Things to Expect Hiking Rainbow Mountain, Peru

Rainbow Mountain is now a “must see” for many travellers visiting Peru. Attracting more than 600 visitors per day, the 5200m Vinicunca mountain is in the Willkanuta Mountain Range, nestled in the greater Andes Mountains, 3 hours away by car from Cusco.

When should I visit Rainbow Mountain? 🌈

Be careful between November – May as this is the Winter period in Cusco. You’d schlep to the top to basically see a mountain of snow. The views en-route of the snow capped mountains were beautiful, but many travellers say it isn’t worth it when everything is covered in snow. Why wake up at the break of dawn to not even see a rainbow? Go to Chango’s the night before and have a lie in.

I visited in September and the weather was perfect. 👌🏼

Who should I book with when reserving Rainbow Mountain?

Okay – so there are 2 roads to the top of Rainbow Mountain. The old road requires a walk of 3 hours to the summit. In 2016 a new road was built, which has halved the amount of time it takes to walk to the top. Many agencies still use the old road, so if you book with an agency in Cusco centre be sure to check how long the hike is. When my friend Gen was booking, some still quoted 3 hours.

Lucy and I booked with Rainbow Mountain Travels for the following reasons:

  • The tour left at 2:45am. Ensure you check what time the agency collects you from the hostel; it takes 3 hours to get from Cusco to Vinicunca. Every day hundreds of visitors make their way to Rainbow Mountain, so ensure you book a tour that leaves as early as possible to beat the crowds. With Rainbow Mountain Travels you’re literally one of the first groups at the top of the summit. Gen’s tour left at 5am; you can guess who had better Rainbow Mountain photos 😉
  • The entry fee included Rainbow Mountain entry. Rainbow Mountain tours cost an average of 100 Soles ($30), although many wind up 130 Soles ($40) because they don’t include the $10 entry fee to Rainbow Mountain. Be sure to check upon booking.
  • You can book and pay online!
  • They have a really good reputation in the area. The tour picks you up directly from your hostel, and the price includes breakfast, lunch and even oxygen tanks.

What should I bring to Rainbow Mountain?

  • Toilet paper – make-shift toilets charging about 2 Soles can be found throughout the trail. But of course they don’t provide loo roll – unless you fancy shaking dry
  • Snacks – a packet of peanut M&M’s and a tube of pringles set me back about £8 – and this was with haggling. Don’t make the same mistake as me.
  • Skittles – so you can take a photo like #tastetherainbow (you can thank me for my genius Instagram inspiration later)
  • A pac-a-mac (it hailed for a bit whilst at the summit), a warm coat, gloves and a hat
  • Decent hiking boots
  • Water

Arriving at Rainbow Mountain

After being picked up at 2:45am we were driven 3 hours to the start point via a 20-minute breakfast (which was terrible – it consisted of a cold single egg omelette, stale bread and jam/butter). Here is where we met our guide, Roxanne.

We didn’t see much of Roxanne. I actually didn’t see Roxanne at all during the trail, except for at the top. Roxanne was carrying the oxygen supply for the group. Thank goodness I didn’t need it.

The trail starts as an even, gradual incline through a valley until you arrive to a steeper climb up to Rainbow Mountain. To get the classic view, you have to climb a very steep, hard packed dirt mountainside that’s across from Rainbow Mountain. Because the mountainside is sheer, the terrain can be slippery when wet. The summit allows you to see the full streaking of the mountain side and the stellar views of lush, green scenery that fade into steely snowcapped mountain peaks.

The trailhead starts at around 4,300 meters (14,000 feet) and climbs to just over 5,000 meters (16,400 feet). Many people have a hard time and end up paying for a horseback ride offered by one of the locals walking along the trail. I initially tried to hire a horse, because I absolutely love horses 😍and wound up walking.

Horse rides cost 60 Soles 1 way and 90 Soles for a return trip. I mean you really don’t need a horse on the way back – it is all downhill!

What? Why? Only you… 😅

To be honest they were more mules than horses. Mine trotted along for about 5 minutes and then stopped. It point blank refused to move any further. The little Quechua owner who came along with me then tried to schlep the poor mule. But the mule wasn’t having any of it. I kept saying “No quiere, no quiere” but she didn’t speak any Spanish. Eventually I just jumped off the mule and walked the rest of the way.

Well… when I said walk, more schlurried.

Only fools and horses ey 🐴

Very funny. The altitude is bloody hard! The feeling in your head is akin to coming around from an anaesthetic.  You want to move faster, but your legs wont physically let you. It feels like walking through treacle. And the higher up you get you can actually feel the air become thinner and every few steps you have to stop to re-catch your breath. But it is fine.

Really 👁

Like, I hate being dramatic. It is fine. Honestly. Everyone else on the mountain feels this way. And it is only on the way up when you’re exerting more physical energy; you don’t notice the altitude coming down. Annnnnddddd you catch your breath virtually right away.

Just go slowly and power through. That is the key.

How long did it take to walk to the top?

About 1 hour and a half, give or take because didn’t time it. The view is pretty awesome when you get to the top, and much to the promise of Rainbow Mountain Travel, we were actually one of the first up there. We spent about 40 minutes atop the summit (we could have had more time, but it is freezing) and as we were leaving more crowds of people joined us.

I must admit though, the iconic Rainbow Mountain is completely ruined by snack stalls at the base with Quechua women selling crisps and Inca Cola. I love a snack more than anyone, but even for me it ruined things.

Should I bother visiting The Red Valley?

Absolutely – although don’t expect any help from the guide. At the top of Rainbow Mountain, Roxanne vaguely gestured toward the direction of The Red Valley and said, “Red Valley here. It take 20-minutes. Not for people who are not fit. You go, I wait on bus. Who go?” and maybe half the bus put their hand up. I’m glad you’re here, Roxanne. You and your oxygen tank have proved very useful. Oh, wait…

I actually I preferred The Red Valley to Rainbow Mountain. Firstly the views are like something from a science fiction movie and secondly it is far less crowded! The Red Valley is another 20-minute walk from the summit of Rainbow Mountain. It isn’t really any more or less difficult than the trail to Rainbow Mountain itself.

When you arrive at The Red Valley it costs 10 Soles to enter the mirador, and you can walk around a little. Apparently there are full Red Valley tours but these are to be arranged separately and take a couple of hours. I didn’t meet anyone who did a full Red Valley tour – I imagine the mirador is enough for most.

What time did you return to Cusco?

It took us 15-minutes to find Roxanne in the car park (every Rainbow Mountain Tour seems to depart in a white van, and unlike a normal person Roxanne didn’t wait outside the van or make any signals to her tour group so we could find her). We were then driven for around 1h to our lunch spot; lunch consisted of soup and a buffet. It was more than adequate.

After we returned to Cusco (during what seemed like the worlds longest 2h) at roughly 3pm.

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