Vinicunca Mountain, a.k.a Rainbow Mountain, appears to its badass visitors as fascinating, bizarre, untamed, and somehow, even otherworldly. Except, it is not. I mean, don’t get me wrong, this place is fascinating in every possible way, but it is also very much on the earth, perched up in the Andes and in the Southern Region of Cusco, Peru.
For years Vinicunca has been safely hidden under a thick layer of ice, but as the temperatures rose, the glacier caps melted and slowly revealed the beautifully “painted” sandstone rock. Tourism to Rainbow Mountain has really increased in the last two years, but it has not yet lost its charm.
This place really is a geological marvel.
…BUT IS IT THOUGH?
I get it, pal! You’re planning a trip to Peru and you’re now deciding whether to add or not an extra day for la Montaña de Siete Colores (same place, sexier name).
You’ve probably seen many pictures online. In most of them, the mountains look as crowded as the mall the week before Christmas. In some of them the colors look as bright as a box of neon markers (some of y’all need to chill with the Photoshop), while in others they are not that impressive and barely visible at all. You’re confused, you’re undecided. You probably want cake. No wait, that’s me. Anyways, the truth is you’re likely to have different experiences depending on how you choose to plan this trip.
Hear me out, let me make a case, let me share some tips, and then it will be up to you to decide if this whole experience is worth the trouble or nah.
Spoiler alert: I loved every (painful!) second of it.
RAINBOW MOUNTAINS BASICS: HOW TO NOT DIE IN THE WOODS
– The top of Rainbow Mountain sits at 5.200m, which is higher than Mont Blanc at 4.810m and nearly as high as Everest Base Camp, at 5.389m. At that height breathing is a serious challenge and you will get super tired super fast. To avoid feeling sick you can try chewing coca leaves, you can have them as a tea, or you can simply go to the pharmacy beforehand and pick up some altitude sickness pills. Also, it helps if you plan this activity at the end of your trip in Peru, so you’ll have time to acclimate to the altitude in Cusco.
To visit the mountains, you’ll need to book a tour. You’ll reach the base of the mountain after a 3-hour ride (ouch) from Cusco, and once you’re there, the hike up to the top will take around 3 or 4 hours. Local communities make a living by renting horses to visitors, so you can also decide to try this experience. Remember that you can ride only on the flat parts of the path, for the well being of the horses obvi. This way it will take you around 2 hours to reach the top and it’ll cost you about 100 soles for a return trip.
As you can imagine it is super fudging cold. I visited Rainbow Mountain in May and the temperature was around -5°C the whole time. Wear thermals, MORE THAN ONE PAIR OF SOCKS, hats, gloves, keep putting layers on, is NEVER ENOUGH.
Your Backpack = snack pack. Always bring extra water and plenty of snacks.
HOW TO AVOID THE CROWDS AT RAINBOW MOUNTAIN?
This place is becoming real popular real fast. Much of this popularity comes from social media and the #hikinglifestyle which is apparently becoming a thing, but mostly it comes from the hundreds of tour operators that on the internet and in Cusco really push visitors to book large-group tours for as low as 30$ dollars. Which is totally normal by the way – everyone is entitled to adventure and beautiful sights – but it does mean that you’ll need to work a bit more if you prefer a more quiet and peaceful experience.
In order to do so, I booked a small-group tour with Flashpacker Connect. I picked them because 99% of the time they are the first ones to arrive at the top. I can confirm that on my arrival there was not a single soul – except alpaca souls – at sight, which of course was amazing.
WHAT WAS THE TOUR LIKE?
The day started around 4AM when I was picked up at my hotel. DAMN THAT WAS TOUGH.
We immediately hit the road and three hours later we arrived at the base of the mountains, where we had a quick and nice breakfast to start the day. I literally have ZERO PICS of this part because I was still sleepy AF and I didn’t even have the energy to take my camera out.
After 30 minutes or so we started hiking. It was such a perfect day. The sun was out and there was nobody besides us and the local inhabitants.
The best part about hiking to Rainbow Mountain is that it is so much more than just the mountain itself. From the second you start walking, you are immediately surrounded by a beautiful landscape. Large, snow-capped mountains and a bunch of fluffy alpacas will follow you through most of your hike. Halfway up, you’ll find a Mother Nature toilette, that is a hole in the ground surrounded by 3 walls.
The second half of the trek is for sure the worse. The incline is steeper and the terrain is very muddy. Even if you take a horse up, this part is so steep that you must hike alone anyway.
Just remember to keep it easy. Rest every time you need to (even if it is every 10 minutes, you can straight up lie and tell everyone you’re hungry and need a snack-break, #lifehacks), keep in mind that the view will be super worth it and that there’s A GUY SELLING BEER AT THE TOP. Keep in mind that, and soon you’ll arrive to this:
Pretty spectacular huh?
Once at the top, our Flashpacker guide (shoutout to Jacob, you’re the best!) made sure we were all
alive good, then started telling us all about the mineralogical composition of the land, explaining to us that the characteristic colors reflect the presence of distinct minerals. For examples:
- Whitish color: white quartz sandstone.
- Mustard yellow: sulphide minerals.
- Red color: iron minerals
- Green color: copper minerals
After learning that minerals are hella Instagrammable, we started wandering around, taking in the view, the fresh (freezing) air, the silence. After an hour we started descending, and only at that moment we started seeing the first crowds hiking in the opposite direction.
It is hard, it is uncomfortable, there are no amenities whatsoever but for me it was 100% worth it.
SO, WHAT CAN POSSIBLY GO WRONG?
You can now understand that three major factors can impact your trip:
1) CROWDS – but now you know how to beat them
2) ALTITUDE SYMPTOMS – but now you know that there are ways to keep them under control.
3) SHITTY WEATHER – bad weather can happen, especially during the wet season (November to March). Rain and snow can have a huge impact on your experience. First of all, it is even more difficult to complete the hike if you’re knees-deep in the mud. Secondly, the colors are for sure less visible and kinda grayish if there’s no sun that shines on the mountains. Worst-case scenario, all the mountains will be completely covered in snow.
While you can do something about points 1) and 2), you can’t really do much about point 3), beside deciding to travel during dry season (April to October). You’ll find plenty of online reviews of people that unfortunately had a bad experience due to bad weather (and also unrealistic expectation of how easy this hike was supposed to be). If I had to be honest, in their shoes I’d be pretty pissed too!
In the end, you’ll have to decide if you’re willing to take the chance.
I did and I would again.