How to Get to Rainbow Mountain in Peru!
I originally visited Rainbow Mountain back in February 2016. I was absolutely compelled to see it before I left Peru: no matter what. A photo I’d seen on Instagram turned into an obsession: & it was the first time Instagram actually inspired a trip. I had to know….how to get to Rainbow Mountain in Peru! In this post, I’ll take you inside the journey to Rainbow Mountain ~ giving you my best tips for maximum enjoyment of this very difficult hike!
Map of Rainbow Mountain
Rainbow Mountain (also known as “Vinicunca”) is located near Mount Ausangate, about three hours east of Cusco.
Rainbow Mountain Hike Info
- Location: Three hours east of Cusco by car, near Ausangate Mountain, in the greater Andes.
- Starting Altitude: 4,450 meters (14,600 feet)
- Ending Altitude: 5,035 meters (16,520 feet)
- Elevation Gain: 1,500 meters (2,000 feet)
- Tour Start Time: 2:15AM-4PM (or 7PM)
- Tour Cost: $20-150+ US (based on tour size & amenities)
- Best Season to Visit: Dry season (May-September); or shoulder season (April & October).
- Hike Options: One-day trek (ranging between 12-27 km (7-17 miles) or multi-day treks. When I did the one-day hike to Rainbow Mountain 2 years ago, the 17-mile trek was the only option. Make sure to ask your tour guide how far you’ll be hiking.
- Which Tour Operator Should You Use? Here, you’re talking about price vs. quality. Two years ago, we were the ONLY group on the trail. This is no longer the case, as the masses have found Rainbow Mountain. Your main choice is to book ahead (with operators like Flashpacker Connect, who I used), or wait until you get to Cusco, & choose an operator there. Booking ahead costs around $150 ~ but you’ll have a smaller group, an English-speaking guide, oxygen, & meals. Booking a tour in Cusco can be dramatically cheaper ~ like around 100 soles ($30 US). But you’ll likely be on a bus with 20+ people, & may not have a guide. Decide what works best for you ~ but whichever you choose, make sure you can change the date of your tour! Weather in Peru is notoriously unpredictable, & your guide will know best the night before what the weather will be like. If rainstorms are predicted, hike a different day.
- How to Make the Hike Easier: Rent a horse for part or ALL of the hike. This costs about $22-40 US extra.
- Are There Toilets? There are squat toilets set up along the way, near small farming communities. BYO-TP!!
- Where to Stay in Cusco: Stay at a NICE hotel after your hike!!! Trust me on this one. A hot shower, warm bath, sauna ~ or ALL of the above will sound like heaven. My top choices: Palacio del Inka, JW Marriott El Convento, & Novotel Cusco.
Get Prepared for Rainbow Mountain
Pack a small backpack the night before. If your tour guide gives you specific instructions or items to pack: FOLLOW HIS INSTRUCTIONS implicitly!!! They do this hike all the time. They know best.
Here’s what I brought: 2 liters of water, nuts & snacks (breakfast was served on the trail, but we didn’t eat lunch until 6PM ~ I was STARVING), extra layers, warm gloves, alpaca wool beanie, sunblock, & of course: a camera. I wore leggings, a tank top, fleece, AND a warm, winter jacket. And I was STILL cold!! But at other times, warm. Be ready for anything.
The Drive to Rainbow Mountain
The six people in our group were picked up around 2:30AM in Cusco, then most of us fell right back asleep in the van. I woke up two hours into the drive: we’d started to climb, & the road was getting narrower. The first light of morning was coming over the mountains, & the scenery was stunning, with high mountain walls dropping into impossibly steep valleys.
About an hour of dirt roads later, the van stopped next to an empty, green field. There were no houses ~ nothing. Apparently, this was where our journey began. We all climbed out of the van, & our guides started whipping up breakfast.
We ate a quick breakfast, drank some coffee, then quickly packed up. Our guides said we needed to get moving in case the weather turned (which it most definitely did). And so, we set off.
How to Get to Rainbow Mountain in Peru!
For the one-day, 17-mile trek (24-km), we started out by crossing a bridge, then climbing UP & around a waterfall! Things got steep & slippery quick, & at over 14,000 feet, it felt like someone was pressing down on my chest. I’d been in Cusco for over a month at this point, & was well-acclimated to the altitude. But the difference between Cusco’s 11,000 feet & our current 14,000 feet was VERY noticeable. One girl threw up just after climbing the waterfall, not even a mile into the hike (she had just arrived in Cusco two days prior). Moral: Get acclimated before climbing Rainbow Mountain!!
After the initial steepness, the hike turns mainly flat for quite awhile ~ which is a huge relief. The sun was out on this part of our hike, so I took off some layers, thoroughly enjoying the sun, scenery, & alpacas.
A few miles in, it becomes necessary to climb again. It’s pretty steep & rocky, so sturdy shoes are a must. This section lasts much longer than the initial climb. It’s very challenging, & I found it necessary to stop for breaks along the way.
The goal you’re trying to reach, way in the distance, is a “V” shape between two mountains. To me, this was the most difficult part of the hike. And the very last bit: the steep, sandy slog leading up to the “V” itself was the absolute hardest. My legs felt like molasses in the sand, & my lungs were imploding.
What Rainbow Mountain looks like on a CLEAR day ~ but it’s not always clear!
Expectation vs. Reality…
BUT – then you’re at the top of Rainbow Mountain!!! And the photo above is what I expected to see…the original picture that had inspired me: miles upon miles of colorful rainbow.
Instead? I saw nothing but fog.
The weather had changed, & a thick, dense layer of fog rolled in. To be honest, I didn’t even realize I was standing on Rainbow Mountain. And so we waited. And waited. And it started to get colder & colder. And then it began to hail. In total, we waited over an HOUR ~ & I can’t adequately express how FREEZING I was!! Make sure you bring LAYERS of clothing to Rainbow Mountain, especially during rainy season.
FINALLY, after an hour of waiting ~ for one, TINY moment: the fog semi-lifted, & I got ONE shot of Rainbow Mountain. ONE!!?!! You can’t see the entire mountain range, but frankly, by then I was happy to see anything!
And then I was sooo ready to leave! Bone-cold, I couldn’t wait to get moving. It felt amazing to walk & get some warmth back into my bones. Which we most definitely needed, because then it hailed like HELL on us.
Are you beginning to get the picture?? This hike is no picnic! If you aren’t a serious hiker, beware…
Best Tips for Rainbow Mountain!
- Don’t skip the pre-meeting with your tour guide! I almost did, & if so, would’ve missed the tour entirely ~ he changed our start time due to weather. He also gave valuable packing advice. Don’t skip this meeting!
- Don’t hike to Rainbow Mountain during your first few days in Cusco ~ you need to acclimate! Visit Machu Picchu first (8,000 feet), sight-see in Cusco, hike up to Sacsayhuaman…& then decide if you’re ready to visit Rainbow Mountain.
- Bring extra layers, a very warm hat (alpaca wool is sold all over Cusco), & gloves. Be prepared for extremely cold conditions, especially between November-March.
How to Get to Rainbow Mountain in Peru!
Looking back on this hike, I realize that I loved the journey to Rainbow Mountain more than the actual mountain itself. Back in 2016, there were so few people on the hike, & the scenery so majestic, I simply loved the journey. What I didn’t expect was how COLD I’d be, or that I might not even get to see the mountain due to fog. These are all things to consider as you figure out how to get to Rainbow Mountain in Peru ~ & if the journey is right for you or not.
But still, I say: go now. Go sooner rather than later. Because I only see this wondrous place becoming more & more popular ~ not less. I hope it stays as beautiful, & that people respect the fragile environment surrounding the mountain, as well as the people & animals who call this area home.
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