Vinicunca mountain, otherwise known as Rainbow mountain, is located in the Ausangate mountain region of Peru. There are several peaks but Ausangate is the highest mountain in the area, peaking at almost 21,000 ft. It is considered one of the most sacred mountain in Peru.
Rainbow mountain got its name from the appearance of colorful stripes. Apparently this was largely undiscovered because it was frozen under a layer of ice. In recent years the warm weather melted the ice and presented the beautiful multi-color stripes. The colors come from weathering and different minerals in the soil. In the last couple of years, Rainbow Mountain gained international fame and started to attract an influx of visitors and trekkers; it has become one of the top Latin American destinations. Note, a similar “rainbow” mountain exists in China in the Ganxia.
The Rainbow Mountain hike can be done in a 6 day Ausangate Trek, or a day trip from Cusco where you start at about 14,000 ft (4,326m), something that most visitors choose.
As mentioned in my earlier post, there are numerous tour operators in the historical center of Cusco. I know it’s tempting to book everything beforehand online, but the price difference between booking online and booking in person is quite drastic. The online company that most people go with is Flashbacker, and it’s 150 USD. If you book it in Cusco, it’s usually around 100 sol (~30 USD). Of course I heard from reviews that Flashbacker is a very reliable tour agency and I know there are horror stories of booking Rainbow mountain day trip with sketchy tour companies in Cusco that resulted in unpleasant experiences. So it’s entirely up to you what you choose to do.
I booked Rainbow Mountain with SAS at their office the day before the hike for 100sol (original price 120 sol but since we booked 2 other day trips with them we got a slight discount).
3:30am pick up
8:30-9am starting the hike
1pm departure from rainbow mountain
5-6pm: back in Cusco
- 1 hiking stick (more like a wooden stick, instead of an official hiking stick)
- breakfast (tea/coffee, bread, omelet)
- lunch (pasta, lomo saltado, tea, coffee, water, salad)
- round trip transportation
- 1 guide that will hike up and down with the group
- A vest so the guide recognizes you
- Toilet breaks (before the hike you have to pay for the toilet (1 sol) unless it’s at your breakfast/lunch spot). There are portable toilets throughout the hike that are free
- Oxygen tank (if necessary)
What’s not included
- hiking gear except the stick
- water & snacks
- horse (60 sol one way, 90 sol round trip)
We did not tip the guide, but it’s up to you if you want to. It wasn’t mandatory to tip them.
After hearing so many horror stories (altitude sickness, sketchy tour company, bad weather, etc) of rainbow mountain hike, I was originally a bit concerned about this day trip, but SAS did a good job with our group. The food provided to us was pretty good and the guide walked with us throughout the hike to make sure everyone is okay. We also had a really small group (6 of us total) so we got plenty of individual attention.
How to dress for the hike?
The weather is unpredictable at that altitude and you can feel 4 seasons within an hour. When we went we got really lucky that it wasn’t raining or snowing (in September). It was really cold and windy in the beginning of the hike but as you walk up you will get warm. The sun also came out half way through the hike so make sure you apply enough sunscreen and wear sunglasses.
The summit at 17000 ft was extremely windy and cold. It is not advisable to stay more than 20 minutes on the summit due to the high wind and high altitude (I stayed for at least 40 minutes and ended up with a massive headache).
What to Pack
- Cash (at least 100 sol) for toilet and horses. Bring change for the horses as my horseman claimed he didn’t have change for my 100 sol so I ended up paying a lot more for my horse than 60 sol
- Hiking backpack with hydration pack. I would recommend this backpack.
- Sunscreen & Sunglasses
- Scarf, hat, gloves
- Poncho or waterproof jacket in case it rains
- Hiking boots
- Take altitude sickness pill the day before
How hard is the hike?
Technically speaking, the hike itself is easy if you don’t take into account the altitude. The hike is 2 hours up and 1.5 hours down and the slopes are pretty gradual except the last part to the summit. However what made the hike extremely difficult was the altitude. The air is so thin on the hike that most people have to stop for air every 10-20 steps (5 steps for me when I was hiking to the summit). I didn’t have any altitude sickness on the Inca trail but I felt a little nauseous on the summit. Some people I know who weren’t acclimated properly actually threw up on the summit.
The good news is that unlike the Inca Trail, you can actually ride a horse up and down. Once you enter the hike, you will see plenty of horses waiting. The horseman will walk with you almost all the way up. There are a couple of places that you need to walk up yourself during the hike as well as the last bit to summit.
How ethical is it to ride the horse? I don’t know. The horses seemed really tired going up hill so if you are concerned about the well being of the horse then you may not want to ride one.
Some people attempt the hike and at about half way they flag down a horse. If you go early during the day, it may be a little harder to get a horse mid way because all the horses are at the entrance. But if you go a little bit later, and the horsemen have to walk down with the horse after going uphill with another customer, then you will see plenty of horses midway.
The view from summit is unparalleled but remember to look around, the surrounding landscape is just as stunning. It gets quite crowded on the summit later in the morning so hopefully your tour group is one of the first ones to get there. We got there quite early and riding a horse def sped up things for me, so when I was on the summit there was barely anyone there. But an hour later the summit got really crowded.
One thing I want to mention is that the actual mountain is not as colorful as you expect, as many photos online are enhanced. You can still see the colors but don’t expect it to be the same as what you see on social media. Is it worth it? I think it’s worth it to see it once.
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