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Rainbow Mountain Hike – Ultimate Guide For An Epic Adventure

Alison Macallister

Rainbow Mountain is also known by its Quechua name Mount Vinicunca or the Mountain of Seven Colors. Visiting these picturesque slopes is one of the top things to do in Cusco. Its popularity as a day trip is second only to Machu Picchu.

Considering trekking to Rainbow Mountain?

This guide has everything you need to know. Learn about the history of this attraction and get some preparation tips.

I’ve tried to give an unbiased review of what to expect on a Rainbow Mountain hike. If I’ve missed anything (or you would like to add something), please leave me some feedback in the comment section below.

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What To Know For A Rainbow Mountain Hike

How long is the hike to Rainbow Mountain?

The trail is 7km (4 miles) along a sandy path. It takes around 3 hours to hike.

How difficult is the trek to Rainbow Mountain?

The trail to Rainbow mountain is moderate and not that difficult to hike. The difficulty depends on your fitness as well as how you deal with the high altitude. I would not recommend hiking to the Rainbow mountain if you aren't already pre-acclimatised (more on this below).

Can I get to Rainbow Mountain on my own?

Yes, you get to Rainbow Mountain on your own and even hike it without a guide, unlike the Inca Trail. Read more about getting to Rainbow Mountain on your own here.

How much does it cost to hike Rainbow Mountain?

On average, tours to Rainbow Mountain cost 100 soles ($40).

Are there toilets on the way to Rainbow Mountain?

There are basic bathrooms on the route to Rainbow Mountain. You will have to pay 1 Peruvian sol to use these facilities. So, make sure that you bring change and your own toilet paper!

rainbow mountain

What Is Rainbow Mountain?

Rainbow Mountain is relatively new as far as natural attractions in Peru go. As recently as 2013, locals noticed a change in the mountain. Glacial retraction revealed ‘rainbows’ of orange, red, brown, and purple forming on the slopes.

After the first photographs hit the internet (thank you, Instagram!), Rainbow Mountain gained almost instant fame. Cusco tour operators were quick to cash in on the mountain’s popularity.

The first tours to Rainbow Mountain were in 2016. Rainbow Mountain is currently one of the best-selling day trips from Cusco.

However, the colorful slopes of Rainbow Mountain have a dark cause. Climate change is increasing the melting rate of ice in the Andes. All across the South American mountain range, glaciers are retreating further and further up the slopes.

The colorful display on Rainbow Mountain is a happy accident. The colors are a result of chemical reactions in the soil and rock - melting ice mixing with minerals, including iron sulfide.

peru-tye-dye-rainbow-mountain

Where Is Rainbow Mountain?

Rainbow mountain is in the Cusco Region of the Andes mountain range in Southern Peru. It can be reached by a 2-hour drive south from Cusco. The trailhead lies just beyond the small town of Pitumarca.

If you book a tour, you will be getting up around 4 am for an early drive to the start point. Most operators will make an hour stop for breakfast before you trek Rainbow Mountain.

We have written a detailed article on getting from Cusco to Rainbow mountain. It's worth a quick read, especially if you are considering getting there on your own.

Hiking Rainbow Mountain

The Hike To Rainbow Mountain

The 7km (4-mile) return trail to Rainbow Mountain is fairly flat. There is a very gradual incline until the last section where you walk upslope to the mountain.

This last steep bit only takes about 30 minutes up a steep slope. This is packed, hard ground and can get slippery if it has been raining, so please take measured steps.

On average, it takes 1.5-2 hours to reach the viewpoint at Rainbow Mountain. The return trip is all downslope and only takes an hour.

Please Note: If you are struggling with the altitude, you can pay for a horse ride. This trip will only take you to the base of the final ascent.

The challenging part of a Rainbow Mountain Hike is the altitude. You will be starting at an altitude of 4,300m (14,000 ft) and get up to 5,000m (16,000 ft). Even if you are very fit, the elevation can take its toll on you.

rainbow-mountain-cusco

Best time to visit Rainbow Mountain

In the mountainous part of Peru, there are two distinct seasons:

  • The dry season
  • The wet season

The dry season (April to October) is the best time for any kind of trekking around Cusco. This is when tours to Rainbow Mountain are at their busiest too.

Strictly speaking, the wet season is between November to March. This doesn’t mean that it doesn’t rain over other months. I experienced brief thunderstorms in Cusco in August and September during my stay!

You can trek Rainbow Mountain all year round. However, I’d recommend avoiding January and February because of the higher chance of heavy rain during this time.

The shoulder seasons (April and October) are usually a good time to trek on Rainbow Mountain as you will experience fairly cool and dry days. There are slightly fewer crowds around these times too.

rainbow-mountain

What To Pack (and wear) for Rainbow Mountain

The sun is intense, but even a light wind starts to feel icy on your skin. The solution? Pack for all weather possibilities!

Packing List For Rainbow Mountain:

  • Bottle of water. Take at least 1.5l per person.
  • Sunglasses, a cap, and high-protection sunscreen (SPF50+).
  • Rain poncho or Waterproof jacket.
  • Layered clothing, a warm beanie and jacket. You may want to take a colorful poncho, scarf, etc. for good pictures.
  • Snacks.
  • Camera or cell phone.
  • Toilet paper and hand sanitizer.
  • Coca leaves to chew on to help stave off the worst effects of altitude sickness.

Wear trekking shoes with good grip. I’m a big advocate for trail runners. They are multi-functional and take up less space than traditional hiking boots in your daypack while traveling.

Wherever you go, always have some cash on you. Smaller bills are useful for tipping the guide or paying to use a toilet.

Altitude Sickness On The Trek To Rainbow Mountain

Rainbow Mountain is situated 5,200m (17,000 ft) above sea level. This means you are at risk of getting altitude sickness.

It is very important that you spend a few days acclimatizing properly. Especially before doing any of the treks around Cusco.

Please Note: It is not a good idea to make Rainbow Mountain your first hike in Peru. Most companies recommend you wait to do Rainbow Mountain on your second day in Cusco. If you have the time, I’d suggest first spending 2 full days in Cusco acclimating to the high altitude before undertaking any strenuous treks.

Symptoms of altitude sickness include:

  • Nausea
  • Shortness of breath
  • Headaches

Chewing coca leaves as you hike will help prevent these effects. The guides carry canisters of oxygen but you do not want to be in the position to need it.

rainbow-mountain-crowds

What to Expect At Rainbow Mountain

There are a few things you can always expect on a trip to Rainbow Mountain:

  • Big crowds
  • Stunning scenery
  • Peruvian culture up close 

Hundreds of other Tourists

You are going to see other people on Rainbow Mountain. Lots of them. In peak season, between 3,000-4000 visitors trek to Rainbow Mountain. That is one day!

Rainbow Mountain is maxed-out as far as tourism goes. Even out of the busy months, you can expect at least 500 tourists at this attraction. If you're looking for an off-the-beaten-track, this isn’t it.

You are also going to have to queue up for your photo in front of the mountain. If this sounds like a nightmare, it's okay to opt for a calmer day trip with less crowds.

Please Note: There are a few tour agencies that leave as early as 2:30-3:00 am. This is one way to get a head start on the crowds. That is, if you don’t mind sacrificing sleep.

Stunning Views

There is a reason this hike is so popular. Rainbow Mountain’s array of colors is truly beautiful!

The layers of browns, reds, and oranges are a unique sight that you can’t find anywhere else in the world. You will also have the perfect view of Ausangate Mountain and other snowy peaks.

See more on adding an Ausangate trek to your tour of Rainbow Mountain.

Most tour groups only spend 20-30 minutes at the top of Rainbow Mountain. This is very short, but does give you time for a photo and a good look around.

Please Note: The online pictures you see of Rainbow Mountain are heavily filtered. In real life, the different layers are not as intensely colored as you may expect.

Locals In Traditional Clothing

You can also expect to see lots of dressed-up Peruvian women and Alpacas. For a few soles, you can even take a photo with them. From my own perspective, I’d recommend not supporting this type of interaction as it can be harmful from an animal-ethics standpoint.

A whole micro tourism economy has developed around Rainbow Mountain. This is great in terms of providing some much-needed income for the locals. The downside is that it creates a dependency on the visitors. The sustainability and site impacts could do with further investigation.

vinicunca-hat-and-backpack

Alternatives and Add-Ons to Hiking Rainbow Mountain

Red Valley Hike

Red Valley is the valley visible below Rainbow Valley. If you have time, you may take a different route back from Rainbow Valley through the Red Valley. If you go through Red Valley, it takes about 2.5 hours from Rainbow Mountain, most of which includes spending time appreciating the view.

Some people that have visited Red Valley say that it is actually better than Rainbow Mountain. This is because you have this scenic valley entirely to yourself.

Unfortunately, most tours do not have time to visit Red Valley after the trek to Rainbow Mountain. If you are lucky (and your group is fast), you may walk back this way.

If you want to see Red Valley, specifically choose an agency that has it included in their tour packages. You can also book a private tour or get there on your own.

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Palccoyo - The ‘Other’ Rainbow Mountain Trek

If you want to see rainbow-colored slopes, there is a second option. Palccoyo is often called the ‘other Rainbow Mountain’ and is slowly gaining popularity as an alternative to Vinicunca.

Hiking to Palccoyo is much easier than getting to Rainbow Mountain. It is a flat pathway and is more of a leisurely walk than a proper trek. It is also a much shorter walk. It takes only 40-60 minutes to get to Palccoyo's viewpoint and the same amount of time going back. Palccoyo (4,900m / 16,076 ft) is at a slightly lower altitude than Vinicunca (5,200m / 17,060 ft).

A big pro of visiting Palccoyo is that there are fewer crowds and you can walk through tranquil Andean communities. Also, if you choose to go to Palccoyo, you will see three different rainbow mountains.

Sounds good? Then you should definitely consider taking this alternative tour.

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Alison Macallister

With a degree in Nature Conservation and experience working with wildlife including the Big 5, Alison works as a guide for a 5-star reserve. She enjoys sharing her passion for all things nature-related. She enjoys hiking, horseriding, 4x4 driving and kayaking.

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