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Always wanted to hike Vinicunca Mountain also known as Rainbow Mountain? La Montaña de Siete Colores (the Mountain of Seven Colours) or the Rainbow Mountain trek has only been open to tourists for 4 years but with pictures all over Instagram, this attraction has become very popular in a very short time.
Four years ago there was just the original 3-hour hike to the mountain. In the past two years, the Peruvians have opened up a second hiking route to view Rainbow Mountain. This is a shorter hike, about one hour and 40 minutes up and an hour to descend.
Don’t be fooled by the shorter distance. It is a challenge to young and old alike due to the altitude. I, for one, was thrilled to take the shorter route.
Why is the Rainbow Mountain trek such a new attraction? Because of global warming. As the glacier retreats, the beautiful, multi-coloured layers, which are in fact mineral deposits, of the mountains underneath have been exposed. Bittersweet.
Start to do some research online about this hike and you might have second thoughts as I did. This hike is challenging to say the least. Knowing that I was hiking it at the beginning of the rainy season (mid- November) I was worried about the terrain. Reports of a muddy, slippery path when wet gave me many doubts as to whether I should proceed. I had pretty much talked myself out of a Rainbow Mountain trek, but my two Mexican friends were going so I decided to join. No regrets.
What To Expect On The Amazing Rainbow Mountain Trek In Peru
1. Altitude On The Rainbow Mountain Trek
The altitude is a factor. Everybody reacts differently to the altitude in Peru. Some people take prescription medication before arriving, others wait to see how their bodies react and drink coca tea, suck on coca leaves or coca candies. Just make sure you give your body time to acclimatize. Do not go to Rainbow Mountain on your first or second day in the Cusco area.
The start of the hike is at 4500 metres.
Vinicunca Mountain/ Rainbow Mountain is 5000 metres.
The very top of the hike is at 5200 metres.
Points of Comparison:
- Everest Base Camp – 5380 metres
- Mt. Rainier, Washington, U.S.A – 4392 metres
- Puno, Peru – 3827 metres
- La Paz, Bolivia – 3640 metres
- Cusco, Peru – 3399 metres
- Ollantaytambo, Peru – 2792 metres
- Machu Picchu, Peru – 2430 metres
- Calgary, Canada – 1045 metres
- Vancouver, Canada 0 – 152 metres
Vinicunca Mountain has attitude, I mean, altitude.
2. Booking A Rainbow Mountain Trek Tour
The most popular way to visit Rainbow Mountain is to book a day tour from Cusco. If you have never been to Cusco, there are tour operators on every corner. Do a little research. It’ s a full day trip with tours leaving in the wee hours of the morning. Breakfast and lunch should be included. Expect to return to Cusco around 6 pm. Make sure your tour group brings oxygen.
You can book in advance online, but you will pay more. Most tours are around 110 soles – 150 soles ($43-$58 Cdn). Ask if your tour includes the entrance to Rainbow Mountain (an extra 10 soles/ $3.90 Cdn). Most tours have about 15 – 30 participants. Mine had 2 vans full of people with 2 guides.
Note: I booked my trip with my Mexican friends but we were not in the same van as we were staying at different hotels. Of course, we saw each other at meal times and on the mountain.
If you are the kind of traveller that likes to have your days planned in advance, you could book A Rainbow Mountain Trek from Cusco right here.
You could also check this one out: Full Day Rainbow Mountain Trek includes breakfast and lunch.
The trail itself is straightforward so there is no getting lost. Our group was given a name (Friends of Nature) and a pinnie to attach to our backpacks so that the guides could keep an eye on us. Don’t kid yourself, there are LOTS of people hiking the Rainbow Mountain trek, even in the shoulder season.
3. Rainbow Mountain Trek| What To Wear and Pack
The only way to survive a Rainbow Mountain trek is to dress in layers or pack them. Layers and more layers are going to ensure you are comfortable when hiking. Being at such an altitude any weather can blow in, as I experienced! I was too hot at one point and stripping off layers but in the end, wore everything I brought.
Here’s what I wore:
- Wind pants
- Wool socks (wish I had brought an extra pair)
- Running shoes with a substantial tread (I saw a few people struggling to hike in city type boots and/or runners with no treads)
- Tank top
- Long sleeved Icebreaker shirt
- Down jacket
- Rain poncho (anorak would be better)
- Wool beanie
- Sunglasses, sunscreen, lip balm with SPF
- Water – bring some and you can buy it along the trail too
- Snacks such as chocolate, granola bars and coca candies to chew on ( Do they help with the altitude? I am not 100% sure but they were a great distraction while hiking!)
- Camera/ phone camera
- Toilet paper
4. Getting To Rainbow Mountain Peru
My pick up was at 3:45 am and after driving around Cusco trying to find the last few hikers to fill the van, the day for the Rainbow Mountain trek was underway.
We drove for about 2 hours through rural towns where this fierce warrior graced the sides of building after building.
I figured I should soak up some of his energy to get to the mountaintop.
Breakfast was served in a tiny village at long banquet tables. Coca tea, eggs and Peruvian bread were the fuel for the climb. I was still starving and ate a granola bar right after!
At the breakfast stop, there were toilets, and the opportunity to purchase water, coca candies and toilet paper.
Our guides encouraged us to rent a walking stick for 5 soles ($1.95 Cdn). I loved using mine.
At breakfast, our tour operator also went over all the facts – this is no laughing matter with the altitude. He told us not to sit down to catch our breath (could get dizzy getting back up) but to lean on the walking stick and take deep breaths.
After breakfast, there was another 45-minute drive. Don’t think about sleeping, as we climbed higher and higher into the Andes the views were amazing. Alpacas grazed on the mountainsides shepherded by women in their traditional dress
Farm fields were dotted with colourful specks as women gathered before work, children dressed in uniform walked their long trek to school and locals exchanged morning greetings. And a long line of vans snaked its way to the entry point of the Rainbow Mountain Trek.
I couldn’t help but wonder how this traffic has invaded a bucolic and previously tranquil existence.
5. The Start Of The Rainbow Mountain Trek
Finally, the van pulled into a parking lot where there were already about 15 parked vans. We were clearly not the first to the mountain.
There were locals waiting with horses to trek you to the top for a fee. I am not sure how I personally feel about this.
If you are planning to take a horse to the top, tour operators cannot reserve a horse for you. You negotiate with the locals, once there.
I had already made up my mind that I would climb the Rainbow Mountain trek on foot.
It was a 15-minute walk to the first bathroom.
I had brought toilet paper with me, but for one sole you can pay to use the bathroom, this includes toilet paper.
These toilets were no picnic. They are reminiscent of the toilets in SE Asia… squat and no flush.
Have a friend hold your bag outside the door.
Bring your hand sanitiser!
6. Tips for Trekking Rainbow Mountain
- take your time
- notice the scenery – you are hiking in the Andes, after all
- stop to chew coca leaves or a coca candy
- lean on the walking stick and breathe – inhale exhale
- be open – my guide offered me an ancient medicinal liquid to rub on my hands, inhale deeply and then rub over my eyes to help with the altitude
- snap some pictures along the way
- hike with a buddy – the camaraderie helps
7. At the Top Of Rainbow Mountain
I hiked up in the sunshine and was much too warm. As I gained altitude the clouds were rolling in. By the time I reached the peak of 5000 metres, it was a wet wonderland. There was a freezing wind with a mixture of rain, hail and snow. At times it was a blizzard. It was just like home! (Canada)
It’s quite a small space at the top with lots of people milling about. There were a couple of ladies with llamas waiting for you to pose with them.
Make sure you make personal space to just soak in the mysticism. I found a little spot to sit but only for a few minutes.
8. The Descent
Starting the descent, there was a rope railing to hang onto. Yup, the path was wet and slippery in the snow. I had read horror stories but with the right footwear and some caution, the descent was just part of the adventure.
Thunder and lightning accompanied me as I headed down the mountain. The intense thunder, like a lion’s roar, rumbled for a long time and then echoed down the valley. The next thunderous blast was not far behind. I marvelled at the Peruvians running up and down the mountain in their sandals as the snow swirled about.
As I crawled into the back of the van elated to have conquered the trek, I wondered about the state of the dirt road (path) with all the precipitation. I decided to close my eyes and just trust. After all, I had trekked up to 5000 metres amongst the Andean mountain spirits and witnessed a spectacular sight.
9. What I Wish I Had Known
- Rainbow Mountain trek at 5000 metres is a hard hike with sensational rewards. But the extra 20 minutes up to the very top at 5200 metres provides outstanding views including those of the glacier. I felt like I did not have time to get to the very top as we were supposed to be back at the van by noon. ( Grrr… schedules!)
- There were people descending as we were walking up – if you’re going to get up that early in the morning then what’s an extra hour? At 5000 metres, it is quite a small space with a lot of people. The earlier, the better?
- All those photographs of people alone at the top of Rainbow Mountain? Don’t be fooled there are many people around!
10. The Impact Of Hiking Rainbow Mountain
I know that this Rainbow Mountain trek has brought much-needed income to these local communities. But what is the long-term impact? This New York Times article asks that exact question. Does the local community know how to deal with all this tourism, while keeping the environmental toll at a minimum?
One thing as a tourist you can do is to leave nothing behind. Pack out what you take in.