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Over the course of the past decade, Rainbow Mountain has become one of the most popular places to visit in Peru. And for good reason!
Rainbow Mountain, also known as Vinicunca, is a mountain located in the Cusco region of Peru. As you might be able to guess from the name, it’s known for its colorful striations. Basically, it’s a rainbow-striped mountain.
If you’ve ever been on Instagram, you’ve likely seen many photos of Rainbow Mountain and its vibrant colors.
However, what those pictures don’t show you is how challenging the hike to Rainbow Mountain can be! Don’t get me wrong – I loved my experience and would definitely recommend it, but it’s important to be prepared for one of the top hikes in South America before you go.
In fact, I actually hiked Rainbow Mountain twice! That’s right, after not being prepared the first time and running into some bad weather (pictures below), I decided I had to do it again.
So if hiking Rainbow Mountain Peru is on your bucket list – and it definitely should be – here are 13 things you need to know before you go.
1. About Rainbow Mountain
You might be surprised to learn that Rainbow Mountain in Peru only became a popular tourist destination during the past decade.
That’s because it used to be covered in snow and ice year-round, but due to climate change, the glacier caps have melted to reveal the colorful mountain underneath. Its colors are the result of different types of minerals in the earth, such as iron, copper, and manganese.
Rainbow Mountain in Peru is known by several names, including Vinicunca, Winikunka, and Montaña de Siete Colores.
The peak of the mountain is 5,200 meters (17,100 ft) above sea level, so some altitude sickness is to be expected when trekking the mountain – but more on that later.
In Peruvian culture, Rainbow Mountain symbolizes masculinity and fertility and is considered to be a very sacred place that protects the local villages from evil.
2. Where is Rainbow Mountain?
Rainbow Mountain is located here in the Ausangate massif, which is part of the Andes mountain range.
You’ll likely head here on a day trip from Cusco as it’s located 82 kilometers (51 miles) away. That might not sound like a very long distance, but it takes around 3 hours to get there.
The vast majority of visitors to Rainbow Mountain opt for a tour. There is no reliable public transport to get to the mountain, so unless you rent a car, it’s best to book a tour. And even then, it’s best to leave the winding mountain roads to the experts.
A Rainbow Mountain visit is a full-day activity and tours usually leave from Cusco very early in the morning, so no partying the night before!
3. How long is the Rainbow Mountain Trail?
The Rainbow Mountain Trail is 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) long which may not sound very far but trust me, it feels about 5 times as far when you’re actually doing the hike.
The mountain’s base altitude is 4,326 meters (14,189 feet) and the peak is 5,200 meters (17,060 feet) above sea level.
To put that into perspective, Rainbow Mountain is taller than any mountain in North America and its peak has roughly the same altitude as Mount Everest’s base camp.
The hike is definitely doable for anyone with a decent level of fitness, but it’s also safe to say that it isn’t for the faint of heart!
Related read: Another famous hike in Peru is up Machu Picchu Mountain – here’s everything you need to know to attempt that epic journey!
4. How difficult is the Rainbow Mountain Trail?
Most people find the Rainbow Mountain Trail to be pretty challenging due to the altitude. The hike itself takes around 2 hours and has an elevation gain of 20%, so it’s no walk in the park, but it’s not impossible, either.
However, the real challenge of Rainbow Mountain is the altitude. Rainbow Mountain is one of the highest treks in all of Peru, and even if you’re reasonably fit, you might find yourself struggling to catch your breath.
I won’t lie – I did struggle with the hike.
I got a pretty bad headache not long after we set off, and I definitely wasn’t the only one in the tour group experiencing altitude sickness. However, it was also an incredible experience and definitely worth the effort.
5. Can you get assistance with the hike?
If you’re worried about the Rainbow Mountain hike being too challenging, don’t worry – you can rent a horse to take you up (and down) the mountain. This way, all you need to do is sit back and enjoy the views while the horse does the work.
The horses are available at the trailhead and cost around $18 USD. There are a limited number of horses and they’re available on a first-come, first-served basis, so if you want to guarantee a horse then it’s best to book a tour in advance.
This tour on horseback includes transportation to and from the mountain, your own horse, and a delicious local lunch after the hike. It’s a 6-hour experience as you’ll leisurely make your way up and down the mountain on horseback. It’s great to give your feet a break but still enjoy the incredible scenery. The tour is $120 USD.
Alternatively, you can take an ATV up the mountain for around $85 USD. This takes a lot of the effort out of Rainbow Mountain and certainly injects some adrenaline-fuelled fun into the day!
6. When is the best time to visit Rainbow Mountain?
It’s best to hike Rainbow Mountain during Cusco’s dry season because, let’s be honest, no one wants to do a strenuous hike in the rain.
The dry season falls between April and November, with Rainbow Mountain being at its busiest (and therefore most crowded) during June, July, and August. So if you visit between April and May or September and November, you’ll get the best of both worlds: fewer crowds and better weather.
During the rainy season, the trail can be wet and muddy, making the hike even more difficult. Visibility is also often poor during this time, meaning that you get relatively little reward for all of your effort. There are also sometimes mudslides that block the road, making it impossible to reach Rainbow Mountain at all.
It’s also best to avoid hiking the mountain on the weekend because this is when many locals visit Rainbow Mountain, and the trail can get very crowded.
As for the best time of day, you should try and avoid midday. Hiking between 7-9 am, or after 2 pm will help you to avoid the crowds and make the most of your time on the mountain.
I will say that hiking early means leaving Cusco between 3-4 am, but Rainbow Mountain is definitely worth sacrificing a night of sleep for.
7. What are the best Rainbow Mountain tours?
A tour is the best – and easiest – way to do Rainbow Mountain. This is because most Rainbow Mountain tours include transport to and from the mountain, as well as a guide who will help you along the way.
As discussed, it can be pretty difficult to get to the mountain independently, so a tour really is the best option.
There are loads of Rainbow Mountain tours available, with something to suit every budget. There are also some great options for those who need more support during the hike, like ATV tours or tours that provide extra oxygen to help you cope with the altitude.
Afternoon Rainbow Mountain tour
For $79 USD, this afternoon Rainbow Mountain tour includes return transport from Cusco, a guide, snacks, and walking sticks (if you need them). It’s kind of a steal if you ask me!
If you want to ride a horse up the mountain rather than hiking, you can hire one on the day for 70 soles, which is roughly $18 USD. You’ll have to pay for this in cash on the day, so it’s not guaranteed that you’ll get a horse, but since the hike itself starts after peak hours have ended, you should be fine.
Although this is an afternoon tour, you’ll still need to depart Cusco at about 8:30 am and you’ll return to the city at around 7 pm.
There’s a maximum group size of 12, so you’ll have plenty of opportunity to get to know your fellow hikers and ask your guide any questions you may have.
They say that the early bird gets the worm and that’s certainly true when it comes to Rainbow Mountain. You’ll get picked up around 3 am and get a breakfast and buffet lunch included in the price of your ticket. For $49 USD, this tour is a bargain.
This is actually the Rainbow Mountain tour that I did, and while it was a very long and tiring day, I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
Group sizes can go up to 30 on this tour, so if you would prefer a more personal experience, then the afternoon tour might be a better option, but for the price, I thought that this one was pretty hard to beat.
If you want to do Rainbow Mountain on a budget, this tour only costs $35 USD per person. It’s a small group tour, but the guides and food aren’t of the same quality as some of the other options included in this blog post.
At the end of the day, though, you’ll still get to experience the natural beauty of Rainbow Mountain Peru and, if you’re anything like me, that’s what really matters. Think of this tour as the cheap and cheerful option!
If you’ve got a little more flexibility in your budget, this private tour is the way to go. You’ll get your own dedicated guide and transport, as well as a quality Rainbow Mountain experience without having to share it with a group of strangers.
One of the best things about this tour is that the price includes an oxygen tank, which is a real lifesaver if you’re struggling with the altitude.
Most people who hike Rainbow Mountain struggle with altitude sickness, so having an oxygen tank on hand makes the day so much more comfortable and enjoyable. As much as I enjoyed Rainbow Mountain, it definitely would have been better if my head wasn’t pounding for most of the day.
As well as the extra oxygen, the price includes unlimited bottles of water, hiking poles, breakfast, lunch, and a first aid kit.
The tour costs $150 USD per person and, while that might seem like a lot, it’s actually pretty good value when you consider everything that’s included.
Riding a horse up Rainbow Mountain is a great option if you want to take it easy on the hike. You’ll be able to enjoy the scenery while your four-legged friend does all the work!
The $120 USD price tag includes a guide, breakfast and lunch, and round-trip transportation. The only extras you’ll need to fork out for are drinks and the entrance fee of roughly $2.50 USD.
If you’re looking for an adrenaline-fueled Rainbow Mountain experience, or simply a less physically demanding one, then this ATV tour is for you. You’ll ride an ATV up the mountain with a small group and an expert guide, which makes for a pretty unforgettable adventure.
It’s $85 USD and includes breakfast and lunch to keep you fueled for the busy day. Because you can cover more ground, you’ll also get to see some cool sights like bridges dating back to Inca times and llamas and alpacas grazing in the local area.
8. Will you get altitude sickness on Rainbow Mountain?
Everyone is different, but most travelers get some kind of altitude sickness when they trek up Rainbow Mountain in Peru. It’s caused by the lack of oxygen at high altitudes and the four main symptoms are dizziness, muscle aches, headaches, and nausea.
Some people say it feels a lot like a bad hangover!
One of the best ways to avoid altitude sickness on Rainbow Mountain is to spend a few days in Cusco before your hike. That way, your body has time to adjust to the altitude and your symptoms shouldn’t be as severe.
Taking it slow on the hike can also help, as well as staying hydrated and drinking coca tea.
You can also take altitude sickness tablets to ease your symptoms. Acetazolamide is one of the most common altitude sickness medications. It’s also often referred to as Diamox, which is its trade name.
Of course, you should always speak to a doctor before taking a new form of medication, and it’s generally recommended that you begin taking Diamox 1-2 days before your hike.
Alternatively, booking a tour with oxygen can really help to combat altitude sickness, since you’ll have access to oxygen tanks throughout the hike.
9. What should you bring to Rainbow Mountain?
If you’re planning any kind of trekking in Peru, it’s SO important to be prepared for the often long day ahead of you.
With Rainbow Mountain’s high altitude, you’ll definitely need some warm clothes because the temperature drops significantly as you ascend. It’s a good plan to dress in layers so you can take some off after you return to lower altitudes.
Gloves are also a good idea since it can be very windy at the top of Rainbow Mountain. A hat or beanie will also help keep you warm. Hiking boots are a must, as the terrain is quite rocky. Your usual gym sneakers or running shoes won’t cut it for this trek.
Some tours include hiking poles but, if not, it’s worth bringing your own as they can really help with the steep inclines.
You should also bring plenty of water with you, although tours will often provide this. You can buy special insulated water bottles that will keep your water nice and cool for you.
Sunscreen is another important one, as the sun is quite strong at Rainbow Mountain’s high altitude, and you don’t want to come back burned to a crisp!
Finally, take some cash with you for tips, snacks, and last-minute horse rentals. You can’t use your card on Rainbow Mountain, so make sure you’re prepared!
10. How should you prepare for Rainbow Mountain?
With Rainbow Mountain, the absolute best thing you can do to prepare is to spend some time in Cusco acclimatizing to the altitude.
Getting your body used to the lack of oxygen will make the Rainbow Mountain hike a lot easier, and honestly, spending time in Cusco is NOT a chore.
Dan and I only meant to stay for three days and ended up spending four weeks there! It’s one of the best cities we’ve ever visited and there are so many amazing things to do in Cusco. I’d go back in a heartbeat.
Some people do train before tackling Rainbow Mountain but it’s not strictly necessary – as I say, it’s more the altitude than the climb itself that people struggle with.
Tours that provide oxygen tanks also really help and I would definitely recommend this if you know you’re especially prone to altitude sickness. Nothing takes the fun out of a hike like headaches and nausea!
Related Read: If you’re preparing for a trip to this South American country, we have a great Peru Travel Guide to get you started!
11. Will travel insurance cover a trip to Rainbow Mountain?
Unfortunately, a lot of travel insurance companies have limitations on altitude. Every company is different but there aren’t many who will cover you over 3,000 meters (9,842 feet), since you’re much more likely to injure yourself or become ill at high altitudes.
Since Rainbow Mountain’s base altitude is 4,326 meters (14,189 feet) above sea level, it’s unlikely that your insurance policy will cover you. However, it’s definitely worth reading the small print on your policy to check for sure.
And remember that not all travel insurance companies are created equal! World Nomads, our provider of choice for years now, have a high altitude policy, so you can enjoy peace of mind knowing you’re fully covered on Rainbow Mountain.
12. Is Rainbow Mountain worth visiting?
There’s really nowhere quite like Rainbow Mountain in Peru. The hike is an amazing experience that you’ll remember forever, and even though it’s a bit of a challenge, it’s definitely worth it.
The striped earth, the jaw-dropping views, and the sense of achievement you’ll feel when you reach the top make Rainbow Mountain one of the highlights of any trip to Peru. The views from the top are breathtaking, and it’s an incredible feeling to have accomplished something so challenging.
Even if Rainbow Mountain is a bit out of your comfort zone, I urge you to give it a go – you won’t regret it!
13. What is the Rainbow Mountain alternative?
Ok, so I just said that there’s nowhere like Rainbow Mountain and while I stand by that statement, there is one place that comes pretty darn close…
The Rainbow Mountain alternative is Palccoyo Mountain, which boasts similar colors and great views, but is a much shorter hike and at a lower altitude, so it’s a great option if Rainbow Mountain is sounding a bit too daunting.
Palccoyo Mountain is 4,900 meters (16,076 feet) above sea level at its peak, and trust me, every single meter does make a difference when you get to this kind of altitude. The hike to Palccoyo only takes around 40 minutes each way, and again, at these heights, every minute counts!
Since Palccoyo is the easier of the two mountains, it’s a smart option if you know you struggle with altitude sickness or don’t have time to spend a few days acclimatizing in Cusco beforehand.
Palccoyo is also a lot less crowded than Rainbow Mountain, so if you’re looking for a more peaceful experience, this is the place for you. You’ll hike past local farming communities at work and get an authentic glimpse of what life in the Peruvian Andes is really like.
Palccoyo is located around 3 to 4 hours from Cusco and just like Rainbow Mountain Peru, it’s not all that easy to get there yourself. However, there are some good tours available like this one, which takes care of everything for you and provides oxygen, too, for $60.
It’s not that one mountain is necessarily better than the other, it just depends on what your preferences are! And if you’ve got enough time or just really love hiking … why not do both?
Related Read: If you love hiking, be sure to pay a visit to Huaraz, Peru where there are some of the best hikes in Peru.
Where to Stay in Cusco, Peru
Now that Rainbow Mountain is firmly at the top of your agenda, it’s time to find a great place to stay nearby so you can visit!
There are plenty of options for accommodations in Cusco from great hostels for backpackers to more luxurious options, depending on your budget. These places top our list of recommendations.
This budget-friendly option offers shared dorm rooms, private rooms, or even unique outdoor tent accommodations. It’s only a short walk from Plaza De Armas and the cathedral, so you’re staying right in the action.
The hotel also has a beautiful lobby with a glass-covered patio you can relax in. Dorm rooms are around $30-50 USD per night, and the teepee tents are under $100 USD. Book a stay on HostelWorld.com or Booking.com.
For a mid-range option, we love this hotel for its central location – super close to the main square and lots of top attractions. The breakfast here is excellent, the staff is super helpful, and the whole place has a really nice charm to it. Ask for a room on an upper floor to get the best view! Rooms here are around $90 USD a night. You can check availability and book MOAF Hotel online here.
If you can spend a bit more during your stay, soak up the incredible architecture and location at this property in the city center. This former monastery was built back in 1592 and has an amazing central courtyard. The rooms are beautifully decorated (each one is different!), and if you’re feeling the altitude, oxygen-enriched rooms are available. The price tag here is $400 USD per night. You can check availability and book Monasterio online here.
Other EPIC Activities to do in Cusco
- Visit Machu Picchu – One of the most iconic places in Peru, you can’t come all this way without visiting Machu Picchu. These incredible ruins are among the New Seven Wonders of the World with more than 150 stone buildings hidden away amongst the mountains. Take the most famous way to get here by hiking the Inca Trail. Or try this train tour that takes you through the mountains before you enjoy a guided tour of the ruins.
- See the Sacsayhuamán Fortress – This is the largest structure ever built by the Incas! It was constructed completely by hand in the 15th Century – long before machines could help. The stonework here is incredible with some stones weighing 100 tons. Join this half-day tour to see the fortress and get a bonus sightseeing tour around Cusco’s main square including a peek inside Cusco Cathedral to see the oldest surviving painting in the city.
- Wander around Cusco – The charm of this city is in its history as you walk down narrow, cobblestone streets to some pretty fascinating places. Don’t wander aimlessly though (and potentially miss out on what’s all around you!). Instead, get a feel for the city with a sightseeing tour that will take you to the colorful stalls at the local market and the famous Twelve-Angled Stone. Or if you like to snack, and sightsee at the same time a walking food tour of Cusco lets you meet local street food vendors and taste their delicious meals.
- Take photos at Salineras de Maras – For some of the most amazing photographs from your time in Peru, check out these thousands of natural salt wells spread across the side of the valley. They formed over 110 million years ago and are still maintained today by local miners who collect and sell the salt. The best way to see Salineras de Maras is on a guided tour from Cusco, which also includes stops in the stunning Sacred Valley.
- Make chocolate – If you have a sweet tooth (like me!), a visit to the Chocolate Museum in Cusco is a must. Peru is one of the top chocolate producers in the world, so take the chance to learn the history of cocoa up close. The Bean-to-Bar Chocolate Workshop lets you make your own chocolate creations that you’ll get to take home … if they make it that far without some sampling!
Thanks for reading!
Hiking Rainbow Mountain in Peru is one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences that you’ll be talking about for years to come. Hopefully, this guide will help you know exactly what you’re getting into to make the overall hike that much more enjoyable.
If backpacking or visiting Peru is in the cards for you, that’s so exciting! It’s one of our favorite countries in the world, so we’ve got you covered. Browse around our other Peru blogs for ideas and inspiration and come back to leave a comment to tell us your travel stories!