Vinicunca, or Rainbow Mountain as it’s more commonly known, is rapidly growing in popularity amongst tourists to Peru. The striking color formation is like nothing else in the world, and it’s become a staple on most visitors’ itineraries.
The mountain isn’t too far from Cusco, so you can get there and back in a day. You can go with a tour group or make your own way there; we’ll further discuss the differences. In this article, you’ll find out everything you need to know about Rainbow Mountain, from its geography and geology to how to get there and what to take.
Rainbow Mountain, Vinicunca, or the Mountain of 7 Colors wasn’t actually ‘discovered’ until 2015. Before this, it had been covered in thick layers of snow. Only when the snow began to melt did the locals see its beauty underneath.
This stunning formation from Mother Nature sits at 5,200 masl and is a true wonder. You’ll need to wake up early in the morning if you want to get there and back in a day from Cusco, but it’s well worth it. Expect to travel a few hours and hike another 3-4 on the most popular route.
Along the way, you’ll experience some wonderful scenery as you get further away from the city and head to the mountains. You’ll see lots of small villages and experience how locals live in these remote parts of Peru.
Once you start to walk, the landscapes are stunning and the hills sprawl as far as the eye can see in all directions. You’ll spot plenty of llamas and alpacas grazing in the grass in their natural habitat. Once you reach the top, take your time to soak up the incredible scenery and, of course, the outstanding Vinicunca, which takes center stage.
- Experience life in rural parts of Peru
- Observe llamas and alpacas in their natural habitat
- See some fantastic scenery
- Get up close to the incredible Vinicunca mountain
Vinicunca Rainbow Mountain At a Glance
- Difficulty: This one-day hike is challenging mainly due to the high altitude. The distance isn’t very far, but you’ll need to take things slowly up there.
- Altitude: You’ll be heading up as high as 5,200 masl.
- Temperature: You can expect to get pretty chilly once you’re stood at the top for a while. Walking will warm you up, but you soon feel a chill when stationary.
- Weather: Most days, it’s sunny up here, but in June, July, and sometimes August, you can see snow on the mountain. It often rains for a short while each day from November to March.
- Duration: The trip to Vinicunca takes just one day, whether it’s a one-day trip or part of a longer trek to see Ausangate.
- Permits: You don’t need a special permit for Rainbow Mountain, but you need to pay 10 soles upon entry to the park.
Geography & Geology
Rainbow Mountain is located about 3 hours away from the city of Cusco. Transport will take you as close to the base as possible, but you’ll be expected to walk one and a half hours minimum, depending on the route you take.
The various colors of the mountain are made up of different minerals that have surfaced after many years (24 million to be more exact) of the Nazca tectonic plates moving and harsh weather conditions. The minerals include sand, clay, magnesium, and calcium carbonate.
The weather is at its best between April and October during the dry season. The skies are usually clear and there’s less likelihood of rain. The mountain is sometimes covered in snow, though. January and February are the wettest months, but there are some dry days. However, the climate is generally unpredictable and you can experience all four seasons in one day.
When to Travel
The best time of year to visit is during the dry season. With clear skies, you’ll get a great view of the mountain and surrounding landscape. Keep in mind, though, that there are more tourists during this time of year, so if you don’t like crowds, you might want to consider coming at another time of year.
If you want to take a trip to Rainbow Mountain, there are a few ways to do it. Here are some of the top tours you can opt for.
Rainbow Mountain 1 Day Tour
This is the classic trip to go and see Vinicunca in just one day. You’ll find different ways to get there further down.
Rainbow Mountain & Red Valley 2 Days
Choose this trip if you want to see Vinicunca as well as the Red Valley. The latter is beside Rainbow Mountain and is a fascinating landscape that looks like you’re on the planet Mars!
Ausangate Trek & Rainbow Mountain
If you’re looking for a real adventure and want a longer trek, you can opt for one of the Ausangate routes that also visit Rainbow Mountain. They start from just 3 days, but there are longer options too.
How to Get There
Now we take a closer look at the different routes to get to the one-day Rainbow Mountain tour and see what options you have to travel alone or with a tour operator.
There are three routes to get to Rainbow Mountain, although the most common now is via Cusipata. Here’s a brief overview of each route to see which you prefer.
This was the original route that opened up when Vinicunca first became a popular tourist attraction. If you travel on a big bus, you’ll have to go this route as it’s the only way large vehicles can get close. You’ll have to do the most walking his way, though, with about 3 hours to hike up and 2.5 hours to come back down.
This is a less-traveled route but offers a nice little extra where you can stop off at the ‘Bosque de Piedras’, which means forest of stones in English. This route only lets small vehicles get close to the mountain, which is great if you don’t want to walk so much. The hike up only takes between 1-1.5 hours.
This is the newest route to open up but has also become the most popular. Only small vehicles can pass, which is why most tour groups travel in minibusses. From here, the hike takes between 1.5-2 hours up to the top of the mountain and slightly less back down. Along this route, you’ll see the most tourists.
With an Agency or Alone
There are no restrictions when it comes to how you visit Vinicunca. The most popular way is to travel with a tour operator or agency, but it’s possible to go by yourself, too. Let’s look at the benefits of both options to help you decide.
With an Agency
- All transport is organized for you from pick up in Cusco to getting back there in the evening.
- You’ll have breakfast and lunch included, so you won’t need to worry about meals.
- An experienced guide will travel with you and explain all about the mountain and the area to give you a wider understanding of the area.
- You don’t need to worry about the logistics as everything is done for you.
- If you start to experience altitude sickness in the mountains, you’ll have your guide there to help you.
- Freedom to leave and return as you wish, but keep in mind certain times there isn’t transport.
- Don’t need to check if the agency has spaces on the day you want to go.
- Can still for breakfast and lunch when and where you like. A packed lunch is a good idea.
- Go at your own pace and spend as much time as you wish at the top of the mountain.
- No need to wait for the rest of the group at mealtimes, boarding transport, etc.
Things You Should Know
For this hike, you’re going to be heading up to a very high altitude, 5,200 masl to be exact. It’s very easy to experience altitude sickness at such elevation. To avoid this, make sure you acclimate for 2-3 days before in Cusco and prepare for the height. Consider:
- Drinking coca tea or eating coca candies.
- Carrying a small oxygen tank that weighs very little.
- Not drinking alcohol or smoking.
- Getting plenty of rest when you first get to Cusco.
- Taking things easy and not walking too fast.
- Asking your doctor for medication to help before you come.
The hike up certainly isn’t easy, although most people manage alright. However, you do need to know that it’s a challenge, mainly due to the altitude as it isn’t very far (about 7km round trip). Take it slow and you’ll be rewarded with amazing views.
When you hike at a high altitude, you’ll need to take extra special care that you drink enough water. You can get dehydrated quickly at this elevation and it can make you feel ill. You’re also closer to the sun and when there are no clouds, it’ll really bear down strong.
What to Take
To prepare as best as you can for this hike, use our list of what to take.
- Warm clothing – Whatever the time of year, you’re going to need plenty of layers. Thermal underwear is a great idea and then other thin layers you can take off or put back on as your body changes temperature. When you walk, you’ll get warm but will soon cool down when you’re standing at the top for a few minutes.
- Excellent footwear – The path is relatively flat, but there are parts of rough terrain, and changing weather conditions can make parts slippery or rough and dry. We recommend hiking boots or shoes with a good grip and warm socks to keep your feet cozy.
- Rain gear – At the very least, you need a thin poncho in case it rains. If you get wet, it’s going to make the walk much less pleasant and you’ll be uncomfortable, so it’s best to be prepared.
- Sun protection – Whether there are no clouds or it’s overcast, you need to make sure you’re well protected from the sun’s harsh rays. At this altitude, you can burn easily and the light can be almost blinding. Take a sun hat, quality sunglasses, and factor 50+ sunscreen.
- Toilet paper & hand sanitizer – If you do need to head to the bathroom up here, there’s likely to be no toilet paper. It’s also a good idea to bring sanitizer gel to freshen up afterward.
- Small daypack – You’ll need a small backpack to carry all the items you need.
- Water – This is something you can’t forget, as we’ve already mentioned. Take small sips rather than gulping them down, so you don’t need to rush to the bathroom suddenly.
- Cash in small denominations – If you’re traveling alone, you’ll need to pay the 10 soles entrance fee. You should also check if the tour agency you travel with includes this. It’s always nice to have a little bit of money for a drink or snack when you get to the top as some locals sell them. You can even try deep-fried alpaca!
Written by: Liv Palmer