Perhaps you’ve seen colorful photographs of a mountain in Peru on social media recently and were wondering what it’s all about. This mountain, called Vinicunca, is located about 3 hours away from Cusco. Thousands of years ago, sea sediments made by different chemical compounds formed these striped patterns across the land.
Vinicunca became popular from a viral social media post around two years ago. Ever since then, groups of tourists have been making their way from Cusco to the mountain’s hiking trail to get a closer look at this strange landscape. Since 2015, the Rainbow Mountain in Peru has seen an astronomical uptick in tourist numbers, but it’s still relatively quiet compared to Machu Picchu. If the photos have convinced you to visit for yourself, read on to learn how.
Booking a Tour to the Rainbow Mountain in Peru
For tours, you have generally two options – a day tour and an overnight trek. The first is the more popular and spans an entire day, from ~3 AM to 6 or 7 PM. The second is for more avid hikers/campers who are hoping to see more of the surrounding landscape. I did the day trip version (more on multiday hikes in Peru later) so that’s what I’ll be detailing in this post.
One thing to note: It is REALLY easy to get ripped off on tours here. There were anywhere from 20-30 people in my tour group, and the amounts they paid ranged from 70 soles (~$30 USD) to 200 soles (~$80 USD)…for the EXACT. SAME. TRIP. Same bus, same food, same entrance fees, same guides. After negotiating with the booking agency, I landed somewhere in the middle of the pack at 100 soles, including entrance, breakfast, and lunch.
To get the best prices, I recommend waiting until you get to Cusco before booking. If you attempt to book online, you’ll find trips up to $200 USD for one day. Once you’ve arrived in Cusco, it’s important to do your research and to negotiate where appropriate to get the best rate. Shop around at a few different tour agencies, as well as your hotel reception, to compare prices.
Getting To Rainbow Mountain
Our tour called for a 3:30 AM pickup at my hotel, which I actually found out later was more like 3:00 AM (my agency had misquoted the time). Sleepless and grumpy, I climbed on a large tour bus in the dark. Once the bus was filled, we had ~30 people in our group. 3 hours later, we arrived at our breakfast stop. Breakfast was really bare-bones, just a few hard, dry bread rolls with jam, and some hot water for coca tea. In retrospect, I would have brought my own breakfast and lunch and negotiated the tour price down even further.
After breakfast, we rode the bus for another 15-30 minutes of driving to the trailhead. I was surprised about how many people were there – dozens upon dozens of tour buses sat in a wide open field of a parking lot, while hundreds of tourists poured out of them. Our guide explained that there would be horses for rent for 90 soles for anyone who didn’t want to make the strenuous climb to over 5,100 meters of altitude. About half of our group opted to do this.
Beginning the Hike
Of course, I decided to put myself to the challenge of hiking, especially since it ended up being a really beautiful day. Our guide said that it would take approximately 2.5 hours to hike to the top of the trail. Along with two lovely Australian girls, a girl from Switzerland, and a girl from the Czech Republic, I huffed and puffed up the trail, marveling at the beauty of the landscape. This was great for me as a solo traveler!
The trail started off at a very gradual incline, but eventually got steeper and steeper. It was my second day in Cusco, so I found it especially difficult to breathe while hiking. What saved me from my deep breathing and fatigue was the amazing landscapes around us, with views of Ausangate Mountain and the valleys below. The trail was congested with all of the tourists as well as the horses, but in most places there was plenty of space.
Arriving at Rainbow Mountain
The final stretch to the top was definitely the hardest. In the last 20-30 minutes, the trail steepened and narrowed, making the congestion a little more difficult to navigate. Once we arrived, below was what we saw. I didn’t edit the saturation on this particular photo so it’s a pretty accurate depiction of what you’ll see on a sunny day.
Of course, most of the photos I’d seen in the past greatly manipulate the colors (why wouldn’t you? It is Rainbow Mountain, after all), but nonetheless it was a beautiful sight. Streaked with hues of red, yellow, blue, and gray, the mountain was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. There were also a TON of people there.
It’s all about perspective!
Possibly even more beautiful than the actual mountain itself was the view of the surrounding landscape, which was also quite colorful. After taking a few photographs (and helping my other fellow hikers get their own photos), I took a few moments to pat myself on the back and take in the views. For me, the trek had definitely been worth it.
Sadly, the whole experience felt somewhat rushed. Once we arrived at the top, our guides already began asking us to start heading down before we’d even had a chance to catch our breaths. If I had the money, I would probably ghave hired a private taxi to take me (unsure of what this would cost) for the day. The trail is really straightforward so you probably don’t need a guide (ours kind of abandoned us when we got there and reconnected with us back at the bus).
Important Things to Remember
- This hike is possibly the highest you’ll go during your time in Peru – be sure to prepare for the altitude with anything (medicine, coca tea, etc.) that you need.
- Book your tour in person, in Cusco once you arrive, and be sure to negotiate your price.
- Bring your own breakfast – the one provided is quite frankly terrible. I can’t imagine that other tour groups had it much better.
- Try to check the weather before you go, or you may have a miserable experience like John and Heather, who did this same trek in the cold and rain and had a terrible time.
- If you have the money and are traveling in a group, consider booking a private tour or taxi to the Rainbow Mountain in Peru. It will surely be more expensive but it will feel less rushed. The entrance fee is 10 soles per person.
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