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Rainbow Mountain Tips
Hiking the Rainbow Mountain has skyrocketed to one of the top sites people planning a trip to Peru want to see. Luckily I was able to visit almost two years ago when it was still relatively uncrowded. Vinicunca is the local name for the mineral laden, striped mountain made famous on social media. For me it was the absolute highlight of my travels in Peru, putting Machu Picchu in a close second place.
But should you make the dizzying hike up over 5,000 meters/17,000 feet? With rapidly changing weather patterns, the real danger of going to high altitudes without proper acclimatization, and the teetering on perilous road journey to reach the trailhead are all things to consider before choosing to trek up to Vinicunca. But don’t let that scare you away! If you do take the time to prepare yourself, even those that aren’t seasoned hikers can make it up here.
Where is the Rainbow Mountain & how do I get there?
Vinicunca is found nestled deep in the Andes Mountains about 3 hours by minibus from Cusco. More specifically it is located in the Wilkanuta Mountain Range. If you do plan to go by your own means via taxi, rented car or hitchhiking, you will first take the PE-3S south from Cusco to Checacupe village, about 100 km away from Cusco. Once in Checacupe head northeast on the CU-124 just past Japura Village where you’ll continue onto the R-09 which will take you to the settlement where you’ll being the hike from (if you make it to Chillca Village, you’ve stayed on the CU-124 too far). To be honest, when I visited the Rainbow Mountain with my best friend, we weren’t sure where it was even located and couldn’t track down much to any info on it, so we did go by a guided one day tour. These directions came from a good trekking buddy. Also, you can easily find your way to the trailhead with the maps.me app. Seriously, how did I travel before maps.me?
The one thing I will say about the road getting to the Rainbow Mountain trailhead is that it is probably the most terrifying road I’ve ever been on and I’ve seen some pretty extremely bad roads. There are parts where the the road narrows to one lane and you’re teetering on the edge of a cliff thousands of feet high. When I went there was even one point where you had to get off the minibus and we had to line up two logs reinforced with boards the exact wheel distance apart to get the minibus across a small river (then of course we had to walk across)- but I’ve since heard that there is now a more permanent bridge there 🙂
How did the Rainbow Mountain get that way?
Weather erosion, minerals, and tectonic uplift are who we have to thank for this geologic masterpiece. Different conditions of the environment and differing mineralogy over time as the sediments deposited paired with the weathering over time lead to the striations of color you see on the Rainbow Mountain. This phenomenon isn’t unique to Vinicunca or the Ausangate Mountains in Peru either- colorfully striated and swirled mountains can be seen all over the world. The thing making Vinicunca so unique is how the perfectly line up on that ridge line descending down giving it that ‘rainbow layer cake’ look that has made it so famous- and that is where the tectonic uplift comes in. Tectonic uplift is when an area (geographically speaking) is lifted as a consequence of the tectonic plate movement. And this where you should start to piece together the fact that Peru has a looooong coast on the Pacific Rim of Fire and like it’s neighboring countries- suffers many earthquakes.
So voila! That is how Rainbow Mountain came to be in a super-simplified explanation.
Should I do the Ausangate Trek or a Vinicunca Day Trip?
Ultimately this is up to you and the amount of time you have. By the time I found out the Rainbow Mountain existed, my friend and I had most of our Bolivia and Peru trip planned out and tickets had already been purchased. (Tay was still completing her degree and had to be home to start the summer semester making our trip very planned out day to day). So we went with the day hike option to visit the Rainbow Mountain, as realistically it was the only way we could squeeze it in. Looking back, had we not had the time constraints we would have opted to do the entire Ausangate trek spanning over roughly 5-7 days.
For those with limited time, I would say either do a day trip to the Rainbow Mountain, or opt for on overnight trek out there, camp and watch the sun rise over Vinicunca. But if you love hiking and have the time to spare, I would opt to do the full Ausangate Trek.
Book Rainbow Mountain Tours:
Book in advance or book in Cusco?
Yet again, this is up to you and your wishes. In the high season, there's a good chance that tours could be full if you wait too long. The downside is that if the weather goes to hell, you likely can't cancel or switch dates without some sort of penalty fee (although, some companies do offer you the ability to change and cancel without much penalty so ask before booking). But then, there's that option of DIY, and that is the beauty of going at it on your own by rented car or going in on a private car/driver hire with other travelers- you can change plans a little more easily.
Not all tours are created equal
Now, I'm not saying that if it's more expensive it's better, but sometimes you do get what you pay for. I saw one post by a blogger who seemed to have a pity party because of bad weather and is warning people not to go to the Rainbow Mountain. It seemed like they overall wanted to piss and moan about every aspect of the trek, (and let's be real here- if you've read my post: The most hilarious, worst day ever during my travels in Peru, and even I managed to grin through the pain and find some joy in the trip- their one rainy day isn't much to bitch about). In that particular post they go on to talk about some companies "ripping you off" by charging over $100 USD per person for the day trip. While yes, once we arrived in Cusco we did see tours advertised in a few agencies around Cusco for as little as 70 S/. (about $22 USD per person), we had pre-arranged to go on a day trip with Flashpacker Connect. The Rainbow Mountain day tour with Flashpacker Connect ran $150 USD per person (although, I did manage to work out a partnership with them to take the tour as a press trip- but after researching the day trip they were ultimately my #1 choice, and I had planned to pay and go with them even if they did turn my pitch down). Had we each paid $150 each for our day trip would I have been upset with the product we received? Not at all. We actually ended up with a private tour (the 4 others on our trip missed their flight to Cusco the night before the trek), with a highly knowledgable guide. Not only did Abel tell us information about how the Rainbow Mountain formed the way it did, but he also had plenty of information about the local villages and the culture of the people that live in the vicinity. We also got a very early start, which is unpleasant but gave us the ability to see the mountain without a line of people walking up to the viewpoint. I can deal with a little discomfort for a grand view of a beautiful natural landform.
In comparison, I've had good friends head down to Peru and opt for cheaper Rainbow Mountain tours that they booked on the spot and have came back with mixed reviews, some good, some bad. If you just want to go up there to see the Rainbow Mountain and don't mind being in a larger group or want to learn about the area from a scientific and historical perspective, and save some money by not knowing what kind of product you're receiving then I'd take the gamble. Trust me, I've done it in plenty of destinations and have great and mediocre day tours. All I'm saying is that it doesn't hurt to do some research before you arrive so you at least know which companies have better reputations.
Quick tips & information
- When is the best time to go? The dry months of June-September are best, however be warned- this is winter in Peru. Snow is not impossible down here in that time frame. June-September has a higher incidence of sunny days, the downside means it's the high season.
- What is the altitude? The starting altitude is 4,300 meters/14,100 feet, and the maximum altitude is 5,200 meters/17,050 feet. Pretty damn high.
- What kind of temperatures should I expect? Because the altitude is so high out here, expect to see a range of temperatures throughout your trek. It's best to dress in layers, you'll be down to a t-shirt at one point and at another you'll want you jacket, hat and mittens.
- Some of the locals will likely offer horses ranging from $40 USD and up per person for the trek, less if you make it further up before needing one. They can be arranged by tour companies as well.
What to pack on a Rainbow Mountain hike
- Athletic shoes or hiking boots- I opted for my regular shoes I'd wear out running (although, these days I'd have probably gone with my favorite hiking boot), and Tay went with a pair of trail runners.
- Daypack- You'll want somewhere to carry your water, snacks, camera, extra clothes and anything else you want to bring.
- Layered clothing- This is important as the weather or at least temperature will likely change throughout the day. I wore Merino wool leggings as a base layer and another pair of leggings overtop for my legs. On top I wore a long sleeve breathable top and a hooded sweatshirt.
- Waterproof jacket or rain jacket- I brought a waterproof shell jacket as I had a warm layer to wear underneath.
- Beanie, gloves and sunglasses- I like to keep my head, ears and hands warm. The sun is bright up here on a clear day, so you don't want to forget your sunglasses.
- Sunscreen- Did you know your more susceptible to sunburn at higher altitudes? Bonus tip: Grab a lip balm with SPF in it!
- Water- whether you fill a water reservoir in your pack before you leave your hostel or you toss in a couple bottles, don't forget to bring water! Staying hydrated is super important to begin with, but especially so at high altitude. At least 2 liters is recommended for the day trip, but honestly I brought more and was glad I did.
- A couple snacks- If you book on a tour, you'll likely have meals included, but it's nice to have a snack in case you get hungry. Bonus tip: Grab some Coca candy before you leave Cusco. It supposedly helps with the altitude, and I find it helps if I have candy or gum or something of that nature while I'm hiking.
- Camera, GoPro, Camera Phone...- I'm sure you'll want to grab a few photos to take home memories from your trek to Vinicunca.
Now, if you're planning to do the full Ausangate trek, you'll need more gear than what I listed above. Since I did not do the trek I'll recommend you read this awesome article on Trail to Peak with all the details you need to know if planning to do the Ausangate Trek independently.
Ahh, the boring part. Like how not to die and stuff. Vinicunca isn't a inherently dangerous place, however you do have to be careful.
- Welcome to high altitude! It's just downright stupid to arrive in Cusco (and not have at least spent a few days at higher altitudes in the days prior) and decide to do the Rainbow Mountain trek the next morning. Your body needs time to acclimatize to how high you are. I would recommend having been at or above 3,000 meters/10,000 feet (the higher the better, though) for at least 5 days before deciding to do this trek. To give you an idea: We had been traveling around at higher altitudes in Bolivia and Peru for nearing two weeks at this point (ranging in elevation from 3,000 meters/10,000 feet to 4,500 meters/15,000 feet. Tay lives in the mountains in Colorado and is regularly at 3,600 meters/12,000 feet and even she was a bit a winded, me living at sea level in Alaska was uncomfortable due to altitude at the top. Adjusting to the altitude is actually pretty important, you know, cause you could die... Just saying. You can even get a serious condition called HACE- High altitude cerebral edema. Read up on how to deal with altitude sickness here.
- Avoid going if its raining. We had a perfectly crisp, clear day when we trekked to Rainbow Mountain. However rain can happen any time of year, but if you plan to visit in the wetter months of November-March you can expect a higher likelihood. During and after rains you can expect a trail slippery and muddy from reports of other travelers. Not to mention, you may not be able to see the mountain if its foggy and raining, which would be a bummer.
- Bring at least 2 liters of water! Staying hydrated will help you with the effects of altitude sickness.
- Avoid drinking the night before. It'll make you feel that much worse when you're trying to trek up to the viewing point, that is if you can even make it.
- Be prepared for crazy weather. My friends laugh at me for being Mary Poppins of daypacks- this comes from a lifetime in Alaska which is not all too dissimilar to the weather here in the Wilkanuta Range. Ever get rained on, sunburnt, hailed on, snowed on, and wind blasted all in a matter of a couple of hours? Well it can happen here.
Where to sleep in Cusco?
Whether you're planning to do a day trip, or overnight trip to the Rainbow Mountain, or even the Ausangate Trek- you'll likely spend a night or two in Cusco. Here are a few great options for different budgets:
Ecopackers Hostel- Has great reviews, dorm beds start at only $9 USD per night.
El Mariscal- This is actually where we stayed during our time in Cusco. Starting at $55 USD per night (split between two of us, of course), centrally located. Staff was lovely. We have zero complaints!
Costa Del Sol Ramada Cusco- Great reviews, and a higher end style hotel. Prices start at $103 USD per night.
Inkaterra La Casona- If you're looking for lux, this is it. Rooms start at $420 USD per night.
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Looking for more inspiration from Peru?
Check out these posts!
Planning a trip to South America?
Here are some of my posts from my travels in Bolivia and the Galapagos.