Often called Vinicunca or Montaña de Siete Colores, Rainbow Mountain is a colorful peak in Peru that rises 17,060 feet (5,200 meters) above sea level. Located in the Ausangate mountain region of the Peruvian Andes, it’s surprisingly difficult to reach, though its sight is definitely worth the trek. Those who brave the ever-changing weather conditions, high altitudes, and lack of roads are promised the view and experience of a lifetime.
What makes this mountain so special is its place among a cluster of uncommonly colored summits. Some are a rich terracotta, some are lavender, and others stand out in a vibrant turquoise hue, their pigments influenced by the sediment and atmosphere of the area. But, none are quite as spectacular as Rainbow Mountain — which, as you guessed, displays a variety of colors on its slopes. To top it off, the trail to Vinicunca winds through hot springs, small villages, and shops, and offers stunning views of the Ausangate Glacier, along with plenty of opportunities for llama and alpaca sightings.
Although the route can be a challenge for even experienced hikers, anyone can make the trek if they ready themselves. Here’s what you need to know before conquering the “painted” mountain.
- Rainbow Mountain is nestled in the Willkanuta mountain range of the greater Andes and is located just three hours from Cusco.
- Its base altitude is 14,189 feet (4,326 meters), and its summit altitude is 17,060 feet (5,200 meters).
- The best time to hike Rainbow Mountain is during the dry months, between May and September, though the shoulder months of April and October can also be pleasant. If you choose to venture outside of those months, you can expect cold, wet weather and mudslides.
- The local Ausangate community is one of the only shepherding (raising llamas and alpacas) communities left in the world.
TYPES OF TREKS
The only way to access the rainbow-hued summit is by foot or horseback. Travelers can choose from one to eight-day trekking routes, though the most popular is a six-day hike called the Ausangate Trek.
Unlike the Inca Trail, Rainbow Mountain does not require permits. In fact, it’s one of the quietest hikes in the region, and you’re likely to see only a few backpackers while there. The longer routes are far from easy, and those who choose to accept the challenge must opt to either stay in local homes or camp without proper bathrooms along the way.
If that doesn’t sound like your style, go with the one-day mountain trek! Note that while this option is not long, the altitude can cause problems for those who are not yet acclimatized, and many choose to invest in a horse and guide for around 50 to 100 soles ($15 to $30 USD).
When booking a guided trip to Rainbow Mountain, there are two options to choose from: budget and premium (for small groups). The budget tours pool several different groups, which are represented by a handful of companies, into larger groups of 20 to 30 people. It’s a great option for anyone looking to get to the mountain without breaking the bank, but hikers are often led by guides who don’t speak English and won’t have access to safety equipment or snacks. The premium service costs a bit more but limits group sizes to eight people, allows hikers to arrive at the summit before other providers, and includes a hot meal cooked by a local chef.
Although many travelers prefer to book their excursions in advance, Rainbow Mountain is a bit of an exception. Booking online results in inflated prices (between $150 to $200 USD), but if you wait to book in Cusco, prices typically hover around 70 soles ($21 USD) — though you may need to do a little bartering. Regardless of where you book your adventure, make sure that you reserve the right to change the date of your tour last minute, just in case there’s notably bad weather.
No matter what time of year you visit, the weather promises to be unpredictable. In fact, it’s common that hikers experience hailstorms and sunburn in the same hour. Since even the one-day hike lasts several hours, hikers should remember that temperatures will change drastically depending on their elevation.
WHAT TO PACK
Because of the drastic weather, it’s practically impossible to dress appropriately for Rainbow Mountain. You’re likely to leave Cusco around 2:30 a.m., so you’ll want to wear dri-fit layers, as it’s typically freezing, and cotton layers will cause you to sweat when it’s hot and be damp when it’s cold. That said, the sun is likely to make an appearance later in the day, so having shorts on-hand isn’t a bad idea.
To be prepared for any type of weather, we suggest packing the following items:
- A small backpack
- Comfortable hiking shoes/boots
- Warm layers
- A rain jacket or poncho
- Lip balm with sunscreen
- A hat and sunglasses (for both sun and snow)
- A water bottle or Camelbak
- A camera
- Altitude medicine (which can be purchased ahead of time or in Peru)
BEFORE YOU GO
Acclimatizing to the high altitudes is extremely important, especially if you plan to exert yourself. If you don’t, you’ll take-in less oxygen, which will result in symptoms such as shortness of breath, headache, dizziness, nausea, etc. For those ascending from sea level, it’s recommended that you spend a couple of days getting used to the elevation and, if possible, climb gradually. For a bit of context, Cusco is located 11,152 feet (3,399 meters) above sea level, so even if you’re coming from Lima (which is 505 feet/154 meters above sea level), be prepared for quite the adjustment.
Be sure to get a good night’s sleep before your trek, and remember that drinking even the smallest amount of alcohol is not the best idea. Hangovers are magnified as altitude increases, especially taking into account that you’ll be leaving Cusco between 2:30 and 3:30 a.m.
Drink mate de coca
Many Peruvians swear by both chewing coca leaves and brewing them in a tea as a means to fight altitude sickness. If you’d prefer to take medication, we recommend that you talk to a physician before your trip. Although you can go to a pharmacy in the area and pick up altitude sickness pills, many of the ones you get over the counter are glorified painkillers with added caffeine, which don’t quite do the trick when you’re feeling sick. So do your research and remember to drink plenty of fluids!
Once you’ve conquered the trek and taken in your fix of colorful mountain scenery, explore the Andean Sinakara Valley. In addition to local restaurants, shops, and markets, the area hosts a number of festivals, including the centuries-old Snow Star Festival (Qoyllur Rit’i) — a celebration that combines Catholic, Incan, and other indigenous beliefs to honor the stars and mark the beginning of the harvest season.
But regardless of how you choose to spend your days pre and post-hike, you’re sure to leave Rainbow Mountain with enough memories and photographs to last a lifetime.
Header image by Keai Kean Chew.