Rainbow Mountain Peru: 10 Amazing Hiking Tips (Updated 2020)

Oct 8, 2019 | Rainbow Mountain

Everyone who knows Peru or is planning a trip to Peru has seen the pictures of it on Instagram. The famously multicolored mountain known as Rainbow Mountain in Peru. The colors pop off that Instagram feed just begging you to visit and see it in all its glory!

Also known as Vinicunca, it has VERY quickly become the second most popular tourist site in Peru. What is it? Where did it come from? How has it become so popular? And, what do I need to do to see it? Keep reading to find out everything you need to know about the day trip from Cusco to Rainbow Mountain.

Rainbow Mountain Peru: 10 Amazing Hiking Tip with Rainbow Mountain in the background

What is Rainbow Mountain in Peru?

Rainbow Mountain, Peru, also known as Vinicunca or Montaña de Siete Colores, has only been a tourist destination since approximately 2015. Prior to 2015, Rainbow Mountain was completely covered by thick snow and ice, therefore it’s vibrant colors were not visible to even those who lived right at the base of the mountain.

Due to climate change and the warming of the temperatures in the Cusco region, the snow that covered the mountain top exposing the red, green, and yellow colors that were at the tip-top of the mountain.

The colors developed on the mountain as a result of weathering and mineral deposits. The red color comes from the reaction of iron oxide combining with oxygen. The yellow comes from iron sulfide. And finally, the green is deposits of chlorite.

What is the Rainbow Mountain Peru Weather Like?

The dry season (May – October) is going to be the best time to visit Rainbow Mountain in Peru. Because the trek is so steep and at such a high elevation, rain and water can create a river of water running down the mountainside.

Additionally, the trail is not well maintained, and when the trail is wet the trail turns into mud causing lots of slushing around in your boots, sliding causing difficulty gaining traction, which results in a trek that may not be much fun.

The colors do not pop as well as when it is sunny. You will likely be disappointed in the spectrum of colors you see if it is wet and cloudy. Therefore, if it has been raining at the timeframe around your trip to Cusco, we don’t recommend taking the journey to Rainbow Mountain in Peru unless you are deadset on seeing it or making it to the top.

What Should I Pack for Rainbow Mountain?

As Rainbow Mountain is such a difficult trek with variable weather, it is extremely important to bring the right clothes and equipment. This hike is NOT walk in the park so you need to be adequately prepared!

  • Small Backpack – Small enough that it’s light but big enough to carry your water, snacks, extra clothes/rainjacket to put on or take off if you get too warm.
  • Hiking shoes/boots – Complete must! Like we previously said, it can get wet and the trail is not well maintained. You don’t want to be sliding or roll and ankle. Leave the flipflops at home!
  • Warm clothes/layers – The elevation tops out at 17,000 feet. That means there can be snow and wind at ANY time of the year. It’s gonna be cold. Be prepared.
  • Rain jacket – It can rain at any time of the year. Again be prepared. You will be out on the trail for hours. You don’t want to be stuck hours away from the van with no rain jacket in rain and wind.
  • Hat – This will protect you from the sun, rain, and wind.
    Sunscreen – Again, protection from the sun. You’re going to be at such a high elevation that you will burn that much quicker. Don’t turn into a tomato.
  • Waterbottle – It’s a long steep trek. You want to stay hydrated. Additionally, at that high an elevation you’re going to evaporate water off your body quicker. The more hydrated you are the less likely you are to develop altitude sickness.
  • Snacks – Pack some snacks. It’s pretty long roundtrip and this also helps to prevent altitude sickness. Here at Cachi Life, we’ll take care of the water and snacks for you.

A small child in Peru wearing a multicolored Quechua stocking cap

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Where is the Rainbow Mountain Peru Location?

Rainbow Mountain is in the Pampachiri community outside of Cusco. It’s going to be early morning because it’s about a 3.5-hour drive southeast to the Rainbow Mountain trailhead from Cusco. Most tours leave Cusco anywhere from 2:30 am to 4:00 am. It’s best to leave a little earlier so you can be one of the first ones to the Rainbow Mountain trail entrance.

Depending on how early you leave, there will likely be time for breakfast and still, beat everyone to the top. At Cachi Life, we pack a lunch to eat at the trailhead so you can arrive early.

What is the Rainbow Mountain Peru Elevation?

It’s high! The Rainbow Mountain, Peru altitude tops out at 17,060 feet or 5,200 meters. For comparison, Mount Everest base camp sits at 17,600 feet or 5,380 meters. Nearly the same height!

Fortunately, the treks starting elevation is 14,189 feet or 4,325 meters. Again for comparison, the Cusco altitude is 3,399 meters. So you’re going to gain a LOT of elevation in just one day by the time you hit the top.

How Hard is the Rainbow Mountain Peru Hike?

Don’t do what we did. We arrived in Cusco and the next day we decided we were going to make the hike to the top of Vinicunca. Big mistake! Make sure you take 2-3 days to acclimate.

Because so much of the trek sits at an extremely high elevation, if you don’t take the time to acclimate in Cusco, you risk at worse severe altitude sickness such as HAPE/HACE, and at best nausea and headache. Typically, because you gain elevation so quickly, companies tend to only let you spend approximately 10-20 minutes at the tip-top, where you get that famous Instagram photo.

Additionally, the trek is over the course of 2 miles or roughly 3,200 meters. So that means you are going up approximately 3,000 feet or 900 meters in that small time frame. That’s a very quick ascent. Therefore it’s a VERY difficult hike. Most certainly one of the most difficult hikes I have ever taken part of. Again, give yourself over 48 hours before deciding to do this hike.

The hike is flat for about 75% of the hike. It’s not until the last 15% or so that you begin a gradual ascent, and then the last 10% or so of the last 200 meters is a very sharp ascent. It’s so sharp that you are no longer allowed to ride a horse up this final part as it is so steep.

It takes about 1.5 to 2 hours for a well-trained person to hike to the top and about 45 minutes to 1 hour to make the return trip.

Should I Hire a Horse for the Rainbow Mountain Hike?

At Cachi Life, we highly recommend including a horse in your trek for many reasons. First, it helps you to enjoy your hike more. Additionally, at Cachi Life, our mission is to support locals in the Pampachiri community that invites our travelers there. This is their homes and their communities. Hiring a horse helps to support jobs in that area and that community.

It’s definitely not necessary to ride the horse all the way, but you should without a doubt have one because of the previously mentioned steepness and altitude. If you have been listening to the podcast we have for any period of time, you have heard how by the time people were about 75% of the way up the hike, every single person was riding a horse. It’s that hard. Again, you will have to do the last 200 meters yourself. This is for the health of the horse.

Hiring a horse supports the local community. The Andean Highlands, which is the area surrounding Cusco, has one of the highest rates of malnourishment in the entire country. As a result, hiring a horse supports the local community and helps to provide jobs for the community. This helps put food on the table and at a minimum help to reduce malnourishment rates in the community. Please hire a horse and not only help yourself but also the local community.

Quechua community member at Rainbow Mountain herding goats

What are the Rainbow Mountain Views Like?

Needless to say, it’s not exactly how you see in the Instagram photos. The colors don’t pop quite as much as what has made it famous all over the internet. Many of the colors of the mountain that you see online are heavily saturated to make the colors pop.

It also depends on what the weather conditions are like when you hike Vinicunca. If it’s a nice sunny day, the colors will appear more vibrant to you. If it’s cloudy and/or rainy, the colors will definitely be more subdued.

With that said, it’s a gorgeous place. The surrounding mountains in the Ausungate mountain region are snow-capped. Additionally, the colors of red, green, and yellow make it a very unique place to see.

So make sure you make it all the way to the top. The top gives an amazing panoramic view of the surrounding valley and the glaciers covering the mountaintops, some of even which you can hike to.

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When Should I Book the Rainbow Mountain Hike?

We recommend booking your tour ahead of time at Cachi Life. Now, you may have read all over the internet other blogs that claim you can book when you get there for as low as $25 per person. Now, that’s an amazing and great price! What value!

However, the caveat to that is most companies are not running their own tours. Paying that low price you don’t know what you’re going to get. Many companies are grouping their customers together all into one big group. At Cachi Life, you will never be put into a group with another company. We run all our own tours.

Next, those companies aren’t supporting the local communities and their staff. Often, they pay bare-bones wages to their guides and don’t support the surrounding communities that invite travelers into their homes. Please be careful about these companies.

At Cachi Life, all our guides are paid a great wage and we support the communities at Vinicunca by recommending you book a horse and then helping to arrange that you have a horse along your way. Support of the communities is extremely important to us at Cachi Life.

Moral of the story, get what you deserve. Book ahead of time with a reputable company (Cachi Life – see what we did there?) so you have a plan ahead of time.

Rainbow Mountain also known as Vinicunca on a cloudy day

Will Tourism Ruin the Rainbow Mountain of Peru?

Finally, there is a concern that Rainbow Mountain has become so popular that it is very quickly getting ruined and causing degradation of the trail and the surrounding community. There is a concern that because of the high traffic, erosion is developing in the area much quicker than anticipated.

During the low season, 500 people per day are visiting the trail. During high-season that number climbs up to 4,000 people per day. To compare, for sustainability, the Inca Trail has a cap of 500 people per day every day of the year. Machu Picchu sees up to 5,500 people per day, however, the Machu Picchu area is well maintained.

This means that if steps are not taken to help preserve the area quickly, Rainbow Mountain may not last. Therefore at Cachi Life, we support a similar system as the Inca Trail for sustainability. We recommend that every year during the rainy season, the trail is shut down for repair and maintenance in a similar way that the Inca Trail is. Therefore we do not run Rainbow Mountain Peru tours from December to March.

When visiting Rainbow Mountain, please follow the backpacker’s code, “Leave no Trace.” We want sustainability not only for future travelers to see the area but also for the locals in the community.

With that said, be respectful of the area, take pictures, have fun, interact with the local community, and create lasting memories with all your family and friends!

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