If boundless sand dunes, Inca history, lush Amazon jungle and the magical Andes weren’t enough to blow you away in Peru, there are also rainbow mountains to see. With none quite as mind-blowing as Vinicunca. So incredible is this varicoloured mound of earth, that a hike to Rainbow Mountain in Peru is now, well, almost an essential part of any Cusco itinerary and hiking trail in the area.
Thousands (yes, you read that correctly) descend on this spectacular painted mountain in the Vilcanota Mountain Range. Standing in the shadow of the equally impressive Ausangate Mountain, marvelling atop the lookout after hiking Rainbow Mountain is a moment you’d be hard pushed to replicate anywhere else.
Also known as Montaña Vinicunca, Montaña De Siete Colores and Mountain of 7 Colours, a hike to Rainbow Mountain in Peru is one of those rare moments in life where nature leaves you dumbfounded. For a mountain to be such a creative work of art is truly incredible. It’s little wonder this feat of nature is known locally throughout Peru as ‘the painted mountain’.
I’m sure, also, you won’t have failed to see many an image of this artistic mountain creatively edited. If you’re expecting vibrant stripes of reds and turquoise, you’ll be disappointed. But not for long. The reality is that the colours of the mountain are much more muted, but with that, the whole outlook is much more charming and realistic. Well, for a mountain of colourful stripes anyway! And let’s face it, no filter or editing can really outdo what nature does, well, naturally.
Table of Contents
What’s in This Guide?
In this guide, we’ll cover a brief history of Rainbow Mountain, including where and what it actually is. We’ll discuss a few hiking itinerary options for visiting Rainbow Mountain from Cusco, and throw in some alternatives to this busy hike too. There are some fun facts towards the end of the post, as well as answering a few commonly asked questions in regards to the hike. Lastly, we’ll detail a suggested packing list and chuck in some bonus tips for hiking Rainbow Mountain in Peru.
Where Is Rainbow Mountain?
Located in the Cusco region of Peru, Rainbow Mountain sits to the southeast of the city of Cusco and is just a 3-hour drive away. It forms part of the Vilcanota Mountain Range in the breathtaking Peruvian Andes.
Rainbow Mountain History
Believe it or not, Rainbow Mountain is a relative newcomer to the Peru tourist scene. When Dan first visited Peru in 2016, there wasn’t much mention of travellers having seen or visited this so-called ‘rainbow mountain’. In fact, coming across the incredible images of Rainbow Mountain for the first time left us wondering if he’d missed out during his visit. But, no. That was not the case.
Although the mountain has obviously always been there, its colourful stripes weren’t always on show. Hidden by the permafrost of layers of snow and ice, there was nothing really to see. However, with a rise in global warming and subsequent changes to weather, the snow melted, revealing the astonishing painted mountain underneath. So, in effect, Rainbow Mountain wasn’t ‘discovered’ until 2015.
Of course, with something so incredible, it didn’t take long for Rainbow Mountain and a hike to its epic lookout, to take off as a tourist attraction. And now, Rainbow Mountain in Peru takes the number two spot of most visited places in the Cusco region. After, of course, Machu Picchu.
What Makes Vinicunca Rainbow Mountain So Colourful?
The colourful stripes of the mountain are caused by specific mineral compositions in the earth. These include sulphur, iron, calcium and magnesium, helping to produce the brilliant pinks, reds, greens, whites, yellows, turquoise and browns that we see at Rainbow Mountain. It’s truly remarkable.
Rainbow Mountain Itinerary
Given its meteoric rise in popularity, there are now various options on the table as to how to hike and see this incredible spectacle for yourself. Whether you choose to day trip Rainbow Mountain or take on one of the many multi-day trek options, I’m sure you’ll find the perfect itinerary to suit your needs and trip to Peru.
Let’s take a look at three incredible hiking options below.
Rainbow Mountain Hike With a Day Tour
One of the most popular ways to visit Rainbow Mountain is to take a one-day tour provided by one of the many tour operators in Cusco. It’s a full-day excursion, with most following a fairly similar itinerary which generally involves a 4:30am pick-up from your Cusco accommodation, followed by a 3-hour drive to the trailhead, where you’ll be given breakfast.
Rainbow Mountain Trailhead
The trailhead is found in a place called Cusipata Village Chilihani. From here, it’s time to tackle the Rainbow Mountain trail in Peru. Depending on your ability, the hike takes between 2–3 hours. It’s a slow and steady affair as you adjust to breathing in the thinner air. There’ll be a guide with you to answer any questions and provide assistance should you need it.
After summiting the viewpoint, and taking in the awesome surroundings of Ausangate Mountain and the Red Valley, it’s time to return to the trailhead. The hike is an out and back, so you’ll return the same way you came. Lunch is then provided before returning to Cusco.
Tour packages generally include mules and oxygen, which is a reassuring failsafe should you not have acclimatised well enough before the hike to Rainbow Mountain. It’s not uncommon for travellers to fall victim to the effects of altitude sickness and have to make use of these aids.
This is the easiest way to hike Rainbow Mountain. But, in our opinion, it is by no means the best.
Rainbow Mountain and Red Valley Tour (Valle Rojo)
The next option is another day hike, only this one includes a hike to the Red Valley. Right next door to Rainbow Mountain, you’ll find this equally impressive natural landscape. And lemme tell you, the name is spot on. This vast valley is truly mind-blowing. It’s a vision of rouge as far as the eyes can see. Nothing can quite prepare you for it. In brilliant contrast to the reds and oranges are lush patches of grasses and other vegetation.
Even though the two natural wonders are neighbours, Red Valley attracts a fraction of the visitor numbers on its trail. If you want to witness some more outstanding natural attractions in Peru, but in relative peace and quiet, this is a great option.
Red Valley Tours
That being said, given how incredible the Red Valley is, we don’t imagine it’ll stay quiet for long. Some tour operators now offer a Rainbow Mountain and Red Valley package, giving the valley more exposure and creating more of a loop trail. Get in a visit soon before it becomes overrun with tourists like its famous neighbour!
With the Rainbow Mountain and Red Valley loop, you’ll hike to the Rainbow Mountain lookout first, and then return to the trailhead via the Red Valley Mirador. The return hike, including the Red Valley, is around 2.5 hours, and well, that’s 2.5 hours very well spent.
The entrance fee to visit the Red Valley is an additional S/10 ($2.50USD) per person.
In truth, seeing the Red Valley took our breath away more than Rainbow Mountain did. Perhaps that was due to the vast scale of it, or maybe because we hadn’t seen any images of it to prepare us, unlike the wealth we’d seen of Rainbow Mountain in Peru. Whatever the reason, don’t miss the Red Valley.
If Dan and I were to hike Rainbow Mountain as a day trip, this would easily be our preferred option!
Ausangate Trek With Rainbow Mountain
The final, and most challenging option to hike Rainbow Mountain, is via the outstanding Ausangate Trek. This is the trek Dan and I completed to hike to Rainbow Mountain. It was, hands down, one of the greatest treks we covered as we travelled for three months in Peru. For five days we were immersed in complete natural beauty, with Rainbow Mountain being a huge part of that.
There are a few variations to the Ausangate Trek, but essentially, you’ll hike to Rainbow Mountain for sunrise on day 3 of the 5-day trek. It’s a difficult three-hour trek in the dark, but your efforts are fully rewarded. Our guide gently encouraged us to push a little harder in order to make it in time for sunrise.
Not only is arriving at Rainbow Mountain for sunrise utterly spectacular; but, there’s also no one else there. The day tours from Cusco to hike Rainbow Mountain generally don’t start turning up until around 9am. That means unimpeded views and a much more tranquil and personalised experience of this incredible coloured mountain.
In addition to getting to visit Rainbow Mountain as part of the 5-day Ausangate Trek, we also came across many rainbow mountains on numerous parts of the Ausangate trek. Each was completely mind-blowing too. This mountain range is just ridiculously colourful!
How To Hike Ausangate
Dan and I can’t think of a better way to enjoy Rainbow Mountain and are so glad we put in the effort to hike it as part of the Ausangate Trek. It completely blows any day trip option to hike Rainbow Mountain out of the water.
We hiked the Ausangate Trek with Apu Andino Travel Peru and had the best time. We couldn’t recommend them highly enough. Of course, it’s also possible to hike Ausangate with Rainbow Mountain independently. You can read more about our experience here, and see how to hike the 5-day Ausangate Trek with or without a guide. In that guide, we also detail shorter Ausangate routes which also factor in visits to Rainbow Mountain too.
Purchasing Rainbow Mountain Tickets: Booking Online vs. Booking in Cusco
There are many reputable online tour companies, like Viator and Get Your Guide, offering trips to Rainbow Mountain that can be booked online. It’s quick and convenient and generally offers a greater level of cancellation protection should anything happen. Hello, bad weather! However, with that, usually comes a more expensive price tag. Tours can be as much as $100USD (S/400) per person.
If you’re on a stringent budget, consider booking a day tour once you arrive in Cusco. You’ll likely be chilling for a few days whilst you acclimatise anyway, so a gentle stroll around the town centre will be a good idea. There is no shortage of tour companies around the Plaza de Armas in Cusco, and, you may even find you’re able to barter a little on price if you’re booking for the next day, or, more than one tour with the same company.
Also, you’ll want good weather for Rainbow Mountain; otherwise, you won’t be seeing a right lot. So, being able to change the date, cancel bookings or book last minute are all useful considerations.
Booking a tour directly in Cusco will range between S/60–80 ($15–20USD).
How To Hike Rainbow Mountain Trail Independently
Although much more straightforward to hike to Rainbow Mountain with a tour, it’s possible to reach independently if you prefer. But, there is currently no direct transport to take you from Cusco to the trailhead. This leaves two options. Let’s look at these below.
How To Get To Rainbow Mountain
- Taxi: if you don’t mind the splurge, it’s possible to negotiate hiring a taxi for the day. If there’s a group of you, this might seem fairly reasonable and it gives you flexibility on the times you arrive at Rainbow Mountain, meaning you can avoid the hike during the peak tour times. The cost is around S/300 ($75USD), including the waiting time.
- Car hire: if you’re brave enough to drive in South America, then you could consider hiring a car for the day. Another splurge; but, again, if there’s a group of you, the price might seem more reasonable. Again, you have the same flexibility as hiring a taxi for the day and can spend as long as you like enjoying the sights.
As you can see, though the freedom of not being in a tour is very tempting, the most cost-effective and convenient way to hike Rainbow Mountain from Cusco is to simply join an organised tour.
Being Altitude Ready for Rainbow Mountain
It’s important to acclimatise properly before visiting Rainbow Mountain in Peru. Altitude sickness (AKA Acute Mountain Sickness) is a common illness experienced by travellers and hikers alike heading to high altitudes. The main symptoms of AKA include headache, shortness of breath, nausea, lightheadedness, dizziness, indigestion and loss of appetite. Even if you’ve avoided altitude sickness before, it doesn’t guarantee you won’t get it the next time!
You’ll read many different tips online about how to avoid altitude sickness. But, the most important way to reduce your chance of getting altitude sickness is to simply avoid going up too high, too fast! As a general rule of thumb, you shouldn’t go higher than 500 metres a day, once you’re beyond 2,000 metres above sea level.
Although not at a high altitude for very long, 5,200m above sea level is a huge elevation to reach, off the bat, when arriving in Cusco. The Rainbow Mountain hike should definitely not be the first trek you do upon arrival at Cusco. But, luckily, Cusco isn’t short of hiking options to help you build up your tolerance. For instance, Huchuy Qosqo is a great day hike to kick things off. And, the Salkantay and Inca Trails are both great multi-day hike options, reaching 4,600m and 4,200m, respectively. By starting your Cusco adventures with any of these hikes, you’ll put yourself in a much better position to summit Rainbow Mountain without any problems.
Tips on How to Manage Altitude Sickness
There are other tips to help manage and reduce the chances of symptoms at high altitudes in Peru. Firstly, don’t rush around. Walk slowly and take it easy. Secondly, eat lighter meals. Don’t eat meals too fast and drink plenty of water. The locals will tell you to take coca leaves, tea and sweets. This may help with altitude too. Finally, there are altitude sickness tablets (such as Diamox) available. But, if you acclimatise properly, progressively reaching higher altitudes slowly over time, you shouldn’t need these.
Alternatives to Rainbow Mountain
If the thought of visiting a busy Rainbow Mountain trail is not up your street, then fear not. You have a few alternatives. Let’s take a look.
Known as the alternative to Rainbow Mountain, Palcoyo (Palccoyo) Mountain is a real spectacle in its own right. If you want to experience breathtaking rainbow mountains in a more quiet and off-the-beaten-track setting, then this could be the trip for you. As a bonus, you’ll get to see THREE different rainbow mountains and likely have them all to yourself.
The hike to Palcoyo is easier than the Rainbow Mountain trail too, which can be somewhat appealing. The trail to Palcoyo is a much shorter 45 minutes, and it’s much flatter. The height of Palcoyo is also 200m lower than Rainbow Mountain, standing at 5,000m above sea level.
Entry to Palcoyo carries the same S/10 ($2.50USD) entrance fee as that of Rainbow Mountain. And tours from Cusco cost upwards of S/150 ($40USD). You can also book online with Get Your Guide.
Pallay Punchu Mountain
Peru’s newest kid on the block when it comes to amazing attractions is Pallay Punchu Mountain. Yes, incredibly, there are more rainbow mountains to be discovered in Peru! Dan and I were sad to come across this one after we’d left Cusco. However, we don’t want the same to happen to you guys, so here we’ll detail how to get there, so you don’t miss out.
Obviously, this place is about to take off like a frog in a sock, as my Aussie husband would say. So, better get in there quick. Pallay Puncho Mountain, also known as Pallay Puncho or Pallay Poncho mountain is a jagged-edged rainbow mountain. To be frank, it’s completely out of this world.
Located in the Layo district, south of Cusco, Pallay Punchu Mountain can be reached in around 3 hours. Like Palcoyo Mountain, it’s easiest to take an organised tour from Cusco. The hike from the trailhead at Layo takes roughly 2-3 hours, and from the top, there are even views of a beautiful lagoon below. Pallay Punchu sits at 4,600m above sea level, so again, be sure to acclimatise before heading here.
Tour prices are around the S/230 ($60USD) mark, so not uber cheap. But my word this place looks incredible.
As mentioned previously, Dan and I came across many rainbow-coloured mountains as we hiked for 5 days through the Ausangate Mountain range. If you want a hike with far fewer people, and some days seeing no one else, then this should be a real consideration. The rainbow mountains you’ll see are still outstanding, and even more incredible as the only way to see them is to hike Ausangate.
Rainbow Mountain Facts
Rainbow Mountain Peru Altitude
The altitude, or height, of Rainbow Mountain is a dizzying 5,200m above sea level. Acclimatisation is key to be able to enjoy yourself at the top.
Rainbow Mountain Peru Elevation Gain
The Rainbow Mountain hike elevation gain is around 400m.
The best time to hike Rainbow Mountain is during the dry season in Peru. This runs from May to October. Your chances of experiencing rain and other poor weather conditions is low, which is great. But, the dry season also coincides with winter. So, although the sunshine keeps temperatures high during the day, the temperatures can really dip during the early morning and evening. For this reason, it’s always recommended to pack warm layers, which can easily be chucked on or packed down small. June, July and August are considered the very best months to visit, but this also coincides with peak tourism times, so, expect more people as a trade-off.
Hiking the Rainbow Mountain trail in the wet season will bring its own challenges of howling winds and rainy weather, although the latter usually isn’t a constant all day long. Chances of clear blue skies are less common, although certainly not impossible. The trail to Rainbow Mountain is also slightly less busy, so wet season has its advantages.
With all that being said, mountain weather can be very unpredictable. Especially at these altitudes. It’s not uncommon for tourists to travel out to Rainbow Mountain from Cusco and experience thick cloud and mist. Thus, not seeing much of the mountain and its colourful stripes. Plus, that which can be seen can appear very muted and quite dull. Fingers crossed for your visit.
Rainbow Mountain FAQs
These are some of the most commonly asked questions in regards to visiting Rainbow Mountain in Peru.
How Long is the Rainbow Mountain Hike?
The Rainbow Mountain hike length is around 7km for an out and back if doing the standard trail, and takes 2–3 hours.
How Difficult is the Rainbow Mountain Hike?
Although the trail for the Rainbow Mountain day hike is relatively short, it’s the high altitude and elevation gain that makes this trek difficult. If you’re not well acclimatised, you will struggle.
Can You Hike Rainbow Mountain Without a Guide?
Yes, you certainly can hike Rainbow Mountain from Cusco without a guide. Obviously, with that, you won’t have the safety net of the mules or oxygen included with a tour price, should the worst happen. Still, if you’ve taken all the necessary precautions to acclimatise, these won’t be necessary anyway. Plus, it is possible to hire a mule from the trailhead for around S/80 ($20USD). Also, you’ll need to take into consideration your means of getting to and from the trailhead, which, as mentioned previously, isn’t very straightforward.
Is Rainbow Mountain Worth It?
Questions like these are so hard to answer, because, ultimately, the answer is so subjective. But for me, like so many, a hike to Rainbow Mountain is totally worth it. Yes, of course, this is one of the busiest tourist spots in Peru. In many ways, it’s almost over catered for, with some days seeing as many as up to 1–2,000 people! But, there’s a reason. Rainbow Mountain is truly spectacular, and so it definitely deserves a day of your time.
How Much Is It To Visit Rainbow Mountain?
Currently, the cost to enter Rainbow Mountain in Peru is S/10/person ($2.50USD). If you book directly with a tour operator, you will need to check with them whether this entry fee is included in the tour price. Often it is not.
Overtourism and Vinicunca
As with many beautiful spots, an influx of visitors can often have an adverse reaction. The Pools of Millpu is a great example of this. Swimming is no longer allowed. The same with Choquequirao. It used to be possible to camp within the ancient Inca citadel (I know, incredible right!). But, with an increase in tourism, year on year, comes destruction. And, so, it’s no longer possible to camp anywhere within Choquequirao. New regulations have been implemented to deal with the over-tourism and preservation of these incredible sites.
Of course, to say not to visit these places would be hypocritical. But, I think it’s important to be a responsible traveller. That means adhering to rules, leaving no trace, sticking to designated hiking trails and not pushing boundaries and upsetting local communities for the sake of your own personal adventure.
For Vinicunca, that means not walking on the mountain itself. It’s forbidden. Also, stick to the clear Rainbow Mountain trails and don’t cross any barriers. On the trail, use the designated toilets.
Where to Stay in Cusco
You’ll likely be staying in Cusco for the hike to Rainbow Mountain. So, where to stay in Cusco before and after the trek? Of course, there are many options to choose from! But, to save you the headache, we’ve narrowed down the best budget, mid-range and luxury options.
- Budget – Secret Garden: a great choice for the budget traveller looking for a highly-rated dorm room. Secret Garden is conveniently located in the heart of Cusco. If you consider the price and quality of Secret Garden, it’s got to be one of the best value stays in Cusco.
- Mid-range – Fiesta Inn Cusco: Dan and I had a great experience staying here. Fiesta Inn Cusco is located just outside of the city centre, so, it’s nice and quiet. A buffet breakfast is included, which was pretty decent, and the Wifi is fantastic.
- Luxury – Cozy Room Cusco: this bed and breakfast is a fantastic option for optimal comfort and rest. Cozy Room Cusco offers incredible views of Cusco and the surrounding mountains. This highly-rated and popular B&B has excellent facilities, including a shared lounge and terrace to enjoy those mountain views. Yes, there are more luxurious options. But, you’ll pay a fraction of the price at Cozy Room Cusco and have just as good an accommodation experience.
It’s really important to have good travel insurance wherever you go in the world. But, it’s especially important when taking on some high-altitude hikes, like Rainbow Mountain in Peru. In fact, many travel insurance companies require additional policies when it comes to high-altitude hiking. Namely, anything over 3–4,000 metres above sea level may require additional cover.
Don’t scrimp on this. Hiking at high altitude is no joke and you will want to make sure you have appropriate cover should anything untoward happen.
SafetyWing is an excellent budget-friendly travel insurance provider. Personally, Beck and I have used SafetyWing’s Nomad Insurance many times to insure our trips. The Nomad Insurance is fantastic value for money with a smaller additional cost to add a partner. Unlike most other insurance companies, there’s an option to pay on a monthly basis, similar to having a prepaid phone plan. Better yet, there’s no lock-in contract. In addition, you can cancel at any time, which will take effect the month after.
For shorter trips, it’s also possible to use Nomad Insurance for trips lasting just days or just 2–3 weeks. Indeed, SafetyWing is cheaper than almost all other travel insurance policies and covers just as much and sometimes more.
SafetyWing is a modern travel insurance company that is certainly leading the way in terms of how travel insurance should work in the future. Use the widget below to suss out a quote today.
Five Hiking Essentials
- Merrell Moab Mid Gore-Tex Hiking Boots: these hiking boots are super comfortable and lightweight.
- The North Face Venture Jacket: a fantastic windproof/waterproof jacket.
- Osprey Skarab 30L Day Backpack: a great backpack for hiking, which has plenty of space to store your gear.
- The North Face TKA Glacier Fleece Jacket: an excellent warmth:weight ratio fleece jacket that’ll help keep you warm.
- Columbia Convertible Trousers: a value for money pair of water-resistant convertible trousers.
When hiking to Rainbow Mountain, you should also take water, snacks, sunglasses, sunscreen and a hat. Trekking poles are also a huge advantage and we would recommend them for the Rainbow Mountain trail. Most tour companies in Cusco will rent them or include them in your tour package if you don’t travel with your own.
For a more complete gear list, check out our 66 Travel Accessories That You Must Travel With. Or, for a summary of everything you’d need for a hiking trip to Peru, check out our Ultimate Packing Checklist.
- Rainbow Mountain by horse: as mentioned, altitude sickness can affect anybody at any time. But, there are ways to ensure you still get to visit Rainbow Mountain, even if you’re not well enough to hike. If you visit with a tour, they’ll travel with mules to transport anyone not feeling so great. Or, if you hike Rainbow Mountain independently, you can hire mules from the locals at the trailhead for S/80 ($20USD). Of course, you may just want the experience of riding a mule in Peru. That’s cool too.
- Sacred Valley: centred around the heart of the Inca empire, there’s so much to explore in the Cusco area and a trip to Machu Picchu is an absolute must. Be sure to look into the hiking there, like the Inca Trail, and book online in advance so you don’t miss out on Huayna Picchu, Huchuy Picchu and Machu Picchu Mountain hikes.
- World-class multi-day hiking: Peru has some of the greatest multi-day hikes to be found in South America. Be sure to check out Ausangate Trek, Salkantay Trail, Huayhuash and Santa Cruz.
We can’t recommend the Ausangate trek to see Rainbow Mountain and the Red Valley enough. Let us know in the comments below what you did, and if you have any advice for fellow travellers!