Rainbow Mountain: Complete Guide to Hiking Vinicunca

Rainbow Mountain, known locally as Vinicunca, is a spectacular multi-colored mountain in the Andes near Cusco. Learn everything you need to know to complete this challenging hike.
View from the top of Vinicunca Rainbow Mountain in Peru
View from the top of Rainbow Mountain. Photo by Alicia Gonzalez.

A visit to Rainbow Mountain, known locally as Vinicunca (its Quechua name) or the montaña de siete colores (seven-colored mountain), is an absolute must for all those who love stunning landscapes and gorgeous scenery. Nestled in a remote region of the Andes Mountains, Rainbow Mountain was once a spectacle only to be admired by trekkers along the Ausangate Trek, but now you can witness this display of natural beauty in all its glory on a shorter 1- or 2-day hike.

Table of Contents:

Overview

Turquoise, scarlet, and mustard colored sediments drape down Rainbow Mountain, or Vinicunca, and give the mountain its striking appearance. These different layers of color represent distinct mineral contents and were formed over the course of millions of years before being exposed by the tectonic movements and intense wind erosion of the high Andes. The mountain was once covered by a glacier which has since melted due to the effects of global warming. It then became a popular side excursion on the Ausangate Trek before shorter 1- and 2-day tour routes were developed in recent years.

At 5,200 meters (17,060 feet) above sea level, Rainbow Mountain’s altitude is more than half that of Mount Everest. Those who wish to see this beautiful site for themselves must be prepared for a difficult 3-hour hike at high altitude. Weather conditions can also complicate the journey, with both blistering cold temperatures and intense UV rays due to the elevation. But while getting there might be a little tough, the extraordinary view once you reach the top will make it all worth it.

Viewpoint at the end of the Rainbow Mountain hike

The hike is tough, but the view is well worth it. Photo by Alicia Gonzalez.

Quick Facts:

Elevation: 5,200 meters (17,060 feet) above sea level.
Duration: 3-4 hours, depending on pace.
Distance: 7 km.
Difficulty: Moderate to difficult, depending on level of physical fitness.

How to Get There

All tours to Rainbow Mountain leave from the city of Cusco, the former capitol of the Inca Empire and the closest major city to Machu Picchu and many of Peru’s most famous attractions. After departing from Cusco your tour will take you on a 2-hour drive south of the city to the town of Pitumarca. Not far from here is where you’ll find the Rainbow Mountain trailhead to start your hike.

The hike to Rainbow Mountain will usually take around 3 hours depending on your speed and level of physical fitness. The trail itself is mostly flat until the final ascent, but the high altitude is what makes it challenging. Because of the strain that high altitude can cause on the body, it’s generally recommended to walk at a relaxed pace (which you’ll want to do anyways so that you can enjoy the natural beauty around you). For those who prefer not to hike, there are usually horses available for rent along the trail, however they can only bring you to the end of the flat part of the trail where you’ll have to dismount and climb the final stretch on foot to reach the summit.

The local people of this region keep herds of llamas and alpacas, so you’ll have the chance to see many of these furry creatures along the way. Once you reach the summit’s lookout point you’ll have sweeping panoramic views of not only Rainbow Mountain but also the nearby Red Valley (some extended tours also hike through the Red Valley itself via an alternate trail to the mountain). Make sure to take a lot of pictures of this amazing landscape!

A herd of llamas along the way to Rainbow Mountain

A herd of llamas at Rainbow Mountain. Photo by Alicia Gonzalez.

Best Time to Visit

The Peruvian Andes are subject to two distinct seasons: the dry season, lasting from roughly April until October; and the rainy season, lasting from November until March (with the months of heaviest precipitation being January and February).

Because of its high altitude and frigid air, rainy season in the region often translates to snowfall for Rainbow Mountain. Visitors to Rainbow Mountain should come prepared with clothes for all weather, as conditions can also change quickly. For more information about when to visit, make sure to check out our blog on the best time to visit Peru.

What to Bring

  • A water bottle with plenty of water.
  • Snacks for the hike (making sure to bring back any trash with you). There are also locals selling candies, water and soda, and small snacks near the trailhead.
  • Peruvian soles in smaller bills (S/.20 and S/.40) if you want to pay for a horse ride.
  • Comfortable hiking shoes with good traction.
  • A warm hat.
  • Multiple layers of clothing in order to be prepared for all weather conditions.
  • Sunscreen and sunglasses. This is important not to forget, since the sun’s UV rays are very harsh at high altitude.
Red Valley, located next to Rainbow Mountain

Red Valley. Photo by Alicia Gonzalez.

Altitude Sickness

The possibility of experiencing altitude sickness is one of the most common concerns for visitors to Rainbow Mountain. Altitude sickness is caused by a lack of oxygen at higher altitudes and can set in at altitudes above 2,500 meters (8,000 feet) above sea level, putting Rainbow Mountain’s altitude of 5,200 meters (17,060 feet) well above the minimum elevation where it can occur. The symptoms of altitude sickness (known as “soroche” in Peru) can include headache, vomiting, dizziness, tiredness and shortness of breath. In rare cases these symptoms can develop into more serious illnesses. Due to the strain placed on the heart by lower oxygen levels, those with a history of heart problems should not hike Rainbow Mountain. If you are not sure whether or not you should hike Rainbow Mountain, make sure to discuss your concerns with a doctor before coming to Peru.

After you’ve discussed any health concerns with your doctor and decided that hiking Rainbow Mountain is safe for you, make sure to keep the following tips in mind for your tour:

  • Always take the time to acclimatize to the altitude for a day or two before attempting to hike Rainbow Mountain or completing any other strenuous physical activity.
  • Take medicine for altitude sickness such as Acetazolamide (Diamox), which is sold over the counter in Peru.
  • Drink coca tea, an herbal remedy for altitude sickness used by local peoples for thousands of years.
  • Avoid heavy meals, alcoholic beverages and smoking cigarettes.
  • Make sure to keep well-hydrated.

For more information about altitude sickness and how to manage its symptoms, make sure to check out our blog about altitude sickness in Peru.

Hiking the trail to Rainbow Mountain

Hiking to Rainbow Mountain. Photo by Alicia Gonzalez.

Frequently Asked Questions

Below you’ll find our answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about the hike to Rainbow Mountain.

What is the trail to Rainbow Mountain like?

The trail starts as an even, gradual incline through a valley until you arrive to a steeper climb up to Rainbow Mountain.

To get the classic view, you have to climb a very steep, hard packed dirt mountainside that’s across from Rainbow Mountain. Because the mountainside is sheer, the terrain can be slippery when wet. The summit allows you to see the full streaking of the mountain side and the stellar views of lush, green scenery that fade into steely snowcapped mountain peaks.

How hard is the hike up to Rainbow Mountain?

Many people don’t realize beforehand that Rainbow Mountain is a high altitude hike. The altitude, more so than the incline of the trail, adds to the challenge factor of the hike. The trailhead starts at around 4,300 meters (14,000 feet) and climbs to just over 5,000 meters (16,400 feet). Many people have a hard time and end up paying for a horseback ride offered by one of the locals walking along the trail.

What is the weather like?

The weather at Rainbow Mountain is very unpredictable, changing frequently and quickly. You might see warm weather and sunny skies one minute and then cloudy skies and snowfall the next. The best idea is to make sure you’re prepared for all weather by dressing in layers.

Are there restrooms along the trail?

Very basic bathroom facilities are available along the trail. These bathrooms are very rustic, but it’s the only option that is available in such a remote area. Make sure to carry a roll of toilet paper with you just in case.

Do you recommend a 1- or 2-day tour?

A 1-day tour to Rainbow Mountain ends up being a very long day. Pick-up in Cusco is very early at 3am, then it’s a 3-hour drive to the trailhead, and then after several hours of hiking you make the return drive. This can be very exhausting even for those in great physical shape, so for those who have the time, taking a 2-day tour may be a good idea.  The schedule for 2-day tours is at a slower, more enjoyable pace. Not only does it break down the long roundtrip drive to and from Cusco, but camping closer to Rainbow Mountain allows you to adjust better to the altitude than in Cusco so you feel better during the hike.

Rainbow Mountain, also known as Vinicunca.

Lookout point at Rainbow Mountain. Photo by Alicia Gonzalez.

Plan Your Trip

Want to see the incredible Rainbow Mountain for yourself? Don’t hesitate to contact us so that one of our expert travel advisors can start planning your trip today!