Until 2015, Mountain Vinicunca was only known to a handful of local Quechua communities in the Peruvian Sierra del Sur. Just a few years later, it has become one of the trendiest places to be featured on Instagram, and a top destination in the Cusco region, receiving hundreds of tourists per day, and rightly so. The multi-colored slopes of the former glacier look just as stunning in real life as in the glamourous photos and have justly earned it a new name: the Rainbow Mountain.
Today, you can visit Vinicunca on a 1-day tour from Cusco, a short trekking adventure, which I can highly recommend. So if you want to see this wonder of nature for yourself during your upcoming trip to Peru, here is everything you need to know about the challenging but very rewarding Rainbow Mountain hike.
Where is Vinicunca Mountain Located
Mountain Vinicunca is located in the Cusco region. It has an elevation of 5200 m and lies on the way to the sacred Ausangate Mountain in the Cordillera Vilcanota, a part of the Peruvian Andes.
Vinicunca is within a 3 – 3,5-hour drive from Cusco in the direction of Puno. To reach the mountain, you should pass via one of the two closest towns: Cusipata or Pitumarca.
Why is Vinicunca called the Rainbow Mountain
The mountain’s original name Vinicunca, or Winicunca, is roughly translated from Quechua as a hill with a narrow neck.
Vinicunca had been covered with permafrost for hundreds of years. However, due to climate change and warmer temperatures, the ice melted in 2015 and revealed a colorful surface underneath.
The striking effect of multi-colored stripes gave the mountain its second name: la Montaña de Siete Colores (literally, Mountain of Seven Colors) in Spanish or the Rainbow Mountain in English.
Why is Mountain Vinicunca so colorful
Sedimentary deposits and weather erosion account for the unique coloration of Mountain Vinicunca. The water from the melting snow mixed with the minerals in the ground to create a one-of-a-kind rainbow effect consisting of distinct veins of different colors.
The saturated hues of the Rainbow Mountain can be attributed to the presence of the following minerals:
- The pink color is caused by a mixture of red clay, sand, and mud
- The white color is the composite result of quartz, sandstone, and marl, rich in calcium
- The red color is made up of iron-rich clay
- The green color is the compound of phyllites and ferromagnesian minerals
- The purple color comes from goethite and oxidized limonite
- The brown color is composed of magnesium-rich rock
- The yellow color is due to calcareous sandstone, rich in sulfur
How Can I Visit the Rainbow Mountain Vinicunca
You can visit Vinicunca as part of a 5-day Ausangate Mountain Trek, which can be a great experience for all passionate mountaineers. However, if you have no time for a multi-day trek, a one-day hiking trip from Cusco is your perfect option.
You can reach the Rainbow Mountain either by using public transport or with a guided tour organized by one of the travel agents in Cusco.
Getting to the Rainbow Mountain by Public Transport
You can get to Mountain VInicunca either via Cusipata or Pitumarca.
The first route via Cusipata is shorter and more popular with tourists. You have to go to the Sicuani Terminal in Cusco and take a bus in the direction of Sicuani. In about two hours, you get off in Cusipata and catch a mini-bus called collectivo to a small village of Phulawasi. There, you can begin to hike towards the Rainbow Mountain. However, the buses to and from Phulawasi go only in the morning, so it might be a bit tricky getting back.
The second route via Pitumarca is a bit longer. You catch the same bus to Sicuani but get off a few stops later in Checacupe and take a collectivo to Pitumarca. At Pitumarca, you take a second collectivo to Pampachiri, a check-point where you pay the entrance fee of 10 soles and begin the hike towards the Rainbow Mountain.
However, given the altitude, the distance, and the commute time, I would recommend you go with a guided tour. It is relatively cheap, usually well-organized, and saves you the trouble of changing several buses.
Going to the Rainbow Mountain with a Guided Tour
All travel agencies in Cusco offer a one-day hiking tour to the Rainbow Mountain. The prices start from around 70 soles per person and include a comfortable mini-bus that picks you up at your hotel early in the morning, a guide who also looks after your safety and has a first-aid kit, a walking pole, and two meals.
The bus usually collects all tourists between 4:30 – 5:00 am. So, yes, if you want to conquer the Rainbow Mountain, you have to brace yourself up for an early wake-up. All guides usually aim to arrive at Vinicunca as early as possible to see it in the soft morning light and avoid the crowds of tourists.
On the way to Vinicunca, the bus makes one stop for a simple but filling breakfast in Cusipata. Then it brings you to the starting point of the Rainbow Mountain Trek, located in Phulawasi at 4626 m above sea level.
Before you begin the hike, the guide usually gives you a walking pole. Do not hesitate to take it! The closer you get to the top, the more helpful it will be.
Also, if you want to have it the easy way or feel that you are not in the best condition to walk at this altitude by yourself, you can rent a horse. At the entrance to the trail, you will see a few local people offering a horse ride to the top of Vinicunca for about 30-40 soles one way or 70 soles both ways. However, I think the challenge of hiking to the top at such strength-defying altitude makes the beauty you discover at the end of your journey even more gratifying. So if you are in good physical shape, hike the trail on foot! You will be proud of yourself once you have done it!
What Can I See During the Rainbow Mountain Hike
Already at the beginning of the trail, you notice how amazing the surrounding mountain landscapes are.
Here and there in the ground, you spot splashes of color foreshadowing the splendor that is yet to come. On the way, you come across the herds of alpacas and meet the local people, dressed in traditional clothes, walking their horses and donkeys along the trail.
As you approach the Rainbow Mountain, the landscape becomes more and more colorful, with various shades of pink, red, green, yellow, and lavender blending into each other.
However, once you see the perfectly striped pattern the Vinicunca ridge is known for, it just takes your breath away. So if you ask me whether the Rainbow Mountain leaves up to all the expectations and the hype, I will say, yes, it absolutely does!
Of course, some Instagrammers go over the top and digitally enhance colors to make their photos even more spectacular. However, it does not diminish a slightly toned-down beauty of this natural phenomenon in real life. I would go on saying that the more muted palette makes the Rainbow Mountain even more stunning in a subtler way.
To be completely honest, the only real disappointment is the droves of tourists that swarm in front of the mountain and prevent you from taking your best photo. So if you want to be alone, you should arrive at Vinicunca before 8:00 – 8:30 am or late in the afternoon.
Also, note that you are not allowed to climb the Rainbow Mountain itself. There is a warning sign and a rope fencing off the mountain from tourists. However, you can hike the neighboring hill that has a great view of Vinicunca at the top. It is where most of the pictures you see on the Internet are taken from. You may have to wait in line for your turn to take photos as it can be pretty crowded.
When is the Best Time to Hike the Rainbow Mountain
You should also take into account the unpredictable weather that can mar your impression of the mountain if it is covered with snow or fog.
So to ensure the most beautiful view of the Rainbow Mountain, plan your visit during the high season that runs from June to August. During these months, the skies are usually clear blue, and the mountain colors look more vivid.
We hiked Vinicunca at the end of March, definitely, not the best time to see the mountain in all its glory. It was very humid, windy, and foggy. It even hailed at some point. Yet, despite the bad weather, we could see very well the multi-colored rainbow effect. Our main problem was that the misty clouds kept coming and going all the time, sometimes fully covering the top of Vinicunca. So we had a clear view of the entire mountain ridge during a few short breaks in-between the clouds.
How Difficult is the Rainbow Mountain Hike
I would say the ascent itself is rather a gentle slope. Only at the very end, maybe with the last 100 m, it becomes a bit steep.
However, the insufficient amount of oxygen at this altitude makes every physical effort at least twice as difficult. So you are forced to stop now and then to take a deep breath and rest. Do not worry if this happens often. At 5000 m, this is absolutely normal. The occasional stops also let you look around and enjoy the beauty of the surrounding nature.
For the same reason mentioned above, go to the Rainbow Mountain only after you have fully acclimatized to the high altitude in Cusco. If you do not feel up to the mark, it will be very hard for you to complete the ascent. Of course, the tour guides always carry first aid kits and oxygen masks to help you in case you have altitude sickness symptoms. However, you will not be able to enjoy the hike as much if you are feeling unwell. So plan the Vinicunca Mountain Trek towards the end of your stay in Cusco rather than at the beginning.
The descent and the return hike are fairly easy. They can be completed within an hour. If you go with an organized tour, the guide usually tells you the bus departure time before you start the hike. Usually, the overall hiking time there and back is about 3-3,5 hours, including 30-40 minutes you spend at Vinicunca. You do not have to stay with the group and always follow the guide. Walk at your own pace but make sure you return to the bus by the time the guide told you.
More Tips for Climbing the Rainbow Mountain Vinicunca
In addition to getting acclimatized to the high altitude, take the following tips of advice for a better Rainbow Mountain experience:
- Put on layers of comfortable and warm clothes. I know the girls in light evening dresses look gorgeous against the Rainbow Mountain. However, these are professional photo shoots that differ from reality a lot. The reality that awaits you at the top of Vinicunca is biting cold. So do not forget to bring your gloves and beany. The chances are high that you will need them;
- Put on comfy trekking shoes or boots with thick soles. The trail gets muddy and slippery at times, particularly, during the rainy season;
- Just in case bring along some headache medication such as aspirin, soroche pills, or coca leaves to relieve the symptoms of altitude sickness;
- Pack a good rain poncho in your bag just in case. It might come in handy, particularly, during the rainy season (between November – March);
- Drink a lot of water to prevent dehydration;
- Bring along some snacks to chew on during the hike. If you go with a guided tour, the bus stops in Cusipata again on the way back to Cusco for a good lunch, included in the cost of the tour. But a quick snack bar may come in handy if you suddenly get a hungry feeling during the trek. Obviously, there are no shops or people selling food on the hiking trail;
- The last but not least: do not forget to take a fully charged camera with an extra battery to capture plenty of great photos.
Voila! Now you know everything about the Rainbow Mountain Trek! Enjoy hiking one of the most spectacular mountain trails in the world!