Probably one of the most stunning and beautiful geological occurrences in the world can be viewed at the Rainbow Mountain which is part of the Ausangate mountains high in the Andes about 140 km (85 miles) southeast of Cusco.
Also known as Vinicunca, Montaña de Siete Colores (Mountain of Seven Colors) or Montaña de Colores (Mountain of Colors), the Rainbow Mountain is bathed in a sea of colors ranging from goldish yellow to different shades of red, green, blue and maroon. These color shades were formed when mineral-rich layers – mainly containing iron, manganese, copper and sulfur - were pushed up and sideways by volcanic activity and plate tectonics and then polished by glaciers and natural weathering.
Already since pre-Incan times the Ausangate mountain range is sacred and till today worshipped by the Quechua communities living here. The largest pilgrimage in the Andean region, the Qoyllur Rit'i or Snow Star Festival, is held in the area each year during the full moon before Corpus Christi (May / June).
How to get to the Rainbow Mountain
While for many years the Rainbow Mountain was nearly unknown to tourists and getting there included a tough days long hike, today visitors can reach the area by car (4x4 highly recommended) or (tour) bus within 3.5 hours from Cusco on a partly bumpy and narrow mountain road and then hike up the mountain in another 2.5 to 3 hours making it possible to see Vinicunca in a long one day trip from Cusco.
Countless tour operators offer guided trips to the Rainbow Mountain from Cusco and prices vary widely. Tours usually include pick up / drop off at your hotel / hostel, transportation, breakfast and lunch, guide and safety equipment (oxygen).
Be aware that when booking a budget tour, you get what you pay for. So, you might be picked up with a van from your hotel or hostel at first, but later somewhere along the road be pooled with others, even from other tour operators, to one large group of 20 - 30+ people and send on the same larger bus arriving there at peak hour with lots of other hikers; so you have to hike with this large group and guides that might be overburdened; food might be basic. If you are ok with this “mass processing”, a budget tour is a cheap way to visit the Rainbow Mountain.
On the other end of the price spectrum premium tours are more expensive, but probably in the end more rewarding and worth the extra investment. Groups are small (usually not more than 8 pax), transportation is in a van with a responsible driver, English speaking, caring and helpful guides accompany the group, a hearty breakfast and nutritious lunch is served, first aid kit and oxygen is on hand if necessary. These tours often arrive on site earlier avoiding the masses and giving visitors a more intimate experience.
What to expect when visiting and hiking the Rainbow Mountain
Tours from Cusco to the Rainbow Mountain start super early. Pick-up is usually between 03.00 am and 05.00 am. After a good three-hour drive on a partly bumpy and narrow mountain road, breakfast is served before the group sets out on the nearly 6 km (3.7 miles) trail to the Rainbow Mountain viewpoint which is at an altitude of about 5020 m (16,500 feet). During the average three-hour quite steady climb, hikers have to overcome nearly 750 m (2500 feet) in elevation gain.
In this high altitude the density and the oxygen level of the air are way lower than at sea level, so catching a breath and getting enough oxygen into your body, especially during the physical exertion of hiking up the mountain, can be difficult. So, it’s highly recommended to have stayed on a high altitude for a few days to adjust before doing the trek. Hiking at over 5000 m isn’t to be taken lightly and altitude sickness not uncommon. Usually the guides carry some oxygen with them for those experiencing difficulties in breathing.
The climb itself isn’t that hard for adults who are fit and don’t have health problems. Those who don’t feel confident to manage the trail, can go by horse which the locals rent out with handler to tourists at the trailhead for about S/ 70 to S/ 80 (US$ 20 – 25) one way. Be aware that at a few extremely steep sections you have to get off and walk beside the horse.
Once reaching the Rainbow Mountain overlook, hikers usually have 1.5 to 2 hours leisure time before starting the descend which takes on average two hours. After lunch the group heads back to Cusco where most arrive after a long say at around 07.00 pm.
Many visitors are disappointed that the colors of the Rainbow Mountain in reality aren’t as intense and saturated as they appear on advertising brochures and photos on the net. Be aware that the weather, the time of day and year, the sun, the clouds and the humidity are factors influencing the appearance of the colors; and most pictures you see of the mountain unfortunately are photoshopped giving the viewer a false impression.
And even if the colors aren’t as bright as you hoped for the day you visit, the Rainbow Mountain itself is nevertheless quite stunning and the views impressive; add to this hiking through the Ausangate mountains with an amazing scenery and meeting lovely locals – by the way one of the last few shepherding communities raising alpacas and llamas – the trail is a really special one.
Best time to visit and weather at the Rainbow Mountain
The best time to hike the Rainbow Mountain surely is in the dry season from May to September. While April and October, November might be still good, we recommend not getting up there in the wet season, December through March, when heavy rains and snow make the trail slippery and your adventure uncomfortable, in rare cases even dangerous.
But even if you hike in the dry season, the weather is unpredictable and changes rapidly from one extreme to the other. Usually you can expect frigid mornings with clouds that slowly make room for warm afternoons with a searing sun above your head. But sudden cold and heavy downpours that sometimes turn into snow showers aren’t unusual. So, come prepared.
What to wear and bring when hiking the Rainbow Mountain
Due to the altitude, extreme temperature differences and rapid weather changes, best dress in multiple layers that you can remove or add to depending on the temperature and overall weather including a summerly and autumnal shirt but as well a warming sweater / fleece (alpaca jumpers are great to fight the sometimes frigid cold), hat and gloves. Additionally, it is recommended to bring a wind- and waterproof jacket. Wear as well sturdy shoes, best proper hiking shoes.
Additionally, we recommend bringing a sunhat, sunglasses, sun block and lip balsam as the UV rays are intense at this altitude even in the cold and on cloudy days and the wind and sun causes skin dryness. Take as well about 2 liters of drinking water and some energy boosting snacks. There are rustic toilets along the trail but bring toilet paper and wet wipes as well as other personal hygiene products and meds. Hiking poles might be helpful but aren’t really necessary.
Last but not least, make sure you have plenty of free memory on your camera and charged batteries.
Pack everything you not wear in a nice and comfortable backpack and you are ready to go.
One last recommendation: Before hiking the Rainbow Mountain adjust to the altitude for a few days for example in Cusco or the Sacred Valley. Don’t consume alcohol and even though tours start early make sure you had a good night’s sleep. Enjoy your adventure!