Rainbow Mountain Hiking Guide: Day Trip from Cusco
Rainbow Mountain hike is one of the most amazing things you can do near Cusco. This blog tells you tips on Rainbow Mountain hike as a day trip from Cusco.
<Updated November 2022> Rainbow Mountain has reopened since mid May
If you are going to Peru, you must have heard of Rainbow Mountain hike. It is one of the most popular day hikes you can do near Cusco.
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. The good news is that you can actually hike Rainbow Mountain and see this sacred mountain for yourself. [no_toc]
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Where is Rainbow Mountain? How do I get to Rainbow Mountain?
Rainbow mountain got its name from the appearance of colorful stripes. Apparently Rainbow Mountain 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. There is a similar “rainbow” mountain that exist in China in the Ganxia.
Rainbow Mountain is about 50 miles from Cusco, but it takes about 3 hours to drive there due to the mountainous terrain.
There is no train or bus from Cusco to Rainbow Mountain, you will need to take a tour (or hire a private driver) to get to Rainbow Mountain.
How do you hike Rainbow Mountain?
There are two ways to hike Rainbow Mountain in Peru.
6 Day Ausangate Trek
The Rainbow Mountain hike can be done in a 6 day Ausangate Trek. The Ausangate is one of the holiest mountains in the Cusco area, and you will get the opportunity to see rugged terrance, ever changing landscape, turqoise lakes, cute alpacas, beautiful valleys and views and understand the regional culture.
For the 6 day Ausangate Trek, you will pass by places such as the 7 lagoons, Huchuy Phinaya, Puca Cocha, Qeulla Qocha and finally Rainbow Mountain on the last day of the trek.
Rainbow Mountain Day Hike
The most popular option to hike Rainbow Mountain is to do a day hike from Cusco.
The day trip to Rainbow Mountain from Cusco will take you to the trailhead at about 14,000 ft (4,326m). The hike to the top of Rainbow Mountain (view point) and back takes about 3-4 hours and you will be hiking to 17000 ft (5,182m).
You will generally get transportation from Cusco to the trailhead, breakfast and lunch, have a hiking guide with you the entire way and transportation back to Cusco.
The day hike option is something that most visitors choose. However it’s a very long and tiring day to do the Rainbow Mountain hike as a day trip from Cusco.
Nevertheless this has not stopped visitors from climbing this and I can understand why.
How To Book Rainbow Mountain Hike? How Much Does it Cost to Go To Rainbow Mountain?
For someone like me who likes to book everything online in advance, it is understandable that you want to do your research on the best tours to go to Rainbow Mountain with and book online.
Another option is to book Rainbow Mountain Trek in person in Cusco. This is helpful if you want to make sure you have the energy to go (e.g. you are not just landing in Cusco and suffering from altitude sickness).
I personally booked Rainbow Mountain with SAS at their office in Cusco 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).
I don’t think it is worth it to pay that much to go to Rainbow Mountain, but you should also be aware of REALLY cheap tours. I would suggest something in between.
Just FYI, 1 USD = 3.9 Soles based in November 2022 foreign exchange rate.
What is the best time to hike Rainbow Mountain?
In the mountainous regions of Peru, what matters the most is dry season versus rain season.
In general, dry season is between April to October and rainy season is between November to March. Of course this does not mean it won’t rain during the dry season. There will always be rainy days even during the dry season or border months so take that into consideration.
The best months to hike Rainbow Mountain in Peru is during the dry season from April to October, where the weather is pleasant and there is little cloud. However keep in mind that due to its high altitude, Rainbow Mountain can be quite cold even during dry season.
Since Peru is in the Southern hemisphere, its seasons are reverse of what you see in North America and Europe. So if you are visiting Rainbow Mountain in September and October, the temperature will be higher than when you visit in June and July.
What does Rainbow Mountain Hike Day Trip From Cusco Look Like?
Since Rainbow Mountain day trip from Cusco can be a VERY long day, you are probably interested to know what the Rainbow Mountain day trip itinerary look like.
Most of the tours to Rainbow Mountain would have a very similar schedule as the one below:
3:30am pick up
8:30-9am starting the hike
1-2pm departure from Rainbow Mountain
5-6pm: back in Cusco
Keep in mind that unless you are doing a private tour to Rainbow Mountain, you will be hiking in a group with other people and everyone can hike at different speed.
What time you come back from Rainbow Mountain is dependent on how fast or slow your group is. If your group is very fit and have no altitude problem (or if everyone takes the mules), then you can finish the hike really quickly.
What is included in Rainbow Mountain Hike?
Most tour companies in Peru will provide you with some equipments to help with your hike to Rainbow Mountain. Different tours may different slightly, but the tour I took with SAS provided us with the following things for our Rainbow Mountain hike.
- 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 from/to Cusco
- 1 guide that will hike up and down with the group (they may not necessarily stay with you the whole time, they might stay with the slowest person in 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 in Rainbow Mountain Hike Tour?
You certainly cannot expect the hiking guide to give you everything! Here are some of the things that were not included in the tour, so you may want to bring your own and definitely bring cash with you.
- hiking gear except the stick
- water & snacks
- horse rental
- dinner (since you will be back in Cusco in time for dinner).
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 on the Rainbow Mountain tour 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.
What is the weather like on Rainbow Mountain?
It is difficult to know the weather ahead of time (or even the same day) and most of the time you just go there and hope for the best. 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 feel warm.
The Rainbow Mountain 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 For the Rainbow Mountain Hike
Bring Cash (at least 200 sol) for toilet and horses (if you are planning to rent one). 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
Sunscreen & Sunglasses is super important for Rainbow Mountain.
When we started the hike it was pretty cloudy and cold. However the sun came out half way through the Rainbow Mountain hike so make sure you apply enough sunscreen and wear sunglasses.
Camera with wide angle lens or simply an iPhone would do!
Hiking stick or poles if your tour company does not provide you with one. You can ask the tour company when you book if they provide hiking sticks or not.
Toilet paper is also essential in case there is none at the toilet on the trail.
How Hard is the Rainbow Mountain Hike?
Rainbow Mountain is a challenging hike. It takes about 3-4 hours round trip as you hike at a high altitude (between 14000 feet to 17000 feet).
There are horses that can be rent to hike most of the trail but you will need to walk up to the summit yourself.
Altitude Sickness Can be an Issue While Hiking Rainbow Mountain
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 Rainbow Mountain hike extremely difficult was the altitude. The starting altitude on the Rainbow Mountain Hike is about 14,000ft (~4300m) and the summit altitude is 17,000ft (~5200m) This altitude is way above the highest point on Inca Trail which is at 4200m.
The air is so thin on the Rainbow Mountain hike that most people have to stop for air every 10-20 steps (5 steps for me when I was hiking to the summit).
Hiking Rainbow Mountain with A Horse
There are a couple of places that you need to walk up yourself during the hike as well as the last bit to summit even if you hire a horse.
Most of the time you only have to walk maybe 5 minutes at the most, but the summit hike took me at least 20 minutes because I had to stop for air every few steps. It was even scarier coming down because the gravels were loose and it was pretty steep.
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 Rainbow Mountain 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.
How much does it cost to rent a hose at Rainbow mountain? The horses at Rainbow Mountain costs about 60-100 sol depending on if you rent it for one way or round trip. Many people rent the horse to go up and walk back down.
The view from the Rainbow Mountain 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 to Rainbow Mountain 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 and it was hard to get a nice photo without someone in it.
If you are thinking about bringing a drone to Rainbow Mountain think again. The air is extremely thin at 5200m and it gets very windy. You may end up losing your drone.
I didn’t see any signs explicitly prohibiting drones as I had in other parts of Peru but I would advise against bringing a drone.
Is Rainbow Mountain Worth It?
One thing I want to mention is that the actual Rainbow mountain is not as colorful as you would expect. Almost all the photos of Rainbow Mountain you see online are enhanced and edited. You can still see the colors of Rainbow Mountain in person but don’t expect it to be the same as what you see on social media.
Is it worth it to do the Rainbow Mountain hike? I think it’s worth it to see it once but I would never do it again.
It was a good challenge to see how my body can last that long at such a high altitude and it’s also an amazing sight to see, but if you have problems acclimating to high altitude then I would strongly recommend against doing the Rainbow Mountain hike.
Similarly if you never hike, you probably don’t want to go to Rainbow Mountain just for this one photo.
A Word On Erosion on Rainbow Mountain
Rainbow Mountain gained its popularity almost overnight due to social media exposures before the pandemic. Most tourists make it a point (myself included) to visit Rainbow Mountains and capture the colors of the beautiful place.
While it may boost the economy of the local people due to massive influx of tourists, it is reported this over tourism is causing Rainbow Mountain hiking trails to be eroded.
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