It starts at around 4300 metres and ends at 5020 metres. The air up there is pretty thin. On my final steps up it felt like a magnet is pulling me to the ground.
Constantly changing weather conditions, combined with high altitude can be challenging even for experienced hikers.
What to Pack for Rainbow Mountain?
Being perfectly prepared for your hike is almost impossible. You need many things and yet you don’t want to carry too much.
When it comes to clothes, the answer is layers, layers and layers! This will take most of your space in your backpack.
You will be experiencing freezing temperatures, during the morning when they pick you up and probably later as well during the hike. Weather changes quickly in this area.
You can have a snowstorm in one hour and then later in the day, the sun might come out and it gets pretty warm. So everything from t-shirt and shorts to hoodie and winter jacket should be on your list. And don’t forget scarf, gloves and a cap.
I recommend getting some local alpaca clothes, they are cheap, light and will keep you super warm!
Here is what else I’d suggest to pack:Good (waterproof) hiking shoes! Normal sneakers or Converse will not do the job, this is a serious hike. A rain coat and wind jacket! The wind up there can get ice cold and pretty strong. Sunscreen. Remember that you will be at a very high altitude. So even if it is cloudy, put on sunscreen. A lot! And don’t forget to protect your lips as well. Toilet paper and wet wipes! Think squat toilets all the way… Coca candy for the altitude! You can buy them at almost any shop in Cusco. Usually the guides also take coca leaves with them. Extra snacks and water! Even if the tour includes breakfast and lunch, you will need some extra snacks during the hike to power up. There is also hardly any option to buy water on the way. Take at least 2 liters with you.
What to expect during your day
Be prepared for a very long and exhausting day. The tours start around 3am and you will return at 7pm.
After you’ve been picked up in the morning, it’s a 3.5 hours ride in a small van. You will stop for breakfast (bread, jam, coffee and tea) at a restaurant about 15 minutes away from your starting point.
During breakfast your guide will inform you about the schedule of the day, explain the hiking trail and introduce you to some security regulations. There are usually two guides, one Spanish speaking and one English speaking.
Usually, before the tour starts, you will be asked if you would like to rent a horse. That’s not the moment to show off or be overly brave. If you are not feeling too well because of the altitude or you are physically not in a good shape, I recommend to get a horse from the beginning.
This doesn’t mean you have to sit on the horse all the way. You can do the hike, but whenever you start feeling dizzy or exhausted, at least you have the option to get on the horse.
During certain sections they actually ask the riders to dismount as it is either too steep or to give the horses an occasional break, considering the small size of the local horses either would make sense.
The cost for renting a horse is 50 Soles for one way and 75 soles for round trip.
Once you start your hike, you will experience first hand how locals live in the mountains. Along the way you will pass by some, lakes, traditional shepherd’s houses, a lot of sheep and alpacas. It’s like entering a different, ancient world.
As you get closer to the Rainbow Mountain you will begin to see the first signs of the colored minerals that formed the painted hills.
You can walk at your own pace (guides will occasionally check on you). The total hike to the top takes about 3 hours. Don’t worry, you will have enough time on the top of the mountain to take pictures. Just make sure to be back on time, the bus leaves about 2 or 3pm, depending on your tour schedule.
Before heading back to Cusco you will make a lunch stop at the same restaurant where you had breakfast.
While Machu Picchu is the most popular attraction (and without a doubt beautiful), this was by far the best experience for me in Peru – The painted hills hidden in the Andes.