I think it’s all the colors and stripes and cute alpacas that make it seem like Rainbow Mountain is so playful and easy to conquer. It’s not. The altitude will kill you. But it is so worth it; you’ll forget about how shitty you feel and smile through the nausea.
Rainbow Mountain, locally known as Vinicunca, is a relatively new attraction that only saw the light of day in 2015 when the glacier melted. Who said global warming was all bad?! The melted ice and snow unveiled a stripy, colorful beauty that hordes of tourists would soon start filling Instagram with.
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In all honesty, for me, the actual Rainbow Mountain isn’t why this place is so great. It was the strenuous trekking and spectacular views of the mighty Andes that did it for me. The colorful hills were just a little joyful-looking bonus.
There are several ways to see the popular Rainbow Mountain—Vinicunca, as well as another, just as rainbowy alternative—Palccoyo. Spoiler: that one is much easier to walk to.
The mountains have colorful stripes based on the mineral that prevails in whichever stripe. For example, the iron sulphide makes yellow stripes, calcium carbonates like quartzose and sandstone make up the whites, and the red stripes contain a lot of clay.
Just don’t go with Instagram-inspired expectations—most of the pictures you see on the internet have a filter on them. The stripes aren’t bright colors, rather more earthy and, you know, natural.
Best time to visit Rainbow Mountain
What you don’t want is snow or rain, because snow covers the rainbow and rain means clouds that cover the stellar views. Fog will also put a damper on things and there is more of it during wet season.
The best months to go to Rainbow Mountain are April through September, the dry season. All other months are the wet season.
So, of course, we visited during wet season—in January. We got lucky and had a beautiful day without a single drop and clouds at bay, but no matter when you are in Peru, check the weather before you set out.
It is worth rearranging your itinerary and postponing your hike a day or two in order to try for the best conditions you can get. You really want to be able to see the mountains in the distance, like the sacred Inca mountain of Ausangate.
Keep in mind this is a real mountain, so expect temps to drop down to freezing up on top. It can also be windy, so dress in layers and be prepared to take on nature.
The three routes to Rainbow Mountain(s)
The Rainbow Mountain, Vinicunca, is not the only rainbow-colored mountain around. In fact, there are many of them in the area, which is why one of the routes mentioned here is to another nearby location: Palccoyo. You won’t see “the one” on that hike, but you’ll see three just like it!
Route 1: The popular Cusipata trail
Possible route closure! Before you head out on this hike, make sure it is open. Everything was hunky dory when we visited in the beginning of 2022, but there is talk of the local communities fighting over access routes and entrance fee rights that may result in the trail’s closure until the disputes are resolved.
This is one of the routes that everyone and their dog takes, and we took it too. It was demanding, we felt awful, it was full of tourists, and we’d do it again in a heartbeat. Karin even thought it was the #1 top thing we did in Peru.
You start hiking at 4,600 m (15,000 ft) and continue for 3 km (1.8 miles) with a total elevation gain of about 400 m (1,300 ft), and then back the same way. So it’s not that long, but it’ll take you 2 hours to get up there and another 1.5 hours back down because you will be taking breathing breaks every 20 m (65 ft).
You can pretend to be taking in the amazing views while you try to catch your breath. On clear days you’ll be awestruck by snow-covered Ausangate in the distance. This 6,384 m (21,000 ft) mountain is considered sacred by the Incas and Quechuas. And it is huge! It’s the highest mountain I’ve ever seen.
You can rent mules all along the way up to give you a boost when your body fails you. They get cheaper the closer to Rainbow Mountain you get. And don’t forget to drink coca tea! There is lots of that available on route as well.
Tip: If you still have some energy left over when you reach Rainbow Mountain, you can add another 20 minutes to your hike, leave most of the crowds behind and continue to Red Valley. The red surface of the mountains with the snow-capped mountain range in the distance will leave you picking your jaw off the floor.
Our top tips for Rainbow Mountain: ⛰️ Stay in Cusco for a minimum of 4 days before attempting to trek to Rainbow Mountain. The altitude is a killer! Book a nice hotel in Cusco and get used to being in the mountains first. 📕 Read up on altitude sickness before you go. 🤩 There is another way! Palccoyo Mountain is just as colorful and there are not one, but 3 rainbow mountains there! Check out the third route option below.
Driving to Rainbow Mountain through Cusipata
If you go on this trek with a tour company, they will pick you up in Cusco at something like 3 am, drive you to the mountain, hike with you, and drive back to Cusco.
I cannot force myself to spend 3+3 hours in a minibus full of strangers, so we always go on our own. We slept to a decent hour and got to the mountain later than the tour people, so it wasn’t as crazy crowded when we were hiking.
From Cusco, the village of Cusipata is just a 1.5-hour drive. Right before you enter the village there is a turnoff to the left right before the orange bridge with a sign that says “Cerro Colorado”. It looks like it can’t be the right way to go, but it is, so trust the process (and your GPS).
After this, you still have another 1–1.5 hours to go, driving through local villages. How does a little car sickness sound as an appetizer to your impending mountain sickness?
You’ll be asked to pay a small fee in some villages, which seemed fair considering the locals built and maintain the road that you and thousands of others are now driving on. Make sure you have small change on you.
In about an hour of this already interesting trip (views + villages = cool) you’ll get to a gate where you’ll pay a s/40 entrance fee and continue onto a large parking lot.
After that, it’s all (wo)man power. Or horse power. Remember that the mules can take you up but you must come down on your own.
Route 2: The longer Pitumarca trail
Another way you can get to Vinicunca is through the village of Pitumarca. This route is longer than the one through Cusipata, about 5 km (3 miles) one way, which will take you about 3 hours unless you are used to the altitude, and then the same thing back again.
You’re looking at an elevation gain of 500 m (1,600 ft), which is harder on your legs but a tiny bit easier on the rest of your body, since you’ll have slightly more time to get used to the altitude.
The great thing about this trail is that since you are going up from the other side of the mountain, you will be rewarded with views of the sacred Ausangate for most of your hike. Trust me, that alone is worth the extra steps.
The omnipresent mules that are waiting for tired tourists to give up will take you to the foot of Rainbow Mountain, but you’ll have to make that last steep climb on your own. The way back to your car is also up to your own two feet.
Again, stock up on, buy and consume coca products on the way.
Driving to Rainbow Mountain through Pitumarca
The road to the parking lot is pretty straightforward. To get to Checacupe you’ll drive under 2 hours from Cusco. From there you’ll aim towards the village of Pitumarca, which is only 7 more kilometers (4 miles).
Once you get to Pitumarca you keep going until the roads turn to dust and follow it for 40 km (25 miles) until you reach a parking lot. It won’t be a comfortable ride, but it’ll be much worse on the way back when you’re dealing with altitude sickness!
You’ll pay s/20 to go on this hike.
Route 3: The short and easy Palccoyo trail
If all this talk about altitude sickness and hours of hard hiking trying not to vomit makes you want to google photos of Rainbow Mountain and call it a day, I have a proposition for you.
Palccoyo not only has a lower altitude than Vinicunca at 4,900 m (16,076 ft), but with less than 200 m elevation gain, it’s an almost flat trail! Plus, the parking lot is like 2 km (1.2 miles) from Rainbow Mountain. Put it all together and you get an easy hike of about 40 minutes.
The trail starts out as dirt and then has parts paved with stones. Just like the other two hikes, this one gives you views of Ausangate Mountain, too. It is a little further back though, and you definitely need a clear day to see it.
You’ll get your first glimpse of color within 15 minutes from the start of the hike, and then, when you reach the end, there’s not one but three colorful mountains! I call that a bargain.
For obvious reasons, there are no mules or coca tea ladies on the way, but an occasional alpaca owner pops up, offering one of his animals for a cute photo op for a small fee. I mean why not, this is their land and we’ve invaded it with our Instagrams and tourist money, they deserve at least a small part of it.
The entry fee for Palccoyo is s/10.
Tip: Most people add 15 minutes to their trek and take an extra scramble to the Stone Forrest or “Bosque de Piedras”. It’s not very big, but the sharp, tall rocks jutting out of the mountain do look kind of like forest. I guess it depends on much coca you’ve consumed on your hike. It does, afterall, provide not only physical stimulation, but mental, too.
Another tip: You can add a little stop on your way to or from the hike in Combapata, which you’ll be driving through on route from Cusco. The three bridges there are a fun little way to compare and experience various architecture: You can walk across a reproduction of an Inca bridge from the 15th century, an original stone bridge from the colonial 18th century, and then drive across the Urubamba River over the orange metal bridge from the 19th century.
Driving to Palccoyo “Rainbow Mountain”
From Cusco, you’ll be driving to the town of Combapata, about a 2-hour drive. There, look for the orange bridge, and the signs that point you to the turn-off to “Montana de Colores Palccoyo”.
The drive through the mountains is a gorgeous, albeit bumpy one. The views are incredible, you almost forget to be carsick. This part of the drive will take at least 1.5 hours.
You’ll know when you get there, just park your car at the Palccoyo parking lot.
Rainbow Mountain elevation and difficulty level
If it were way closer to sea level it would be an easy to medium-level hike. But that factor of not enough oxygen is a biggie that turns this hike into a hard one. Just ask the dozens of people throwing up on the way there. This is true for both mountains, Vinicunca and Palccoyo, but given Palccoyo is at a lower altitude and the hike is much shorter, you won’t have as much trouble with it.
If you are acclimatized, there isn’t a reason to be worried about the hike to Rainbow Mountain. You’ll probably still be huffing and puffing due to shortness of breath, but without a throbbing headache and your lunch trying to make its way back up, the trail isn’t that demanding. Only the very last section is steep.
AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) happens to some people at altitudes above 3,000 m (10,000 feet) where the amount of oxygen in the air drops to a two thirds of what it is at sea level. And Rainbow Mountain is at over 5,000 m! Read our post entirely about AMS and its health risks, treatment and prevention.
Rainbow Mountain altitude
Before we get into the different routes you can choose from, let’s take a look at the altitudes and how they affect the Rainbow Mountain hike:
- Cusco: 3,399 m (11,150 ft)
- Vinicunca: 5,200 m (17060 ft)
- Palccoyo: 4,900 m (16,076 ft)
For reference, Machu Picchu sits at 2400m (7900 ft). And while you won’t have any trouble at Machu Picchu, you will definitely be punished at Rainbow Mountain if you hadn’t taken the time to acclimatize in Cusco before you go. It’s a whole other level, quite literally. The extreme hangover level—massive headache, dizziness, nausea, the feeling that you can’t take a deep enough breath.
Considering we hiked up on the last day of 2021, it felt just like a regular New Year’s in any city center would, sans the alpacas. I don’t usually party like its 1999 but this altitude sickness was like a combination of being very intoxicated and very hung over at the same time.
Great conditions for hiking 6 km there and then back again! You start out all happy and giddy and come back as if you got sucker punched by Vinicunca herself.
We spent 2 days in Cusco before our hike and wanted to chop our own heads off because they hurt so bad. If you have the time, aim for a few more days in Cusco before taking on Rainbow Mountain. Otherwise, stuff yourself with coca everything and hope for the best.
Tip: Do yourself a favor and get a nice hotel in Cusco and stay at least 4 nights to prepare yourself for the altitude of Rainbow Mountain. Also, can we inspire you to visit Paracas National Reserve? We had an epic stay there at the DoubleTree Resort by Hilton. You can read all about why we loved it in our post. Paddleboarding with giant jellyfish, anyone?
The good news is that the altitude sickness got a lot better once we descended back down to Cusco level, and we were totally fine by the (end of the) next day.
Tips for dealing with altitude sickness on Rainbow Mountain
Read up on AMS before you go so you aren’t trying to read it while it’s happening.
On the route we took from Cusipata (the popular route), there are ladies selling coca tea all along the trail. Buy it, drink it, it helps. There are also other coca products you can stock up on before you go, like the lovely chocolate-covered coca leaves we kept gnawing on. They’re available everywhere.
Don’t make the mistake of eating a lot of meat before your hike, apparently that can make AMS worse. We decided to try alpaca meat before setting out—bad idea. Anything too salty is bad.
Unless you are very inconveniently allergic to horses (as am I), you can rent a mule on some of the routes to carry your sorry body up all or some of the way to Rainbow Mountain. I would’ve totally hopped onto a mountain horse’s back had I not been scared of making my condition even worse. Making it worse was just not something I was willing to risk. Worse sounded like dying at that moment. The mules only go up though, so you’ll need to walk back down on your own two feet.
If you go as part of an organized tour, your guides will assist you on the way down and have oxygen tanks available. I hate tours but I so wanted to inhale their oxygen!
We loved Rainbow Mountain. You have to be ready for the altitude sickness that will inevitably tackle most visitors, but the suffering was worth it. I do think we’ll stay at our happy elevation maximum of 5000 m for the near future. At least until we forget how crappy we felt.
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